King Canute Battling the Relentless Tide*: The Dilemma of Rampant Beach Erosion – Gold Coast and Adelaide

Archaeology, Built Environment, Environmental, Local history

All around this water-encircled continent, wherever there are pebbly or sandy shores, rocks and boulders by the sea, beach erosion is a fact of environmental life. Australian coastal geologists and environmentalists have singled out three areas for particular concern in the light of climate change and rising seas – the Gold Coast of Southern Queensland, Adelaide’s western seaside suburbs (in particular the stretch of coastline from Outer Harbour down to Marino), and Sydney’s Northern Beaches centred on the narrow sandy strip from Collaroy to Narrabeen.

Beach erosion from storm action is the expected end-product of a process when we get waves of higher height (measured from trough to crest) and of shorter periods (ie, the time interval in seconds between succeeding waves passing a specific point) repeatedly crashing onto shore. Storms of greater energy and intensity result in more sand being moved offshore and a storm bar builds up on the nearshore zone. For significant amounts of sand to return to the visible beach, ie, less erosion occurring (the process of accretion), Ocean and sea conditions need to be calmer. Unfortunately for the environment, and for coastal-clinging human habitation, all the trends are in the opposition direction! Concerned coastal watchers are increasingly preoccupied with the sense of a stark future, apprehensively eyeing the very real prospect of untrammelled beach attrition [‘Beach erosion: Coastal processes on the Gold Coast’, (Gold Coast City Council – Discovering Our Past), www.goldcoast.qld.gov.au]

GC damage inflict by Cyclone Dinah 1967
Gold Coast: Human encroachment on a coastal cyclone zone
The Gold Coast at latitude 28° S is in a tropical cyclone prone zone, its history of cyclone events goes back to the 1920s, including crunch years such as 1967 when eleven cyclones hit the Coast in rapid succession. Like Sydney’s Northern Beaches (see separate blog post) the Gold Coast/Surfers Paradise area is especially susceptible to property damage due to the same development pattern of building too close to the beach (multi-millionaires’ coastal mansion syndrome?). A 2009 study by the Queensland Department of Climate Change (DCC) estimated that there are 2,300 residential buildings located within 50 metres of sandy coast and 4,750 within 110 metres” [Tony Moore, ‘Gold Coast beach erosion plan: Is the plan on the right track?’ Brisbane Times, 05-Jul-2015, www.brisbanetimes.com.au].

Gold Coast erosion: Monumental cliffs of sand
Queensland’s volatile summer storm seasons will undoubtedly continue to be exacerbated by climate change and rising sea levels. In recent years an intensification of the cyclonic onslaught on the South Queensland coast has seen the buildup of towering sand ridges on beaches like Narrowneck and Broadbeach, as a result of massive quantities of sand being gouged from the beach❖.

Gold Coast strategies to counter erosion
In direct response to the devastating 1967 cyclones the City of Gold Coast commissioned the Dutch Delft Report and established a Shoreline Management Plan to follow up its recommendations. New seawalls were constructed to bolster the beaches and an artificial reef created at Narrowneck Beach (the Delft Report called for Gold Coast beaches to be widened to withstand severe weather conditions and restorative work was intended to re-profile the vulnerable beaches). The Shoreline Management Plan strategy incorporates a scheme to shift sand from south of the Tweed River (from NSW) through a system of bypass pumping to replenish the beaches on the Gold Coast [‘Gold Coast Shoreline Management Plan’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org. Transporting sand has proved a costly exercise for the Gold Coast Council ($20,000 a day during severe storm activity periods to shift 20,000 cubic matures of replacement sand) [‘Battling erosion on the Gold Coast’, (Splash ABC Queensland), www.splash.abc.net.au]

Adelaide hot spots
Adelaide’s north-western beaches’ susceptibility to the climatic forces of erosion mirrors that of the Gold Coast…and similarly it has been plagued by the same degree of imprudent decision-making by planners and developers resulting in property lines being positioned too close to the shoreline. A conspicuous case in point being Tennyson Beach 14km from Adelaide CBD. Tennyson locals recall that a stretch of its celebrated coastal dunes was washed away by massive storms in the 1960s…after it was restored to its previous height, amazingly houses were built on the same vulnerable dunes! Erosion at nearby West Beach has become so problematic that the West Beach Surf Life Saving Club has given consideration to moving the location of its clubhouse [‘Adelaide beachfront housing “facing erosion risks” like those at Collaroy, Sydney’, ABC Radio Adelaide, ABC News, 08-Jun-2016, www.abc.news.net.au

Hallett Cove – a grim template for other Adelaide beaches?
Coastal inundation
As elsewhere the fear for Adelaide coastal watchers is the inexorable rise of sea levels – scientists have predicted that its low-lying coastal land will be inundated with the bulk of the city’s beaches under water by 2050! Geologists and coastal experts such as Dr Ian Dyson have predicted that the great majority of Adelaide’s sandy beaches are at risk of being reduced to the same denuded state as Hallett Cove – once a glistening sandy beach, now a rocky foreshore bereft of sand¤. Dyson forecasts that the only beaches likely to survive, albeit as “pockets of beaches” on the metropolitan coast beyond 2026 will be at Glenelg, Henley Beach and Semaphore [Thomas Conlin, ‘Expert says key Adelaide beaches could disappear within a decade because of rising sea levels and erosion’, Sunday Mail (SA), 24-Jun-2016, www.adelaidenow.com.au

Notwithstanding the pessimism of scientific experts, the state government’s Coastal Protection Board maintains its sand-replenishment programs are effective in meeting the challenges which are undeniably formidable. Dr Dyson however has been critical of the authorities’ over-reliance on rock wall defences, contending that “retaining beaches (were) a losing battle without angled breakwaters or groynes at the southern end of erosion hot spots to slow sand movement [Conlin, ibid.]

