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.
After the rows of houses is a wild, overgrown lot. At the corner, where Hollywood Drive turns a sharp right is a section of pale blue fence. The fence is a pattern of square and hexagonal bricks, and along the top is spraypainted in neat black letters:
HAUNTED FUNPARK DEMONS GHOSTS
Then the fence crumbles into rubble, with only an S and a B visible of the rest of the warning. The fence does little but mark the boundary, as in many places it has collapsed or been pulled down. Beyond the fence is mess of broken furniture and fallen real estate signs with optimistic descriptions – walk to the Georges River, elevated site with good access, vendor wants it sold.
The Magic Kingdom Amusement Park closed a decade ago and the land has been for sale for a long time. The park owners sold what rides they could, leaving the giant slide, a giant concrete shoe, a few buildings, and the ghosts.
Sydney’s outer suburbs were once dotted with amusement parks like the African Lion Safari, El Caballo Blanco, Paradise Gardens, Bullen’s Animal World, and the Magic Kingdom. Their tv ads promised adventure, fun and magic, wrapped up in catchy jingles: the early 80s ad for the African Lion Safari culminates in the strange refrain, “it’s scary but nobody cares”. The ad for the Magic Kingdom was soundtracked by the song “Magic” by Pilot, with its ascending refrain: “Oh oh oh it’s magic” evoking the transcendence promised to visitors. The idea of these magical, extraordinary places embedded somewhere not so far away tantalised children from their suburban living rooms.
Most parks had a gimmick: concrete dinosaurs; live lions, tigers and bears; colonial re-enactments; Andalusian horses; circuses with Cossack riders; koalas, but the Magic Kingdom had no exotic drawcards, apart from being situated in Lansvale’s version of California. On Hollywood Drive, past the point where the houses stop, is the Magic Kingdom. Then Hollywood Drive turns and continues to a dead end at Chipping Norton Lake, a drowned quarry fed by the Georges River. The end of the Drive was once the entrance to Dizzyland, known for its cheap rides and the hillbilly nights at its Hollywood Country Music Club. Dizzyland had salvaged some of the Luna Park rides after the 1979 ghost train fire, and herds of old carnival horses were stored there.
There is no sign of Dizzyland today, just a neat golf course with figures in white trousers strolling the green. Opposite these well manicured lawns of the Liverpool Golf Club lies the remains of the Magic Kingdom.
Stepping in through one of the holes in the fence and into the Magic Kingdom I feel a sense of trespass, half thrill, half fear. On this side of the fence the grass has grown high and thick, and the gum trees trail curtains of Balloon Vine, baubled with pale green seed capsules. The palm trees and cacti that were the amusement park plantings mix in with the weeds, and burrs cling to my clothes as I stamp through the long grass.
The grass encroaches on it from either side, but the road that leads around the perimeter of the park is still visible. I follow its faded arrows and traffic directions until I reach the rusty scaffolding of the giant slide. A desire path of flattened grass leads away from the road and down alongside the slide. Viewed from Hollywood Drive, the slide sticks out from the trees like the rippled yellow tongue of a giant. Close up, the scaffolding that supports it is a lacework of crossbeams, an intricate cat’s cradle. High up in the scaffolding two white cockatoos look down at me silently, with none of these birds’ usual boisterousness. There is a temptation to regard them as spirits.
In these abandoned places it is easy to imagine oneself to be one of the last humans alive, picking over the remains of a civilisation. Modern ruins are the delight of urban explorers, who enjoy the sense of finding value in what others have discarded. Abandoned theme parks are particularly resonant places. Empty houses are still domestic, even when they are in ruins. Amusements parks were dreamlike from their conception, and in their abandonment they provide a different kind of fun. To explore the rusting rides, bright paint faded, is to be inside a metaphor of lost childhood innocence.
Other explorations are less philosophical. At the foot of the slide is a pile of plastic bread delivery trays, used in place of mats to ride down the slide by the teenagers who visit the park after dark. The Magic Kingdom has never ceased to be a playground for some. Their names are spraypainted on the edges of the slide, Jared 4 Mel, Ash, DEBT. For local teenagers the slide is a mystical structure, and to climb to the top of it at night and look out across the dark kingdom below is to feel like its monarch.
