Exploring the neighbourhood

by | Essays, Memoir, Non-fiction

 

In my late fifties I gave up on the attempt at downsizing after 18 months of apartment living and moved from Sydney’s lower north shore to a rented house with fabulous views perched on a ridge to the west of the township of Katoomba, the main town in the world heritage area of the Blue Mountains.

The most direct way into town is via a dogleg route down the steep hill from the western ridge and up another steep hill, atop which sits the Katoomba CBD. The road passes houses, the local leisure and aquatic centre, some impenetrable bush in a valley on the southern side and a biggish open paved area that looked like a car park but never had any cars. I was intrigued by signposts for ‘The Gully’ that pointed toward each other from either end of the route because there was no further signage in between, no further hints to satisfy anyone who was curious about The Gully.

I embarked on a dedicated attempt to establish connections in my new environment by attending groups and events for anything and everything I was interested in: bushwalking, knitting, gardening, singing, writing, reading, history and philosophy. In the getting-to-know-you question and answer session, after the standard exchanges  sharing our provenance, I asked people I met about The Gully. Even long-term mountains residents looked at me blankly. But in one conversation with slight acquaintances, amongst the helpful tips about the best cafes, the best coffee, the nicest toilet to use in town if the need arose, the travelling hairdresser and the vegetable co-op, I received a clue. ‘There’s a park near you where I used to jog. You can walk dogs off leash there.’

Eventually in my neighbourhood explorations I turned off the road into town and into that desolate carpark. Behind the leisure centre complex I found a curious expanse of water, clearly man-made, bigger than a pond, not quite a lake, framed by slender poplar trees and sloping green lawn, with a family of ducks completing the faux English countryside scene.

A path beside the pond led to an overgrown cracking bitumen road with tall poles either side supporting rusting but faintly legible signs saying ‘START’ and ‘FINISH’ and still bearing the ancient sponsor’s logo ‘BP’. The abandoned racetrack disappears into the bush of a natural amphitheatre – a hidden valley enclosed by lofty gums and dense scrub. Mother Nature is aggressively reclaiming her territory. Wild grasses erupt through long cracks forcing the bitumen apart creating miniature hedges along the roadway. The road winds around and up and down and around and up and down. Safety barriers that protected speeding cars on dangerous bends are rusted and decaying, many of them now totally obscured by the encroaching scrub and creepers, the timber barriers silvered and grey and cracking with age. It is an eerie place of quiet and birdsong, made somehow moreso by the ribbons of bark shed by the gums, hanging like creepy curtains from the eucalypt branches, rustling and whispering in the breeze. Only the occasional sound of a train passing to the north reminded me that I wasn’t far from civilisation, that a town with supermarkets and department stores was just over there, out of sight, over the hill, beyond the treetops. But noone would hear me scream.

When I googled this place I found that the road was the Catalina Raceway, opened in 1961 by the Blue Mountains Sporting Drivers Club, which held regular race meetings there until the early seventies but struggled financially and had never been a commercial success.  The initial loan of £35,000 to the club from Blue Mountains City Council to establish the track was never repaid and was written off by council in 1979.  The course continued to be used spasmodically for the next few decades but was closed officially in 1992.

The online map showed a course shaped like the outline of the blades of an electric fan but with the three prongs narrow and elongated, stretching out from and looping back to the middle. The roadway became a regular walking place for me when I wanted exercise but couldn’t summon the effort to tackle the challenging hills if I set off in any other direction. In time I met other walkers, joggers,  mothers pushing prams, children riding bicycles, people walking dogs, people intent on fitness rather than mischief.

The Gully has another history that I learned about at the local library and that is now told to visitors through a series of displays erected by the Blue Mountains City Council beside the artificial lake near the carpark and on a newly constructed walkway that loops from the roadway through the flat ground and swampy area at the centre of the old racetrack and back to the road via a new bridge over the creek.