Endnote: A dynamic problem – the natural drag of sand by the elements
An important factor contributing to beach erosion is the natural tendency of the ocean to drag coastal sand in a northward movement. This affects both Adelaide and the Gold Coast. On the GC’s southern beaches where sand is plentiful, the drift north to replenish the northern GC beaches is impeded by the presence of rock walls and groynes which interrupts the free flow of sand northwards [Tanya Westthorpe, ‘Sand erosion threat to prime Gold Coast tourist beaches’, Gold Coast Bulletin, 02-Aug-2012]. the top of the Gulf St Vincent. Sand replenishment and maintenance thus is a major challenge for the more southern lying beaches like Kingston Park and Seacliff which are in continually peril of being sand ‘starved’. Aside from the logistics of managing this, sourcing sand from quarries is proving an increasingly expensive exercise for the authorities [‘Sand carting plea to save Adelaide’s vulnerable beaches, including Seacliff and Kingston Park’, (E Boisvent), 12-Oct-2016, www.news.com.au]

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* The title is of course a symbolic nod to King Canute (Cnut the Great) 11th century Anglo-Saxon ruler of the North Sea Empire, and the apocryphal anecdote of his futile but persistent efforts to turn back the tide on the seashore
❖ prompting sections of the media to jocularly re-label Broadbeach as “Steep Beach”
¤ Dyson blames ill-considered development and the construction of a beach marina for the degradation of Hallett Cove

Walama Redux: Ballast Point’s Cyclical Journey

Archaeology, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

In the time of Aboriginal Australia, the indigenous clans which inhabited the Balmain peninsula, the Wan-gal and the Cadi-gal, called the chunk of land that juts out between Snails Bay and Mort’s Bay, Walama (meaning “to return”). In the 230 years since white settlement Ballast Point has come back to a peaceful state of natureφ.

At the time the First Fleeters encountered the place it was a bushy promontory with great intrinsic value to the original inhabitants. This narrow bluff of land on Sydney Harbour has gone full circle from a spot of untouched natural beauty to (post-1788) a grimy industrial site and is now being returned to something a little reminiscent of its natural state, in time perhaps becoming a palimpsest of what it once was.

Ballast Point Park was opened as a two-and-a-half-hectare public space in 2009 (also called ‘Walama’ as a mark of respect for the traditional custodians for the area). The restoration of the Point as public land was a victory for the people of Balmain, achieved only after a long struggle of determined local activism and community support to overcome the commercial plans of developers and the vacillation of state governments.

Walama’s geology, a boon for the return voyages of cargo ships
Before I outline the details of how the Ballast Point story with its vicissitudes played out in the late 20th century, I should recount a little of the headland’s early history following first contacts between the indigenous and white populations. The British settlers’ first use of Ballast Point seems to have been as a fishing and hunting spot. The name “Ballast Point” is derived apparently from the occurrence of rockfalls from the high point above the shoreline crashing to the bottom of the outcrop[1]. Ships having unloaded their cargo from Europe needed to secure suitable ballast for the return journeys. Stones accumulated on the Point’s shore – some heavy but manoeuvrable, others smaller, mainly broken rocks and gravel – were deemed ideal weighty material to steady the empty hulls of the merchant vessels, providing the stability needed for the ocean voyage.

Display remembering 'Menevia'  which once occupied BP site
Display remembering ‘Menevia’ which once occupied the Ballast Pt site
A succession of colonial land-holders and ‘Menevia’
Part of colonial surgeon William Balmain’s early land grant, Ballast Point passed through many hands in the first half of the 19th century including Fred Parbury, James Goodsir, Henry Smith, George Cooper and John Gilchrist (who subdivided it as ‘Glenelg Crescent’ but this enticed few if any buyers)[2]. Merchant and draper Thomas Perkins acquired the promontory in 1852. By 1864 Perkins had built and occupied a large two-story, sandstone villa on the headland, which he named Menevia§. For some years after it was built Ballast Point was known as Menevia Point. After Perkins’ death the mansion became a boarding house until after World War I.

Texas Oil takeover
By 1928 Menevia had fallen into disrepair and was up for sale. Balmain Council expressed an interest but public funds were tight at the time and it couldn’t afford to buy it. Texas oil company Texaco snapped it up. Texaco, who later merged with Standard Oil of California to form Caltex, used it as a depot to store very large quantities of petroleum (and later as a grease plant).

Old 1960s Caltex sign: 'Grease Plant'
Old 1960s Caltex sign: ‘Grease Plant’
Over time Caltex built 30 large storage tanks at what became known as the Balmain Terminal. However this large scale enterprise did nothing the quality of life of local residents, with trucks coming and going through the narrow, congested streets of Balmain an ongoing irritant to those living in the, mainly humble, dwellings nearby[3].

