Earliest Outdoor Memory

The Dam at Stannix Park Rd

Earliest Outdoor Memory

Story by Blair Paterson, Garry Sonter and David Rutter

One night while talking about the outdoors, conversation meandered to childhood memories; and specifically early memories of the outdoors. The topic had us pondering for some time afterwards as we each strolled down our own memory lanes.

Our earliest outdoor memories shared below bare some significance to each of us as adults, and they were good fun to reflect upon. It’s clear our respective passions for the outdoors were formulated at a very young age.


I have an early outdoor memory of a family holiday from Melbourne. We were visiting my uncle and his family at a caravan park on the Hawkesbury River near Sydney. It was my first encounter at the river; at a place I would later become very familiar as I grew up.

On hot day with a bright sun overhead I remember the noise and commotion of speedboats and water skiers on the river edge. Being rather shy back then I was probably uncomfortable with all the goings-on and might have preferred retreating somewhere quiet to draw a picture or play with matchbox cars.

The picture of my younger brother and I was taken at Port Philip Bay in Melbourne, about the same time as my earliest outdoor memory.

The picture of my younger brother and I was taken at Port Philip Bay in Melbourne, about the same time as my earliest outdoor memory.

Mum coaxed my brother and I to take a swim, so we stripped down to our Speedos – matching, purple with dolphins and sea creatures – and into the river we reluctantly traipsed.

I remember brown water and the feel of the sandy, muddy riverbed underfoot. I was sternly told not to venture any deeper than my waist, as there was a sudden drop-off from the beach’s gradual incline where weeds and jellyfish lurked in the murkiness below; so unsurprisingly I had trepidations about the whole affair.

But I did venture into the river up to my waist, alongside my uncle’s speedboat Smuggler moored on the beach. The water skiers were probably in for lunch.

I have two vivid recollections of my earliest outdoor memory. The first was of squinting at the sun reflecting off the glitter under the gel-coat fibreglass of Smuggler’s deck and gunwales. I remember everything being so bright, like how old memories go as they fade over time, yet I recall the flecks of silver and blue shimmering with the sun’s reflection in the water like mirrors of a disco ball.

My second recollection was of my two cousins – rugged and bronzed from spending most of their weekends on the river – standing on the riverbank. They were smirking at my brother and me in the water. Then I looked at my brother before casting my eye over my own torso. I remember our Melbournian skin was so pale and white; we were both yet to be freckled or sun-kissed.

My giggling cousins were wearing footy shorts. They would never have been caught dead in Speedos.


The Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry was a frontier where my normal weekly life became a weekend of adventure. My father’s house was nestled on the banks of the MacDonald River – a tributary of the Hawkesbury – not far from the ferry. The MacDonald River and the surrounding valley was the place which opened the door to a realm of discovery and adventure. This place was where most of my earliest outdoor memories were derived.

One particular day my brother and I were told we’d be going for a drive up the MacDonald Valley. I had never been up the valley before and for the first time I was excited about the opportunity to further explore the valley and river. We turned left out of the street in the opposite direction to the ferry. After a few hundred metres the tar road had turned into dirt, with the car bellowing dust out the back. This was very exciting as it was my first time on a dirt road.

The photo was taken with my elder brother while bushwalking near the Great Old North Rd in the MacDonald Valley.

The photo was taken with my elder brother while bushwalking near the Great Old North Rd in the MacDonald Valley.

The road followed along the river. Then it veered away, passing an old farmhouse before it again rejoined the river. Beyond the farmhouse we continued past a tree plantation, a cluster of houses lining the river foreshore and a small old graveyard. Once around a few more bends the car came to a halt. My father opened a gate leading into a cow paddock and after a short drive to the end of the paddock we had arrived at our destination – the upper reaches of the Macdonald River.

I had never seen a river like this. It was mostly shallow. The water looked so clean I could drink it through a straw. It wasn’t long before I was in the water splashing about enjoying this new kind of river. The water moved quickly, wanting to push me towards the deep where the sand dropped away. In a deep section I could see a small whirlpool on the surface. I thought if I were to lose my footing in the sand, I’d be taken away, sucked into the whirlpool and disappear forever like water going down the sink. I found refuge in the shallows of the river and left the deep section to my father and brother. I played in the river until it was time to go.


It’s early on a cool misty autumn morning. It’s cooler now – the heat of the summer has finally given way to cool nights and misty mornings. The snakes should be hibernating, so my sister, brother and I are allowed to go down the back by ourselves. We don our yard clothes, our gum boots and race down to the gate.

Our dog pushes to the front, and edges his nose into the gap between the post and the gate. As the gate opens he wedges more of his body into the gap until he fits through and he is off, racing across the paddock. He knows where we’re going – into the bush! We chase after him, across the flat part of the paddock that serves as soccer field or cricket pitch depending on the season, past the half dry dam with our homemade raft precariously floating in it, one corner dipping into the water. Past the meat ants’ nest that is nestled near the gutter that my father built in a vain attempt to coax more water into the dam.

A photo taken at about the same time of my earliest outdoor memory. Yes, that is knife that I'm holding.

A photo taken at about the same time of my earliest outdoor memory. Yes, that is knife that I'm holding.

Through another gateway that marks the line between the bush and the paddock we go, and the trees engulf us. Our dog backtracks momentarily to check we are still behind him, and then he is off again. The earth beneath us is harder now, and in patches we run across large flat rocks that cross our well-worn track. We slow down as we go down a path between large boulders in a small cliff – to the right is the Fort, a stone wall built by my father on a large flat rock, which also has a cubby house built in the large cracks in the rock.

We take it easier now as we run through kangaroo grass, past scrubby bushes, past clumps of “blady grass”, and down to the gully. It has been raining lately and we want to see water running through the gully – a rare event. We inspect our cubby houses of branches and bark built into the sides of the gully. We check the small ponds for signs of tadpoles, and listen for the frogs.

This verdant playground, with green grass, patches of ferns, and moss covered rocks is nestled in a small valley in acres of ironbark, stringy bark, gums and scrub. It is our playground, and we play here for hours until Dad comes to collect us, or we grow hungry, or tired.

About Garry Sonter

To say Garry is excited about camping would be an understatement. Given a choice between a luxury hotel and a tent, he would probably opt for the tent. Garry loves introducing people to the outdoors and nature. And in return enjoys seeing them make their own connections. Garry strives for perfection with his photography. He has held exhibitions in his homeland of Australia and in Japan and he is in endless pursuit of photographic opportunities to illustrate how he interacts with life and the outdoors.
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