River Queens

Forever in debt to the rapacious canine demands of The Kelpie, the newest member of the mob, I find myself in the weedy gutters of anonymous backstreets being tugged towards the park – any park. With noses snuffling, ears twitching and eyes bright with the expectation of rotting treasure, she and I explore our daily date with dedication…

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On a lip of land that juts above a sulky river was once a castellated Victorian Gothic mansion, a queen sporting a regal demeanour over her 130-acre domain. The Warren, so called for the tumbling colonies of rabbits bred on the estate to be hunted, was home to wool merchant and politician Thomas Holt in 1864; a prestigiously leafy estate overlooking the Cooks River, she wore her grandeur as freshly-combed ermine.

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Thirty bedrooms, a dining room to seat 50, art gallery, bathing sheds and Turkish baths, and located in the heart of riverside Marrickville, The Warren was a real-estate’s wet dream. Today, little remains, though there is a distinct sense of propriety, of sweeping capes and walking canes, of parasols and rum at dusk, as the bats flit silently by.

The Warren may be long gone, but it still exerts a powerful fascination. Residents, both old and new, often refer to their locality as The Warren, and its presence can be sensed in many ways.

Ferncourt School is built from the stone of The Warren’s demolished stables. On the banks of Cooks River, hidden behind concrete, are the remains of The Warren’s burial vaults, and a large amount of sandstone… has been recycled into retaining walls and kerbs and gutters throughout the suburb.


Two towers, originally piers from the back of the building, stand sentinel on Richardson’s Lookout in Holt’s Crescent in South Marrickville, a spindly curve of street that follows the swell of the river. Cobblestones rumble beneath ancient figs, a memory of a driveway perhaps, and the ghosts of garden paths linger, lined with sandstone flags worn soft with time.

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Gazing into the distance you can imagine languid lunches on the lawns, the clip of a sulky bearing well-dressed guests and the breezy air of entitlement.

And while the castle was demolished in 1919 (after hosting an order of Carmelite nuns and an artillery training camp during the First World War), the estate remains closely guarded by its feudal community. Despite the glaring absence of the original mansion, a hollow lost to time, the glory of Holt’s domain is steeped in a run of ageing river queens moored to the sludgy banks of the Cooks River.

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With their toes in the damp, mottled faces staring resolutely uphill, the grand dames of Thornley Street would once have been landscaped gardens. In a later incarnations, they were the boom-time beauties, Edwardian weatherboarders and Californian bungalows of the late 1800s, turn of the century and ’20s respectively, sought after seclusion perched high above the banks.

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These landlubbers have time sequestered in their dappled flanks, weary memories surging like tidemarks in the rising damp. Paint peels like sunburnt skin, raw patches peeking out from beneath, fly-screened verandahs scratch in the heat, and pastel fibro fades in the glare.

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Their captains are invariably polite yet reserved, wary of too much attention. Lola and Luigi, deep in conversation over the fly spray, are happy to pose for a shot, asking; “why you want love? You like us old peoples?” Well, yes. I do. What with your stories and insight, life mapped on your faces like sea charts speckled with salt. Further along, an old fella caresses the tarp tied taut around his late ’80s Mazda; “Got a few of ’em love, great motors. Bloke next door hates ’em, says they is an eyesore. But his whole place is a bit on the nose if y’ask me…”

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The bush thrives here, in this slice of suburbia; the river breeds it in swathes along her banks; mangrove roots thick with mud, sandstone cliffs that create shadows of cool, banksia, acacia and mulga ferns, speargrass, she oaks and prickly-leaved paperbarks that line walkways yipping with dogs on leads and kids wobbly on their wheels.

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Between the faded faces and gentrified glitz of Thornley Street are cool diving driveways that strip down to the water hundreds of metres below, asbestos afterthoughts – home to tarped cars and garden tools – clinging to them like carbuncles.

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It is like looking down an old woman’s gullet, a vaudeville trick that vilifies. Beyond the tidy-town streetscape, straggly ends trail to crippled Colourbond fences that lounge near the water’s muddy flanks, bereft of bilges. Flood marks are a permanent stain, and veggie patches are overrun with natives.

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Like decaying paddleboats hauled high on their hitches, the river queens slump slowly into their watery graves, an expression of resigned implacability on their tired faces.

