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.