Home is the Hunter

The his­tory and heart­beat of a great Aus­tralian river

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat Italian Cruise Line Gets On Boa - SCOTT BE­VAN

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)

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