In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.
Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.
In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.
The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.
The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.
I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.
A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.
The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.
Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.
Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.
When I first saw it on the map I thought I’d misread it: Grand Flaneur Beach. The beach was on the shore of the lake at the edge of Chipping Norton, the location marked with a green pin with a beach umbrella inside it. It seemed unlikely for a number of reasons, firstly for being a beach far from the ocean, and secondly being named “flâneur” (but without its circumflex accent hat over the ‘a’) a word which brings to mind images of 19th-century Parisian dandies rather than the south western suburbs of Sydney. A flâneur is an urban stroller, someone with no particular place to be, for whom just being out observing is a full occupation. What kind of beach would a flâneur – a grand one at that – give their name to?
The place known as Chipping Norton is an area of land enclosed by Tucoerah/ Georges River, the river that divides Dharug land to the north of the waterway, from Dharawal land to the south. The river curves around, turning back on itself, and at the turn it swells out into a lake, inside which are a number of small islands. The river has flowed for thousands of years, but the lake is only a few decades old. In the mid-twentieth century, the land was extensively mined for sand, and by the 1970s resembled a “bomb-blasted” scene, scarred by the disused pits of the sand mines. A plan was drawn up to flood the area, and transform it to what the Minister for Public Works in 1987 decreed would be “an aquatic wonderland of the west”.
This wonderland was quiet in winter. It was the end of June when I visited, a time when the days were cold and short, leading up to the shortest day of the year. The city was waking up a little from the first wave of the pandemic and a few people were out, but those who were kept their distance from each other. I turned off from the streets of sensible brick suburban houses and into the parkland. Grand Flaneur Beach is marked by a plain, solid road-sign, pegged into the ground on a small clearing amid the lawn that leads down to the lake.
I walked down to the water’s edge, to the strip of sand churned by footprints. I’d read that sometimes bull sharks swim up into the lake to breed, and I imagined I might see a fin above the water, gliding along, although this is a rare event, and there were only ducks to be seen on the surface on this afternoon. The lake was calm, a plain, but peaceful place to be. I sat on the lawn looking over it, pouring out a cup of tea from a thermos. As I put a slice of the lemon cake I’d brought with me onto a plate I heard an unfamiliar sound, and looked up.
The buzz overhead was a light plane flying over, after having taken off from the nearby Bankstown Airport. It had been a while since I’d noticed a plane, it being months into the travel bans, and I sat and watched the plane progress over the blue canvas of the sky until my view of it was blocked by the trees. As I watched the plane, a myna bird hopped up and started to peck at the cake, bold with the experience of many Grand Flaneur Beach picnics.
Why was the beach called this? There was nothing I could detect that solved the mystery. Who was the grand flâneur? Was it me? As much as I liked to think so, the truth was otherwise.
Grand Flaneur was a horse. A champion stallion, winner of all the major races, including the Melbourne Cup, and unbeaten upon his retirement from racing in 1881. Grand Flaneur was owned by the politician and horse-racing-enthusiast William Long, who established racing stables here, and gave the place its colonial name of Chipping Norton. The stables and racecourse that still operate at Warwick Farm had their beginnings in those days. William Long loved horses and horse-racing, but apparently he did not much like women, and it is said that he didn’t even allow women to come onto this Chipping Norton property that he held by the river.
But, well, there I was. Sitting by the side of an artificial lake, by a beach that is named after a racehorse. I was thinking about being a flâneur, about walking and observing, as the bird pecked at my cake, and another plane buzzed over above. The plane brought me back to thoughts of the pandemic and all that had changed in the months preceding me coming there. As the fear and the changes had taken hold people had asked me how this time would affect my investigations of Sydney. I wondered this too, and I still do. But I know that I’m attracted to quiet, unusual, and underpopulated places, the kind that persist despite the city changing around them, or that are hidden in plain sight, yet are not often given attention. These are the places I go in search of, and even in difficult, restricted times, they are to be found.
