The Localist

A river of time


If you’re planning a trip to Sydney you’re probably looking forward to the sun and sea. Both are great fun, but what might not be as obvious to non-locals is that Sydneysiders are lucky to be surrounded by a wide range of other lush natural landscapes brimming with beautiful native flora and fauna. Many of which afford a tranquil respite from the crowded, sweaty beaches that offer little shade to escape the harmful rays and even less protection from chubby birds greedily preying on your fish and chips.

I’m particularly fond of Cooks River, which sits at the bottom of the hill nearby where I live. The river starts at Botany Bay, the site of Captain Cook’s first landing in Australia. You’ll see it from the plane when you’re about to land at Kingsford Smith Airport. Cook’s was the first written description of the river, in 1770: “I found a very fine stream of fresh water on the north side in the first sandy cove within the island before which a ship might lay land-locked and wood for fuel may be got everywhere”.

Prior to European invasion the river was part of the area owned by the indigenous Cadigal (or Gadigal) peo­­­ple, who lived off the fish and shellfish and had a harmonious relationship with the environment.  Traces of the Gadigal way of life before European invasion can still be found, including rock art in a sandstone cave at Undercliffe. It’s odd reflecting on the conflicts that would have taken place here between the British and the indigenous people when it’s now one of the most friendly and peaceful places you can find in Sydney.

These days there are plenty of facilities that can be enjoyed by all, including walking/cycling paths, parks, barbeque facilities, kiddies’ play areas, basketball courts, football fields, tennis courts, a golf course, a croquet club, a bowling club, swimming pools and leash free dog playgrounds.


You can walk, kayak or cycle all along the river as it meanders through a catchment area of 55 km2 in metropolitan Sydney.  The bits of it that I am familiar with flow along Kendrick Park (Tempe), Mackey and Steel Parks (Marrickville), Beaman Park (Dulwich Hill), Boat Harbour (Hurlstone Park) and Cup and Saucer Wetlands (Canterbury) in the inner west. Fond childhood memories include learning how to ride a bike in Steel Park (i.e. Dad pushing me on my bike down the hill and me falling off the bike, repeatedly), running around waving yellow pom-poms at school athletics carnivals in Mackey Park and accidentally knocking over a little kid on my first solo bike ride in Kendrick Park (oops, forgot how to use the breaks).

If you’re interested in exploring the river, below are a couple of spots that are worth checking out. They are also great examples of how local communities can band together to improve the way we co-exist with our natural environment.

Cup and Saucer Wetlands (Canterbury/Earlwood)

Cooks River was originally a natural river, and up until about 60 years ago people were able to swim in it, as the photo of the Cooks River Lifesaving Club below illustrates. In the 1940s concrete panels were built along the “unruly” natural river banks in a bid to “improve” the river, resulting in the loss of some of the river’s natural environment. However it is still a very lovely escape from city living and I’m happy to say that a Cooks River naturalisation project is currently underway.


In 2010 the Cup and Saucer Wetlands were built in Canterbury to provide a natural habitat for the native wildlife, including local birds and aquatic life. The wetland filters water from Cup and Saucer Creek. Three more naturalisation sites are planned for Belfield, Canterbury and Campsie (more info at

Story Poles project – Kendrick Park (Marrickville/Tempe)

Kendrick Park and the area along the Cooks River between Mackey and Steel Parks are now home to a bunch of story poles, which are part of the Aboriginal Interpretation Project. These are artworks by local students under the tutelage of a local indigenous artist. The objective of the installation is to remind people of the importance of the river and ecology to indigenous people – past, present & future. I like what this blogger has written: “They look quite dream-like with the barbeque smoke wafting through the shade & patches of sunlight in amongst the Casuarina trees” (

Swimming in the river

Fans of swimming will be glad to know that the Cooks River Valley Association has been campaigning to achieve a healthy river which is safe for swimming again. In July 2013 Marrickville Council gave in principle support for the nomination of Kendrick Park as a potential, future safe swimming site on the Cooks River. The clean-up won’t happen overnight but I’ll be a happy old lady when we are finally able to swim in it again.

The Cooks River Valley Association has a page where you can find out more about events and developments along the river (!/CooksRiverValleyAssociation).

As Roberta Flack soulfully expressed, “there’s a river somewhere that flows through the lives of everyone”. We may be perceived as a young nation, but if you delve a little deeper, places like Cooks River demonstrate our rich heritage, telling some of the many important, diverse stories which make up our sunburnt country.


Images. All photos by Xuân.

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