On Styx Creek with Mark MacLean

“There’s a contradictory message out there: care for this thing, but don’t go near it. It’s no wonder that people have, over time, become disconnected from our rivers, creeks, and waterways”.

Newcastle’s drainage network dates back to 1888 when nineteen kilometers of pipe was installed around the city, originally designed to carry everything from roof water to raw sewage. Two years later plans were underway to expand this into a major stormwater system traveling from Newcastle West to Wallsend. Natural waterways were permanently altered in the process, including the course of Throsby Creek. Mangrove forests and swamplands were entirely removed. In 1898, it was decided by the Public Works Department that the network’s earth banks were unable to resist erosion and so tea-tree scrub was used to construct fascines with couch grass planted to hold the mud and clay together. Residents close to the Hunter River voiced their concerns about the ability of these earthen drains to mitigate flooding and this resulted in their walls being completely rebuilt with concrete. By the 1930s this had become the standard across the city, and today Newcastle’s stormwater network is made up of 1,487 kilometres of kerb and gutter, 526 kilometres of drain, 18,211 pits, and 603 outlets.

In 2011, many years after those foundational works, local author and teacher Mark MacLean chased his dog down into the concrete drains of Hamilton North. Some of what he discovered there was to be expected, such as wildlife, garbage, eccentric characters, and graffiti artists, but what he didn’t expect to find was a profound new appreciation for water. He chronicled these subterranean journies in a blog and later a book titled A Year Down the Drain: Walking Styx Creek, January to December. Ten years on and now living in a waterless outback town, Mark reflects on his time wandering through these overlooked places where the natural and the unnatural meet.

Mark and Jambo on Throsby Creek

What was it that compelled you to wander into the stormwater drains of Hamilton North in the first place? 

The trigger for walking the drains was the purchase of a family dog. We got a lovely little fella, a cairn terrier named Jambo, named after Heart of Midlothian Football Club: the Jam Tarts, or the Jambos. In spite of the kids’ promises, I ended up becoming the family dog walker. Hamilton North is a quite discrete suburb in that its boundaries are clearly defined. I’d recently read a book, The History and Antiquities of Selbourne, written in the eighteenth century by English parson-naturalist Gilbert White who observed the flora, fauna and natural features of his parish over the seasons. I decided to do the same for Hamilton North. But the area that kept drawing me back was Styx Creek — the large stormwater drain that cuts through Broadmeadow on its way to Throsby Creek. Dropping into the drain takes you into another world, and I quickly fell in love with it. 

What was it that compelled you to keep coming back? 

The dog! I worked for myself at the time as a freelance editor, and so I could organise my working day to suit myself, and Jambo. Each morning and afternoon I’d head off into Styx Creek, and the connected waterways, to see what I could find. 

Broadmeadow stormwater construction, 1900
New Lambton stormwater construction, 1901

How did you begin to gather more information about the drain network and what were some of the most interesting stories and facts that you uncovered? 

After I started walking the drains I became interested in where they came from and where they went to. I started looking at maps in the Newcastle Library and online, and from there I discovered a few old books that covered the topic. Yes, there are books on waterways! I also started meeting people who knew about these things, and they put me onto people who knew even more about these things or about very specialised aspects of these things. It kind of developed from an interest to an obsession. I learnt that the Styx as we know it now, and as it’s signposted by Newcastle City Council, is not the original Styx. The current Styx is a channel cut to drain land around Broadmeadow in order to create more land for houses and to reduce mosquito-borne diseases. The original Styx is marked as “Chaucer Street drain” on mid-century maps; it begins around Gregson Park, goes down Samdon Street and then under the rail tracks to a junction in the existing Styx. This is all an area that became inundated during the Pasha Bulker floods: water remembers where it should go.

What do you know about the creation of the network? Do many other drains follow the path for former creeks and rivers?

Some of the drains followed existing creek lines while others were created for drainage purposes. The concrete in the drain walls contains seashells. These came from Stockton; the shell middens were used for the lime content in the creation of the concrete. These middens were thousands of years old and created by generations of Worimi people who traveled along that country. An archaeologist friend who’d lived and studied in the Top End for many years told me that in lots of Australia middens are considered to be sacred sites. So think of that, next time you’re in the drain and you see a little shell in the concrete. 

