Living Postcard

The train emerges from the tunnel towards Circular Quay station and the darkness outside the windows is replaced by a long, thin panorama, a horizontal slice of sky and water bracketed by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It’s a living postcard, animated by the ferries and the clouds, watched by those waiting on the platform. People lean against the glass barriers to take photos of the harbour, or just gaze out, watching the ever-moving scene in front of them.

I join the throng clogging the top of the steps that lead down to the concourse. I hang back, not in a hurry, and wait until I’m the last to descend. As I walk down, I look above the stairs to where, set high up into the wall, there are ornamental grilles decorated by bronze fish. They have a stranded look to them, a little bit dusty, but with their rainbow sheen still visible.

I always look for them, one of the few decorative features of this station which, since its opening in 1956, has been relentlessly condemned as ugly, interrupting the view of the harbour from the city, and the city from the harbour. The construction of the station and the Cahill Expressway above it was a drawn out and unpopular process. Things came to a head at the 1958 opening of the Cahill Expressway, when despite the premier’s announcement that this was “a striking symbol of Sydney’s growth and maturity”, things did not go as planned.

Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 1958

If Circular Quay station is maligned, the Cahill Expressway is even more so. The railway line and the road above it forms a thick line that cuts across the view, as if it’s a low, wide belt keeping the city in check. There has often been talk of the expressway’s demolition: in 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating even offered the NSW state government the funds to remove it. Yet it remains, visually intrusive, loved by no one, but not entirely without allure. A side-effect of maligned places is that people avoid them, which can, sometimes, twist their atmosphere into something unusual and interesting.

The Cahill Walk is a good example of this. To get to it I move quickly along the Circular Quay promenade, past people munching through pancakes at City Extra and passengers coming off the Manly ferry. Details flash up: a man wearing a t-shirt that says “winter is not coming”; the round bronze discs set into the pavement that commemorate famous writers. I step over A.D. Hope, Barry Humphries, and Kenneth Slessor, until I’m at a grove of palm trees hemmed in by concrete, that surround a glass elevator clamped to the side of the railway line and road above.

I press the elevator call button and soon the doors open in front of me, puffing out a cold, air-conditioned breath in welcome. I step inside, the doors seal me in, and the noise of the quay recedes. I’m inside a bubble, ascending, above the tops of the palm trees now, the view of the Harbour Bridge coming clear the higher up the lift rises.

At the top, the doors behind me open and I turn to face the four lanes of traffic on the expressway. A long, concrete walkway extends beside it like a grey ribbon.

Never, in all the times I’ve been up here, has there been many other people here. It’s one day of popularity is New Year’s Eve: a ballot operates for tickets to watch the fireworks from here. At other times, you might very well have it to yourself. This morning there’s almost no one else but me, apart from an occasional runner jogging by. It’s only a slight change of perspective from the Quay below, but has a completely different mood. If it weren’t for the incessant traffic, and the way the path trembles underfoot when heavy vehicles go by, it would be a tranquil, pleasurable place to be, rather than the exposed and sometimes slightly eerie experience it is to walk here.

The traffic speeds by, having just come off the Harbour Bridge. I watch the intent expressions of people behind the wheels of their cars, notice a man on his motorbike singing as he rides along, and feel the path shudder when a demolition truck goes by, the word CHOMP in orange across the front. On the other side is Warrane, the bay dominated by a gargantuan cruise ship with a steaming funnel like a kettle just come off the boil. The poisonous smell of the diesel fuel drifts across. On the front of the cruise ship is a man in overalls, tethered to a railing above, holding a paint roller on a stick, repainting the ship’s nose. The expanse of fresh white paint follows him as he moves slowly along.

Walking up here, alongside the expressway, is to have a feeling of floating mid-air, looking into the thicket of city buildings to one side and the harbour’s expanse on the other.