Caltex scale-back and preparation for pull-out
Ballast Point became less important to Caltex after the company in the late sixties opened a new, larger oil terminal at Banksmeadow (South Sydney). From the late 1980s through the 1990s Caltex tried to prepare the way to unload its Balmain operations in a commercial deal, twice petitioning Leichhardt Council to have its land rezoned from waterfront industrial to residential, but without success. A struggle for the future land use of Ballast Point ensued: the local community in Balmain formed an opposition group called Ballast Point Campaign Committee (BPCC) in the mid Eighties to save Ballast Point by returning the headland to public land. Leichhardt Council eventually supported BPCC in its actions[4].

End-game: Victory for the public over developers’ profit-driven plans for the Point
The Walker Corporation (formerly McRoss Developments) sought to purchase the 2.6ha headland site from Caltex to build a 138 unit apartment complex, but the deal was blocked by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority’s (SHFA) compulsory acquisition of the land in 2002[5]. Caltex received nearly $14.4 million in compensation. Walker Corp was offered $10.1 million by the state government (as they had acquired an option on the land), which it disputed in the High Court of Australia as grossly undervalued (Walker Corporation P/L v Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (2008). Initially the developers were awarded compensation of $60M but this was overturned on appeal and the original amount of $10M reaffirmed[6].

The Menevia artefacts display cabinet (as it used to look!)
The Menevia artefacts display cabinet (as it used to look!)
After the SHFA took control of Ballast Point it took another seven years during which the Caltex site was remediated, followed by planning, designing and landscaping, before the post-industrial park was opened in July 2009. The design of the new park includes walls composed of recycled rubble enclosed in wire mesh gabions (cylindrical baskets), sandstone plinths, artworks commemorating the former industrial role, eg, Tank 101 (storage tanks) as well as reminiscences of Menevia – artefacts of the Victorian house excavated whilst the site was being remediated. These comprise domestic utensils (crockery, glassware, bottles, etc) mounted in a display case in the park. Unfortunately, recently the glass cabinet was smashed by mindless vandals and the damaged archeological items have been removed.

Ballast Pt Park's Gabion walls: cylinders of recycled stones
BP Park’s Gabion walls: cylinders of recycled stones
The final form of Ballast Point Park has come in for some criticism from various quarters, especially from Paul Keating (who originally championed its creation) for “its lack of romantic verdancy” and the failure of the architects to erase all reminders of the past “industrial vandalism” of Caltex (as the ex-PM described it). Opponents of this viewpoint have attacked it as representing an attitude that seeks to ‘sanitise’ history by omitting the full story of the place’s industrial past[7]. With the full passage of time, they advocate, vegetation will bring this public park back to something like the wooden headland it was prior to European colonisation.

Footnote: The Gabion, the all-purpose retaining wall
Ballast Point Park is not a place to visit if you have a “gabion phobia”, the park is positively gabion-overload! Upon arrival the ubiquity of this construction feature is all-too evident! The Gabion⋇ has become quite the go-to outdoor feature for councils and town planners in recent times. It is both highly utilitarian and cost-effective and embraces the recycling ethos. Some may also find an aesthetic appeal in the gabion’s unusual symmetry – the way it neatly packages an assortment of multi-coloured, irregular-shaped, cast-off building materials in (usually) oblong wire-mesh containers.

⋇ Gabion (from Italian gabbione meaning “big cage”; from Italian gabbia and Latin cavea meaning “cage”) is a cage, cylinder, or box filled with rocks, concrete, or sometimes sand and soil for use in civil engineering, road building, military applications and landscaping [Wikipedia].

_ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ __ _ _ __ _ _ _
φ At the time the British came in 1788, the pioneering settlers reported that indigenous hunters of the Wan-gal and Cadi-gal clans would hunt kangaroos through the densely wooden and bushy peninsula, driving them towards the north-eastern point of Balmain (down the hill into present-day Illoura Reserve) into a cul-de-sac at Peacock’s Point where they were able to trap the animals and easily kill them
§ The name ‘Menevia’ was apparently derived from a cathedral in Swansea, South Wales which bears the name

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[1] Peter Reynolds,’Ballast Point’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/ballast_point,viewed 15 May 2016
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ‘Ballast Point Park Opening’, The Peninsula Observer, Vol 44 No 3 Issue 312 (Sept 2009)
[5] Ex-PM Keating, Tom Uren, et al, apparently influenced the Carr Labor Government’s decision to make the Caltex site a public space, K Legge, ‘How Paul Keating saved Barangaroo headland park on Sydney Harbour’, The Australian, 3 October 2015
[6] B Makin, ‘Ballast Point: from oil terminal to public park’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Oct 2005
[7] as Laura Hardin put the counter-view: Ex-PM Keating’s “interpretation of history risks replacing the gritty authenticity of these places with the deceptive, pastel languor of a Lycett watercolour…seeks to make amends by erasure, denial and the importation of the picturesque”, L Harding & S Hawken, ‘Ballast Point’, ArchitectureAU, 2 Jan 2012, www.architectureau.com

Homebush Bay Perambulations IV: In the Footsteps of Blaxland and the Newington Estate

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

I wanted to do a follow up walk to an earlier exploration of the Olympic Precinct and the Millennium Parklands, extending it into the Newington and Silverwater hinterland on the other side of the Armory. Taking the ferry wharf at Sydney Olympic Park as our starting point this time, we embark on the 3km riverfront walk to Wilson Park (near the Silverwater Bridge), our first stop.

