This Duck Needs a Quack

ground; most all of us have suffered the indignation of counting out pieces of litter in front of a teacher one-by-one, hand-over-hand before depositing into the bin. Perhaps the crime of littering as an adult outside of the schoolground may befit an equally adverse punishment. As a one-time public servant authorised under pursuant Acts, I have issued maybe a hundred fines to people discarding litter from vehicles. Aside from the paperwork, doing so is an easy and faceless undertaking – write the infringement and post it to the registered owner of the vehicle – and an expensive one for the offender.

Of all the fines I have issued I have only been challenged once by a recipient. People simply pay up the dollars. I am sure, however, that the phones would run red-hot if those same people were instead punished by way of having to commit their time to tidy up the place with their own hands. Give them a set of extendable callipers, a bin and dress them in some safety garments and get them down to the river! Arguably, the good folk who volunteer their time for campaigns such as ‘Clean Up Australia’ would not be litterers themselves because they are the individuals who see the direct environmental consequences first hand – standing knee deep in it, they see where litter ends up. I find it strikingly clear on my expedition down Duck River that the excellent work done by the council men I passed above on their litter detail contributes little more than being an aesthetic bandaid for the public who frequent the parklands above. Only a thin surface is being scraped off of the sheer volume of litter entering the river system proper and ultimately, regardless of how many gross pollution traps are festooned across the river as physical barriers, finding its way downstream into Sydney Harbour. Perhaps for this reason the resources allocated to paying people to pick up litter might be better served by further ramping up education. A little close exposure for those tossers down by a fetid river here or there might not hurt either!

While navigating my way through Duck River Reserve, which is quite a lovely expanse of bushland, from over the river I hear the sporadic thwacking of golf balls. Auburn Golf Course used to be a garbage dump which used to be a swampland. In the swampland was an Olympic-pool-size waterhole called Dead Horse Pond, salubrious into the early 20th century, where settlers used to swim. And undoubtedly before that, so too did the Darug people of the area. I wonder what the pond might have been called before the horses came…

“two wonderful old world characters, grand old girls from a bygone era”

A chronicle written in 1988 by Al Howard, a keen golfer and resident at that stage for some 30 years, talks at some length about the story of Alice and Thelma: ‘two wonderful old world characters, grand old girls from a bygone era’ who lived out their lives on the banks of the river. Prior to extensions on the southwest corner of the golf course, the ladies lived happily without electricity, gas or water in what was apparently the oldest house in Auburn. They took turns to haul water to their frugal dwelling; they cultivated and tilled a small vegetable patch pushing their produce in an old pram to be sold nearby at Regents Park markets.

I find some irony in the story of Alice and Thelma – their simple life-existence has come round full circle in many ways to represent a robust and sustainable model for living our lives today in a modern world so very stretched and battered to its every corner. Alice and Thelma’s ecological footprint – aside from their inadvertently introducing Argentinean ants to the vicinity (as the story goes) – by any standards would be next to nothing.

Somewhere past the golf course and under the Wentworth Road Bridge the river widens and deepens and appears likely to allow a kayak and its intrepid explorer to begin paddling. And I can no longer take the shin-itch from the Wandering Jew I am currently traipsing through. So I unload, start pumping and my trusty vessel inflates to life. I can feel a sense of excitement tingling as the air presses out from the bellows of my pump underfoot and into the kayak’s sturdy chambers. At this stage I take my usual split-second moment of paranoia about forgetting the bungs, which of course I have remembered, then, fastening them in place, all appears to be in readiness. Having taken to the river now, my shoulders are grateful for the release of the weighty backpack and my spirits become buoyed. My metamorphosis from hiker to paddler allows me to observe the river from an even closer viewpoint. It really is a beautiful day and while I grumble about pollution and weeds and so forth, I am having a splendid time sitting in my kayak striking out a comfortable rhythm and feeling the fluid resistance of the water captured within the motion of my circulating paddle-blades. I shut my eyes and feel the sun radiating onto my skin; there is water and air and life; I am without hunger and I am well hydrated and I have no idea what day it is. I could be anywhere, on any river or waterway enclosed in my own little bubble of existence and solitude. Under the water I am fish and fins and above it I am bird and wings. I am breathing and moving, embraced in the pure and beautiful simplicity of all.

There are ducks on Duck River too. I seem to be herding them, a flock gradually increasing in number from under reeds about the banks; they waddle forth on the water in front of me as I paddle.

“What’s that funny looking big red thing with flapping yellow wings?” Quack-quack!

As the ducks and I make our way downstream past Auburn Botanical Gardens (which incidentally has a kangaroo and native animal petting farm) I vividly recall a fish-kill which happened here in 2004. Back when I was working for the Council I arrived at the scene during the clean-up. I was greeted by a haze of flies and an odour so rancid my breath momentarily stopped. Carp by the bin-load had gone belly-up; many of them were bigger than my thigh. They were being pulled from the water by the dozen, by the tonnage, and they were quickly decomposing in a hot summer sun. Even though they’re only carp – a fish species not indigenous in any way that can survive in water with incredibly low levels of dissolved oxygen – along with the physical pollutants entering Duck River, clearly there are issues with its waters of a chemical and biological nature too. This event made the papers, one of the few occasions Duck River made a name for itself in modern times, albeit for the wrong reasons.

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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