a moving image from colour photographs showing water rushing through a paved and concrete catchment within a suburban area next to a park.
Essay: Clare BrittonAlexandra Crosby

Walking Wolli Creek

In this iterative writing and walking project, we have been making space to ask questions of each other about caring for Country, to share conversations about climate change, and to remind ourselves of the love that keeps us present. We start with an anecdote, usually shared while walking together on Gadigal/Bidgigal Land along the Cooks River; we live on either side of the river and have been walking together for many years. We take turns both to propose prompts for writing and directions for our walks responding to what we’ve encountered- mangroves, casuarinas, or for this essay, dingoes. Our walks in the catchment have also included following Papaya, Banana and Dragonfruit Trees through Marrickville and rowing and walking the river.

Clare Britton: The entrance to Girrahween Park is marked by a rusty panel embedded into hefty blocks of Hawkesbury sandstone. My grandmother was born in Slovenia, where they have granite mountains and bright green trees. Old castles in Slovenia are built out of the rocks they sit on and look like they are growing out of the mountains. I think about those buildings when I walk around Earlwood and see places built in sandstone. According to our last census most people in Earlwood have Greek ancestry. Memories of Greece are legible in the olive trees planted in the nature strips, the columns in the architecture and, best of all, a stained-glass double front door with the Acropolis on one side and the Sydney Opera House on the other.

a short animated photograph that shows water dripping on a section of rocks
Rain in the catchment 2022. Photo: Clare Britton.

This is Bidgigal Land. Earlwood is in the Canterbury Bankstown Local Government Area and under strict COVID lockdown orders. I’ve walked this loop for long enough that there are passing strangers I now recognise; during lockdown I’ve walked almost every day with M and many times with AC and other friends. There is a confusion between the dappled late afternoon sun hitting the leaves and the clouds of golden wattle blossoms. The golden tone of the light and the flowers are similar in the afternoon.

In this thin patch of bushland the Gymea lilies sink their roots into the shallow sandy soil. The gums have substantial pink and orange trunks pockmarked with fingertip-sized dimples and branches that snake up into the sky, unfurling and splitting into smaller and smaller tributaries. On days when it rains the orange gets brighter. I’m noticing all the little differences. New puddles, branches that have dropped. Flowers that have opened. Here it is possible to feel like you’re not in lockdown; it’s as if a screen you can only see through if the light is right has dropped and in certain spots the city disappears. On a nearby street we saw a man furiously juggling three fly screens out to the nature strip. It was like a cartoon and he was so mad it wasn’t possible to help. We had to stare at the concrete as we passed. We all get a bit like that in Sydney – struggling back and forward with too many fly screens. This walk is a little break from my juggling and strain that maybe doesn’t amount to very much.

More rain in the catchment 2022. Photo: Clare Britton.

Descending into the bushland, spiky green grass – lomandra – ‘council grass’ is abundant. Long green blades stretch out from a central base folding when gravity becomes too much. The dirt track meanders off into the distance. There’s a railway line nearby which, like this track, follows Wolli Creek along the bottom of the valley. The rocks climb up next to me. The valley is often in the shade, so the sandstone has moss and lichen growing on it. I am sure a more trained eye than mine could make sense of the tangle of weeds rolling down to the creek. Every time I walk here with someone new, I see new things and I find there are questions I can’t answer. When was that built? What’s this plant called? Who was this named after? I hadn’t paid attention to the sewage system that follows the creek until I went walking with F, who teaches and researches hydrology. I took my friend who is a sound artist for a walk while the colony of bats were having a high decibel orgy. 

I think about what I’m reading while I walk. In Fire Country, Victor Steffenson’s book about the role of fire in Indigenous land management, there is a chapter about landscapes like this – shea-oaks, redgums and waterways. It’s not meant to burn here; ‘it is crucial that fire is kept out of the rivers and springs to protect the parent water trees’. The redgums might be made out of paused water, ripples and bulges protruding at places where the branches bend. When I walked this track with Astrida, we sat on the highest point and watched the birds dive and soar; they looked like they were swimming. When I see the water in the redgums, I think about the water in me and in the creek we are following and the way Astrida said, ‘we are all made of this river’.

More rain in the catchment 2022. Photo: Clare Britton.