Below where I am on the Cahill Walk, the crowds of Circular Quay mill and disperse. Up here I’m alone, with traffic and jackhammering and construction noise filling the air as I look towards the building sites on the city’s edge. Behind them are dozens of office buildings, thousands of windows, each framing a view of the harbour. Anyone looking out of them at this moment would be moving their eyes over the same scene as me, watching the harbour, the ferries, the shifting clouds, that familiar scene, slowly changing. 


Thank you dear readers for following Mirror Sydney in 2018, a busy year for me, with the book out in the world. It was a delight to meet some of you when I had launches and talks, and I look forward to more in 2019.


Johnstons Creek

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.


Map from 1849, when Glebe Island was an island, and before the reclamation of the harbourside land of Rozelle Bay.

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.

Johnstons Plaque

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.

Johnstons Junkyard

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.

johnstons creek athsma weed 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.

Johnstons Aqueduct

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.

aqueduct 2

Image: Leichhardt Library

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!”

johnstons viaduct

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.

johnstons no name

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.

Johnstons Creek

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.


Campaign poster by Susan D. White

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.

johnstons waters edge

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.

johnstons shipyard

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.

Sydney’s Other Tower

The Port Operations tower keeps watch over Sydney Harbour from the furthest point of a remote loop of streets in Millers Point. Whenever I travel over the harbour bridge I look for its severe, concrete presence, imagining it like a relative at a family gathering who says nothing but sees everything.

Follow the tower’s concrete stem to the ground and there is Millers Point, a suburb which exists in a bubble of past time. The furthest most people venture into it is Observatory Hill, a place to have picnics under the fig trees and to look out towards the harbour bridge and Luna Park on the opposite shore. The view steals people’s attention away from the place in which they stand.

I approach Millers Point from Wynyard station, walking out from the high rise-lined streets and crossing underneath the vast concrete sweep of the western distributor. Unseen traffic roars overhead on its approach to the Harbour Bridge. I walk a few blocks along Hickson road, past the new residential developments with names like “the Bond” until the Port Observation tower appears in the near distance. The new buildings end suddenly at a zigzag cut into a sandstone wall, the steps leading up to High street.

After I climb the steep flight of steps it becomes quiet, as if this part of the city is under a bell jar. The roar of traffic and the sounds of construction has faded away. Writing in the early 1970s, Ruth Park described the mood of this area as “drowsy and nostalgic”, and there is still something of this that lingers. It’s a lands-end feeling, the High street houses are the last before the wasteland of the deserted foreshore and then the harbour.


At the southernmost corner of the High street, at the top of the stairs, is a tiny patch of park, with a bench facing out towards the water. Here a group of hospitality workers sit, smoking and discussing their boss. The Port Operations tower, only a few streets away, watches over them as they grind their cigarettes out and creep back towards the cafe or the hotel they must work in on Kent St. I take their place and sit in their smoky wake, watching the High street residents bringing in their recycling bins and sitting on their porches, soaking in the light. It must be a special thing to live in this row of old houses with tin roofs and white wooden balconies, high up on the ridge above the foreshore, at the city’s very edge.

This long row of High St houses were once owned by the Maritime Services Board and were home to the men who worked on the wharves and their families. In the 1980s the Department of Housing took over, a move which ruptured the community and left residents feeling vulnerable. The area’s early 20th century character, preserved by being public housing, plus the harbour views, peaceful now the container wharves are gone, now make Millers Point prime real estate. Recently a number of the larger Millers Point public housing properties were sold off, after leases negotiated by boarding house landladies in the 1980s expired. Uncertainty over the future of public housing here makes the drowsy quiet of the afternoon seem ominous, as if these are its last quiet moments. Change is inevitable: the area below High Street, once the wharves, is awaiting redevelopment into Barangaroo.

One house near the corner is draped in Canterbury Bulldogs paraphernalia, blue and white scarves, flags, posters, cards. This shrine has, at its centre, a real live bulldog, wearing a blue harness to match the rest of the display. The dog lies snoozing in the afternoon sun, half opening its eyes when I walk past. A piece of cardboard is cable tied to the fence, with a warning written in blue texta: BEWARE OF THE DOG. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. WOOF WOOF WOOF.

