I take respite for a minute to compose; I remove my backpack and take a deep breath. Then I look around and think: ‘What on earth am I doing?’ as I embrace the reality of my situation. Someone decided the canal should stop right here and from this point down, the river can do what it wants. There is a stark and disconcerting transition of colour and light from the chalky-greys of the concrete upstream to the sodden-greens of plant foliage along the riverbed downstream. Like an arbitrary border between countries of totally different ideologies. I am standing shin deep in boggy mud and exotic weeds, cool water seeps in through my shoes and socks. At my thigh lies an upturned shopping trolley rusted and suffocated from the flotsam of many floods gone by. Surveying north, my route is thick to choking with weeds, reeds and litter. The barbed wire of abutting industry runs parallel down both banks framing the riparian zone of this trickling waterway with an air of ‘don’t go near there!’ Quite eerie; and I need to go to the toilet. Nonetheless I gather up my chattels and squelch my way downstream where a short time afterwards I am startled by the rustling of a lone ibis loping out from behind some reeds and into view. I walk past a sheoak sapling and notice a small branch broken back over itself clearly of human doing. I study closer – the grain appears freshly fractured, and I wonder why anyone should find a need to venture down here, my present-self excluded, save some adventurous kids on a naughty outing or a bored worker curious about what might lie on the other side of the barbed wire fence of his or her employment. This stretch of Duck River could hardly serve as a viable thoroughfare. While I have yet to scale barbed wire or evade ‘keep out’ signs I truly feel I am trespassing.
In the Sydney basin there are two types of streams – those flowing over Hawkesbury Sandstone and those over Wianamatta Shale. Duck River is a Wianamatta Shale stream. Usually shallow flowing, these streams cut through clay and soil profiles and generally take on the appearance of erosion channels. Wianamatta Shale streams have shallow banks as a common characteristic. And often because of this, human settlement and urbanisation tends to develop on these banks more rapidly – a fact that certainly explains the concrete canals trailing off behind me as far south as Yagoona, and the foreboding industry in my near vicinity which feels so close as though it’s collapsing in upon me.
About a kilometre downriver and after a hard hour’s hiking I reach the next landmark spectacle of my whacky adventure. A canal tributary empties its trickle of water into the river at a junction where a viaduct of concrete and brick spans overhead across the river. Three very large pipes side-by-side carry Sydney’s water supply eastward to reservoirs nearby at Potts Hill. I stop for a breather and take some time to reflect on how important this expansive piece of infrastructure is as a provider and life-giver to us urban dwellers. I place my ear on one of the pipes, which feels cool on my lobe like the smooth bark of a gum tree, and listen to the gigalitres flowing within. Sydney’s a big city. Everywhere around me people are opening taps, flushing toilets, cooling furnaces, quenching forges.
The pipeline delineates Duck River’s surrounds. The industry on the banks now behind me makes way for parks, reserves and a golf course ahead. And with this the atmosphere takes on a somewhat more pleasant quality where the air doesn’t seem as close or dry as it did back there. But the river still flows. It does not discern or argue about landuses or modifications or borders. There are no lies. I stop on the western bank, the bank on which I choose to hike, at a reach where I catch a view downriver. Ten or twenty metres from the river edge, with the sun now shining overhead bright and perpendicular, I am totally taken aback by the sheer density of weeds. Short of scything my way through vegetation as one might in a tropical jungle, access to the river is absolutely out of the question. All weeds! Stolen cars and murder victims would never be found if dumped here. I cannot even envisage elves taking up residence. Balloon vine clings high in the apex of trees rendering them barely distinguishable. Lantana grows across the river choking it so extensively as to cloud the river in permanent shadow. Everything seems uncharacteristically fecund; at least as far as the exotic plants are concerned. Regardless of whatever management strategies or historic activities have occurred on the adjacent grounds about these parts, nutrients are clearly leaching into the river, seeds blown in on the wind or flowing downstream are taking up root, and the whole scene froths and bubbles away like a fishpond at a deceased estate. The place stinks. The acrid smell of aniseed and pollination is everywhere. I have to move on; I feel like sneezing. At this rate I will have some way to hike afoot before inflating my kayak and taking to the water.
As I pass Melita Stadium – a sports ground on which I’d love to play soccer – I notice two council workers with rubbish bins and those extended calliper devices used to pick up rubbish, picking up rubbish scattered around the parkland. Isn’t it interesting how society of today demands that our hard-earned taxes and rates pay wages to people to pick up our litter? What a strange, sad and hypocritical piece of non-cost-effective irony! I stop and reflect on a world where instead of punishing litterers by way of monetary fines, we have offenders pick up rubbish at an exponential rate depending on the item they are caught discarding. In a society becoming money rich and time impoverished, why not have offenders forced to relinquish some of their valuable hours or days manually picking up litter? Most all of us have been punished as children with the demeaning task of picking up papers in the school