FROM THE TABLELANDS TO THE SEA
The Macleay River of north-eastern NSW twists through impenetrable wilderness and bucolic farmlands before reaching the Tasman Sea.
THREE WEDGE-TAILED EAGLES have hit the jackpot. A relentless breeze funnelling up from the vast crack in the earth at my feet is generating a turbocharged updraft that the raptors have hooked into. Spiralling skyward at an incredible speed, they’re soon specks against the blue-grey scud. Then they spear eastward and vanish. I’m at Steep Drop Falls, in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Standing here on the edge of the New England Tableland, in north-eastern NSW, I can see over a World Heritage-listed wilderness of gorges and ridges that reaches to the eastern horizon.
The chasm that plunges 500m from my toes joins Rowleys Gorge; the stream in it, Rowleys Creek, is among the myriad waters that cross the tableland, weave through pastureland and cascade into gorge country. They eventually merge to become the Macleay River, a 298km-long watercourse that escapes from the wilds 50km to the east at a locality called Georges Junction. From there it widens and slows and, on reaching its f loodplain near Kempsey, stubbornly resists human meddling until it enters the Tasman Sea at the town of South West Rocks.
I’m about to explore the Macleay from here to the sea with photographer Don Fuchs. Sam Doak, a senior ranger with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), has guided us to this cliff-edge. Sam’s authoritative manner is tempered by an easy smile and ready laugh. “All around the lip of the New England Tableland you’ve got these waterfalls going over the edge,” he says. “Most visitors go to three falls – Apsley Falls south of here, Dangars Falls south-east of Armidale, and Wollomombi Falls about 40km east of Armidale.” Adventurers go deeper into the park, he adds, some to bushwalk along the river, others to kayak or canoe to Georges Junction. The park contains some of Australia’s most extensive and dramatic gorge systems. It mostly lies inside the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, inscribed in 1986 to protect wilderness, plant communities and native animals.
Don and I drive north through farmland in our Isuzu, making for Salisbury Waters, one of the Macleay’s lesser headwaters, and Dangars Falls. On the way, we inspect a gum tree with two large scars in it, made by Aboriginal people cutting bark for shields, canoes or containers.
The traditional owners of the Macleay headwaters region are the Anaiwan, a dialect group of the Dunghutti nation, which once occupied the entire Macleay River system. When Europeans arrived, many Aboriginal people f led into the gorges, though some chose to work for the invaders.
Squatters and cedar-cutters began colonising the tableland in the early 1830s after explorer John Oxley passed through in 1818.
By 1846, Armidale had 76 residents. From the 1850s, mining, particularly for gold and antimony, boosted growth and by the 1890s the town was the area’s administrative and educational centre.
Flowing mostly through farmland, the Macleay’s headwaters pick up nitrogen and phosphorus from animal manure and fertiliser run-off. The f inal report of the Macleay Ecohealth Project 2015–2016, a University of New England (UNE) investigation, rates the quality of the tableland’s waters as the poorest in the Macleay system.
The water doesn’t, however, stay poor all the way downriver. The Macleay’s cleanest and most fish-abundant parts are its freshwater middle reaches, supporting a popular belief that the gorges have a purifying effect. At Dangars Falls, I recall words Sam used earlier to describe the scene: “When I first walked to the edge of the gorge there, I was blown away. You can’t imagine such a big hole appearing so quickly. It really is something.” He was right.
NEXT DAY WE’RE AGAIN on the rim of the New England Tableland, this time at the northern limit of the gorge country, looking into a canyon carved by Bakers Creek. Ten kilometres south of here the creek joins Salisbury Waters, marking the off icial start of the Macleay River. From the top of the canyon’s eastern wall we can see mining scars on the opposite wall, including a blue-grey waste dump. At the bottom of the gorge is another dump, from the 1870s. And behind us is a 21st-century ore-processing plant.
This is Hillgrove Mine, which sits at the centre of 100-plus derelict mines in one of NSW’s biggest goldfields and one of the largest antimony deposits outside China. Owned by Hillgrove Mines Pty Ltd, it was once Australia’s biggest antimony producer but has been mothballed for now. Antimony is a ‘metalloid’ – a chemical element with a mixture of metal and nonmetallic properties. It’s often used as an alloy with lead and tin, mostly in car batteries, but also in glass, paints and pottery.
During its life, Hillgrove Mine produced more than 20,411kg of gold and 49,000 tonnes of antimony, as well as 10 million tonnes of waste containing both antimony and arsenic, which occur together naturally. Historically dumped in Bakers Creek, the waste polluted the whole Macleay system.
