The Ma­cleay River of north-east­ern NSW twists through im­pen­e­tra­ble wilder­ness and bu­colic farm­lands be­fore reach­ing the Tas­man Sea.

Australian Geographic - - Wild Australia - STORY BY PETER MERED­ITH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY DON FUCHS

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.

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