Scott Bevan goes with flow

SCOTT BEVAN
SCOTT BEVAN

When Sydney-based Scott Bevan arrives in Newcastle to visit family and friends, he releases an audible sigh. ‘‘It’s that exhalation of pure comfort ... aaaaah ... I’m home now and I’m fine,’’ he says, laughing. Until 1993, when the intrepid journalist left town to pursue career opportunities, home was here in the Hunter (he returned in 2001 for a year with wife Jo to write) and even now, when asked where he is from, Bevan replies with great affection and pride, ‘‘Newcastle’’. ‘‘Some nearest and dearest correct me and say, ‘Well, that’s not true any more’, but yes it is. I am from Newcastle in my heart and soul.’’

That passion for his birthplace and a love of history motivated Bevan, who now works for ABC News 24, to embark in February 2011 on an ambitious and meaningful adventure, picking up where he had left off a decade earlier. ‘‘Back in 2001, I wrote a series for the Newcastle Herald about a canoe trip I did with Jo down the Hunter River, starting just below Glenbawn Dam,’’ he recalls. ‘‘Then I went overseas for work [Bevan became the ABC’s Moscow correspondent] but often while I was away I was reminded of the river and I felt strongly about revisiting it with the view to writing a book so I could reach a wider audience. When we came back to Australia, I talked to ABC Books and they were interested.’’

It still took a little while for Bevan’s resolve to turn into action. ‘‘When I got back from Russia and told my dear mate [film director] Bruce Beresford about my plan, he said, ‘Gee, I hope you don’t die’. I told him it was safe and he said, ‘No, I don’t mean that. I hope you don’t die of boredom’. [Laughs] And then I launched into a defence of the area and why it’s so wonderful. I knew I had to get going.’’

After visiting by foot the three streamlets in the Barrington Tops that form the beginning of the Hunter River, Bevan explores the Packers’ 27,000-hectare estate Ellerston before starting his paddling from the White family’s famous Belltrees property.

Had much changed in the decade since his last journey? ‘‘The main thing that struck me was how many areas along the river were unkempt, [with] weeds having taken over. In certain parts it may be because more and more land is no longer primarily used for agriculture, but is tied up with the mining industry.

‘‘That’s not to say mines don’t consider that stuff, but if you’re on the land, day in and day out, and it’s part of who you are and what you are, then you’re going to be more mindful of that aspect. There were parts that were like paddling through South-East Asia because of the profusion of bamboo and weeds.’’

Mining had also increased its reach. ‘‘In 2001, I remember being surprised by how close in places mining does come to the river, so this time, I was more prepared for the shock, but it is cheek by jowl and the mining industry is right there beside the river.

‘‘In places, it is an extraordinary presence when you paddle around a bend and see a range of overburden towering over the river. I felt a sense of loss; you couldn’t just do the Huck Finn thing and paddle down the river and wander up to the farmhouse and speak to the local farmer and say, ‘G’day, can I camp on your land?’ There are stretches now where that isn’t possible.’’

The effect of being a decade older also hit the 47-year-old hard. ‘‘It was a reaffirmation that I’m ageing,’’ laughs the father of five-year-old twin boys. ‘‘You wouldn’t think there would be much difference in 10 years, but there is. My muscles were testament to that every morning I woke up in a tent aching. I wasn’t prepared for feeling so old!’’

Bevan is an evocative and skilful writer with a journalist’s eye for detail. He captures the subtle characteristics of the people and landscape that enriched his adventure. Colourful historical detail is threaded through his account, as is personal reflection. ‘‘You paddle a river and it forces you to look around,’’ Bevan says. ‘‘It also allowed me to meditate on those two questions I set out to answer with the book – who am I and where am I from?’’

The following excerpt begins with Bevan’s musings about the impact of encroaching ‘‘civilisation’’.

On the river, everything glides by so subtly, almost imperceptibly, that you only notice something is missing once it is gone. That realisation is yet another argument as to why the flow of rivers can be compared to life itself. And so it is with silence, or the closest you can come to it in the Hunter.

In the upper sections of the river it was possible to paddle for quite some time accompanied only by the sounds of the blade cutting the water, occasional phrases of birdsong, and my own breathing. But now the sounds of the world beyond the banks are almost constantly reaching the water. And they are the sounds of an area wrestling with its identity.

The country through this part of the Hunter accommodates old farms and new subdivisions as well as a smattering of industry.

