Balls and bullets


Catchy heading, but it does describe two of the most common things I find in the drain.


The balls come in all shapes and sizes: soccer balls, hockey balls, cricket balls, tennis balls, those useless plastic balls you see in ball pits at children’s playgrounds (I don’t know where the nearest one is to us but I see them in the goddam thousands), and handballs.

Handballs are the only type of ball that Jambo will chase. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable bounce that reminds him of skittering, shifty rats.


The other common thing I see is bullets for Nerf guns. As the incorrigible Risky Digits might say, Oh my holy Jesus born of the Immaculate Mary! If I see one of these things I must see a gazillion! Is there some kind of Nerf war going on in the headwaters of the Styx?

I came across a few young lads in Izzo school who’d been on a collection of their own and had found themselves on the wrong side of the fence when the tide came in, so I spent a few minutes chucking their collected ball and bullet stash over to them. Thank goodness these young people are out and about, ridding the waterways of foamy nasties.


Balls and bullets: be gone from this place.

The Devil Rides Out


Now that schools are back for Term 4, students will be filling in their sports selection forms and hoping to get ice-skating rather than the dreaded “school sports” (i.e. dodgeball in the gym).

I was pleased to see that Islington Public School is going the extra mile with its extra-curricula activities and offering Satanism 101.


They should offer this more widely; I’m sure kids would rather do this than boring old Scripture or newfangled “ethics”. Go Izzo!


Global peace


So you had a “weather event” while I was away. It was big enough to make it onto the BBC news, which is massive for something about Australia that doesn’t involve a person being eaten by native fauna, or a person (such as a cricket captain or prime minister) having a cry in public.

Over there it was reported as having happened in Sydney, because to British ears Sydney is Australia. It was also reported as being “like a cyclone” or “the equivalent to a category 2 cyclone”. Poms have no idea what the categories of cyclone are, and so “2” could be quite mild or could be apocalyptic; we took it from the vision of trees torn down and cars bobbing along the street that “2” was pretty bad. We could only imagine what “1”or “3” must be like.

However, by the time I got back to Oz the event was being called a “super storm”. Is that a thing? If so, does it have a category? Or is it a name invented by the insurance industry to stymie claims, in the same way that after the Pasher Bulka storm people discovered that they were insured for inundation but not flooding?

Newcastle has become dotted by stumps: in people’s yards, by the roadside, in the parks. One of the big figs in Richardson Park took a dive.


It was late evening on Monday before I got into the creek. I walked down as far as the litter boom by the TAFE and was startled to see a tree across the banking, from Islington Public School. It was too dark to take a picture, unfortunately, but on the way back I captured a Maitland train as it paused and chuffed and chuntered on the Styx bridge.


This morning I went back down there. It is a very big tree indeed and must have made a hell of a bang when it came down, though given the reports of the howling wind and of things being thrown around the place I doubt whether anyone heard. Which puts paid to one philosophical riddle.


The wrack in the branches shows how high the creek got to after the tree fell. It must have been impressive and I almost wish I’d been there to see it.


Actually, on second thoughts I’m glad I didn’t.

Unlike yesterday evening it was lovely and light this morning, and so as I emerged from beneath the rail bridge I saw a new roll-up that must have happened in recent weeks.


After all the carnage of the event, or cyclone, or super storm, or whatever it was, this was a rather comforting message. Everything will be all right.

Kidney disease


Apparently the collective noun for cormorants is a flight, but what happens when they’re just standing still?


The ownership of waterways within Newcastle’s Throsby Creek and Cottage Creek catchments is about as mixed and varied as you can get. Hunter Water owns most of it, but Newcastle City Council owns chunks and other parts are in private hands, or pass through buried channels with easements over privately owned properties.

The result is that our waterways’ maintenance is divided between many different parties. Hunter Water relies on rates and catchment contributions for work on major stretches of the Hunter River and its tributaries, with larger works (such as the work on Throsby Creek’s banks in recent years) coming from federal government. Smaller grants are available for community groups, and I was pleased to see this one from Islington Public School:

Islington Public School is located in the Newcastle City Council area and its student population take an active role in serving their local community. Hunter Water’s grant will go towards raising awareness about the conservation of Styx and Throsby creeks with a project that will use recycled materials to filter runoff from the school playground and surrounding area before entering Styx Creek. This project will help keep Styx Creek and ultimately Throsby Creek clean.

I also got a newsletter from Council with my latest rates notice. In it was information on two rehabilitation projects Council has funded and carried out: one at Coal Mine Creek (Richley Reserve) and another at Gunambi Reserve, Wallsend.

This is heartening stuff. My stretch of the Styx works non-stop on its own rehabilitation. I sometimes wonder how long it would take for Nature to reclaim the drain. Imagine that the zombie apocalypse has come and gone and there are no more clean-up crews to cut back the grass and poison the reeds and shrubs and grasses that occupy the skinny cracks in the concrete bankings.


Some trees were cut down on Bates Street a year or so ago. Their response? Get the root ball to send a few suckers down into the creek.


It really does make the place look a bit prettier. Not much, but a bit. The interesting aspect about this is that Hunter Water and the Hunter – Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority has over recent years produced several publications that encourage landowners to protect reed beds and filtering plants on their properties as these plots are “nature’s kidneys” and reduce the inflow of pollutants and agricultural fertilisers into the water system. I suppose the sad fact is that, by the time we get to this stretch of the Styx, we’ve all given up on any chance of pollutants being filtered out. Nature’s kidneys are, by Hamilton North, effectively knackered.