When I started Mirror Sydney in 2012 it was with a love for the lesser-known place and stories of the city and suburbs. These exist in endless numbers, far too many of them to know or capture comprehensively. From the infinite number of minor Sydney stories, this is one of my favourites.
In 1939 Sydney had a shortage of onions. A period of drought had affected the Victorian crop, and in order to fulfil the demand for the 20, 000 tonnes of onions consumed by the city every year, imports became necessary. Most of the imported onions came by boat from Japan or Egypt.
One of the shipments of onions from Egypt arrived in July 1939. They had been on a longer than expected journey as the ship they were originally transported on, the Aagtekerk, had run aground off the Indian coast. Another ship, the Algenib, took the cargo, including the 8000 bags of onions, and continued on to Australia.
By the time the Algenib arrived in Fremantle, something was wrong with the onions. Many had become “rotten and pulpy” and “gave off an offensive stench”. In Fremantle the dock workers refused to dispose of the more rotten of the onions unless they received higher pay, a request that was grudgingly granted. With the most rotten of the onions disposed of, the shipment continued to Sydney.
By the time the ship reached Sydney the remaining onions were rotting. The Newcastle Sun reported the arrival of the Algenib into Sydney and passengers hurrying away from the ship, which smelt like a “fermenting pickle factory”. What was to be done with the 400 tonnes of condemned onions?
Penguin Ltd. salvage company came to the rescue. In 1939 they had bought five obsolete warships which they were in the process of stripping and preparing to scuttle outside the Sydney Heads. One of these ships, the Stalwart, was ready to be towed out to sea and wrecked, and so it was decided that the ship and the onions would be sunk together.
The bags of onions were stacked onto the Stalwart, piled up in the mess hall, stuffed into the cabins and packed around the funnel. Before dawn on July 22st the Stalwart was towed out from Darling Harbour by two of Penguin Ltd’s tugboats, towards the ship graveyard off the coast of Sydney. 20 miles out from Sydney Heads the seacocks were opened and a the ship detonated, sinking with its odorous cargo to the sea floor below.
This, everyone thought, was the last of the onions.
Two weeks later, on the morning of August 3rd, Maroubra locals were greeted with an unusual sight. Onions were washing up on the beach, thousands of them, and piling up on the shore. The Commonwealth Health Department were in dismay, as a year earlier they’d performed a test to chart how far debris needed to be dumped to prevent it returning to shore. The onions were more persistant than the red sticks the Health Department had used in their test and had, with the assistance of strong north-east winds, returned.
“Onions washed ashore” reported the Sydney Morning Herald, “fears for other beaches”. Coogee and Bondi residents readied themselves for the onion tide. Back in Maroubra people were salvaging the best of the onions for sale: there was still an onion shortage at the time, after all. The Department of Health declared that, if the onions were in good condition, they could be legally traded.
One of the more unusual sights on Maroubra beach today is the large Rubiks cube painted on a concrete block above the stormwater drain outlet. As delightful as it is, perhaps there could have been a more historically appropriate object chosen as a beach decoration.
My Sculpture by the Sea entry for next year, dear readers.
The creek first appears off Salisbury Road, beyond a patch of unkempt grass. Ivy trails down into the concrete channel, where a stream of milky stormwater flows north towards the harbour. On one side of it are light industrial buildings, once jam and ginger beer manufacturers, now offices. On the other side is Cardigan Street and its rows of small, brick houses. The creek runs covertly between their back fences and the back walls of the old factories.
Creeks cut through the Sydney suburbs, tracing out seismographic patterns. They are an enduring feature of the landscape, even if, like Johnstons Creek, they have become a stormwater drain. Johnstons Creek still follows roughly the same path as it did before the land was cleared and the streets constructed. In Sydney it is the water which has determined the topography, the erratic outline of the bays and inlets of the harbour. Creeks form boundaries and often a suburb’s borders will run along the path of a creek.