Consequently, I hear cows mooing and a car horn blaring, the soft thrum of irrigation pumps, and, on one bend of the river where a small gravel quarry is operating, the roar of trucks. A little beyond the quarry, I hit another impassable sandbank and have to get out once more. Rather irrationally, I admit, I glare back at the excavators and hiss, ‘‘If you’re going to dig, why can’t you get in here and dig out this sand?’’

Yet the river continues to provide soul-soothing moments as well. In the stretch between Luskintyre and Melville Ford, I paddle amid the ruins of an old wooden bridge. All that remains are nine piers and a few cross beams, as well as some defiant, but rusting, bolts, holding it all together. The piers look like statues in the middle of the river.

No sooner has the Hunter soothed me with this visual respite than it rubs a little harder on my sore spot: impatience. The river is wandering all over the countryside. I feel as though the course is leading me away from, not closer to, Maitland. The map indicates my feeling is not misplaced. I have been paddling in a north-westerly direction for quite a few kilometres. The river finally decides to turn right and head towards town. But it still maintains its regular demand that I drag the kayak by performing its disappearing trick with the water. The trick is becoming tiresome.

On the approach to Melville Ford, the signs of suburbia are creeping ever closer to the river across what was until recently farming land. All that rich soil is now being entombed under concrete slabs. I also glimpse Mount Sugarloaf, off in the distance, with television towers like spiky tufts of hair sprouting out of its summit. The sight reminds me of my childhood. Mount Sugarloaf was where we would go sometimes for a Sunday drive. From near the top we could look down to Newcastle and Lake Macquarie and the Lower Hunter. I could even gaze out to sea. This was the world I knew. And from Mount Sugarloaf, gazing down like a little god, my world looked huge.

Despite the name, there is no longer a ford at Melville Ford. Instead, it is a bridges’ graveyard. Here lie the remains of three former crossings. The current low-level bridge, stoically carrying traffic across the Hunter, is just downstream from the corpses of its forebears. Doubtlessly, the combination of the weight on its deck and the force tossed at it by the river when in flood means in time this bridge too will be little more than piers.

At the ford I stop for lunch on the bank and try to imagine what this place looked like in the mid 19th century. My visual reference is a couple of paintings, Ford on the Lower Hunter and View on the Lower Hunter, by Joseph Docker. The images look as though they have been brushed with a fair dollop of homesickness, as if the Mother Country has been grafted on to the Australian bush. In the View painting, in particular, the trees are too feathery and the landscape too soft to resemble anything like what I paddled through. And the river is depicted as a mirror, reflecting cattle on the bank.

I don’t know where Docker painted these images, but Ford on the Lower Hunter could have been painted around where I am sitting. The artist has depicted animals crossing a ford, and a man with a stick or paddle is measuring the river’s depth, which doesn’t seem much. With the river so shallow at the moment, I could be paddling through that picture.

Yet Docker has also represented the promise that the river and the land held for settlers. In View on the Lower Hunter, there is a slab hut with a woman working in a garden beside it, a plentiful vegetable patch in the foreground, and a fellow, with a branch over his shoulder, wandering back to his rudimentary home. He has a lot more branches to fell. The land along the banks looks tamed and largely cleared, except for the feathery, fir-like trees. But beyond that, the bush still looks thick and threatening, while the distant hills retain their wildness. In the background of the painting, downriver, is an image of what the couple with the slab hut can aspire to: a larger, more substantial looking homestead.

This is art imitating colonial life along this stretch of the Hunter. A string of impressive homes were built on the banks. They certainly impressed a visiting British journalist and author, David Burn, who noted with a flourish in his journal in 1844 that the wider Maitland area ‘‘is begirt with fine pastoral hills upon whose swelling slopes elegant villas are plenteously studded. The locality is indeed a lovely one, and in the golden days when ‘Money in both pockets’ abounded, the resident gentry might surely be forgiven the pardonable vanity the contemplation of one’s own fertile soil never fails to excite in the bosom of the lords.’’

Some of those colonial dream homes became ruins, others ruined the dreams – and the finances – of those who built them, and a few have survived to tell tales from the past. Among the remaining buildings is Windermere House, which was built in the 1820s by merchant Thomas Winder and was later the home of the explorer and politician W. C. Wentworth. The home has iron rings embedded in the walls of subterranean rooms; the convict servants were apparently chained there when they slept.

Not far away is the elegant two-storey Anambah House, built in 1889 by graziers the Mackay family and designed by John Pender, who was the architect of the rich and landed in the valley at the time. This high Victorian home hosted the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba early in the 20th century and a cast of movie stars, including Sam Neill, when it was the set for the 1994 film Country Life.