Further down the street is another message, written on the glass panel of the door in permanent marker: “Do not knock  after 8pm or before 11am. Sleeping hours due to health.” On the porch of another house is a bird cage with two rainbow lorikeets inside, and a bird feeder weighed down with pigeons, which scatter when I approach. On the windowsill of one house is a row of clear crystals, cut into giant gemstones, on another, a Spiderman figurine guards a small potplant. Every house has a detail like this, a clue to the person who lives inside.

Behind the High St terrace houses is a deserted laneway with maidenhair ferns growing from the walls and asthma weed sprouting from the cracks. It is so perfectly cool and still here that it feels like I’ve slipped into a fissure and I am hiding inside the city’s subconscious. To one side is the back of the High street houses with back gates and downpipes, and the other is a sandstone wall, stained with slow channels of water. Very faintly I can hear the sound of a television from inside one of the houses, but otherwise, nothing. It’s an invisible, backstage feeling.

At the end of High street, a block closer to the Port Operations tower, there’s another sliver of park. The park has two big fig trees and a sign describing how “whole streets” disappeared when the cliff between High Street and Hickson road was cut down. There are plenty of ghost streets in this part of Sydney, erased in both the redevelopment of the wharves and with the building of the Harbour Bridge.

It is a sunny day and feels like the first day of spring, although it is still late August. A man and his daughter excitedly plot their afternoon, tearing the wrappers from their ice creams as they cross over the Munn street bridge and pass the Palisade Hotel. The Palisade is a grand structure, a tall brick sentry for the farthest corner of Millers Point, though with its boarded up windows and fading signs, it too seems like a ghost. I walk up past it and turn right onto Merriman street, following the curve of the road. It’s a shock to see the tower at the end of the street, having only ever seen it from a distance. It rises up from the cliff on a smooth concrete stem, capped with a strip of windows around the top, from where hidden controllers watch the harbour. Across from the tower is a row of pastel painted houses with chimneys, wooden shutters, and iron lace balconies, they look small and delicate by comparison.

From Merriman street, the city buildings are invisible. They are obscured by the lie of the land and the row of houses, as if Millers Point has broken away and formed its own island. At the very end of the street are two worker’s cottages, and across from them is the entrance to the tower, a white hatch crawling with ivy, locked behind a high wire fence. A concrete slab with tarnished metal letters labels the tower as the Port Operations and Communication Centre, property of the Maritime Services Board of NSW.  It was built in 1973, just prior to the construction of Sydney Tower (which I will insist on calling Centrepoint until the end of my days) and on close inspection, both towers have a similarly tiled appearance. This is an alternate universe version of Centrepoint, a 70s office block kind of tower. Inside I imagine men with sideburns and skivvies, sipping instant coffee from Maritime Services Board mugs as they peer through telescopes and talk on clunky olive green phones with curly cords. In this world, the houses across the street are inhabited by the grandchildren of wharfies, who have inherited tales of protests and accidents, and whose dreams are full of ships.

Dalgety’s Wool store, where the Port Observation Tower is now. Photo from State Records NSW.

The Port Operations Tower was built on the site of what was once Dalgety’s Wool Store, a huge warehouse that stored bales of wool before it was sent down to the ships at the wharves below. The busy days of the port are long gone, all that remains is a long stretch of tarmac with building materials piled here and there. I look down over it from the top of the cliff, trying to imagine it in both the past and the future. With the Barangaroo development this area will be converted to a park, the shoreline reconstructed to its 1836 shape. In the 360 degree walk-through interactive simulation of the park online, the Port Operation tower remains, rising from the trees. Many of the traces of the area’s history as a wharf, however, will disappear.

