I don’t often get boating invitations. This week, when Clare Britton asked my to climb aboard the newly renovated ‘Sally’ at the Tempe Pier, I didn’t hesitate. As part of her research project A Week on the Cooks River, Clare is spending time observing, describing, rowing the Cooks.

AC: So can you tell me what you brought?

CB: I’ve got two cameras. One is for shooting underwater- I can attach it to the side of the boat; and my digital SLR, which I have with me- both take stills and video. I borrowed a zoom audio recorder. I have a raincoat, 500ml of SPF 50+ (sensitive) sun cream, a water bottle, muesli bars, a hat and then, books, drawing materials and a log book.

Clare’s log book

AC: And how about the boat?

CB: Sally is a little fiberglass dinghy. Painted blue-green on the inside and white outside with a wood seat and trim. I did some renovations in preparation for the week on the river because the boat is second hand and the wood frame was rotted. I took the existing trim as a pattern and went through with the radial arm saw and cut a series of small grooves into long lengths of wood so I could bend it around the boat. Before, the side would flex quite a lot, now its a lot more solid. The boat was in the workshop (at Sydney College of the Arts) for about a week while I worked on it. I had to go the marine supplies shop to get stainless steel bolts, screws and varnish because the river is salty water and the old ones were really rusty.

Sally, newly renovated

I take over the oars so Clare can film some jellyfish. The movement is unfamiliar. I am going backwards, which is not a problem except when there are obstacles. For a moment the bridge blocks the light and I try to control the drift, to weave between the pylons- it’s not dangerous, Clare reminds me, just unsettling. We are going very slowly and gently.

CB: It’s high tide so it doesn’t matter where we go under the bridge, but if its low tide, you have to go in the middle. I haven’t been scared about it, but you can run aground when the water is low. I’ve hit oysters. I rowed up to Canterbury ice rink against the tide, and it took me so long. Some sections are very gentle though, like little swirls.

AC: Better to go with the tide then?

CB: Yes – much easier. Yesterday I decided to drift, I literally pulled the oars up near Gough Whitlam Park and I thought ‘let’s just see what happens’, and (the water) carried me down under the bridge near Tempe station, it spun the boat slowly around a few times and then took me down Wolli Creek. Now the tide is going out, so we are doing the opposite of what the water wants us to do.

AC: Where are we now?

CB: This little clump of mangrove trees is Fatima Island. This side is the suburb Wolli Creek and that side is Kendrick Park, Tempe. Kendrick Park is the site of one of the most significant middens in this area. When it was colonized, they built a lime-burning kiln, near where Tempe station is now and burned a lot of that midden to get lime for the early colonial buildings. Ironically, this whole part over here, where all the new buildings are going up near Wolli Creek station, is called Discovery Point.

AC: How have you been handling the days in the week?

CB: The vague structure is that I want to go all the way from Yagoona to Botany Bay, to follow the river out the sea. Monday I walked from Yagoona to Earlwood. Tuesday I went to Tempe and rowed up to Canterbury ice rink then rowed back down. Wednesday I went up Muddy Creek, which is near the Market Gardens at Kyeemagh. Yesterday I went up Wolli Creek. Today I’m just noodling around in this area. Tomorrow is Alexandra Canal and on Sunday I’m going all the way to Botany Bay. Besides today, I have been alone all the time. Today is about talking to people and taking a few friends out for a little explore.

AC: And you’ve been describing as you go?

CB: Yes, using audio recordings. I really want to do a description of the river, from Yagoona to Botany Bay. I’ve been recording, sitting in my boat or in places along the river and describing it. It’s a tool for me so I remember it all when I am working in my studio and at my computer again. I’ve tried some solar plate etching too, I’ve just been sort of keeping track of what’s been going on. The two books I’ve had with me are: ‘Gadigal Country’ edited by Anita Heiss. And this ancient tome, Thoreau’s book ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers’.

Fisher library copy of A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers

There is one essay of Thoreau’s called ‘Walking’ and this part I have been thinking about where he says…

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man then you are ready for a walk.

I’ve been turning it over – and thinking about it as an artist, but also a suburban mum, how does it translate? I’m very attracted to the idea, the sense of adventure. Can I do a version of that here? (and also attend the local High School’s new parent/student information session?)

Reading goes with rowing

Clare gracefully takes over so I can take a few pics of the Wolli Creek high rise. Her movements seem effortless. What was I doing wrong?

CB: Well, you can push with your feet as well and use the weight of the top part of your body to pull back. And the rhythm- going a bit faster is easier. Your arms kind of stay stiff. I have developed some new muscles, and have blisters on my hands… You make your arms like a hard L and then you move your whole body back… I don’t really know what I’m doing I’ve just been doing what seems to work for me. When I was in Muddy Creek the water was going in the opposite direction and I was doing all I could to get back out. If I’d waited for the wind and the water to turn around it would have been so much easier, but I needed to go and I just had to figure out how to get back in charge and it’s a pretty gentle river, so it’s OK…. I’ve been enjoying it so much I don’t want to go back to normal life!

Wolli Creek urban development

AC: What is so different in normal life?

CB: Yesterday, I just put the oars up, and read two books and drifted around on the river. It’s pretty rare I can spend a whole day like that in normal life. I feel like I have to get things done!

Doing this research, like Mapping Edges, is a way to be in the world, instead of racing around working through an absurd list of stuff. This week, for me has been about getting a deeper sense of where I am. Everything in our lives, and the city, is against just being in the landscape- when I have stopped for long times along the river I have felt a bit conspicuous – like people notice you’re not really going somewhere and find it a bit disconcerting. I’ll spend time stopping like that looking at the ocean or doing a bush walk, but I don’t really do it at home.

AC: What else has have you noticed?

CB: The tides and how different they make the river (it’s really a tidal estuary not a river as such). At low tide, the river is much shallower than I expected- only 20 or 30cms of water in some parts- it’s quite thin. One thing that I used to think was that it was magic to see a fish jump out of the water. Being here day after day, I’ve realised it happens ten times a day like- it’s very normal.

I’ve also noticed the mangroves. The seeds are floating about now- the river is full of mangrove seeds. There is a boat up Wolli Creek and mangrove roots have grown all around it. I didn’t realise that mangrove roots, grow straight up. It’s amazing how exactly like hair brushes they are, the water moves through them and they just brush all the crap out of it.

Mangroves, by Clare Britton

We row past a split in the river. AC: What happens if you go down there?

CB: I think it goes to the Sydenham reservoir, behind Supré. I’m curious about that little drain too, but I have to be a bit careful of those impulses, I don’t really know how the reservoir works and I can just see a newspaper headline ‘ Idiot artist dies in storm water drain’.

Then I take the oars again, so Clare can use her phone. I hold my arms and back straight. I feel stronger. More in control. ‘I think its just about being a little bit more bossy with the rowing’ Clare says. And I steer us gently to the Canoe Club where Clare picks up her next boating guests.