I don’t walk through here by myself. I don’t quite know what I’m afraid of. It’s just that sometimes you pass a shoe or a pair of undies or an old fridge that’s been pushed into the bush, and they are reminders that in this margin you might encounter someone doing something that’s not intended to be seen. Guy Debord calls that latent feeling about a place ‘psychogeography’. A word describing the confluence of landscape, architecture, lighting, and lived experience that accumulates in cities. Ross Gibson also thinks about how personal understandings of places can animate research, ‘I want to understand how tracts of country and drafts of consciousness can mingle and fashion each other in long processes of remembrance when each beat of the present lays down the past over lifetimes, across generations, throughout ecologies and geographies and inside societies, all knitted by actively remembering individual psyches.’ My discomfort walking alone makes me realise that I am reasonably unfamiliar with ecologies, geographies, and societies where people don’t dominate. Donna Haraway thinks about how productive and fertile compost piles are. Decomposition and wildness are important. Intellectually I know that, but when I have tried to walk here by myself in this paper-thin sliver of nature I can feel my chest tighten.

Writing place. Photo: Clare Britton.

If I think about it, there is a part of that feeling that is animal; it’s about dominance. I had that tight-chest feeling in Hawks Nest. We were driving to a campground at night when a man with no shoes came out on the road and pulled us up. His eyes were finding it hard to land somewhere and I could smell booze as I wound down my window. When he was silent for a disconcerting amount of time, I asked him to speak to M. The guy staggered around to the driver’s side and said he’d fought with his girlfriend and was lost and couldn’t find his campground, but there was a sense he was sizing us up. We gave him directions and drove on. Alcohol and menace. We weren’t welcome. The feeling lingered as we pulled up to the campground. 

Dingoes stationary in the trees at the edge of the campground watched us arrive. In the morning, the puppies, fluffy and scampering around the campground, were adorable. The older dingoes moved more slowly and with every muscle tuned. They staked out positions at strategic high points on the sand dunes as we went to the beach. I don’t know what they were doing, but it felt like they didn’t want us there. For the second time in as many days, we got behind M as he made himself as big and assertive as possible, incorporating a boogie board for extra height. I think I was scared of the same thing that scares me about walking the track alone. Not being dominant. Losing control. Wildness. 

Alexandra Crosby: Reading Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction by the late Deborah Bird Rose was the first time I thought very deeply about dingoes. She asks ‘Is it necessary that all animals become either pets or enemies?’ On the cover of my edition, a dingo sits in a clump of wild grasses behind a wire fence, a curious and determined stare fixed on the reader. 

Before that, television was my primary dingo mediator and when I thought ‘dingo’, next came Lindy Chamberlain. Dingoes, like snakes, crocodiles and spiders, came up in conversations about being Australian, in backpacker hostels and on long bus trips. But a dingo is not to a dog what a dropbear is to a koala. On Butchulla Country, K’Gari, (also known as Fraser Island), there have been several actual conflicts between dingoes and humans. The warning signs, human-centred as they are with their thick borders and bold type, mediate a relationship between two species that often do not want the same things.

a dingo on a beach
A dingo at K’gari. Photo: Alex Davies.

Dingoes can really creep up on you. This happens at camp on K’gari as I make coffee with the sunrise. The communications about dingos from National Parks – posters on the ferry and attached to the back of toilet doors and on the campsite booking app – are designed for clarity, positioned alongside strict rules for rubbish disposal and recycling. The issues are related because dingoes are attracted to food scraps, and also because most people from cities in Australia are already familiar with the logic of waste systems ordered by colours. The word DANGER is printed in large capital letters on red backgrounds, black and yellow bullet points follow, then images of bared teeth and frightened children. A detailed paragraph follows about what to do if a dingo approaches. An outline of a dingo head in profile has been specially designed for easy reproduction to be attached to gates and signs on walking trails. The message is reinforced with some regularity by ambient chatter between tourists and rangers. 

Conditioned by exposure to all these warnings, I try to respond to the dingo with ‘presence’. As instructed, I jump up, fold my arms, and make myself bigger. The dingo stares back at me with another kind of presence, sniffs the solar panels, then trots off at a steady pace. 

Later in the morning, once everyone else is up, we follow her tracks from camp and along the creek. My adolescent son, who seems to bring memes to every experience, chants ‘follow the toe beans’ with curiosity and affection. According to the internet, which I regularly consult to make sense of what he says, toe beans are the alluring little pads on the bottom of cat and dog paws. Our pet dog, who is keeping my mother company back in the city, has beans that smell like grass and corn chips. The tracks steer the dingo to the creek edge for refreshment, take a few loose circles, and then continue along the coast further than we can see.

CB: Walking through this little bit of bush every day makes me value public space and nature and holding space for all these systems I don’t understand. The track I have been walking is about eight kilometres. A loop following the Cooks River until it joins Wolli Creek, then following Wolli Creek home – if it was stretched out, I could easily walk to Sydney Uni. If I did that it would be better for me and better for the environment, but, to quote Jennifer Hamilton, ‘my body cannot or does not always practice what my brain knows to be right’. We are in an emergency. Things must change, and fast – we have to find ways of actually doing the things we know we should do.