On the left side of the path we get glimpses through the fence of the Newington Nature Reserve. This huge area (48ha), marshy with mudflats and mangroves, and long neglected before the Olympics, underwent extensive remediation in the 1990s as part of the plan to create a ‘green’ Olympics in 2000. Its native vegetation was regenerated and the land was transformed into an estuarine wetland system and a woodland rich in turpentines and ironbarks. The public is not permitted access as it is a wildlife sanctuary for eagles and frogs and sundry other fauna. An additional factor is that the wetland area is still believed to contain an unexploded ordnance[1].

imageAs we come towards the old Armory site a curious feature is the retention of several old disused navy buildings on the waterfront. This detritus was scattered along the water’s edge, pieces of abandoned wooden and brick buildings tagged with faded building numbers. Some had been fenced up in a valiant but doomed attempt at vandal-proofing, and others near the Naval Depot simply boarded up as best they can be.

Near the always popular Armory Cafe, reborn out of the ashes of the burnt down original building, is the Blaxland Riverside Park, set on a sloping terrain, a treat for children with its flying fox and playground. The park contains several more of those earth mounds, a feature throughout the Bay (I can only surmise that these too are hiding nasty toxic surprises like the other mounds closer to the Olympic Precinct).

Wilson Park: walkers & cyclists
Wilson Park: walkers & cyclists
We stop at the park just before Silverwater Bridge – Wilson Park, there’s a history of toxic contamination here too. The site was occupied in the 1950s by PACCAL (Petroleum and Chemical Corporation of Australia Ltd) which refined gas from petroleum, a process which produced three tonnes of tar sludge a day. The park was where the unwanted waste products ended up. Similarly some of PACCAL’s stockpile of dioxins eventually seeped into Duck River on the other side of the Bridge[2].

We cut through the once highly contaminated Wilson Park, passing the athletics and soccer fields which stand where the gas processing plant used to be, and come out on to Newington Road. Halfway up the street we come to the high, ugly scarred wall of Silverwater Correction Centre. The very large prison, both minimum and maximum (remand) security inmates. The women’s prison, previously known as Mulawa (Aboriginal: in the shadow of trees), these days has mostly minimum security prisoners (in the main for crimes like fraud) but in the past it had ‘celebrity’ inmates such as Lindy Chamberlain (who unwillingly took the rap presumably for an unnamed Australian dingo for the murder of her baby daughter and was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated).

The men’s prison at Silverwater has also been the scene of one of the most daring jail escapes ever in Australia. In 1999 the Russian girlfriend of an inmate in Silverwater hijacked a helicopter at gunpoint and landed inside the prison, enabling her convict lover to get away by air. Six weeks later they were both cornered and caught and the girlfriend (dubbed “Red Lucy” by the Australian media) ended up behind bars in Mulawa as well.

The history of the land the Silverwater prison occupies is a varied one and some traces of of its historic existence can still to be seen … only though if you are a prisoner or a staffer at Silverwater. Within the facility grounds are several old colonial homes, most notably ‘Newington’ built by early landowner John Blaxland§. The Newington Estate, some 520ha of land, was named after the Blaxland family home in Kent.

Newington House
Newington House
Newington House has been variously used over the last 180 years. Initially Blaxland’s principal home, after his death it became the hub of Newington College (established by the Methodist Church in 1863) before the preppy college was relocated to Stanmore in inner city Sydney. The Newington Estate was acquired by land-owner John Wetherill who subdivided it for residential settlement (Homebush Village) but the public didn’t clamour to take the lots on offer (even the majority of the workers at the nearby Abattoir and Brickworks were not interested in living there!).

The government purchased a part of the Newington Estate, turning it into a hospital for the mentally ill – an aged women’s asylum. Buildings named in honour of notable early colonial women (Catchpole, Chisholm, Reiby) were added to Newington House as hospital wards. Later the asylum was extended to male patients and was categorised as a “state asylum for dependent adults with infirmity or illness of “incurable character”[3].

By 1960 the hospital had closed and was handed over to the Department of Prisons. Ten years later Silverwater Gaol opened in a very large block fronting on to Holker Street and incorporating the grounds of the hospital. Newington House itself is still used as the administration wing of the corrective centre.

The entrepreneurial flair of John Blaxland led to the estate use’s in the 19th century for numerous commercial enterprises including salt production, lime kiln, flour mill, tweed mill and coal mining (this last venture proved unsuccessful)[4].

SOP Lodge
SOP Lodge
We turn off Holker Street and into Jamieson Street and walk past the newer part of the prison, these days called the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (the gaol entrance point for visitors). On the right we get a fuller view of the vast expanse of the Armory’s restricted area. About halfway up Jamieson Street we come across a fenced-off section of the Armory with a series of old military-style huts set on green pastures. This is the Sydney Olympic Park Lodge, an urban holiday camp run by the YMCA and offering school kids a mix of outdoor and educational activities drawing on the resources of the Armory. Although part of the Olympic Park accommodation portfolio these rather spartan looking dormitories are certainly not likely to be mistaken for luxury five-star accommodation for Olympics or other sports-related VIPs.

