Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.
For most of the 20th century Pyrmont was an industrial area of factories and warehouses. By the end of the of century, though, a period of desertion and dereliction had set in. Few people lived in Pyrmont and most of the industrial buildings were empty. In 1992 the most striking of these, the Aztec-inspired, Walter Burley and Marion Griffin-designed garbage incinerator, was demolished. Now, as with most of Pyrmont’s former industrial sites, an apartment building stands where it used to be.
Much of the new Pyrmont still has the feeling of walking around in an architectural model. Crossing a square of lawn that provides a patch of green space for the residents in the high-rises the surrounding buildings are sharp, rectilinear. I can sense I am walking through a changed and charged landscape, although this settles oddly with the lack of other people in this space so carefully designed to be populated.
There is one place in Pyrmont which hasn’t changed though, at least not since the 1980s. The Terminus Hotel on Harris Street is a ghost presence, its multiple doorways suggesting it was once a place people crowded in and out of. But now, as it has been for decades, no one enters and no one leaves. Ivy has consumed more and more of its exterior so it seems more a living thing, a huge overgrown tortoise, than an empty building.
The name “Terminus” came from its proximity to the last tram stop on the Pyrmont line, but since the building’s abandonment it has become a fitting name for a place of suspended time. Above the tiles on the facade are fading, hand-painted ads for Tooths and Reschs, a painted glass of beer hovering beside the windowsill, and a banner proclaiming “The Big Event” This Week…
The Terminus has been waiting a long time for its next big event, and finally it is imminent. The hotel is up for sale, after being owned since the 1980s by the Wakils, the couple notorious for owning multiple city properties which have become increasingly more derelict through disuse. They steadfastly repelled squatting and productive uses of the vacant buildings, which have remained consistently vacant. These city-fringe properties became time-capsules of 20th century Sydney, the industrial and post-industrial city of warehouses and storehouses and workingman’s pubs. Now they are being sold one by one.
Inside the Terminus the circular bar, from the days of propping up six o’clock swill drinkers, has a thick layer of dust, and the paint peels off the walls. There is a different time-scale at work in here, dominated by the gradual processes of material decay. The smell of old plaster and damp leaks from under the doors out into the street.
As I peer through the windows of the Terminus a group of people on the other side of the road watch me. They’re sitting on a bench outside the Pyrmont Point Hotel, an older pub than the Terminus, but renovated and operating as a bar and bistro. This pub was originally known as the Land’s End, from the days when Pyrmont was a remote place at the edge of Sydney. Drinkers there must see a lot of people skirting the Terminus, peering in the windows, wondering and speculating, a number which will surely only increase since the announcement of its sale.
I leave the Terminus and walk back along Harris Street, passing a steep, empty lot, very overgrown, sealed up with a fence of sandstone pillars and corrugated iron. I take a path which leads behind a row of townhouses. It zigzags up towards the top of the ridge. Up here there is a mixture of new and old terrace houses interrupted by a disused parking lot, the parking spaces inscribed with the initials TR. The lot stretches out, a place of pause. Thick tufts of grass grow through the cracked tarmac like little furry monsters.
The view from here is of the city as a construction site. Cranes spike up into the sky, a tower at Barangaroo has numbers on the concrete levels like a counting game: 67, 68, 69, going up. Sydney, with its topography of ridges and headlands, has many vantage points where you can observe the city, but looking at it from a deserted, overgrown place is different from looking from somewhere deliberate. Standing in this disused lot, surrounded by empty parking spaces with the wind rustling the grass, the city’s drive towards reinvention feels tempered by its past spaces, its intermediary spaces. Something of the carpark’s transience rubs off on the city, which also seems impermanent, a kind of mirage.
Waiting to cross Redfern Street, I look up at the post office clock tower. Since writing about suburban clocks I’ve been noticing them everywhere. Once you start paying attention to an element of the urban landscape, whatever it be – house names, closed-down video stores, boarded-up buildings – they appear with sometimes alarming frequency. It’s all there, waiting to be noticed.