Annandale is enclosed by two creeks, Johnstons and Whites. Both now are concrete channels which drain stormwater into the harbour, running behind back fences, or through strips of parkland, until they reach Rozelle Bay. Of the two creeks Johnston is the longest and more visible. For years I lived very close to it, near where it crosses Parramatta Road. I took solace in its persistence. It seemed unlikely there would be a creek running through the cluttered, concrete environs of Parramatta Road. The creek ran down behind the 24 hour McDonalds, where fights broke out in the trash-strewn carpark. It passed under the road and then down underneath the junkyard at the end of my street, where there was an ever shifting configuration of discards.
Today I am determined to follow the creek down to the bay, keeping close as I can to its path. I stand on the small concrete footbridge behind Cardigan Street, watching the water rushing underneath. It’s a hot day, with screeching cicadas and searing sun. The heat seems to flatten everything. On the nearby street corner men are smoothing new pavement, carefully scoring the edges, trusting the sun to dry the concrete before anyone comes to scratch in their name.
At the end of Cardigan Street is the thunderous traffic of Parramatta Road. When the road was a dusty, but busy, thoroughfare in the 1840s there was a toll gate here at the creek. Now most of the cars cross it without knowing it is even there: the only sign is a small metal plaque on the footpath near the fence, and a cracked “Municipality of Petersham” marker inlaid into the cement.
I cross Parramatta Road and I head down the alleyway to the junkyard. It is still as odd as ever, there are sections of shipping container marked with messages, “White Wolf”, “Blood Storm”, beside the cabin of an old ute up on pallets. I step through a gap in the building site fence to walk up to the arch that overlooks the creek. This had always been a spooky place, this dead end between two old warehouses. The warehouse on the Camperdown side still stands, but on the Annandale side the lot is now a pile of rubble with tall weeds growing up out of it, the remains of the foundations still marking out where the shopfronts used to be.
The path ends at an archway sealed by metal bars. Here the Parramatta Road traffic above is loud but invisible. There’s no one around, only a scruffy black and white stray cat that stares from behind a pile of rusted metal. I put my face to the bars to look down at the water running below. The cool air rushes up to my face from the cavern of wet stone.
From here the creek runs underneath the junkyard path, which I follow along behind a row of houses. One of these I remember as having psychedelic flowers painted all over the side wall, but it is now a sensible white. Dry leaves crackle under my footsteps and the ravens make their see-saw calls from the trees above.
The other side of the junkyard path is also a deserted dead end. Below the fence here the concrete creek channel re-emerges. This section is the easiest to access while still being hidden from view, so it is a haunt of graffiti writers, and the concrete is crowded with tags. But unless I want to follow their lead and climb down into the creek I have to take the long way around. I go through the warehouse back streets towards the forboding, windowless concrete compound that used to be owned by the Commonwealth Bank. When, years ago, I lived in a sharehouse near here sometimes we’d wonder: is that where they kept the gold? Now, like many of the old warehouses nearby, it’s a self storage place, full of oddments and archives.
I’m glad I didn’t hop down into the channel and follow it along, because around the next corner I would have met a group of plumbers and Sydney Water engineers. They are investigating something to the side of the creek, one of the many pipes that drain into it along its route. To them, this is known as “Stormwater Channel No. 55” and forms part of the city’s vast network of drains and channels. They talk for a while and then, their business concluded, a plumber and a Sydney Water technician stand on either side of the stream and shake hands across it.
The channel is wider here. The water slowly gathers force and grows in size as it moves towards the harbour. On either side are tangles of athsma weed and drifts of ivy and wire fencing. The brightly coloured tags continue. Among them are caricatures and faces, a fox holding a syringe full of purple paint, a wizard with a bong. Every gap contains a scribble.
On the other side of Booth Street the mournfully named Orphan School Creek joins the flow of water. The streams meet behind what was once the Children’s Hospital and now is a residential complex. Leading up to the apartment buildings is a set of stairs through a drift of large stones and pebbles. This landscaping is relatively new but has been there for long enough for people to mess with it, stacking the stones into cairns.