Sue Wilson, who is a lecturer in environmental pollution at the UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science, has studied mine contamination of the Macleay catchment for more than a decade, focusing on antimony and arsenic. She’s with us today, as is Hillgrove Mine’s environmental manager, Daniel Calderwood. “Bakers Creek is an extremely high-energy f luvial environment,” Sue says. “Massive f loods have washed the waste material and polluted sediment far down into the gorge country.”
The spread of pollution is uneven; most is in the water and sediments inside the mine lease area and immediately downstream. There, concentrations can be up to 250 times higher than background levels but drop after Bakers Creek joins the Macleay. “Even so, that pollution plume extends to the Kempsey f loodplain, where we have higher than background concentrations of both arsenic and antimony in the soils, though they’re still very dilute,” Sue says.
Given that the condition of f ish in the Macleay’s main freshwater stretch has been assessed as between good and excellent, it’s clear the pollutants are too dilute to endanger most life there. But on the f loodplain they settle with sediment, becoming more concentrated in places. And when the river f loods, they’re mobilised and concentrations rise throughout the system.
Sue and Daniel stress that yesteryear’s dirty mining practices would be unacceptable today. “Much of our work at UNE is on the pollutants from historic mining operations,” Sue says. “Current legislation and operations are very different and mine operators have greatly improved the environment here with rehabilitation and signif icant water management. What happened in the past wouldn’t happen today.”
So although Sue and Daniel are sure that revived mining at Hillgrove wouldn’t add new pollution, the historical legacy will continue to taint the Macleay for some time.
FROM THE BAKERS CREEK junction, the Macleay twists through the chiselled ravines of the national park, emerging 25km to the south-east into an open-forested landscape that was once part of a huge cattle run named Kunderang Station, established in the early 1840s.
As pastoralists invaded the last remnants of Indigenous country, they met growing resistance. Aboriginal warriors raided homesteads, killed the occupants and stole cattle. Settlers responded with vicious reprisals. After an attack on Kunderang in 1845, a punitive party massacred at least one Aboriginal family group and possibly two.
By the mid-1880s, Kunderang covered 90,000 acres (36,400ha) and soon afterwards was split into two: West and East Kunderang. Today, West Kunderang is a cattle property and recreational retreat for campers, bushwalkers, kayakers and f ishers. East Kunderang was bought by the NPWS in 1989 and incorporated in the national park. Its magnificent cedar homestead, restored and extended, is a popular self-catering guesthouse.
Through the two Kunderangs, the Macleay mellows after its gorge journey but still offers some dynamic runs before reaching Georges Junction and entering a stretch technically known as its main stem.
The Macleay, Georges Creek, a travelling stock route and the Bicentennial National Trail intersect at the junction in a
The river here has stretches that are slow, deep and so clear you can see the rocks and gravel in their depths.
valley rimmed by forested ridges. A travelling stock reserve between the river and the creek is popular with a local grazier’s cattle. The river here has stretches that are slow, deep and so clear you can see the rocks and gravel in their depths.
The word ‘bass’ is inextricably linked with this spot. That’s not just because the river is famous for these fish but also because the only solid structure here is a three-level log chalet named Bass Lodge that stands on a slope overlooking the stock reserve. Its owners are Celia and Dave Thomson. She’s a vet nurse and wildlife sanctuary manager; he’s an ex-scientist who runs a medical device consultancy. They operate the lodge as a B&B for f ishers and holidaymakers.
Dave loves bass. Growing up in Armidale, he bushwalked and camped in the gorge country from the age of 13. He tells how, on one bushwalk, he was standing waist-deep in water when he felt something touching his leg.
“I looked down and saw this enormous bass,” Dave says. “There was no reason for it to lean against my leg other than to say, ‘Hey, go and f ind out about this place.’ And I have.”
Dave has fished for bass here since he bought into Bass Lodge 11 years ago: “I catch and release. I believe in sustainable f ishing. That’s an important message to spread because you’d change the whole river system if you plucked out all the bass.”
Dave has deep respect for the river. “Here it’s normally about a metre deep,” he says. “In full f lood it can reach 15 or 17m, and an 11m f lood isn’t unusual. At that point the river dynamics change: rocks move, trees get uprooted, weed that shelters f ish is washed downstream, and there’s a massive roar.”
THE FURTHER EAST WE travel a long the untar red Armidale Road from Georges Junction, the more open the terrain becomes, with pasture pushing the forest back from the river. Still narrow and lively in places, the river can look picture-perfect from afar, though close up you might spot an occasional eroded bank or infestation of lantana.