The Gully was inhabited before the racetrack builders came in 1957 with bulldozers and excavation equipment, and council permission to demolish more than 20 dwellings and to evict the people who had lived there since the turn of the century. The displays tell the story of The Gully and show fading black and white photos of rough shacks constructed from flattened kerosene tins and corrugated iron, patched with whatever is at hand. The homes had no services, no electricity, no running water. Kerosene lamps provided light. Water was collected from the spring. Open fires were used for cooking and to provide warmth in winter. I have experienced Katoomba winters in a house with ducted heating controlled by a timed thermostat, cocooned against the freezing cold, the rain, the snow and the fog, which comes frequently. Clouds cluster at this altitude. They hover on the ridges and collect in the valleys, limiting visibility to a few metres. The racetrack owners discovered this too late and race meetings were frequently cancelled or delayed because of fog.

The families could be removed because they were ‘squatters’ despite some having lived in The Gully for four generations. The family groupings are evident in the recurring surnames in the photos and on a map showing the location of their homes in relation to the racetrack: Cooper, McNally, Stubbings, Hanna, Smith.

One display shows artefacts of daily life in The Gully at that time – a Coolgardie safe used to keep food cool, a cast iron camp oven for cooking on open fires, an ingenious urn that hangs over an open fire with a tap to provide hot water, kerosene tins used as containers or flattened out for a myriad uses, galvanised tubs for bathing or washing clothes, heavy flat clothes irons, an axe, a rabbit skin blanket.

The people posing in groups in the photos all look grim, with the bleak stare typical of photos taken during the period, probably because they had to stay very still for the camera exposure. Noone smiles in pictures from that era and so it is easy to embrace the idea that these people were sombre and life for them was challenging. But what did they look like a minute after the photo was taken, when they moved, mingled, commented on what they’d just experienced, went back to their normal routines, possibly joking and laughing. And despite living in rough-made shacks they don’t look different from other people in contemporary photos. Their clothes are typical of the time – elaborate frills, flounces, layers and hats for the women; jackets, waistcoats, ties and collars for the men.

The first families who came to settle here permanently in the late 1890s were Gundungurra people who had known the location for countless generations as a summer camping place on the journey across the mountains between the Buggeragong Valley in the east and the Megalong Valley to the west. The location provided cool shelter from summer heat, with abundant fuel and food, and constant fresh water from the spring. These people chose to establish their own community at The Gully, away from their traditional lands in the valleys on either side of the dividing range, rather than live in reserves under the watchful eyes and restrictions of the Aborigines’ Protection Board. In time they were joined by others from the Gundungurra, and from the Darug, whose traditional homelands are on the Cumberland Plain; and by non-Aboriginal people.

Learning about this history disturbed me, and still does. It is the shock of discovering a lifelong belief is false, and the shame of recognising my appalling ignorance. I kept trying to recall precisely how I gained the ‘knowledge’ that the local Aboriginal people of the Sydney region were long gone, that they had all died soon after white settlement, succumbing to diseases brought by the invaders, or to unacknowledged but tacitly approved eradication, or had simply moved away to other areas. I realised I had never stopped to think about the Aboriginals I knew lived in Redfern, or wonder how they came to be there, or where they came from. I thought all Aboriginal communities were ‘elsewhere’. I had visited communities on the Dampier Peninsula and east of Broome, been taken on tours through their traditional lands, been introduced to bush tucker and shown how to catch mud crabs in the mangroves. I had seen rock paintings that dated back thousands of years. I knew the history of missions and removal in the north-west of Australia, had listened to my Kimberley acquaintances debate the pros and cons of various approaches, agreed there were difficult issues to be resolved, and had no idea what should be done.  And no idea that similar problems existed closer to home.

The reality is that that there had always been settlements and communities of Aboriginal people in Sydney, mostly relegated to the outskirts of the expanding city, just as there are in other parts of Australia, and that descendants of the original local people, the Darug and the Gundungurra, lived only 20 kilometres away and possibly much closer, when I was growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 1950s.