And then there is the mansion with the wide windows staring imperiously at me as I round a bend below Melville Ford: Aberglasslyn House. A resident of this beautiful piece of history later tells me the house was designed so that it looked straight down the river. Given the river would have changed course since Aberglasslyn House was built, it is remarkable the mansion’s gaze remains fairly true to its designer’s intentions. Maybe Aberglasslyn House is like the Mona Lisa – its eyes follow you no matter which way you come from.

Aberglasslyn House was built for pastoralist George Hobler between 1840 and 1842. Hobler spared no expense, bringing skilled workmen out from Britain and employing about 60 on site. The stone for the two-storey house was quarried at nearby Rutherford, its interiors featured exquisitely worked cedar joinery, and, according to the writer Cecily Mitchell, it was the only local house of the time to have upstairs and downstairs bathrooms with a septic service. Hobler established a fine garden and a vineyard and had stone stairs cut and laid down the terraces to the river, where he and his sons kept a boat and would go fishing. He even drew illustrations of what he caught.

In all, Aberglasslyn House, in its first owner’s words, was ‘‘a very handsome mansion’’, and its creation was ‘‘a most substantial expensive affair’’. Perhaps too expensive, because Hobler was a victim of an economic downturn and was out of Aberglasslyn House by mid-1844.

The house may look lonely standing on a bend in the river, but these days it is a family home. The children of the family, which has lived there since 2000, sometimes kayak from Melville Ford to their home, a journey which can take anywhere between 15 minutes and three hours, depending on the mood and level of the river. And the kayak came in handy during the 2007 floods when the house became an island, and family members would paddle across to a road so they could access the wider world.

While the house stands on ground high enough to remain dry during floods, its vast stone cellars can be inundated, and the whole family has become adept at working a pump to drain them. As for a local story that there is a tunnel from the cellars to the river, the resident I speak with can neither confirm its existence – ‘‘we certainly haven’t seen it’’ – nor dispel it as a myth. She says people have told her they have seen the tunnel, even been in it, and there is a hole in the floor, framed by cut sandstone, that goes down about a metre. The hole is now a sump drain. The resident believes ‘‘it is not unlikely that a tunnel did exist in the past, but that it has completely caved in now’’. So, true to the character of a place that exudes both an undeniable presence and a certain aloofness as it sits above the river, Aberglasslyn House retains its mystery.

Somewhere along this stretch of the Hunter, the valley has undergone a major facelift, stripping 250million years or so. When you look at a map of the geology of the Hunter Valley, it appears as though on the approach to Maitland, I paddle out of the Permian age with its coal and shale and sandstones, and I enter the Johnny-come-lately Quaternary period, which began a mere 1.8million years ago. If I were to go strictly by the map, I should come around a bend, paddle into the new age and think of something polite to say, like, ‘‘Wow, Hunter Valley, your skin, it looks so much younger!’’ But, of course, I don’t notice any dramatic change. Typical bloke.

As I paddle past Maitland Vale on the left side of the river, I strike up a conversation with a farmer who is tending to a pump perched on the edge of the steep bank. His name is Richard Proudfoot, and he is a recent arrival. He is a sea- and tree-changer, having moved out of Sydney and bought a property by Lake Macquarie, then this farm. Richard and his wife bought the property, Middlehope, in September 2010, just before a flood.

‘‘We knew it flooded here,’’ he says. ‘‘Everyone told us.’’

Richard wasn’t even on the property when the water was rising in 2010, but he received a call from his stock and station agent warning he should pull his pump out of the river by the following morning. By the time Richard arrived at 6am, the pump was already two metres under water, and he was surprised to see the river had swollen to at least 200metres wide, licking at a house on the opposite bank.

When Richard invites me onto his land, the marks of the 2010 flood are still evident, with rubbish entangled in the wires of the fences near the river.

Still, a little water was hardly going to damage Richard’s desire to have a farm. Actually, it’s why he bought this land – ‘‘We wouldn’t have bought it, but for the river.’’

This is an edited extract from The Hunter: Paddling through time along a great Australian river, by Scott Bevan, published by ABC Books. Bevan will speak at Newcastle Library on August 22, 6pm; Morpeth Museum on August 23, 6pm; Singleton Library on August 24, 6pm; and Muswellbrook Library on August 25, 11am.

Weekender has one copy to give away. To enter email weekenderfreebies@theherald.com.au or text 0427369610 the word ‘‘Hunter’’, with your name, address and phone number.