52 Journeys, Australia: No 2, Broken Bay, Part 1

by | Feb 15, 2021 | Beach, Architecture, Travel, 52 Journeys

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So, you know how in 2019 I said I was going to start a new project to explore Australia? And I’ve only made one entry since then? Hmm. I have thought of canning the whole idea; even without Covid rearing its ugly head last year, I knew it would be tricky (my work, Coco in her final years of school, my poor old dad in the late stages of wretched Parkinson’s, etc, etc). But I don’t want to give up quite yet. I really, really want to explore this incredible country of ours. What about, I thought, if I fashion a second entry made up of a few trips I’ve made over the last six months to the Broken Bay area in Sydney’s north.

I started going up there in the second half of last year because I was craving escape and being in nature – especially water – in a way I’ve never done before.

Last year’s Black Lives Matter movement had also reignited my interest in Australia’s Indigenous people and our country’s recent dark history. Reading Julie Jansen’s novel Benevolence, and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, both set around the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay in the early 1800s, made me intensely curious about that part of Sydney. I’ve never been up the Hawkesbury but I was familiar with Broken Bay, in particular Pittwater. I knew it only as a beautiful place, not one where so much violence had taken place only 200 odd years ago – really not that long ago. I wanted to see it again with ‘new’ eyes.

So, while it’s not nearly as far away as I’d hoped for my second journey, I’m making Broken Bay No 2 in my 52 Journeys, Australia project, combining both my curiosity about the area’s past as well as my craving for escaping the city and being near water. It’s also a pragmatic choice, what with Covid still impacting travel and the fact that Coco is in her final year at school (can you believe it?!) and I don’t feel I can stray far from home.

We begin with my first brief trip up there, a recce to see what I could see, on a sunny Saturday in late August last year. After over an hour’s drive from the city, I headed first for the ocean side of Palm Beach to stretch my legs and wander around the rocks for a while.

(And a note about the various illustrations in this post that I’ve married some of my images up with, as diptychs: This marrying up of two images was my so called ‘signature’ style for my previous 52 Suburbs projects, and it’s something I enjoy doing. But this time I’m using illustrations, maps and etchings that I’ve found in various old books; I love old works like these and I just thought it would be fun. Fun is good!)

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Palm Beach rock-hoppers

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I respectfully disagree

When I turned around to head back to the car, I noticed the sky over the headland was filled with smoke, turning the water an eerie colour.

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where there’s smoke, there’s fire – but where?

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By the time I got over the Pittwater side of Palm Beach, it became clear where the smoke was coming from – Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park was on fire.

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peaceful Pittwater no more

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despite the smoke, it was business as usual

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view of the fire from what must be one of Palm Beach’s oldest houses

I met a local firie, David, down at the wharf. He told me it was a hazard reduction burn and that it was all under control. While it looked anything but, he explained that they based it on wind direction and it was all going to plan. I wanted to get closer so I jumped on the next ferry to Patonga to do a round-trip.

all eyes were on the fires on the ferry ride to Patonga

you can just see the firies down the bottom on West Head Beach

David, weary after his shift

I was totally captivated by the fire, wondering if it was a good or bad fire in terms of how it was affecting the trees and wildlife, and thinking about the way white Australia deals with fire versus the Indigenous cultural burns.

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imagine the view of the burning bushland from that chopper

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hope they got the memo

everyone on the ferry seemed pretty nonchalant about the raging inferno

Broken Bay was filled with smoke

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as we headed back from Patonga, you could see the huge plume of smoke rising over Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

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it looked like a volcano had exploded

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what would they have thought?

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or maybe not

I felt like I was looking back at the end of the world

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not your average sunset

As David the firie had promised, it did all go to plan that day – I left when the fire was still raging but you could tell it was diminishing.

About a month later, I signed up for a guided walk in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park led by an Aboriginal elder, Laurie Bimson. I wanted to see how the fire had affected the landscape as well as learn from Laurie who’s passionate about helping white Australians understand Aboriginal culture better – in particular, how Indigenous Australians care for country.

I didn’t know it at the time but Laurie is a descendent of Bungaree, the respected Aboriginal man who acted as a mediator between the British colonists and his own people in the late 1700s, early 1800s. He moved to Sydney after conflicts with white settlers on the Hawkesbury River and went on to do incredible things.

Laurie Bimson, a descendent of Bungaree

an engraving of Laurie’s ancestors

To begin with, Laurie took us through the bush and showed us the famous ‘Red hands’ artwork, thought to be over 2,000 years old.

Laurie shows us how his ancestors made the artwork, Red Hands, by using their hand as a stencil and blowing red ochre over it

2,000 year old Aboriginal artwork, ‘Red Hands’

Along the way, Laurie collected white ochre from the ground and and added water to make a paste for us to paint on our face. “Ochre is country”, Laurie explained, “and when you’re connected to country, you see and feel more.” He said it was similar to footballers who pick up a bit of dirt and rub it in their hands before a match. It connects you to the earth.

Laurie uses traditional tools to make face paint

“When you’re more connected to country – and ochre is country – you see more.”

So how did the landscape look after the fire? There were parts that looked burnt out but they would suddenly give way to completely green, unaffected areas. I asked Laurie what he thought about this particular hazard reduction. “They did a good job, it’s a good burn, what we call a cool burn. They didn’t damage the bush. Within weeks the Xanthorrhoeas were coming up, seeds were opening. The burn they did after it at North Head though was terrible, it killed the bush, it’ll take years for it to recover. But this one was good.”

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where the fire stopped

new life – seeds like these need fire to open

These first few trips made me even more curious about Aboriginal life. It’s a culture that’s literally in our own backyard, but one that I know so little about. It’s incredible to think that Aboriginal people lived here 60,000 years ago. 60,000 years! (And that only 200-ish years ago, it all changed for them, almost overnight. Can you imagine?) Indigenous Australians had – have – so much knowledge about the land, how to care for it, how to get what they need from it without buggering it up.

Anyway, that was my first two little trips to Broken Bay. More to come.