The most common lamentation about old post office clocks around Sydney is that they are neglected and many have stopped, the hands fixed at a permanent 3:45 or 9:20. I’d had it in the back of my mind that the clock on Redfern post office was one of these. The building no longer houses the post office, which has relocated to a small shop across the street, leaving the grand Victorian building to other, more profitable businesses. Things have changed a lot in Redfern over the last decade, cafes and mid century modern furniture stores have appeared along Botany Road, houses on Eveleigh Street, once a no-go zone for the young professionals and middle class families now said to be attracted to the suburb, rent for more than $1000 a week. With all this change the post office clock, under its verdigris dome, is struggling to cope.
I check the time on my phone – it’s 3:30. I don’t expect the Redfern clock to be correct, rather to be halted at a random hour. I get a surprise as while it doesn’t show the right time it is not stopped at all, the opposite in fact. The minute hand is moving fast, keeping pace with the seconds. I watch as it races through 1 o’clock, then 2, then 3, onwards into the future. Like in the 1960 film of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, days and night passed me by, the sun arced across the sky, flowers opened and shut, snails raced past, small buildings were replaced by tall ones, then inexplicably all the people fled, the buildings fell into disrepair, wild creatures took over, and Redfern turned into a forest, as the hands of the clock continued to spin.
Most of the water I’ve drank in my life comes from Warragamba Dam, or more accurately Lake Burragorang, the lake behind the dam which holds a vast supply of water, enough to support a city. Its rising and falling water levels are monitored like vital signs, yet to many people who live in Sydney, Warragamba exists only in the abstract. It’s far to the west, surrounded by farmland and bushland, and doesn’t seem part of the city at all. Although it is roads that are usually regarded as the cities circulatory system, it is the hidden networks of pipelines underneath it that truly keep it alive.
At the entrance to the dam is a water tower, or “spheroid reservoir” as it is referred to on the map, which sprouts up from the ground like a smooth concrete mushroom. Other unusual structures lie inside the gates. At the entrance to the visitor’s centre a large valve is on display, weird as a piece of space junk. It is one of the dam’s original valves, a three tonne contraption painted a bright, shiny green. It was once deep inside the dam’s machinery, holding back an immense force of water.
The dam’s concrete structure is familiar to me from its many appearances in the news, but when I started to walk across the dam wall it was the other, lesser broadcast side of it that captured my attention, Lake Burragorang, a calm, deep expanse of water. It stretches out between the hills and appears by all accounts to be a peaceful, natural scene. Yet Lake Burragorang was once the Burragorang Valley, a place with orchards and farms, and predating 19th century European settlement, it was the home to the people of the Gundungurra nation for thousands of years. In their dreaming story, the valley was carved out by a battle between the tiger cat Mirragan and the reptile fish Gurangatch. Now the valley, and the Gundungurra sacred sites and rock art, is hidden underwater.
Burragorang Valley was drowned to create the lake and provide Sydney’s water supply and to this end all the inhabitants of the valley were forced to move in the 1950s. Then all the trees in the valley were cut down and the timber used to construct scaffolding for the dam construction, and the workers’ houses in Warragamba. Some of the buildings in the valley were dismantled, others were left and are now underneath the waters of the lake: farmhouses, the guesthouse where visitors to the valley would stay on holidays. When the water level is low, parts of the town reappear, vehicles, bridges and buildings, although few get to see these traces as the area around the lake is inaccessible to the public.
It is surprising how peaceful it is to walk out across the dam wall. The air smells of eucalyptus and the drone of cicadas is the loudest sound. At the start of the wall is a pillar with plaques on all sides of it, commemorating the engineers and those on the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board, as well as the dedication: “With a tribute to those who devised and those who wrought, this structure, built by the grace of God, is dedicated to the service of mankind.” Another plaque on the side of the dam wall commemorates the workers who died in the construction of it.