Across a stretch of matted grass is a derelict house, its windows dirty and smashed. It watches me with its broken eyes in the way of all destroyed houses, and I look away in case I see movement inside it. Its sinister appearance is somewhat tempered by my knowledge of an unusual happening that occurred there. A young man faked his own kidnapping in that house, to avoid telling his parents he had skipped work to spend time with his girlfriend. He called police emergency saying he was tied up inside the empty house and there they found him, bound and gagged by his own hand. Later, in the hospital, he confessed to have staged it all.
The grass twitches with unknown creatures and the sounds of racing motorbikes buzz like huge insects in the distance. A small waterslide choked with weeds is next to the slide, its sign still intact:
The proprietor accepts no liability whatsoever for any injury to any person or for any injury to any property (Howsoever caused.) That is suffered within this establishment.
The legalese of the sign contrasts with the pale blue fibreglass pool it guards, which looks too shallow to cause injury to anyone. In the years since its closure the park’s demise has been furnished with rumours, the most common the story of a child falling to their death from the giant slide. All amusement parks attract these sacrificial myths, but the Magic Kingdom claimed no lives. Its closure was due to the factors which closed the other Sydney amusement parks: dwindling visitor numbers and the rise of public liability litigation. Sydney’s sole theme park disaster has been the Ghost Train fire at Luna Park, an incident which, over time, has multiplied into a general myth and is attributed to other amusement parks also. The escape of lions and a bear from the African Lion Safari in Warragamba in the mid 90s could have been a disaster had local residents not taken it upon themselves to shoot the escapees. By contrast, the most exotic animal at the Magic Kingdom had been a goat that had the distinction of eating anything it was given.
The desire paths dwindle into mud which bleeds black water with every footstep. It soon becomes impossible to go any further. I turn back to the slide and climb through underneath it to get to the stage on the other side. On the broken boards piled underneath are spraypainted messages, “Mullets 4 Life”, a carefully detailed cartoon penis. The stage is rotted through in places and the Pepsi ads on the backboard have faded. A Ginger Meggs with holes where his eyes once were points to the centre of the backboard, which once said Magic Kingdom in fairytale gothic script. The “Magic” board has disappeared, leaving fragments: Proudly Presents…Kingdom’s…Entertainer. I climb up onto the stage as kids receiving prizes and teenagers, working their first job dressed as Batman and Robin for the superhero show, once must have. The wood feels spongy underfoot and I follow the beams as I walk across it, looking out over my audience of weeds.
The stage is small and I feel the confused sense of scale that one experiences returning to childhood houses and playgrounds. The Magic Kingdom in its heyday can only be imagined as it would appear in old photographs, always a little faded and paltry. These memories are only guesses, as I never went to the park when it was open. All I know of it is contained in this ruin, and the myths that circulate about it, which are mostly to do with the ghosts that inhabit it after dark, and the bad luck that will stick to you if you dare to explore it.
Of all of them, my favourite is the legend that it is impossible to approach the giant shoe and kick it. The shoe is the other major ruin, apart from the slide and a few rotting amenities buildings. I turn back along the path to try and make my way towards the shoe. As I do, among the trees I spot a small building with the tiles stripped off the roof. It might have once been a ticket office; a sign is still visible. HAVE YOU, it asks, before a list of suggestions about booking your birthday or Christmas party. Over the list, the words HAD SEX have been spraypainted, underlined ten times. Like the other graffiti in the park, it is strangely polite, almost innocent.
Beside the few scrawls of graffiti, an occasional beer bottle or faded Fanta can, and the trampled down desire paths there are few signs of anyone having been here. The Magic Kingdom is spooky mostly due to its emptiness.
The shoe, a concrete boot with fading red and yellow paint, is on an island in the middle of the lake at the centre of the Kingdom. The lake had been a major feature of the park, traversed by rented paddle boats and rowboats. Now the closer I move towards the lake the marshier the ground, until it is impossibly swampy. The lake has leaked into the surrounding earth so under the grass is the same glistening layer of black mud that stopped me before. I can only observe the shoe from a distance, derelict and inaccessible, unkickable. On the side of the tall, stocky boot are the fading painted figures of Mother Hubbard and her many children, and a cat dreaming the first verse of the nursery rhyme in a thought bubble.