This area was once eucalypt forest and the creek a natural freshwater stream running over rocks at the bottom of a gully. The Cadigal and Wangal people lived here, hunting in the forest, fishing in the bay. But by the 1790s this landscape had already changed as the land was cleared by convict labour. Before it was subdivided in the late 19th century, the Johnston estate occupied the area in between Whites Bay and Johnstons Creeks. In some areas of the estate the bushland had regrown, and by the time English economist Stanley Jevons lived in Annandale in 1855, he found a path over Johnstons Creek was more favourable than dusty Parramatta Road.
“…the day before yesterday I found a delightful way to the town through woods and dales instead of along a dusty road. I start off in the wood at our back door, and walk through close tall gum-trees and over picturesque rocks for a full mile, when I come to a stream, an inlet of the harbour; this is crossed by a bridge formed of a large gum-tree which has been blown down and fallen across it, a long row of bullocks’ skulls being laid in the mud as stepping-stones on one side: the view here along the stream is also quite pretty, at least to Australian eyes.”
I like to think of Stanley Jevons hopping from bullock skull to bullock skull in the marshy ground around the creek. I doubt, however, he’d think the concrete drainage channel that would replace the creek as pretty, nor the spraypaint inscriptions on its sides. Despite its lack of prettiness, there is something peaceful about following the path of the creek. It forms a secret passageway between the streets, cutting through underneath the roads, going underground, re-emerging.
Like Jevons, when I lived in Annandale I often walked along Johnstons Creek. My favourite part of the journey was encountering the aqueduct. It was built as part of the sewerage system in the late 19th century and has the distinction of being the first reinforced concrete structure built in Australia. It stretches across the valley like the spine of a gigantic dinosaur, bleached white by the sun.
The aqueduct appears at the back of the Glebe PCYC. Chairs are set up in one of the arches, their legs chained to the nearby fence. Then it passes over the creek, high up on concrete pylons. On Nelson Street, at the aqueduct’s western limit, there is a mural painted on the wall beside it. It is based on a photo of the aqueduct from the time of its construction.
It’s striking how bald the land looks, how blank, the foreground strewn with rubble. The overall effect, enhanced by the grainy black and white photograph, is of a Victorian suburb being constructed on the moon. When Annandale was subdivided and allotments sold in the 1870s it was described by the auctioneers as a “model township”, with “no back lanes” and “the best of drainage”. This distinguished it from the cramped and unhealthy slum areas of The Rocks and Surry Hills and accounts for its wide streets and scattering of grand buildings.
The creek passes underneath The Crescent. By now the channel is even wider, although the water through the middle is still only a trickle. The tags and graffiti have disappeared and the only decorations on the concrete are the streams of water which flow down from the stormwater pipes. On the north side is the building site where the Harold Park Paceway used to be, and now cranes and scaffolds attend the construction of the new development. The Glebe tram sheds, once a derelict wonderland, are barricaded with fences. The access road is presided over by a security guard sitting under a tree, who breaks up the monotony of the day by nodding to everyone who walks past.
There aren’t many people out on this hot day. An elderly man swaddled in clothes, long sleeves, long trousers, a hat, gloves. Joggers with expressions of masochistic vigour. A dog walker with a Griffin Bruxellois, a pug, and a terrier panting at the end of their leads. Althought he’s not out today, this is the territory of Mark, Sydney’s most famous, and happiest, dog walker. When I used to walk here often I’d see him with his cadre of large dogs, telling everyone he passes that Jesus loves them. His basic message is along the lines of “You’re beautiful! Sweet Jesus loves you!”, with endless variations on this theme. He could be counted upon for a unique compliment: “the only person more handsome than your boyfriend is Sweet Jesus!”
The railway viaduct, a long stretch of brick archways, crosses the creek and runs through the park. The arches closest to the oval have been enclosed to form rooms: the Glebe Hockey Club has had its headquarters here since 1960, and now the Big Fag Press and the Glebe Men’s Shed reside here also. Other past uses of the arches include housing a flock of sheep, which were used to trim the grass on the oval. At night they were barricaded in under the arches. Now the this area is mostly the domain of dogs. Under the arch nearest the dog park is a dog memorial wall, with inscriptions for Dougal and Precious, Rasta and Kayne: King of the Park.