You’ve documented wildlife such as cygnets and turtles, and obviously encountered a lot of waste, but did you meet any interesting people in your travels?

The drain is a liminal place: it’s partway between land and water; freshwater and seawater; legal and illegal. In my blog, Hamilton North, and my book I talk about the man I simply called Old Mate. He was a type and at the same time unique. I formed an unusual kind of relationship with him. I’d hesitate to call it a friendship, but we had a strangely unique bond. 

Graffiti appears a lot on your blog. What did you learn about this art form from your drain explorations?

I was always a bit baffled by the graffiti in the creek. It seemed like a relatively safe venue for people to go and develop their art-making skills, but some of it was extremely sophisticated, and I was lucky enough to walk with a few of the more well-known artists and share our interest in the more hidden places around the city. Much of it, however, was pretty ordinary. I couldn’t figure out the constant painting over people’s artwork. Was it collaborative, competitive, aggressive? I wrote about it and got a few pretty angry responses from members of the graffiti crews. They thought I’d been disrespectful, which I probably had been, but it was more because of my ignorance than anything. I still get threats on the blog to give me a hiding if ever they meet me down the drain. 

What were some changes you observed in the drains over the years? 

There has been a long process of people getting to better understand our waterways, work that preceded any of my writing by many years. Groups in Islington and around Throsby Creek in particular have worked incredibly hard to change attitudes about the “drains”. In many parts of the city the concrete walls have been replaced by rock settings that allow the earth and water to breathe and interact more naturally. And you only have to look at old photos of the foreshore and compare it to the beautiful urban space of today to see how far things have come. After the book came out I had lots of conversations with people about the drains. People told me that they’d started looking to see if the tide was in or out, if there were any people in there, whether it was clean or full of rubbish. I’m proud of this, that I could encourage a little more engagement with our semi-natural world. 

Merewether drain trench, 1906

Stormwater drains are at best an overlooked part of city life, and yet they are vital to our survival. Did the experience of spending so much time in the drains give you a new appreciation for water and our relationship with it? 

Very much so. If you look at the entrance grills to drains in shopping centre car parks or look on the pavements of our streets you’ll see signs saying things like “Throsby Creek starts here” and “Help the kids keep the creek clean”. But if you go to the creeks themselves you’ll see huge signs warning people that, if they enter, they’re trespassing, or showing little figures being washed away in floods. It’s an ambiguous or contradictory message: care for this thing, but don’t go near it. It’s no wonder that people have, over time, become disconnected from our rivers, creeks, and waterways. If we are to genuinely reconnect with our waterways we need to take a leaf out of other cities’ books. Los Angeles has re-gazetted the LA River as a river — for a long time, it was a massive concrete drain. Seoul has done similar work on its urban waterways. But this all requires a way of thinking that’s absent in our risk-averse bureaucracies.

For someone who might be interested in venturing down, what are the best walks or most interesting locations to visit?

There are so many, but, of course, you couldn’t possibly go there as it’s illegal and dangerous!

A Year Down the Drain by Mark MacLean

You’re now based in Lightning Ridge, which seems like a completely different world to Newcastle. What brought you there, and do you miss the water at all? 

When I lived in Newcastle I worked as a freelance editor, but I retrained as a high school teacher about 10 years ago. I now teach English, History, and Yuwaalaraay — the Aboriginal language of the region — at Lightning Ridge Central School. I only came here for a temporary contract in 2016 but somehow ended up staying. It is indeed a very different world. It’s eight hours inland from Newcastle, which doesn’t sound a lot, but as you drive west everything changes. It’s not just the geology, flora, and fauna. Regional, rural and remote Australia has been pretty much abandoned by the city states. The lack of services and the level of disadvantage is breathtaking. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the place. When I got there I started a new blog, Learning About Lightning, and I’m in the process of writing another book on the difficult role I have as a non-Indigenous person trusted to teach Yuwaalaraay language to Yuwaalaraay kids on Yuwaalaraay land. It’s very fraught.

I do miss the water. My wife and I have a flat in Hamilton and we try to get back as often as we can. There are days in the Ridge when it gets to over 50 degrees and we loll around under the swampy — the evaporative air conditioner — and dream about walking along Nobbys breakwall or Bar Beach. Even the drain.

Historical photos: UoN Library Special Collections.

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Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.