Beyond O’Sullivans Gap, we pull up at an immaculately restored homestead near a hairpin bend in the river. This is Pee Dee Station (see “Initial puzzle”, opposite page), a 4000-acre (1619ha) grass-fed beef operation that’s belonged to the O’Sullivan family since 1878. The current O’Sullivans here are Andrew and Bernadette and their three young children.
As we chat at the kitchen table, Bernadette tells me she grew up on a dairy farm and met Andrew while they both were studying at UNE. She works three days a week in Kempsey and Andrew has a home-based job unconnected with farming. “On a family property like this you need at least one off-farm income. It’s key these days,” he says.
As for the river, it’s fundamental to the family. “If it weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here,” Andrew says. “It’s the lifeblood of the valley, and very special for the Indigenous culture. From the commercial point of view – the cattle – it’s great water security.” Bernadette says the river kept her sane while she was pregnant one torrid summer. “It was 43 degrees,” she recalls. “I just sat in the river and waited for the heat to pass.”
Around that time she heard about the antimony and arsenic pollution. “I was pregnant and had small children, so I was really concerned,” she says. She joined a community-based
“[The river] is the lifeblood of the valley, and very special for the Indigenous culture.”
Sorganisation called Save our Macleay River (SOMR) and through it learnt that the contamination had historical origins and that Hillgrove was cleaning up its act.
“I’m not pro-mining, and I don’t think it’s a great site for a mine,” Sue says, “but I think they’re doing good work there to remediate an old site.”
OMR’S CHAIRMAN IS ARTHUR Bain, one of the 270 residents of Bellbrook, a community located about 15 minutes by road or three and a half hours by kayak from Pee Dee Station. I meet Arthur and Indigenous elder Aunty Ruth Dunn in a park on Bellbrook’s Main Street.
Arthur, 55, a teacher, has lived near the Macleay for 27 years and he tells me proudly that he feels like a guardian of the river. SOMR’s main concern is the antimony and arsenic in the river. “We’ve done a lot of research, built relationships with Hillgrove Mine, with scientists such as Sue Wilson of UNE and Scott Johnson of Southern Cross Uni (SCU), and started getting a picture of what it’s all about,” Arthur says.
He is optimistic about the river’s future. Aware of antimony’s uses and marketability, he believes mining can be done sustainably and without harming the environment. “I’ve been to Hillgrove several times. I’m impressed with what they’ve done,” Arthur says. “It needn’t be plunder and pillage at all costs.”
His optimism ref lects his feelings for the river. “I sometimes take my kayak down for a cruise. Past Bellbrook the river hooks around to the south and it feels like you’re in wilderness. It’s a beautiful place, paradise, blissful.”
Arthur shares his love of the river with today’s Dunghutti people. He’s taught them over the years and learnt their language, and in return they’ve welcomed him as one of their mob and given him permission to live on their country.
By the late 1860s many Indigenous men were working on stations around the region and their families had been placed in reserves. In 1885 a 36.4ha reserve was established 2km north of Bellbrook and put under the control of missionaries. In 1914 government managers took over and off icially named it the Bellbrook Aboriginal Village.
Aunty Ruth is one of the village’s 70-plus residents. Aged 61, she’s an imposing woman, with cascades of corkscrew redbrown hair. She grew up in the village, went to school in Bellbrook and Kempsey, attended TAFE and has worked as a teacher, health worker and horse whisperer.
One of the f irst things Aunty Ruth tells me is that she’s descended from the last of the Dancing People, the Thunghutti, a Dunghutti clan who punctuated their lives with ceremony and ritual. She speaks with evident pain about the massacres of her forebears. And it saddens her that the river, for so long the lifeblood of her people, is now bordered by private land and mostly beyond their reach.
“We’ve got no river because people won’t let us cross their land to get to it. Some have padlocked their gates,” she says. “The river, the water, they were part of our life; the f ish, the eels, the turtles, they were the food of our forefathers and foremothers. We need to get access to that. Let us through! We’re not going to destroy the land; we’re not going to touch your
cows; we’re not going to break anything. We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
When Aunty Ruth’s grandchildren visit, she takes them to a spot on the southern edge of Bellbrook where a road bridge spans the river and the public can access the riverside. Later, on that bridge, I watch Arthur collecting river water samples for SCU’s Professor Scott Johnson, who is carrying out a long-term analysis of water quality. Near us, three Aboriginal boys repeatedly hurl themselves off the bridge into the river, performing backf lips, somersaults and twists on the way down.