Beneath me, under the roadway on the top of the dam, is the thick concrete structure that holds back the waters of Lake Burragorang. Inside the wall is a network of tunnels and chambers, used for monitoring and maintenance. Once the public were able to go on tours inside these tunnels, but they are no longer accessible.
Visiting Warragamba Dam today is a very different experience to how it would have been for the families and school excursions who visited in the decades after its opening in 1960. A suspension bridge, a remnant from the dam’s construction, crossed over the valley in front of the dam, and those who didn’t suffer from vertigo would walk across it and take photographs in front of the dam wall. The bridge was closed in 1987 because of termite damage and then burnt down in the bushfire of 2001.
The supports for the suspension bridge are still visible in the terrace garden, which too is much changed from the neat collection of flower beds, rockeries and ornamental conifers that used to decorate it. Now the garden beds are dry and choked with leaves and bark, and only the hardiest of the plants remain. It is relentlessly sunny and there is little escape from the shade. A guy wearing only a pair of shorts puffs his way up the terrace garden stairs, his little giggling blonde daughter on his shoulders, but otherwise there is only a security guard snoozing on a chair underneath a sunshade.
The face of the dam is the familiar row of gates and a steep, concrete drop. Far below is a pool of greenish water. It is strange to think of the waters of the lake being held in place by this steep wall. When the lake is full, the gates automatically open and water gushes down. The last time this happened, in March 2012, the dam received a record number of visitors to watch the rush of water. They also saw the strange sight of hundreds of eels sliding tail-first down the dam wall. Long-finned eels that live in Lake Burragorang have migrated thousands of kilometres south from their breeding grounds in the Coral Sea. The juvenile eels swim from the ocean into the river system, and have worked out a route to bypass the dam and reach the lake beyond it, where they live in its depths and grow metres long.
Today only a few wide, slow trickles course down the dam walls, which are patterned in grey brown streaks. Over time the concrete has discoloured, giving it more the appearance of bark, or stone, something organic. Concrete is the city’s fundamental material, but wide expanses of it can provoke a similar feeling of awe to naturally occurring wonders. Despite the immense amounts of labour that went into constructing the dam, its presence is monolithic.
Beside the dam is a newly constructed spillway, which is designed to accommodate the excess water in case of a major flood. It too is a smooth field of discoloured concrete, a patchwork of panels slightly upturned at the end, to slow the rush of water before it plunges down into the gorge below.
The previous Warragamba Dam visitor’s centre included a 1:100 scale working model of the dam, which, the description of the new visitor’s centre explains apologetically, was too fragile and worn out to be transferred to the new one. The new visitor’s centre is above the edge of the lake and while the working model has been replaced with an interactive exhibition, there were plenty of oddities in cabinets, instruments used to construct the dam which, the exhibition informed me, was one of the last significant civil engineering projects designed without the use of computers. Instead they used slide rules and planimeters, examples of which rested reverently behind glass. There was also a cabinet of local wildlife, many of them in preserving fluid inside bottles and jars: an eel in a long, tall jar, red bellied black snakes and bandy bandy snakes in IXL jam jars.
Near the snake cabinet, footage of the dam under construction was being played on a screen. In the faded yellows of old colour film engineers examine core samples of rock and men pour the interlocking concrete blocks that make up the dam wall. Their industrious movements play on repeat and the dam is built over and over. It took twelve years to construct and during this time the dam workers lived in Warragamba, a small township with fibro cottages and numbered streets, a few kilometres away.
It is Australia Day and the town is quiet. The buildings that make up the shopping village are small with awnings that overhang the footpath. For every shop that is operating there is one that is for lease or boarded up: the old, pale green tiled butchery or the Lolly Shop with its wild west typography and 1980s brick facade.
