5 May 2016

Secret River, Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia

Swinging the Blues....

The river revealed itself, teasingly, never more than a bend at a time, calm between its walls of rock and bush…..  One reach resembled all the others: cliffs, a fringe of glossy green mangroves, green water.  Even the skyline gave no clues, each bulge of high land like the others, striped with shadows from clouds passing in front of the sun.

Kate Grenville:  Secret River

It was dark when we got off the train from Sydney Central.  We faltered down from the station in Brooklyn to the jetty, and stumbled aboard the Hawkesbury River Boat, almost literally into the arms of Neil, the only taxi driver left on the river (there were three, but one sank and one caught fire…. the boats that is, not the drivers.)  Without great ceremony the engine spluttered into life and we took off, into an almost limitless blackness, punctuated only by occasional green and red navigation lights.

Once out of the marina, Neil put his (good) foot down (his other leg sported a bloody bandage, the outcome of a work-related injury….) and the boat reared up like a colt heading for home.  Jittering across the dark waters, I was reminded of William Thornhill’s first encounter with the Hawkesbury River just over two hundred years ago.  Despite the difference in the boats, the river itself cannot have changed much. 

My brother gave me Secret River for my birthday, so I might know more about his secret retreat.  It is a story of the first settlers on the Hawkesbury River, with William Thornhill, a deported Londoner, his wife and children, taking centre stage, with a supporting cast of other Europeans who have staked their claims on the land, and a chorus Aboriginal peoples, who haunt the story, and indeed history.

Kate Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, was the model for William Thornhill, and his name is commemorated in Wiseman’s Ferry…  The novel is an enlightening, though harrowing, story.  Life was hard, but the way the white fungus of deportees spread across the land, infecting the natural world, is most disturbing.  Yeah, if it had been me trying to live a life, I don’t suppose I would have behaved very differently, but it’s not comfortable reading….

However, even having read the book, I wasn’t prepared for what we were skimming across.  It is vast…..  Somehow I had envisaged a river like the Thames at Henley, perhaps a little more selvatico?  But this was something else, more like the Tagus than the Thames.  Or it is something else now.  A million years ago it might have resembled my expectation, but, like Port Jackson, this is a Ria, a river estuary, that, following eustatic change, has become more sea than river in some respects…..

In the night the occasional glim indicates habitation amongst the forest.  Eventually flashing lights direct us to my bro’s communal jetty, and Neil pilots us to a standstill.  Then, with a flash of the credit card, a churning disappearance into the night.

In the morning, we are laughed at by Kookaburras, who clearly feel that we are there to feed them, then we climb the rocks to the top of Bar Point, from where the convolutions of the river begin to make sense.  We are less than 100 kms from Sydney, but this is another world. 

Mangroves paddle at the shore, unkempt vegetation straggles up the steep slopes, chattered over by a variety of birdlife – Rosellas, Magpies, Crows, and, above them all, eagles wafting on the updrafts.  There are neighbours.  And there are no neighbours.  

A house that is left unattended may crumble away, hollowed by termites and overcome by plant life.  

It is surprising how many dwellings have been created here, and how some are occupied by coenobites and others by commuters to the metropolis and beyond…..

We could have stayed much longer, but not this time.  We are due upriver, to the Blue Mountains, so called after the haze of eucalypt oil that hangs in the air.  Past St Albans, Windsor, and Richmond, we leave the river (which, in the form of the Nepean, rises in these hills) and weave up the Bells Line of Road into the Hawkesbury Highlands.

We travel through Bilpin, and up to the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah.  This is glorious, beautifully organised, and, at 1,000 metres above sea level (and also just over 100 kms from Sydney) we get our first taste of autumn, 

both in yellowing leaves but also in the Bilpin cider that lubricates our lunch….. 

Looking out at the view, it is (paradoxically) inevitable that I compare it with home.  The United Kingdom is about the 50th most densely populated country in the world (c255 people per square kilometre); Australia is about the 250th, with just over 3 people per km².  When you think that England, rather than the UK, has approximately 433 per km²  (which is about 1,000 per square mile, and is about the same density as the city of Sydney) and that our home is barely 25 miles from the centre of London, this view across virtually untouched forest is a wonder to behold.

Not that the Blue Mountains are totally free from interference…..  We are in easy reach of the five million or so who populate the Sydney area, and the scenery, and trekking possibilities, are strong attractions, so there are buses and viewpoints, and cable cars, and hotels, many of which conglomerate around Katoomba, with Echo Point and The Three Sisters being the big draws.

Here, or hereabouts, I think is where I once caught an accidental glimpse of Ant and Dec hosting I’m a celebrity, get me out of here…  with some fly-bitten also-rans eating live bugs on the valley floor.  Nightmare.  But they weren’t there when we were!

Not far from here, at Medlow Bath, there is the Hydro Majestic Hotel, initially the Belgravia, founded in 1902; it has a stunning Art Deco foyer, and wonderful views overlooking the Megalong Valley.  Here you could have tea (High Tea Selection of finger sandwiches, petit pastries, homemade scones, clotted cream, homemade jam and your choice of tea & coffee $55.00 per person weekday $65.00 per person Saturday & Sunday) or stay for dinner (Experience the gourmet delights with dinner in the Wintergarden which showcases the fresh seasonal produce sourced from local suppliers within the Blue Mountains area), 

but once, at the end of WWII, its major attraction was the Saturday night dance.  Sydneysiders took the train up for the evening, and just maybe didn't return ‘til Sunday. This was how my sister-in-law Steph’s parents met: she was a nurse in Sydney, and he was recuperating from being a prisoner-of-war in Singapore’s notorious Changi jail. For him, after internment by the Japanese, the Blue Mountains must have been paradise.

Times change.  Pause for thought..... 

This is a wonderful world, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt when I notice that Katoomba is the home of the Gundungurra Tribal Council Aboriginal Corporation.  The Gundungurra people inhabited this part of the Blue Mountains for millennia before white faces appeared on the scene, with our zip wires and 4x4s.  Strange to think again of the population density around here: you would think that in Australia, of all places, there was room for everyone?

I take a leaf out of Jack Davis’s book, Black Life….


What is living
Is it moonlight over water
soft laughter in the evening
a dog walking his master
or a rainbow’s curve

Looking at old photographs
lasting friendships
honeyed lips and fresh washed hair
If this is so then
I’m in love with life

And pause for thought....

*     *     *     *     *

Then it really is time to go.  There are dangerous creatures about....

And we have a 'plane to catch. 

Take her away, Skipper.....

Queensland here we come!

*     *     *     *     *

Well, I never felt more like runnin' away
But why should I go 'cause I couldn't stay
Without you, you got me swingin' the blues

(with apologies to Melvin Endsley, 1956)

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