Home is the Hunter
The history and heartbeat of a great Australian river
ON paper, at first glance, the river didn’t look much.
Late one night in the early days of the 21st century, I spread out a map of the [NSW] Hunter region. I plonked my fingertip on the end of a straggling line at the top left of the map. That line denoted the river. My finger quickly traced the line all the way to the mass of blue representing the Pacific Ocean within a matter of seconds.
A journey along that river, on first trace, seemed simple. I studied the map more carefully. I was struck by how the Hunter region’s shape looked like a side view of the biggest section of the human brain, the cerebrum. The sense of looking at a diagram of a brain was only bolstered by the dark-shaded welts representing the Barrington Tops and the Liverpool Range, as well as the lines of the region’s river system, squiggling and wriggling until, like thoughts, they connected with each other.
Just as the brain is our control centre, shaping our movements and thoughts, the Hunter had shaped my movements and thoughts. The region has had a major influence on how I have developed. For I am a child of the Hunter. So, in some respects, I was looking at not just a map, but a scan of a part of who I am.
As I gazed at the contours and fissures of my home region, my eyes were drawn once more to that one prominent line incising through the centre of the brain, the line that I knew marked the heart of the Hunter. For the river is the Hunter. The Hunter River is about 470km long, and it draws on a catchment of about 22,000sq km. But in terms of its influence on the landscape and those who have inhabited it, the river is immeasurable. For thousands of years, indigenous people living along its banks, such as the Wanaruah in the upper reaches and the Worimi and the Awabakal further downstream, devised stories about the river and their connection to it. The water also provided food in the form of fish and prawns, mussels and eels. So for the stomach and the soul, the river was a rich source of nourishment.
Soon after the British established themselves on the shores of Sydney Harbour, they sailed the 60 nautical miles north, discovered the river and immediately identified its potential, especially when they saw the clumps of coal lying around its mouth. Lieutenant John Shortland, a naval officer hunting for escaped convicts from Sydney, was the first European person to officially sail into the river, in 1797.
He declared, ‘‘In a little while, this river will be a great acquisition to the settlement.’’
And it has indeed been a great acquisition. For more than two centuries, much has been acquired from the river. From its waters, wealth and energy have been created, as it has supported a range of industries, such as farming and mining, fishing and power stations. The water has been even turned into wine. On the river’s banks, generations have played and worked, building homes and factories, and a way of life. On its surface, the river has carried passengers and cargoes, hopes and dreams. The river has helped realise those dreams in good years and ruined them in flood years.
No matter what indifferent cruelty the river has inflicted on us, we have done far worse to it, and often wilfully. At times, we have poisoned the region’s lifeblood by our actions. The Hunter River and its banks have suffered from too many demands imposed upon them with too little thought.
Yet, despite what our actions may indicate, Hunter people love the river. For what we have acquired from the river are a sense of place and a badge of identity. We are Hunter people. And the Hunter is the river.
After scrutinising the map for a while and thinking about the river, my index finger rested once more at the top of the line somewhere near the Barrington Tops. I launched my finger across the paper again. Only this time I was in no hurry and my fingertip didn’t stray. I carefully followed the river’s course.
As my finger moved, my imagination travelled through history and legend, through wild beauty and bitter controversy, through towns and villages whose names are found on wine labels or in news reports about mining debates. After a couple of minutes, my finger floated into the river mouth at Newcastle, my home city.
Even on paper, the journey no longer looked simple. But that made it even more compelling.
What had prompted me to pull out the map of the Hunter that night was a journey I had taken earlier in the day. I had flown over my home region, on my way back to Sydney. As I had always done during those flights, I gazed wistfully down at the river threading its way through my past, through all the places I held dear, before it blossomed in Newcastle Harbour in the hazy distance. ‘‘Some day,’’ I thought, ‘ ‘ I’m going to see the Hunter from the river.’’
My next thought should have been, ‘‘Some day I’m going to know myself better.’’ For even though I had grown up close to its banks, and its waters continued to flow in my thoughts and, indirectly, my veins (after all, I do enjoy a Hunter shiraz or semillon), I barely knew this river by which I had partly defined myself. Even in the face of that lack of knowledge, the river could make me feel sentimental even when I was flying thousands of metres above it. I felt bound to it. Why was that?
As I folded up the map, I finally arrived at a conclusion, if not an answer: to see the Hunter from the river was an opportunity to better know myself through the river.
So when I traced my finger along the squiggly line, I had been imagining more than a journey down the river, from the source to the mouth.
This was to be a journey into the soul, to help me understand who we Hunter people are and how, like the rocks in the current, the river has shaped us.
I did make that j ourney in a canoe, in November 2001, with my wife Jo. We explored the upper reaches of the Hunter River by car and foot before plonking the canoe into its waters just below Glenbawn Dam, which is about a quarter of the way along its course. For nine days, Jo and I ventured down the Hunter before my wife had to get out. It wasn’t that she was sick of paddling, or of me. She had to return to work.
My adventure was to last another two days before I arrived in Newcastle Harbour. I estimated I had paddled about 330km. This is an edited extract from The Hunter by Scott Bevan (ABC Books, $32.99)