For now there is a weird silence in the wharf area below, which could be secrets or could be emptiness. The tower, too, has a great feeling of secrecy about it; I look up and try to glimpse someone inside, but the windows give nothing away. At the base of the tower is a playground. A pirate ship is half submerged in the foam ground covering that’s laid down to cushion falls and shock the unsuspecting pedestrian who walks across it. Some people are at the picnic area alongside the tower. A man, wearing an apron patterned with flowers, is cooking kebabs on a barbecue, while a woman sits at the table, staring out into the harbour, talking to him. Scraps of their conversation float over to me, but it is in Japanese and I cannot understand it. They look as comfortable as if they are in their own kitchen, even though the tower is only metres away, overshadowing them.

In one of the cars parked along Merriman St is another couple, who stare at me with a look of interruption as I walk past them. This could well be one of those places where people park their cars for romantic interludes. It has the requisite feeling of desertion about it: dead end streets above cliffs are always popular for this sort of thing.

Beyond the picnic area and the playground is a park with steps that lead down to the streets below. I walk a little way along a laneway so damp the sun must never reach it, a street mentioned in Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney: “In Roden’s Lane, I once found a blacksmith’s shop which occupied a cave in the sandstone, two walls being sootstained cliff. A smith was working there, making handforged firedogs and brackets and domestic ironware.” It seemed entirely possible that he might still be there, for the only details giving away the present were a couple of behemoth televisions dumped on the skinny footpath. In what might have been the blacksmith’s cave is now a garden of moss, ferns and succulents. A broken ceramic gnome lay reconstructed in the damp soil, its smile half missing and eyes lopsided.

Returning to the sunlight, I make my way down to the gates of the wharf area, which are open from sunrise to sunset to allow people to walk along the harbour’s edge. Most of the area has been fenced off, leaving a strip of land around the edge as a thoroughfare. What looked to be the foundations of a sandstone pyramid is stacked up in a pile, inaccessible behind a fence. The only remaining building is a little brick hut, further surrounded by fences, and I wonder what holy grail might be hidden inside.

Few people are walking the harbour’s edge, some German tourists, the occasional cyclist. One man rides his bike in circles, around and around, and I like to think this is just for the pleasure of it until I see he is talking on his phone. He is riding a fixie and talking about real estate, as if he has come to life from the Barangaroo interactive simulation.

The tarmac underfoot is deeply scored with lines and pock-marks, with a crisp blue marathon line painted across it. Bins and signs have been installed, but these details are tiny against the abandoned feeling of the whole place. From here, the Port Operations tower looms on the cliff above, and looks to be at the prow of the city, leading it onwards towards the water. With the park redevelopment, the land below the cliff will be filled in to create a natural slope of land leading down to the harbour, and this wall which has soaked up a hundred years of afternoon sun will be buried.

This sandstone cliff traces the point, then continues along Hickson Road. In 2009, this stretch of Hickson Road was officially renamed its Depression-era nickname, the Hungry Mile. This was one of the names suggested for the entire foreshore redevelopment, of which Barangaroo was chosen, in commemoration of the Cammeragal woman who was Bennelong’s wife. Now her name is shorthand for “spectacular waterfront precinct”.

The Hungry Mile wall is Sydney’s greatest wall, a long, curved stretch which at times can be ghostly, with not another person in sight and few cars parked in the many spaces. Constructed during the wharf redevelopment period in the early 20th century, at points the wall seems to have entombed the structures that it replaced. There are weird clues: a staircase to nowhere, a bunker set into the wall, blotches where graffiti has been chipped away, and abstract intersections of concrete and sandstone.

I walk back along the base of the wall, absorbing the last moments of Millers Point quiet before returning to the present day city. Whatever calm might exist in Millers Point today is only temporary, as soon it will undergo another great change. It will be drawn back into the city, and into the present.

* * *

Radio National documentary about Millers Point.

While I was researching this story I found this image of how the Rocks would have looked if the proposed redevelopment in the 1960s had gone ahead. Thanks Green Bans for saving Sydney from that.