Essay: Tom Leeon Waterloo

Lost Landscapes of Waterloo

I arrived in Waterloo in mid-2015 when ‘apartmentia’ was already in full swing. From my base on the ground floor of a new apartment complex I have watched industrial facades disappear behind scaffolding for a few months to reappear as industrially-inspired, luxury living. Workers cottages and red brick bungalows are now a vestigial presence among multi-storey apartment blocks with bright feature walls and laser-cut cladding. Industrial spaces now cater to the stimulant and relief culture of the urban professional: electricity substations are cafes and architectural firms, permanently illuminated gyms display humans in states of arrested kinesis, and rather than tangible, reassuringly old worldly products like leather, soap, candles, wool and glass, contemporary institutions like daycare centres and pet barns produce less tangible but no less important services, allowing flexibility and peace of mind.

Despite the differences in this new urban substance, many of the characteristics for which suburbs have traditionally been criticised are still in place: superficial novelty against a background of sameness; buildings that facilitate a culture of co-isolated living where residents move between the home, work and the supermarket with minimal interaction.

Soon after settling into the suburb, I realised my little media-augmented burrow was positioned in a time and place of rapid transition, one in a series over the relatively recent history of white settlement: from a landscape adapted to the practices of Indigenous Australians to a British colony in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century; the industrialisation of the colony and spread of suburbia in the latter parts of the nineteenth and early twentieth century; and now the formation of the postindustrial environment through which I wandered, sustained by caffeine and a smart phone.

Despite the convenient distinctions, it is wrong to think of these different layers as discrete chapters. The present is composed of elsewheres and anachronisms: some might index a verifiable history, others might fuel analogy-led speculation, linking up hitherto disconnected phenomena.

My apartment block was built more or less directly on an old dam known as Little Waterloo Dam, one of a series of interconnected water features once typical of the area. These waterways were crucial to the industries of the nineteenth century that relied on water as a source of power, transportation and as a raw substance for processes such as washing and boiling. Apart from the Alexandria Canal, once famous as Sydney’s most polluted waterway, and wetlands preserved within Centennial Park, the golf courses nearby and the Botany wetlands, most of the swamps have been reclaimed to allow for building.

Like the water that flows through the interconnected waterways, one of the first things I did after moving to the area was run south towards the coastline at Botany Bay. I set off on an early spring day in September, one of those teasers of summer common to Sydney that seem to skip spring altogether. The air was filled with the musky smell of wattle bloom and the stray fibres of plane tree seed pods shook loose by the warm winds. Running through a landscape provides a different perspective to walking. In my experience, it is more conducive to ecstasy than melancholy and gives an impressionistic perspective: a film rather than a photograph.

I experienced my run down Botany Road as composite of virtual and real places: an older version of Sydney atmospherically connected to the swamplands of the American South I’d seen in films. This was no doubt due to the presence of old weatherboard churches and vacant lots with uncommonly unkempt lawns. I had a pervasive sense I was in a crime drama of some sort, a naïve though curious protagonist soon to be entangled in a dark web.

Botany wetland is visible from Botany Road just after it passes under Southern Cross Drive, a large freeway that funnels cars out of or into Sydney. Corporate parks and golf courses surround these bodies of water and low flying planes continuously moan through the sky overhead. The landscape is unmistakably one of modern transportation technologies and infrastructure. Yet for a moment, when I stopped and starred into the thick, muddy morass of lilies, sedges and other underwater plants I was insulated from my place and time. The idea that some ancient record was preserved in this body of water gave me great comfort and I imagined it filling a network of underground tunnels connecting back up with the swamps on higher ground in Centennial Park to the north east.

Luxuriant swamplands such as these display a kind of vegetative and animal abundance that European settlers regarded with mixed feelings. Their life-filled quality did not seem readily adaptable to human needs and desires. Accounts from the early days of settlement testify to this ambivalence. In his 2004 report on the pre-European landscape of eastern suburbs of Sydney, Jason Doran cites Obed West, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, who describes the swamplands around his home in Paddington in the first half of the nineteenth century:

It swarmed with aquatic birds of every description—red bills, water hens, bitterns, quail, frequently all kinds of ducks, and when in season, snipe, landrails, and at all times bronze-winged pigeons could be had in abundance. Brush wallabies were all very numerous in the vicinity and many scores of them I have shot. It may seem strange to hear that, within the memory of any person living, the head of the swamp was a great resort for dingoes.

The language of the plague informs this description of a landscape seen as both hostile and prolific.