More rain in the catchment 2022. Photo: Clare Britton.

The Cooks River Environment Survey and Landscape Design was published in 1976; a labour of love completed despite the project losing funding with the ousting of the Whitlam government. The report hovers between projected and realised futures; it contains proposals that have been enacted and suggestions ignored. The key recommendations were to preserve a natural corridor along the river valley by increasing vegetation and minimising new development, particularly near the river. The survey imagines changes. It makes me imagine changes. A bushwalk instead of Parramatta Road. Giving way to native trees and plants and rocks instead of cars. A significant green interruption to one of the main streets in our city would create chaos, but maybe something beautiful and challenging like that could force us to walk, to change, to allow for spaces that aren’t just about people and money. We might need to make our urgent problems immediate so that we can figure out how to change.

More rain in the catchment 2022. Photo: Clare Britton.

AC: Researching histories of water at Green Square we think about how the Cooks River and Wolli Creek connect to Sheas Creek and the Alexandra Canal in a confluence. Deep in the archives, Ilaria comes across some dingos and passes on this clipping:

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. I have killed numbers of them where the ‘Bus Company’s stables now stand; and often in daylight, where the day has been dull, have I seen them come up to my very door and take the poultry.

In Darlinghurst, we are part of a small and committed audience of the visceral and violent play Dogged, by Andrea James and Catherine Ryan. The white wine feels like a reward for making it here after a too-long work day. We are pleased with ourselves for arriving because we left campus unsure what route to take. The theatre is only a few kilometres, as the crow flies, but after months at home, we are out of practice going further than our laptop screens for an appointment. I have walked in my own neighbourhood over and over, with CB, with the dog, with my son. But here in the traffic, I seem to have lost my wildness, my intuitive ability to combine footpath with street, tunnel, platform, train and to connect the map in my brain to spontaneous trajectories. 

In Dogged, a dingo and a domestic dog form a relationship on Gunaikurnai Country, in alpine Victoria. The production brings the vast space and the harsh weather of the mountains to that tiny stage in the inner city. The actors speak and spit and move around on four legs, until we are all dogs, entangled in the impossible challenge of survival. The words themselves linger in the contaminated atmosphere we are now so conscious of sharing. I can hear audience members breathe through their masks during the pauses in dialogue. In the play, the cute domestic dog is naively wild and uncontrollable, needing education from the wise, grief-stricken, and generous dingo. It is the dog that dies from eating poisonous bait, unable to control himself, unable to piece together the nonsensical acts of colonisation that divide, tame and kill. 

A few months later I am back in another Sydney lockdown, punctuated by walks with CB. I watch world-first footage captured by a collar camera recording a ‘day in the life’ of a wild dingo on K’gari. Twenty-four hours are compressed to just a few minutes for the news cycles. It starts with playtime, a bird for breakfast and then lots of sand dunes and drinks at creeks. I pause on a frame that evokes that dingo on the cover of Wild Dog Dreaming. A man is standing on a fenced veranda, holding his phone perfectly still, filming and staring. Through my laptop screen, he is watching me watch him watch the dingo through his screen. All of our wild pixel bodies are tiny and vulnerable and connected. 


We live and work on the lands of the Gadigal, D’harawal and Bidgigal People and acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of lands and waters and pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging and particularly Acknowledge the knowledge, research, friendship and activism of Aunty Rhonda Dixon Grovenor. 

Thank you to Magnetic Typographies for the generous feedback on an early draft. 

Works Cited

Cooks River Environment Survey and Landscape Design : Report of the Cooks River Project. Cooks River Project: 1976.

Guy Debord. Theory of the Dérive. Les Lèvres Nues #9: 1956.

Ross Gibson, Memoryscopes: Remnants, Forensics, Aesthetics. University of Western Australia Press: 2015

Jennifer Mae Hamilton, All the Worlds a Drain. Sydney Review of Books: 2017.

Donna Harraway, Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press: 2016.

Andrea James and Catherine Ryan, Dogged. Currency Press: 2021.

Deborah Bird Rose, Wild dog dreaming: Love and extinction. University of Virginia Press: 2011.

Victor Steffensen, Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. Hardie Grant Explore: 2020. 

Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of water: Posthuman feminist phenomenology. Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019.

OLD AND NEW SYDNEY. The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 – 1954) Thu 12 Oct 1882, Page 9.