Behind the rail line is an overgrown patch of land. The pathway through it, alongside the viaduct, is known as “The Street With No Name”. This is said to be one of Sydney’s most haunted sites. There have been a number of murders here since the 1960s, the bodies found in the undergrowth around the pathway. More benignly, the ghost of a man who was hit by a train when trying to save an injured possum is also said to stalk the nearby railway tracks.
On the other side of the viaduct the fences end and it is easy to step down over the low wall and into the concrete channel. I step over the mossy mud and towards the water. I’ve been following it for an hour or more but this is the first time I’ve been close enough to touch it. But I don’t do this. The water is cloudy, with bubbles of scum on the surface, run-off from last night’s rain.
The bay water and sediment is contaminated by heavy metals after decades of industry. From the 1830s noxious industries like the Glebe Island abbatoir, tanneries and soapworks were established around Rozelle Bay. The terrible smell from the abbatoir, and the offal dumped in the bay was increasingly cause for complaint and it closed in 1915. After these industries were gone the area where the park is now was timber yards, before these were closed in the 1970s. Plans to build a large marina were raised then scrapped, after strong community opposition, and the foreshore has been parkland since 1988.
I walk along the edge of the creek until I come to where it meets the bay. There are clumps of black oyster shells on either side of the inlet, and at the point where the waters merge the colours shift from grey to green. Once this was a landscape of mangroves and mudflats. There are still vestiges of this environment, a mangrove restoration area on one side of the creek mouth and on the other side, a small strip of sand. The sand is patterned with bird footprints like arrows pointing haphazardly across the soft mud. There are more clumps of oyster shells here and the expected kinds of rubbish, plastic packets, a condom, a split and sodden orange. Once I remember looking down into the water here and seeing a dead rat and a passionfruit floating together, a surrealist pairing that at the time seemed a profound environmental message.
I look up across the bay, past the wading ibis at the end of the sandbar, to the cars travelling over the Anzac Bridge. I’m not the only one on the water’s edge. Along the wall solitary people are sitting, at a respectful distance from each other. I’m tempted to think that it’s peaceful here, though I change my mind when I take a moment to listen. The roar of the traffic, planes going overhead, the mad laugh of kookaburras from one of the fig trees. It’s not exactly a peaceful place, but it is a contemplative one. I retreat to the shade and watch the cars travelling over the bridge. Beyond it, floating in the sky near the Harbour Bridge, I’m surprised to see an airship. I blink in case it’s just something floating in my eye but no, it’s like 1986 and the Swan Premium Lager, or the Tooheys blimp is gliding across the sky (except this time it’s advertising Appliances Online).
Across the bay is the superyacht shipyard and beside it a yard with older boats. The old pilot boat John Oxley, built in 1927, its faded red hull is marooned alongside a ferry, a restaurant boat and other miscellaneous craft. Behind the boatyards is the ruin of the White Bay power station, with its two tall chimneys and hulking turbine hall. Almost all of this scene will change in the coming years. The Bays Precinct Urban Transformation Program has plans to regenerate the bay areas, including the power station and the land along the waterfront.
I move along, following the water’s edge. There is a stretch of rocks then a small beach, where a dog wades into the water to retrieve a ball then stands in the shallows, chewing it. The wheezey squeak of the ball in between the dog’s teeth makes a satisfying sound. Beyond the beach there’s a fence and I can go no further. There’s another shipyard here and then a vacant lot, its fence hung with homemade Merry Christmas banners made by Maurice the window washer, who is pacing up and down between the cars in his Santa outfit.
I stop here, looking out over the bay a final time. There had been a junkyard here once, called the Thunderbird, run by a man from Oklahoma. It had a weird and miscellaneous collection of things and the one time I was brave enough to go in there I was drawn to a cardboard box among some rusty machinery. Inside there were half a dozen small brown puppies, which all turned their heads to blink up at me.