A rough indication of what this experience must have been like for West is still available in an isolated pocket of melaleuca swamp in Centennial Park known as Lachlan Swamp. The open, ordered expanse of formal gardens and playing fields vanishes behind the thick, flaky busted-up bark of the trees. The ground is covered by tangles of fern and water plants. A sulfurous extrusion clings to the edges of large puddles. The space is often pervaded by the raucous screeches of a colony of flying foxes, whose dung drips from the foliage and mixes with the moist air to create an olfactory experience as consuming as the sonic. It would have demanded some effort of the imagination for settlers to adopt a sympathetic inclination to such a places as they attempted to create smooth routes and homes. Today raised walkways allow the pedestrian uninhibited movement: above the mud, in-between plants, and before long the predicable openness of mown lawns and roads returns.

About seven kilometres south of Centennial Park, Anzac Parade curves towards the coast and cuts directly through a piece of scrub, leaving an elongated section in the median strip, orphaned from the larger scrubland that runs up the Malabar headland above Long Bay. The scrub is Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub (ESBS), a vegetation community once dominant in the area that stretches south from Centennial Park, through Waterloo, Kensington, Randwick and Mascot, down to the coastal swamplands of Botany Bay.

ESBS is now listed as an endangered vegetation community. In 2004 the Department of Environment and Conservation released a Recovery Plan for ESBS stating that ‘less than 3% of the original distribution of ESBS remains’, much of which is fragmented and under threat from various forces to do with urbanisation. ESBS tends to feature species such as wallum banksia, lantern banksia or heath banksia, old man banksia, pink wax flower, variable sword sedge, coastal tea tree, tree broom heath, Austral bracken, wedding bush and grass trees. Islands of the stuff remain: in Centennial Park, The Lakes Golf Course, Randwick Environment Park, NSW Golf Course La Perouse, with more precarious remnants in the no-mans land adjoining government infrastructure in Matraville.

The scrub in the Anzac Parade median strip is small, isolated and degraded. It is dotted with plastic lids punctured by straws, bags of rubbish and glass. It is the kind of place people do impromptu shits. The ground is so sandy it is surprising that it would support such abundant vegetation. In the distance, across the tops of the wattle and banksia, the ocean is visible and its saltiness pervades the air. The place is a combination of the gritty and the pretty characteristic of this part of the Sydney coastline.

There is something peculiarly disquieting about scrubland. It’s easy to lose things in, difficult to move through, and, because it seemingly without order itself, attracts untoward activities like dumping rubbish and the smoking of bongs. The memorable mood of Ray Lawrence’s 2001 film Lantana derives some of its mysteriousness from the murky meshwork of the lantana shrub common to Sydney suburbs on the edges of bushland. In the opening sequence camera pans across a seemingly endless mass of lantana, gradually zooming into the darker undergrowth, where a dead body lies suspended among the tangled, thorny branches. The chaotic vegetation and disquieting affect is heightened by similarly frenzied, buzzing static of insects such as cicadas and flies.

The combination of exposure to the elements and the inhibition of movement is perhaps the reason that shrub-dominated landscapes are the ideal settings for dramatisations of perspectival distress. In W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn the narrator recounts a walking tour along the Suffolk coastline where he becomes entangled in the heathlands of Dunwich:

My way from Dunwich took me at first by the ruins of Grey Friars monastery, through a number of fields, and then to an overgrown scrubland where stunted pines, birches and rampant gorse grew so densely that the going was very hard. I was beginning to think of turning back when all of a sudden the heath opened out in front of me. Shading from pale lilac to deepest purples it stretched away westward, with a white track curving gently through its midst. Lost in the thoughts that went around in my head incessantly, and numbed by this crazed flowering, I stuck to the sandy path until to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before, or, as it now seemed to me, in some distant past.

This episode builds to a crescendo as the narrator undergoes one of his not infrequent episodes of profound, existential disquiet: ‘In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me—all this became oppressive and unnerving’. The narrator experiences the heath as an organic labyrinth that reminds him of the more neat but no less confusing yew maze he recently observed in the opulent gardens of Somerlyton Hall, a grand country residence in the same county. In a characteristic piece of Sebaldian digression, the impenetrable, tangled mess of the scrubland triggers a series of analogies that include the nature of the narrator’s cognitive and perceptual abilities, culminating with a comparison between the pattern of the yew maze and a cross section of his brain.

Back up to the north along Anzac Parade is the suburb of Daceyville, the first large scale, government-funded, public housing project in Australia. It’s like a rundown outpost of Canberra tucked away in Sydney. The site where the old picture theatre played silent movies and hosted an AC/DC concert has been converted into housing reminiscent of the giant woolsheds that are among Australia’s most distinctive architectural feats. The suburb retains a peculiar feel, with its Parisian inspired boulevards, fenceless gardens, gelato-coloured bungalows and relatively abundant shade from trees.

