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.