The Lodge is buffeted from Blaxland Reserve by a large nature reserve. As we come back to the Parramatta a River trail we spot some more of the artificially created earth mounds, so characteristic of the Bay area. From the impressive gatehouse of the Armory it’s only about one-and-three-quarters kilometres back to our SOP ferry wharf starting point.

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§ in the earlier posts Homebush Bay Perambulations I and Homebush Bay Perambulations III I referred to the Wentworth family’s role in the early development of Homebush Bay, being the beneficiaries of the grant of a large swathe of land in the area. Blaxland’s early land acquisitions led to him and his family having a similar imprint on the western part of Homebush Bay. At around the same time, Blaxland’s younger brother, Gregory (of Blue Mountains explorer fame), purchased the Brush Farm Estate in Eastwood from the father of his exploration companion, WC Wentworth – another interaction between the two great colonial families.

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[1] ‘Management Plan for Newington Nature Reserve’, (SOPA, 2003), www.environment.nsw.gov.au
[2] ‘Industrial History’, Sydney Olympic Park Authority, www.sopa.nsw.gov.au
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.

Homebush Bay Perambulations III: a Walk through an Industrial Graveyard

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

This walk starts from a central point in Homebush Bay, Sydney Olympic Station, and will explore some places on the periphery of the area. This will include parts of the present Olympic Park complex with a very different industrial past to its current activities.

From the station we are very close to the first stop on our walk, but when we get there we discover that a small group of linked buildings (between Dawn Fraser and Herb Elliott Avenues) is the only reminder of the area’s former industrial preoccupations. The nest of Abattoirs administration buildings are all that remains of the once vast (Homebush) State Abattoirs. This handsome brick structure, circa 1913 but maintained in good condition, now bears the name (in SOPA* speak) Abattoir Heritage Precinct. Today, it houses, appropriately enough for the surroundings, sporting bodies, eg, the NSW Rugby League Professional Players Association and the Australian Paralympics Committee. One of the smaller, adjunct buildings is used as a cafe (with the slightly melancholy and possibly perverse name (given the history) “Abattoir Blues” Cafe.

Abattoir humour
Abattoir humour
There is a backhanded tribute of sorts(?) on the admin site to its former status as an Abattoirs. The forecourt’s garden setting includes a series of panels trivialising the activities involving the slaughtered creatures in a humorous fashion. The signs consisted of painted ceramics depicting cute-looking cows and pigs with captions echoing popular nursery rhymes – “Here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo, e-i-e-i-o”, “To market, to market, Jiggety Jig, Jiggety Jog”, etc. Very sensitive stuff, eh? You don’t have to be a committed animal liberationist to find this in poor taste.

Next we walk from the Admin Precinct down Showground Road and through Cathy Freeman Park with its “Olympic Torch” Fountain (a hit with five-year-olds in summer, if not their parents) on to Kevin Coombs Avenue around the Showground block up to Australia Avenue. The Abattoirs itself was located within this broad area, and comprised at its peak 44 slaughterhouses with a capacity to kill over 20,000 animals a day … at one point it was the largest abattoir in the Commonwealth. Serviced by an industry rail link from Rookwood Station, there were saleyards and meat preserving facilities in the immediate vicinity (Homebush and Flemington).

Homebush Bay (1922 edition of Wilson's Street Directory)
Homebush Bay (1922 edition of Wilson’s Street Directory)
In a previous piece on Homebush Bay I mentioned the super-sized contribution of Union Carbide and other industrial polluters to the extreme level of dioxins and other contaminants found in Haslams Creek. Well, the Abattoirs did its bit as well in the old days. The proximity of the plant to the Creek was too tempting … an easy way to dispose of the waste materials of animal carcasses resulting in algal blooms and further pollution of the waterway. This practice had the additional affect of attracting sharks to the nearby Silverwater Baths[¹].

About 500 metres along Australia Avenue, opposite the Showground, we see a mechanical relic of a bygone industry on display, rusted throughout. Here a narrow, sloping pathway starts, cutting a v-shape through the bush. At the end of the path you reach a long, elevated catwalk, caged on either side, which leads to the viewing tower of the old Brickpit, known as the Brickpit Ring. This aerial, circular structure, sitting 18.5 metres above the ground on slender metal stilts, provides a spectacular view of the former quarry with its gouged sandstone pit floor filled with viridescent-coloured water.

The Homebush Brickpit closed operations in 1988 (same year as the Abattoirs) and was destined to become one of the venues for the Olympics (possible site for among other things the tennis centre) but the last-minute discovery of an endangered frog species in residence saw it converted into a habitat for the green and golden bell frog.

As you walk around the 550-metre circumference of the Ring, the walls (multicoloured mesh panels interspersed with clear glass ones) double as information kiosks on the history of the brickworks (including an audio speaker with former pit workers recounting stories of their experiences). Other panels are equiped with soundscapes of frog calls.

imageThe information walls encircling the Ring give a concise summary of the history of the State Brickworks from its establishment in 1911. It tells an interesting story of a public enterprise formed to counter the oligopolistic tendencies of private brick manufacturers. Having a state brickworks was a means of keeping prices down and of increasing the percentage of owner-occupied dwellings in Sydney (only 30% in 1911).