When work began on the suburb in 1912 builders had to transform a landscape of sand dunes into housing. Photographs from the era show vast expanses of sand patchily networked with tufts of sharp, hardy grasses. It’s easy to imagine a strong southerly coming up the coast and redistributing sand over the streets and onto verandahs. Even when development ceased in 1920 sand and scrub was still a significant feature of the landscape. Samantha Sinnayah’s history of the suburb includes accounts from Reg and Keith James, who grew up in Daceyville in the 1920s and 30s and recall having sand fights in the dunes. Sinnayah cites a 1913 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald that reports ‘brilliant rose beds and even rose gardens
 in the sand’.

The bleak expanse of Astrolabe Park on the southwestern fringe of Daceyville gives a partial sense of the openness that would have characterised the area when building began. I’ve stood at the top of its small rise on a number of occasions, looking out over patches of ESBS in The Lakes Golf Course and the remaining swamps towards the new towers rising up near Mascot Station and the large cranes at Botany Bay. Returning my gaze to the sandy soil in the gaps between the grass transports me to other favoured tracks I’ve traced in the greater area, places where the seemingly timeless, perpetually abrasive grains become explicit; pale, bone coloured grounds hinting at the entropic forces that underwrite our ambitions.

Shifting sands are close to the surface on the grassy hills of Moore Park. At the northern terminus of Anzac Parade, the area features some of the most centrally located and largest sporting facilities in Sydney: the Sydney Cricket Ground, The Sydney Football Stadium and Moore Park Golf Course. However, in the nineteenth century, four sandy hills were among its key geographical features: Mount Steel, Mount Rennie, Mt Lang and Constitution Hill. The area was then commonly known as the Sand Hills and was prone to erosion because timber getters had destroyed the trees that held its loose, sandy soils together.

In Frank Clune’s Scandals of Sydney Town (1957) the area is described as a ‘scrub covered wasteland’. It was the site of an infamous rape case in the 1880s known as the Mt Rennie Case, where a gang known as the Waterloo Push raped a 16 year-old orphan, Mary Jane Hicks. Then, as now, the case divided society regarding the issues of victimhood and blame. As noted by Scott Vance in his history of crime in the Green Square area:

The Bulletin championed the rapists in the Mt Rennie case, arguing ‘she was asking for it’ and calling Mary Jane Hicks a ‘lying little street tramp’. However, the horrific nature of the crime, and the sense that there needed to be a message sent to the youth of the colony, saw nine out of the eleven youths who were tried sentenced to hang.

While it seems profoundly unfair to blame either Hicks or the vegetation for these acts, a long history of such stories in part explains why scrublands and other dense, disordered vegetation communities have historically been regarded as disagreeable places. As Oliver Rackham notes of heathland forests in his comprehensive study of the British countryside:

Heaths were described as ‘dreary and desolate wastes’—maybe they were to those who saw more of them than we can—and as ‘useless’ and ‘barren deserts’. They were seen as the resort of highwaymen. And as we have seen, Forests were supposed to encourage a kind of immorality; and heathland Forests were more immoral than other kinds.

Mt Rennie has since been flattened to make way for a club house. An isolated cluster of shrubs on one of its upper slopes is a haunting remnant of how precarious life must have been for women like Mary Jane Hicks in those days.

While it is a given that humans will always exist in some kind of place, the quality of that place, its diversity, richness and robustness, is a matter of purposeful effort. This is the case in terms of the physical places we build and visit and the virtual places we construct in our minds. Great tracts of land and their stories lie locked away, some inevitably, some due to a lack of interest. In order to derive sustenance from place it must be sought out, augmented and woven together. Programs need to be devised to give form to the buzzing, amorphousness of history and its manifestation in places. I close my eyes in my cell above the old Waterloo Dam and let the emerging map of my surrounds flow through my mind and remind me of where I am.

Works cited

Clune, Frank. Scandals of Sydney Town. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1957.
Doran, Jason. “The Pre-European Environmental Landscape of Green Square”. in Histories of Green Square. Edited by G. Karskens & M. Rogowsky. UNSW Printing & Publishing Services, 2004. 23-30.
Lawrence, Ray. Lantana. Film based on Speaking in Tongues, Andrew Bovell. Prod. Australian Film Finance Corporation, 2001.
Rackham, O. The History of The Countryside: The classic history of Britain’s landscape, flora and fauna. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.
Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse. London: The Harvill Press, 1998.
Sinnayah, Samantha. Audaciousville: the story of Dacey Garden Suburb, Australia’s first public housing estate. SOS Printing, City of Botany Bay Library & Museum Services, 2010.
Vance, Scott. “Green Square and the Thin Blue Line: 63 crime, law and order in the Green Square area” in Histories of Green Square. Edited by G. Karskens & M. Rogowsky. UNSW Printing & Publishing Services, 2004. 63-69.

Published October 5, 2016
Part of Writing Place: The SRB has been publishing new writing devoted to place since 2016. All Writing Place essays →
Tom Lee

Tom Lee is director of the masters of design at the University of Technology,...

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