Yet while the river continues to inveigle her prey, inch by sodden inch, The Warren Estate persists with its page-one status in the brochures of local real estates. It is the ever-enduring wet-dream…

The Kelpie and I walk on, the river warbling her sordid siren song…

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Kyeemagh is an Aboriginal name meaning ‘beautiful dawn’. Thing is, by the time the Tin Lid and I cruise down in the Holden the dawn has long legged it, replaced by a scowling, irritated howler of a day, spring in name only.

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Scorched winds shake the beast, rustling the duco and unnerving the driver, whose hair tangles in the slipstream that burls through the car from five gaping windows. The Tin Lid is staunch in his acceptance of the five horsemen of the apocalypse and their climate-born reign of terror, happy to keep filing forward into the maelstrom in search of The Boat.

It is all about The Boat. His first time at sea; the Cowboy’s first-time first mate and chief bottle-washer. We had sparkling plans that dripped with flat-calm azure seas, a light breeze and palm fronds, open waters and sandy bays. But they are fresh victims of a gale that scours the seas, whipping up sand and spray 500m on shore.

So we find ourselves at Muddy Creek, a shuffle-up of dirty water that snakes lazily along the borders of Kyeemagh and Banksia, beneath the roaring bellies of outbound jets. The Brighton-Le-Sands Amateur Fisherman’s Association is the landmark, the bit we all know for its flash 80s signage:

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It is morose, tired and locked-up tight, a moment caught in time. Notices flap angrily on a squat Besser-brick block, Foreclosed; Until Further Notice; Member’s Only. There is grit in the air, and the putrefying stench of mangroves and diesel. The water is slack, slick with oil and barely supporting its wallowing clinkers…

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But the distance has captured The Boat and the Tin Lid has begun an animalistic wail that is stoppered only when he is delivered into the clutch of his mariner crew:

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As they motor into the tempest with only seedless grapes and ginger beer I wonder idly if a broad-brim-hatted three-year-old could tip the delicate balance in high seas, but am soon distracted by the bones of what was Fishos, one-time thriving cultural hub, albeit with slight scent of fish…

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Empty-eyed and retired, she is like a salty run aground forever, sadly listing back into the creek, silent but for the clack clack of tip turkeys as they squabble over the debris. 

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The boat yard sprouts a little more life, but is the preserve of a wily few with hard-clung-to keys for shiny padlocks that cluster like haemorrhoids around a rusting chain-link fence. And there are signs in abundance, manifestos for the suburban trailer-sailors:

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A chalkboard with a nub of chalk dangling from a strand of twine, its blurry scrawl almost illegible, belies the sense of community it inspires. It is a trip log, where each and every skipper signs-out on departure. If they fail to sign-in on their return it is assumed they are in difficulty on the water and require assistance, and someone will head out to find them.

Of course, this premise relies on any number of factors; that the skipper remembers to sign back in, that the chalkboard isn’t wiped clean by onshore gusts of ocean, and that visiting 50s speedboats reliant solely on broad-brim-hatted children and ginger beer have seen this board and added themselves to it. Oh, and that there is someone there to read it…

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TS Sirius, a utilitarian bunker that adjoins the boatyard offers a skerrick of solace – an Australian Navy Cadet unit right here! Perfect for open-water rescues in cyclonic conditions, reliable, big-boated and undeniably attractive in uniform – but the concrete is moth-eaten, honeycombed out by time. There is no epaulette’d admiral barking orders here, no swarm of sailors to save the day.

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The best I can hope for is a bloke in a tinny, back from an afternoon’s squid fishing, who seems interested only in the sinks:

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In this incongruous place, a concrete wasteland, forgotten yet not forgiven, it seems strange to smell the ripe aromatic tang of oriental greens, yet out the back, beyond a playground that may or may not have been imported from Soviet Russia during the Cold War, is a lush emerald ocean, conical hats bobbing in it like buoys:

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Bok choy, choy sum, on choy and Chinese broccoli vie for light, fat with water and love. The scent of coriander, parsley and mint make my mouth water, despite the festering mangroves, and the rich alluvial soil crumbles seductively beneath my toes. It is no stretch to imagine Muddy Creek as it once was, teeming with life, unencumbered by industrial decay and the social stoush endemic in the economic collapse and involuntary administration of community organisations.

Yet, in this moribund place caught in the thrall of an angry sou’easter, there is a moment of bright, bright joy –  it is written on the face of the Tin Lid as he returns from his first time on the high seas.

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Perhaps this is the ‘beautiful dawn’ Kyeemagh whispers of?