Around the time the Gundungurra families moved to The Gully in the early 1900s there were six gazetted Aboriginal Reserves in their traditional homelands in the Burragorang Valley ranging from Aboriginal Reserve No. 17023 in the north (78 acres near the junction of the Wollondilly and Cox’s rivers) to Aboriginal Reserve No. 40798 in the south (277 acres near the junction of the Wollondilly River and Byrnes Creek). In the next fifty years the reserves were progressively rescinded with the last of them being formally withdrawn in 1954.  Access to the traditional Gundungurra lands finally became impossible with the building of Warragamba Dam, opened in 1960, which would provide a reliable water supply for the growing Sydney metropolis but require flooding of the Burragorang Valley. Although great pains were taken to relocate the settler remains and headstones from the local cemeteries in the valley, there was no recognition that carvings, rock paintings and sacred sites of the Aboriginal people would also be destroyed.  

The waters from the spring in The Gully flow down the valley and over Katoomba Falls and into the catchment area for the lake formed by Warragamba Dam, Lake Burragorang, with a capacity four times the size of Sydney Harbour. Most of the Katoomba Falls Creek Valley is now officially an ‘Aboriginal Place’, which the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 defines as a place that ‘is or was of special significance with respect to Aboriginal culture’. It was declared an Aboriginal Place on 17 November 2002 after a decade of advocacy and petitioning by many groups, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. The Aboriginal Place provisions protect the intangible, social and spiritual heritage of Aboriginal people and legally recognise Aboriginal cultural heritage in areas with spiritual, historical, social or other significance, including sacred sites and areas containing middens, burials, reburials, Bora rings and rock art. 

People who had lived in The Gully before the homes were destroyed came to the declaration ceremony, together with their descendants. A former Gully resident, Lyn Stanger, descended from both the Gundungurra and Darug nations, shared her recollections of that time, in a speech to the 500 people who had come to participate in the event. She spoke of her grandmother’s hospitality to visitors despite her home having a dirt floor and walls made from sheets of tin with clay-painted hessian lining, and the dunny being down the back under the big gum tree. Her Nan made a great cup of tea and served it to visitors in her best cups at the table covered by an embroidered cloth.

At my nextdoor neighbour’s Christmas Drinks in 2014, only months after a bushfire had swept up from the Megalong Valley and come within two kilometres of our homes, I met a man who told me The Gully was the best place to go should a bushfire threaten again. ‘If it comes close go into the water.’ As he was a long serving member of the RFS I noted his advice and resolved to add this to my (yet to be made) bushfire emergency plan. He had lived in the mountains all his life and was the only person I met in my time living there who had any knowledge of The Gully. He told me that the racetrack was called Catalina Park because a plane, a Catalina Flying Boat, used to be anchored in the middle of the artificial lake.  

And so I learned through further googling and library visits that the artificial lake had been created in 1946 by landowner Horrie Gates, adjacent to The Gully community, as the centrepiece of a new tourist attraction to provide amusement and entertainment after the end of WWII. Tourists could swim in the lake, or picnic beside it, visit the tearooms; or ride the miniature train, the Ferris wheel or the merry-go-round. They could also pay two shillings to be taken out to the plane in a speedboat for an early virtual reality experience. Seated in the plane the ‘passengers’ viewed a film of a flight over Sydney while the ‘pilot’ jumped on the wing to rock the plane and simulate the turbulence of flight, and the speedboat driver circled the lake providing waves and engine noise.  Many passengers emerged quite green around the gills it was said.

Catalina Park has a Wikipedia entry; The Gully does not.  The signs at the top of each hill still indicate the direction toward The Gully but you have to know where to look if you want to find it along the kilometre-long stretch of road between the signs. I wonder if this is deliberate, whether the people with a strong attachment to The Gully, who worked so hard to have it recognised as an Aboriginal Place, want to protect it by keeping visitors away. On maps the area is called Frank Walford Park. Walford was the mayor in 1957 when the Blue Mountains City Council approved the building of the racetrack and the destruction of The Gully community.

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