Brickpit Ring
Brickpit Ring
The story is also one of intrigue in the form of sabotage – in the Depression the Nationalist government sold off the brickworks to a consortium of private brick-making companies which did its upmost to sabotage the brickworks when it was reacquired by the NSW (Labor) government. From 1946 the reformed State Brickworks, with their kilns destroyed and the works vandalised, struggled to meet the demands of the immediate post-war housing boom before again reaching an optimal output of 63 million bricks in the mid 1950s. Technological and work practice changes to brick-making in the 1970s presented a further challenge to the Homebush operations before its inevitable closure in the 1980s[²].

We exit by the northern catwalk which is apparently the official entrance to the Brickpit and cross over Marjorie Jackson Parkway into Wentworth Common. The Common today has a sporting field, children’s play area and family picnic facilities, but in the first half of the 19th century when it was part of the Wentworth Estate, the famous explorer William Wentworth built what was claimed to be Sydney’s first racecourse on the site¥ … an apt place to position a racecourse given that the Homebush area was originally known as as “The Flats”¤. In 1859 the premier racecourse (and the home of the Australian Jockey Club) was moved to its present site Randwick[³]. The Homebush track eventually was used (ca 1910) as something euphemistically called a “resting paddock” for the Homebush Abbatoirs. When the Brickworks were in full swing the workers dug the clay for construction of the bricks from the soil where Wentworth Common is now.

At night back in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Brickworks and Abattoirs workers would go home, the back roads around the works would be taken over by testosterone-driven (and almost certainly alcohol-fuelled) local hoons who would turn it into a drag strip and stage their own ‘Brickies’ version of Mt Panorama[4].

The exploits of the suburban ‘revheads’ in the sixties and seventies, curiously, anticipated the recent conversion of Olympic Park into a street circuit for the running of V8 Supercars events from 2009. Amazingly, despite the furore caused by using such an environmentally sensitive location for this purpose, the Sydney 500 race continues to be held at Homebush (although 2016 is the last year it is scheduled to be held)[5].

Just to the north of the Common we come to a high earth mound with a circular path winding its way to the top. The Bay Marker as it is called contains the same cocktail of toxins and contaminants as the other markers and mounds in Homebush Bay. After taking in the views from atop the Bay Marker we head down Bennelong Parkway towards Bicentennial Park (a distance of about 1.4km to the park gates). On route we pass businesses of various kinds, electric power generators, fencing contractors and the occasional tertiary education centre.

Inside the gates we walk up the undulating grass slopes close to the road. The land at Bicentennial Park was once a large, de facto garbage tip with nothing aesthetic about the area to recommend it. It was a real eyesore with dumped cars, building wastes, tyres, all manner of ‘unwantables’ found their way onto the land over the years. The coming of the 200 year anniversary of white settlement in 1988 transformed the site with a makeover of the park, complete with fountain lakes, large modern sculptural pieces, bike hire facilities, ‘adventure’ playground and picnic areas.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great
On the walk through the Park there are several interesting features to see. Near where a small footbridge crosses from the park over Bennelong Parkway there is a monument to the ancient lawgiver, the 6th century BC Shahanshah Cyrus II of Persia … Iranians stumbling upon this whilst picnicking in the Park may puzzle over why his commemorative stone turned up here (NB: the footbridge is closed until November 2018 to allow for the construction of a new brickpit park).

Treillage in Bicen Park
Treillage in Bicen Park
From the Cyrus stone we walk east through the multi-fountained “water play area” to the striking structure at the highest point of the Park, the Treillage Tower. A treillage is a type of latticework that you are supposed to grow vines up, however there is not a vine in sight around this one! The structure has an oddly artificial appearance to it, a bit plasticky or cardboardish … like a cross between King Arthur’s Camelot and something you’d find at Disneyland! Unreal-looking it may be but it does afford good views of the nearby Badu Wetlands, Olympic facilities and yet another earth mound marker on the south side of Australia Avenue.

Heading east from the Treillage down the archaic-looking stone steps and over the Powells Creek bridge (with its curved lines which seem to mimic the Olympic Stadium) you come to the eastern entrance to the Park, flanked by two small-scale replicas of the Bicentennial tower. By walking 500 metres straight up Victoria Street you’ll reach Concord West Railway Station.

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* Sydney Olympic Park Authority – the body responsible for managing and developing the 640 hectares of the Park’s area post-Olympics
¥ this claim would be under serious challenge as horse races were held on a course built in Hyde Park in the City of Sydney as early as 1810…Hyde Park ‘racecourse’ clearly predates other known claimants in Sydney.
¤ although the racecourse at Homebush was a ‘downs’ course apparently, undulating, not flat

PostScript: Homebush nomenclature
The earliest free settler in the area then known as Liberty Plains, Thomas Laycock, chose the name “Home Bush” for his farm in the area (1794) [M Wayne, ‘NSW State Abbatoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW’, (2012)]

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[1] ‘Timeline of Narawang Wetland and the Surrounding Area’, (Narawang Wetland, NSW Government Education & Communities), www.geographychallenge.nsw.edu.au)

[2] ‘Industrial History’, (History and Heritage, Sydney Olympic Park), www.sopa.nsw.gov.au

[3] The Homebush Racecourse was the home of the powerful Australian Jockey Club before the relocation to the (new) Randwick Racecourse in 1860, Cathy Jones, ‘Homebush Racecourse’, Strathfield Heritage, (2005), www.strathfield heritage.org

[4] M Wayne, ‘NSW State Brickworks/Brickpit Ring Walk – Homebush, NSW’, 14 June 2012, www.pastlivesofthenearfuture.com

[5] ‘Axe falls on Sydney Olympic Park street race’, Speedcafe, 22 March 2016.