I hope the kids at Islington Public School have some success in turning attitudes around. I look forward to seeing what they get up to.

And here’s a rat who was so perfectly camouflaged that I nearly stood on him. I don’t think he’d mind though; I have a feeling he might be a bit under the weather.


Born dead


My Sunday morning walk took me under the Chinchen Street bridge and past Islington Public School, a regular leg-stretch that satisfies Jambo’s need to charge around and annoy the birdlife. He stopped halfway through the bridge; as I have to stoop to get under without banging my head I almost didn’t see what it was he’d paused to inspect. Then I saw it: a pigeon’s egg.

Is there anything more perfect in its form and execution than an egg?

Sometimes my backyard chooks get caught short and pop one out under the lamandera, or even on the bare dirt. I can only assume that that’s what happened here to one of the flock that broods on the stanchions under the bridge. Jambo tried to carry it home in his mouth but he’s no retriever. I need not tell you how this story ended.

That afternoon I had a lovely walk with POAS. We’d been communicating back and forth for some time but it took until Sunday for the planets to align and for us to actually get together. I always enjoy creek walking with new people; it opens my eyes afresh to the place. No matter how observant you intend being your senses inevitably deaden to the little things, and a new person’s shock and revulsion at the stench of pollution leaking from the gasworks is a good kick up the bum.

We did a Grand Tour of some of POAS’s works in the area, many of them dating back a decade or more. It was fascinating to have all my questions answered and POAS was very generous with his explanations, satisfying all the typical dumb queries that your average middle-aged gentleman of a certain demographic is likely to ask, such as “Why?”

We had a look at some of the Next Gen’s work too, in the old admin building.

Street art and graffiti has become a recognised (almost sanctioned) rite of passage for young men and it’s remarkable to think that POAS started in a pre-Banksian world in which it was a reviled criminal activity.  We talked about “olden days” graffiti, which to me (and, as it turns out, POAS’s mum) was always either sporting or political in nature. Probably the first graffito that I remember is this one:

It followed Barrow AFC’s Friday night victory over Fulham in the (old) Division 3 and for one night Barrow was top of the division. This was 1967 (I think, or thereabouts); within five years we were kicked out of the league. Should you ever find yourself in Barrow I believe that the words are still just and so visible on the Holker Street end.

The other kind of graffiti, the political kind, stretched from the local (anti-Trident submarine stuff in Barrow, or pro-miners’ strike, or anti-Thatcher) to the huge Ulster murals. Though I’m not sure if they count as graffiti at all. Do they? The first one I remember seeing in Australia, when I first arrived, was up near Balmain Leagues Club. It read something like “John Pat dead five cops go free” or similar. I didn’t understand it for quite a while, and even now 16-year-old John Pat’s death is but one forgotten footnote in the long history of deaths in custody.

Walking back up towards New Lambton we came across this little doodle, a spray-painting dinosaur. Cute, and made us both smile.

Then back home. POAS and I traded – a book for a print – and now I’ve added this beautiful artwork, titled “Born dead”, to the rogue’s gallery in my office, along with the other traded and gifted Styx Creek-related ephemera that’s filled my life since the book hit the bookshops.

Earth Week, 1976


I’ve had the great good fortune to be contacted by Kevin McDonald. Now retired, Kevin has devoted his professional and personal life to environmental education in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

The photo below (first published in the Newcastle Morning Herald in September 1976) shows Kevin and a group of Islington Public School students taking water samples from the reach of the creek behind the school; that is, the part of Styx Creek opposite the TAFE, just before it connects with Throsby Creek at Maitland Road.

The project was part of Earth Week in that year. Kevin, who was senior lecturer in biological and environmental sciences at the then Newcastle College of Education, says:

The project was part of a wider program of urban environmental education, and the then teacher-in-charge of the Awabakal Field Studies Centre, Brian Gilligan, produced a set of notes in booklet form. At the time, I was President of the Association for Environmental Education (NSW) and we had urban E.E. as a theme at our annual conference (in 1976).

The Herald article that accompanies the picture says, “Throsby Creek at low tide is an unpleasant site”. Well! A lot’s happened since then. Heavy industry has pretty well moved out of the city, but the pollution produced by individuals seems to have increased. We might not have to close the windows if the wind’s blowing the wrong way or hide the washing from clouds of soot but what the steelworks no longer provides we seem to have made up for in spades.

This evening there was a warm northerly barrelling downstream. Just by the confluence of the old Styx Creek (the “Chaucer Creek drain”) and the “canal” I came across this mini version of the Pacific Gyre, an aggregation of drink bottles, busted thongs and empty aerosol cans all caught up behind the skeleton of a rusty mattress that the wind had clothed with leaf litter and sticks.

It’s disheartening to come across this amount of trash. Have we learned nothing?

I think we have. There are many things that are worse in 2012 than in 1976 but there are many things that are better. As I sat supping a schooner in the Honeysuckle Hotel after a day spent muralling at the Museum the Trevor Dickinson I was reminded that the hotel was once a post-industrial nowhere land, the site of a disused power station. It took people with vision and energy to make the magnificent foreshore precinct a reality. We can do better. But then, I  guess I’m just a Pollyanna.

On an unrelated note, I was pleased to find this Christmas bauble the other morning. Every time I think “That’s it! Bauble season is over!” I find myself surprised by yet another of these cheerful little reminders of  Yuletide. It is impossible not to smile at the uselessness of a bauble. Even the word …