“I’m afraid the river has a severe clot of PET bottles and Styrofoam, it’s the worst kind.”
“Is she going to survive Doctor Quack?”
“We must stop it before it reaches the heart.”
“What can we do, there must be something?”
“It doesn’t look good, she’s very sick, has been for quite some time.”
“Oh Dr Quack!” Sniff…
Progress in my kayak becomes abruptly thwarted. There are bottles, cans, balls, boxes, thongs, shoes, wood, solvent containers, a jerry-can and all manner of floating debris which now includes me and my kayak and the matter is so dense it will not disperse. It would take me hours to dig a path through with my paddle. I have no option but to touch ashore and carry my boat around, which as it happens makes for one of the more interesting portages I have ever undertaken. There is no bank to speak of but instead a mat of weed waist deep and carpeted with a crusty veneer of dry leaf-litter and flotsam. As my feet penetrate I find a hard surface below caked in more plastic bottles and litter. I feel sharp things I cannot see. Corrugated iron crunches underfoot. I drag the boat from the water by its bow-rope and it sits almost buoyantly over the weeds, so sturdily in fact that I can use it to walk over and negate the need to trudge through who-knows-what. For about thirty metres I adopt a technique of dragging then pushing my kayak, mounting it at stern, straddling forward and stepping off the bow gingerly into the mystery of what may lay below the weeds, and repeating the same process over. After a short while I develop quite a nimble and efficient rhythm. And I laugh out loud for I am now hidden away from the world deep within the wastelands of the Clyde Marshalling Yards.
With the chine of my little red boat now again wet I exhale as the space opens up around me and the river widens. The sheoaks of the parklands give way once again to barbed wire on both riverbanks and I hear trains shunting and clacking as they grapple with their track-heads and switchbacks. For here is yet another of Duck River’s stark transformations instigated by the hand of human intervention. I keep an eye out for a feral banana grove I heard someone planted down these ways but see nothing of the sort.
And I am totally lost in the moment until I hear cascading water close by. My kayak bumps hard to a stop against a solid barricade, quickly awakening me to the realisation I have abutted against a weir; it had to exist. I portage down a metre or so into a concrete reservoir formed under the railway between what is the beginning of the tidal reaches and mudflats of my mighty Duck River. As denoted by yet another sudden transition, mangroves now line the banks ahead and on a breeze reeking strongly of oil-refinery wafts the briny scent of saltwater and mud. A train rumbles overhead and its motions resonate round the old cobbles of a culvert built long ago. Yesterday I parachuted into this section of Duck River with Google Earth and found from the Bureau of Meteorology website that at about now, mid-afternoon, the tide would be roughly halfway out. There is nowhere else to go but downriver, which turns out to be a very easy navigation contrary to it appearing narrow and treacherous from the aerial images and with only half a tide filling its reaches. But again I am in eerie confines. On one corner of a mangrove flat a makeshift humpy is erected which is very possibly still inhabited by someone. If not by kayak up here, nobody would otherwise know of its existence. I pass under three bridges in close proximity to one another – between the old piers of Parramatta Road, the very new piers of the recently built pedestrian and cycleway, and the somewhere-in-between yet more streamlined piers of the M4 Motorway. Near A’Beckett Creek, another of Duck River’s tributaries, I paddle through a rank-smelling milky-white substance leaching from the Rosehill Industrial Area. In spring of 1996 A’Beckett Creek (sometimes known as Duck Creek) was the scene of a major pollution event where 20,000 litres of concentrated hydrochloric acid washed into the creek following a tanker truck collision on the motorway near the James Ruse Drive exit ramp. The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) of the time declared it an environmental disaster and preschool kids somewhere nearby were sent home. Duck River makes the papers once again.
But despite acid spills and other pollution events, despite any other occurrences by the indifference of human influence, despite whatever the natural elements may serve up, Duck River will still flow. It is a unique and curious little river and I feel a connection to it through this experience, but without any reservation it is a very sick entity.