Homebush Bay Perambulations II: a Walk around Nuevo Rhodes, Shipwreck Bay and Waterbird Refuges

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

The ferry wharf at Olympic Park is a good starting point for a ramble through Homebush Bay commencing from a ferry and ending at the rail line. From the wharf we walk down Hill Road, passing a dense concentration of light industrial businesses, turning left at either Monza or Baywater and walk through the Wentworth Point estate to the Promenade, a pleasantly wide and newish waterfront path (1k walk from the ferry).

imageIf you take a left at the Promenade, the bay path passes large residential blocks, removals and waste disposal companies before it morphs into a very thin bush strip. The strip which doubles as a rubbish dump meanders on for a bit but ends up against a high residential fence about 100m from where workers are currently building a non-vehicular bridge across the Bay to the homogenous looking towers of Rhodes. Taking a look at the skyline on both sides of the Bay it is less than a “Sherlock Holmesian” deduction to conclude how much the newer Wentworth Point waterfront has come to resemble the Rhodes prototype – albeit there is less of it.

You can happily skip this dead-end digression and just head south from the end of Baywater Drive … the path becomes a narrow trail which swings round a bend closer to Bennelong Parkway. We pass a gated estate within touching distance of its largish but shallow communal swimming pool (at least we can touch the reinforced glass that separates the pool from the boardwalk). The pool is in a nice location but there’s zero privacy for the bathers it seems to me, right on the public boardwalk. Personally I’d be somewhat put off by the regular stream of passers-by.

SS Ayrfield
SS Ayrfield
This is the ideal spot to view one of the best examples of a distinctive feature of Homebush Bay, a number of old vessels deliberated shipwrecked and left to co-habit with nature. The steam collier SS Ayrfield was scuttled and broken up in 1972 and here sits its rusty, rotting steel hull, impressively assimilated with the water-bound vegetation and crops of mangroves. The tree growth sprouts out of the hull so luxuriantly that is looks like something organic and even artistic in its visual effect.

Shipwrecks plaque
Shipwrecks plaque
At the end of the trail we turn left at Bennelong and (carefully) cross the often busy road on to the right side to cross the small bridge spanning the Bay. About 30 metres after the bridge cross over Bennelong Pkwy and follow the trail into the bush. Almost immediately you come to a side track with a plaque on the ground identifying a Shipwreck Lookout. This is a dedication to the “remnant hulks” of Homebush Bay. These are abandoned, rusting wrecks resting here, like the Ayrfield, scattered along the shoreline and overrun by vegetation and mangroves^.

Water bird Refugee
Water bird Refugee
The curved path continues around the Bay, and it is common to see white egrets and purplish-blue crested Pukekos or swamp hens lurking around the water’s edge. As you continue on the trail, if you keep glancing to the right you will shortly notice a bird hide camouflaged in the vegetation to allow glimpses of the waterbird refuge – the Charadriiformes population inhabiting these tidal waters include Pacific Golden Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, Bar-tailed Godwits, Red-necked Avocets, ducks and black swans. Look for the observation tower to the left of the nature strip where the path turns south (note the prevalence of large spiders webbed above the pathway).

Approaching Bicentennial Park a turnoff on the right takes you on to a zig-zagging boardwalk through the Badu Mangroves, a dense patchwork of grey and olive-coloured mangrove growth which leads to the Bennelong Ponds and the western side of Bicentennial Park. If you choose not to do this diversion continue south to the next crossway and go left opposite the tinny looking Field Studies Centre building. After passing a small bridge and another of those observation towers in the mangroves you soon reach the far-eastern edge of the park and a path which heads north along the water, parallel to Homebush Bay Drive.

It’s about 1.5km from this point to Rhodes Station. When the Wentworth Point to Rhodes bridge is completed, walkers will be able to do the walk as a loop starting at Rhodes Station and returning from Homebush Bay to the same start point.

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^ for more details of the vessels involved and the ship-breaking industry in Homebush Bay during the 1970s see G Blaxell, ‘The Wrecks of Homebush Bay’ (May 2008), www.afloat.com.au.

Homebush Bay Perambulations I: a Walk through ‘Toxicity’ … Munitions Dumps and Toxic Mounds

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

The north-western part of Homebush Bay in Sydney’s west was once a backwater of swampy industrial and military dumping grounds and wastelands. The rubbish dumps are still there but no longer visible and the entire surface area of the Bay now boasts a diverse range of interesting walks for the enthusiastic pedestrian. The network of walkways allow you to commence a walk in Homebush Bay* from various points of the compass … we shall start with a walk from the north-west commencing at Silverwater Bridge and throw in some digressions and let’s see what we can unearth.