Most of the shops in Warragamba are closed for the day, and the main street, which loops around a playground with picnic tables and gum trees, has a mood of deep stillness. Occasionally something happens to rupture the quiet. A woman gets out of her car, struggling with a bunch of green and yellow helium balloons inside a plastic bag, before disappearing into one of the stores. An old, arthritic white pit bull hobbles up the street and stands outside the takeaway shop, as if waiting for an order. The takeaway is one of the few stores open. It is the kind of place that sells chips, burgers and random grocery items, toilet paper: canned fruit, packets of plastic soldiers.
It is similarly quiet in the residential streets. The average house in Warragamba is a fibro worker’s cottage, constructed in the 1940s or 1950s. At the time they were built the houses looked stark in the newly cleared landscape, but over time gardens have grown up around them and each house has developed a character to reflect its inhabitants. Some still have concrete lawn ornaments that must have been there for decades, the kangaroos and koalas that were popular in the 1950s.
Under a big tree on a front lawn an Australia Day picnic is taking place. A family, all wearing Australia flag hats with temporary tattoos stuck to their faces and arms, sit languidly in the afternoon heat and follow my car with their eyes and I drive slowly down the street. Warragamba feels like a country town and I imagine that my unfamiliar car might immediately uncover me as a tourist.
While dam visitors still come through the town, Warragamba’s tourist heyday was in the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s. The dam was a vast, new piece of civil engineering and the source of much pride. Visitors to the dam could cross the suspension bridge and walk through the tunnels inside the dam wall. They could buy postcard folders of views of the dam and the town, souvenir rulers, giant pencils and souvenir spoons.
From 1968 visitors to Warragamba could also visit the African Lion Safari. Lions and tigers roamed free as people drove their cars through the park to observe them. The African Lion Safari was enclosed by a double layer of fencing and as people drove in they were warned by signs:
YOU ARE NOW IN LION COUNTRY.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE EATEN.
There were plenty of signs with reminders to keep the car windows wound up at all times and not to get out of the car, even in the case of breakdown. SOUND HORN, DO NOT GET OUT! At one of the highlights of the day at the African Lion Safari, feeding time, jeeps painted in zebra stripes distributed large hunks of beef (usually half a cow’s head) to the lions.
The African Lion Safari ran television ads designed to entice Sydney children. The park was a brush with the exotic in the outer suburbs, if only you could get your parents to drive you there. Every time the ad came on I would consider the terror of a lion’s vicious face appearing in the window of my family’s Ford station wagon, although I never had a chance to experience this for real. My parents were nervous about the idea of getting close to wild animals.
The block of land where the African Lion Safari once was is still there, overgrown, its few remaining buildings in ruins and covered in layers of graffiti. The double row of fences still exists, although now it is in many places penetrable. Urban explorers face the fear that there may be a gang of remaining cheetahs and step inside the fence to see what they can find. I think of the snakes in the jam jars at the dam, and I am content to stay on the other side of the fence this time.
Across from where the African Lion Safari once was, in the big corner lot, is a weird collection of objects, dotted among the trees. It’s a strange kind of graveyard. Concrete teepees, rusting playground equipment, the remains of a miniature passenger train, a wishing well with two concrete wizards standing beside it, concrete flowers and animals. Among the objects small bonfires are set up ready for burning. Further back inside the property are many old, grounded cars. The fences have hand painted No Trespassing signs hung from them, but there is no prohibition on speculating that these might be some of the remains of the African Lion Safari.
Among the concrete creatures is a headless lion, a plastic pipe sticking out where its neck used to be. There’s also a bear with one sagging, broken arm: there were bears as well as lions, tigers, and cheetahs at the park. Like many now-closed theme parks, the African Lion Safari has its share of rumours: the escape of lions, a bear that escaped and was shot by a local resident (this incident, reported in the media at the time, is at least true).
At the other end of the lot are decaying fairground rides, the central scaffolding of a small ferris wheel, roundabouts and a rocket, its red and blue paint fading and peeling. The grass and weeds grow up long around them.