Near the middle of its course, Johnstons Creek is joined by its main tributary, Orphan School Creek, and that junction is the destination of today’s excursion. There is a small reserve here, strewn with orange rental bikes, and we are able to peer through wire mesh fencing at the water tricking from a large rectangular opening in the side of the canal.
Orphan School Creek runs underground these days, but for some distance its above-ground course has been restored as a dry creek gully and a facsimile of the original eucalyptus forest has been attempted with native plantings. I know this now, because there are information signs at spots along the paths that wind down to the gully from surrounding residential areas in Forest Lodge.
At this stage everyone is confused by the mixed messages about coronavirus precautions emanating from different levels of government. The toilet paper panic is well underway. Social distancing is advised but not mandatory. Keeping children home from school is advised but not mandatory. So it’s perhaps not surprising that late on this autumn afternoon the reserve is populated by people exercising as if there were no tomorrow. Chatty groups of women power stride together. Men walk enormous dogs. Bike riders weave amongst them.
On a narrow path bounded by back walls on one side and a wire fence on the other, a woman shadows us at a distance. I am dawdling and taking photos but she won’t pass because, she says, there has to be 1.5 metres. Eventually we press ourselves into a large shrub and she goes by, but coming towards her is a family group of parents and children all on bikes. She is obliged pass between them and I wonder why she chose to take this route for her walk, rather than the wider back streets nearby.
Meanwhile, we are being bitten by mosquitoes and retreat, resolving to follow more of Orphan School Creek some other time.
I have moved a short way upstream for today’s visit to Johnstons Creek. After inspecting the canal where it passes deep under Parramatta Road I am tracing it backwards and find that the next available viewing point is in a Stanmore street cut in half by the canal. A pedestrian bridge joins the two halves. The concrete waterway is flanked by factory walls on one side and backyard gardens on the other, whose overhanging trees hide shady secrets. ‘Call Your Mum’, urges a graffiti message. We set off to find what’s around the corner further upstream.
The streets in this commercial/industrial area are hot and lonely as if it were a Sunday afternoon but we are distracted by a café, open perhaps for one last day. Cautiously practising our new social distancing skills we order then sit out in a courtyard surrounded by closed studios and workshops that barricade us from the canal.
One last push on to Salisbury Road and I find what I’m looking for. This is where Johnstons Creek emerges from beneath its permanent suburban cover. Surprisingly there’s another large drain that joins it. It’s time to go home and study old maps to find the sources of the creek and this underground tributary. They don’t always form such a lazy trickle. I’m later told that trainee volunteers with the local SES are brought here on ‘flooding hot spot tours’.
This week I was reminded that Sydney’s supreme suburban explorer, Vanessa Berry, has already tracked Johnstons Creek on her Mirror Sydney blog. Different eyes. We will compare notes next time we meet, whenever that might be. ‘Happy New Year Mate’ wishes another graffiti message in blue paint. Anxious strange year is more like it.
It is the beginning of social isolation and I have devised a plan that involves, not staying in, but getting out into the customarily deserted streets of suburbia. To keep me exercised and interested, but distanced, I will try tracing the paths of local waterways, most of them now hidden underground or confined to canals that lurk around back lanes. My Journal of the Plague Year will document a watery wander.
I start with Johnstons Creek, a notable watercourse on the inner western fringe of central Sydney. It is named after Lieutenant George Johnston, who arrived as a marine on the First Fleet in 1788. Within a few years of the colony being established Johnston was granted a parcel of land and this creek formed the eastern boundary of his property.
My first excursion takes me to Parramatta Road, which crosses Johnstons Creek part the way along its course. Peering over a railing I can see the creek still flowing way down in the bottom of its ovoid stormwater canal. Before writing up this journal entry I learn from someone close to me that her graffiti crew used to spray here. But that was many years ago. I doubt there’s anything of hers visible now.
A Bicentennial plaque set into the concrete footpath tells me that a wooden bridge was built here in 1839. There are remnants of a subsequent sandstone bridge on the other side of Parramatta Road. More graffiti, including the name of a well known street artist who’s just recently been charged with sexual assault.