The suburb of Lansvale is a hook of land in between Prospect Creek and Chipping Norton Lake, and much of it was once swampland, the Magic Kingdom included. The swamp is the true spirit of the park, it gathers force in wet weather and softens the ground into black mud. The sturdy boot of the magical shoe is a fitting centrepiece for the swampland and the futility of attempts to transform it. The houses on Knight Street, which back onto one boundary of the Kingdom, are all two storeys high. Residents live on the upper floors, as numerous times the river has broken its banks and floodwaters have swelled, rising to drown the houses’ lower levels. Newspaper articles documenting past floods record the residents’ despair, although some seemed perversely proud of it. “Lansvale is like Texas,” said Mr Stan Leszewicz, whose house was cleaved in two by a tree in a storm in 1990 and the story documented by the Sydney Morning Herald, “We have bigger floods, bigger mosquitoes, bigger everything.”
While Knight St upholds the last frontier of Lansvale civilisation, the Magic Kingdom returns to the wild. Saplings grow through the holes in the rotting stage. A grey heron roosts on Mother Hubbard’s shoe, ducklings swim in a pool atop buckled bitumen. The swamp and its creatures are the inhabitants of the Kingdom now, as it continue to decay.
As I turn back from the shoe I see the flash of a black shape behind some trees ahead of me, and feel a stab of fear. Is it a ghost or someone who lives in the broken house? I move quickly towards one of the gaps in the fence and back to the car. Two more cars are parked in the blocked off side road now, four wheel drives with ads for the Supreme Master Ching Hai on the back and exhortations to “Be Veg Go Green”. A group of people stand near the most recent real estate sign – Great Zoning, Great Block – deep in discussion.
The black shape resolves into a man who looks neither like a ghost nor a denizen of the Kingdom, just a normal man out for a walk. I ask him if he lives nearby and he says that yes, he moved back to the area recently. I point to the DEMONS, GHOSTS warning on the fence but he shakes he head as if it’s nonsense.
“The park closed because it kept flooding,” he says. “And there was a story about a child falling from the slide, and dying,” he adds, as if he feels he has to say it but doesn’t really believe it.
I point to the real estate sign and suggest that maybe the site would become a residential development, as it almost certainly would if it were in the inner suburbs of Sydney.
He laughs and says it isn’t likely. We turn our attention to the rolls of pigeon grey clouds in the north west and I wonder aloud if it is going to rain.
“It’s raining somewhere,” he says. But the rain has yet to reach Lansvale. The sun still glints off the lake inside the Magic Kingdom and illuminates the faded reds of the old electricity boxes that stand at intervals in the nearest corner of the park.
The Be Veg Go Green cars start up and slowly drive away. I say goodbye to the man, who continues his walk up Hollywood Drive. For now it’s quiet, apart from the birds. Occasionally a light plane flies over, on its way out from Bankstown Airport.
I consider the man’s response to my suggestion of a residential development, and realise that my head has been clouded by the narrative of struggle and speculation which surrounds Sydney real estate. The news version of the city casts it as a monster with a ceaseless appetite for land, having expended all which lies within its boundaries. But the suburbs include plenty of wastelands, the further from the centre you go, the more there are.
What was El Caballo Blanco in Catherine Field, near Campbelltown, or the African Lion Safari in Warragamba in the west remain vacant blocks of land, dotted with ruins, promising adventure to those who dare to explore them. Wastelands are sites of failure, but also potential, places to dream in.
Back in the car and on Hollywood Drive, I leave the wild swamplands behind and return to the suburban streets of Lansvale. An elderly man tends his lawn, watched by an immaculately painted concrete kangaroo. A flat green fibro box house is fenced like a compound, its garden decorated with frogs and gnomes. Every yard has at least one such concrete mascot, smaller, domestic versions of the great shoe that lies at the heart of the once Magic Kingdom.
African Lion Safari advertisement from 1981
(Warning: I don’t understand why the need to soundtrack footage of abandoned places with bad music.)