BEYOND BELLBROOK, THE RIVER meanders through a landscape that’s beautiful in a manicured way. At a spot called Belgrave Falls it reaches the eastern limit of its main stem and enters the tidal zone, having completed all but 54km of its 298km journey. Ever wider, fed by tributaries, it then f lows across a broad f loodplain to its mouth at South West Rocks, the region’s largest seaside town. On the way, it curls through Kempsey, the Macleay Valley’s commercial hub.
European settlement hereabouts followed much the same pattern as elsewhere on the Macleay, with cedar-cutters arriving in the late 1820s. In 1836 Sydney merchant Enoch Rudder acquired 812 acres (329ha) near the river and founded the private town of Kempsey, now the suburb of East Kempsey.
The Dunghutti subgroups of the f loodplain confronted the invasion in their own way. “Those nearer the estuary lived on seafood, fruits and berries and those upriver were huntergatherers,” says Phil Lee, president of the Macleay River Historical Society. “The hunter-gatherers would have been affected by the inf lux of stock and were quite hostile. The ones on the lower river offered less resistance.”
Cedar-cutting was the Macleay’s f irst major industry but didn’t last long. “It took them about 10 years to cut it all out,” Phil says. Shipbuilding came and went with the cedar-cutters. Sugarcane growing, another early industry, survived until the 1870s. As f loodplain vegetation was cleared, livestock grazing and maize growing took over. Today, cattle grazing, dairying, cropping and horticulture dominate.
An Akubra Hats factory, a Nestlé Australia factory, a meat processing plant, healthcare and social services are the biggest employers, Phil says. “And tourism is a major business, with the proximity of the beaches.”
Floodplains f lood. Between Kempsey and the river mouth, alluvial f lats cover about 40,000ha, of which 60 per cent is made up of swamps less than 1m above sea level and even below.
“The impact of f looding on agriculture in the f lats was massive,” Phil says. “The f irst big f lood recorded was in 1864. It led to a population exodus to Bellingen and Nambucca.”
Kempsey’s f lood records go back to 1838. The worst f lood in the town’s history was in August 1949, when the gauge registered 7.92m, six people died, 600 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 7000 head of livestock were lost. The second worst, at 7.77m, came the following year, in June 1950.
Unsurprisingly, settlers in the lower Macleay have long obsessed about drainage and f lood control. The 1949–50 f loods spurred a f lurry of control measures whose full environmental impacts are only now becoming clear.
CLEMENT HODGKINSON, A NSW government contract surveyor, explored rivers in north-eastern NSW in the early 1840s. In his 1845 book Australia, from Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay he describes the Macleay’s lower reaches as being “f lanked on both sides by huge walls of dense brush”, consisting of tall trees such as red cedar, mahogany and f ig.
According to his account, this “brush” extended up to a mile (1.6km) from the river and was “backed by extensive swamps of many thousand acres in extent, whose verdant sea, of high waving reeds and sedge, stretches away to the base of distant forest ranges”.
Between Kempsey and the mouth, much of the original landscape has been transformed. Farmland dominates, though some signif icant wetlands remain. One has been rehabilitated and was gazetted as Yarrahapinni Wetlands National Park in 2007; another, the Clybucca Floodplain – which adjoins Yarrahapinni and is used as farmland – is due for similar revival.
As we drive from Kempsey to South West Rocks, we pass under the Macleay Valley Bridge as it soars over f loodplain paddocks and the river. We continue across dead f lat, lushly grassed land dotted with cattle and remnant trees and incised by small rivers, creeks and drainage channels. Many buildings stand on f lood mounds. The Macleay hereabouts is hundreds of metres wide and millpond-calm. We drive through several riverside villages before reaching South West Rocks, a holiday town of some 5300 residents.
The Macleay’s mouth lies 2km north-west of the town. It’s a regimented climax to the river’s journey, with a rock wall on each bank straitjacketing the f low for the last 3km. Watching the river pour out, I mentally censure humans for tampering with its natural inclinations. Then I remember nature did the tampering here, creating this mouth in 1893 some 8km south of the original mouth, pre-empting humans who were debating whether to do the same (see “Nature’s work”, page 77).
I remind myself that nature did the tampering here, creating this mouth in 1893 some 8km south of the original mouth.
JOHN SCHMIDT HAS A passion for rivers, especially the Macleay. “There’s a grandeur and a power about it that’s captivating,” says the senior coast and estuary off icer with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, in Kempsey. John picks us up in his tinny from a jetty where the Macleay River joins the Macleay Arm near South West Rocks, to show us some modifications made after the 1949–50 f loods.