The Rivercat on route to Sydney Olympic Park
The Rivercat on route to Sydney Olympic Park
As you set off by foot on the south bank along the pathway you can see across the River the predominantly low-level housing of Ermington and Melrose Park. There is not much river traffic around this part of the waterway but expect to see the green-and-white Rivercat glide by at regular intervals.

1897 Gatehouse
1897 Gatehouse
The first item of historic interest we encounter is the former Royal Australian Navy site, Newington Armory. There is a modern (‘Armory’) cafe, an older shop that also sells coffee and some play facilities here, near to the naval depot entrance. The entrance area is much as it was when the Navy abandoned the site in 1999 – still standing is an 1897 brick gatehouse (also known as “the cooperage”), with a rail track leading down from the gate to where the wharf used to be. Two old, grey-toned cranes (circa 1960s) stand fixed in time on the edge of the river.

The Sydney Olympic Park Authority describes the Armory site as it exists today as “compris(ing) a range of historically significant natural and cultural features including former army and navy ammunition storehouses, workshops, offices, small gauge railway and other infrastructure associated with the operation of a naval armament depot”¹. One hundred years ago (1916) it was a military powder magazine and five years after that a munitions store for the navy.

When the navy moved out there were skiploads of old armaments and other dangerous pollutants lying around the depot, so the department simply buried them and fenced off a large section of the site from the public. Other sections of the former naval property still have limited access for commercial activities on the weekend only (eg, rides on a historic electric locomotive which had been used for moving armaments around the ordnance depot). Blaxland Riverside Park nearby has flying fox rides and tunnel slides. Not far from here is the new Newington housing estate.

Continuing down the waterfront path, you come to a side path next to a high electricity tower. This bush-lined path (named in honour of paralympian Louise Sauvage) can be either a digression to take in the view from the second highest point in the Bay (after the Treillage), or an another route to the Sydney Olympic Precinct (railway station) via the lush Narawang Wetland and Haslams Creek.

Woo-la-ra
Woo-la-ra
There’s a steep, linear walk up a very large conical-shaped earth mound full of dangerous chemicals and other toxins² buried under several layers of top and middle soil … atop this geographical marker (Bay Marker) is the best view around here – a 360-degree panorama incorporating the river, the uniformed high-rise of Rhodes and Liberty Grove and the numerous Olympia stadia. Steeply descending the mound trail to the bottom you immediately ascend again, this second hilltop not as steep as the mound but with a plateau at the top, bears the name ascribed to it by the local, Wan-gal clan, Woo-la-ra (= lookout).

From the high ground of Woo-la-ra you have a choice (several choices in fact): you can take the path down to Hill Road where you can walk along the forest trail parallel to Hill Road**. The Sydney Olympic Park Wharf is about one kilometre away, where you can catch the ferry back to Circular Quay or west to Parramatta.

Kronos Hill
Kronos Hill
We decide to continue the path for a further 2.5km through the Millennium Parklands down to Haslams Creek. Here on the south-eastern shore of the Creek there is another high mound known as Kronos Hill, and also full of hidden toxic surprises³. You can follow a staggered, concentric trail up to the summit and be rewarded with sweeping 360-degree views of the Olympic Precinct (Allphones Arena and ANZ Stadium are both in the immediate foreground). From atop Kronos Hill it is only about half-an-hour walk’s back to the Olympic train station.

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* “Homebush Bay” strictly historically speaking refers to the inlet, the body of water, off Parramatta River. The area that is now generally thought of as Homebush Bay (including Wentworth Point and the Sydney Olympic Park) was described in the early part of the 20th century as being part of “Lidcombe North”. The name “Homebush” itself derives from D’Arcy Wentworth who was granted a large land grant in the area in 1810, literally “his home in the bush”. ‘Homebush out to make a point’, Daily Telegraph, (Sydney), 04 January 2009, www.dailytelegraph.com.au

** Optional diversion: you might consider a side trip from the corner of Bennelong and Hill. From the intersection its about 400 metres to the Olympic Archery Field … catch a look at a bunch of would-be “Robin Hoods” in “bow and quiver” action (not a skerrick of Lincoln green in sight though, I’m afraid!).

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¹’Armory History: The Military Magazine’, (Sydney Olympic Park Authority), www.sopa.nsw.gov.au. During WWII the US Navy Pacific arm had its own ammo depot at the Armory, ‘Newington Armory’ (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newington-Armory
 
² these include dioxins (DDT, pesticides and herbicides), hydrocarbons, lead, heavy metals, asbestos, benzenes and phenols, Sharon Beder, ‘… And what the tourists will not see’, Sunday Age, 18 June 2000

³ Haslams Creek is heavily polluted with toxins (especially dioxins) as are all of the waterways and wetlands around Homebush Bay. Largely this is a direct result of chemical pollution by the Union Carbide/Timbrol Rhodes Plant between 1949 and 1976. The giant chemicals manufacturer poured the waste by-products of dioxins as well as other toxic landfill along the shoreline of the Bay. This practice (unbelievably) was sanctioned by the Maritime Services Board on the grounds that it “reclaimed stinking wetlands for a useful industrial purpose”. Consequently the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1994 ranked Homebush Bay as one of the five worst dioxin hotspots in the world, ‘A race against toxins’, The Irish Times, 19 August 2000.