Those included 210 f loodgates, 116km of excavated drains and 180km of levees, he says. Outlets from swamps were also carved through dunes to the sea, so instead of draining slowly to the river, swamps drained quickly to the sea. “That really screwed up a lot of the ecological functioning of the f loodplains,” John says. Floodwater used to take weeks or months to drain, during which time natural biological processes cleaned it. “Now it’s out in a couple of days,” John says. “These swamps were gigantic filters that drove the health of the estuary and we’ve lost all that.”
A side effect of draining wetlands is that iron sulf ides, which occur naturally in waterlogged soil, are exposed to air and react with oxygen to create sulfuric acid. When it rains, this gets washed into the river. “That’s had pretty major impacts on the shellf ish industry and commercial and recreational f ishing,” John says. “Other toxins mobilised by rain include the antimony and arsenic brought down from upriver mine sites over the past 150 years and deposited with silt on the f loodplain. It’s all a signal telling us these things are catching up with us and if we want to reverse them we have to start fairly quickly.”
We motor south along Andersons Inlet, a dead-end watercourse until engineers extended it to link with Clybucca Creek, fed by human-made drains. The vegetation looks healthy. This is because we’re passing a segment of the Clybucca Historic Site, which adjoins Yarrahapinni Wetlands National Park. It’s an area of exceptionally well-preserved Aboriginal middens spread across 13km. One of the largest midden complexes in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s on the Register of the National Estate.
We pass the point at which Andersons Inlet once naturally ended. For the next 2km it keeps f lowing as a human-made channel until it joins Clybucca Creek. On the creek we halt at the Menarcobrinni Floodgate, a huge barrage. “This is the kind of structure installed as part of that massive f lood mitigation scheme,” John says. “Despite all that work, they’re still only managing the smaller events. I don’t think you can pretend to control nature; I believe nature does its thing no matter what.”
Back on the Macleay Arm, we head north on what was, until 1893, the last stretch of the Macleay River, a waterway that was once big enough for sea-going vessels to sail up. Now it’s a landlocked saline reach that, after a final bend, terminates behind a scrubby dune at Grassy Head, 500m from the site of the old mouth; not that being landlocked or salty has spoilt it. “It’s becoming a broadwater and slowly inf illing, creating this massive and very important habitat for f ish and a recreational haven for the lower estuary,” John says. “It’s the jewel in the crown of the lower Macleay.”
Past Stuarts Point, which was a busy port in the 1800s and is now a tourist village, the Arm widens to 400–500m for the last 2.5km. You don’t need a boat to reach the end; you can go by car and on foot. At the bottom of a cul-de-sac of holiday homes, there’s some bushland. Scramble through it and you’re there: a few half-submerged rocks, a dense mangrove thicket, black roots poking up through black mud, water dark and still. It’s the Macleay’s humble f inale.
“It’s becoming a broadwater and slowly infilling… It’s the jewel in the crown of the lower Macleay.”
Guided by the seawall visible in the distance at right, the Macleay River pours into the Tasman Sea near the NSW town of South West Rocks. In the foreground is the Macleay Arm, once the river’s final stretch, now a landlocked but bountiful reach.
Jagged crags and impenetrable gorges dominate the western extensions of Oxley Wild Rivers NP where, deep in this wilderness, the Macleay River begins its journey to the sea.
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While traversing the southern parts of the New England Tablelands in 1818, explorer John Oxley was impressed by Apsley andTia falls, now in Oxley Wild Rivers NP.
Local Indigenous elderAunty Ruth Dunn is deeply conscious of the Macleay’s historical significance to her people and of the conflicts that followed European colonisation.
Sue Wilson of the University of New England, who studies mine contamination of the Macleay, collects water samples at Hillgrove Mine with Daniel Calderwood, the mine’s environmental manager.
Afloat on still water downstream from Georges Junction, Dave Thomson fishes for Australian bass, which can weigh up to 4kg and is a sought-after sport fish.
Bernadette O’Sullivan (left), who runs Pee Dee today with Andrew O’Sullivan, shows the markers near their homestead that indicate past flood heights. The river lies among the trees in the far distance.
The O’Sullivan family cemetery on Pee Dee Station includes the tombs of Cornelius O’Sullivan, who bought the property in 1878, and his wife, Malvina.
The Macleay is the tenth-oldest river on Earth, older than the Yangtze, Indus, Nile and Thames.
A joyful trio of Aboriginal boys hurl themselves off the bridge at Bellbrook. Local teacher and river activist Arthur Bain regularly collects water samples here to send to Southern Cross University, where they’re tested for pollutants.
Concern for the conservation of the Macleay River drives the work of John Schmidt, who believes there’s much to learn from Indigenous locals.
Our Isuzu 4WD makes light work of negotiating this Macleay River crossing, a few hundred metres downstream from Georges Junction.