UNDER a canopy of trees that arcs like the ceiling of a cathedral, the atmosphere is almost reverential. A whipbird’s call cracks against the distant thrum of the sea, and a breeze tousles the tops of the trees.
Kate Harrison looks at the sky through the canopy and murmurs, “It can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere”.
Yet we are in the midst of suburbs, and only about five kilometres from the heart of Newcastle. We are on the Yuelarbah Track in the Glenrock State Conservation Area.
Kate Harrison knows her way through Glenrock. She is a ranger with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, which manages the state conservation area. She and her colleague, bush regeneration officer Boyd Carney, are guiding me through their workplace.
This slice of almost 550 hectares, which contains creeks and waterfalls, Glenrock Lagoon, beaches and bush between Merewether and Dudley, is a playground for many Novocastrians. Glenrock offers an escape and respite from the routine of everyday life that rushes by just over the ridgelines.
“You can access this amazing bushland from most places in Newcastle,” Carney says. “It gives people that access to nature.
That makes Glenrock not just special but increasingly rare. As the ceaseless tide of housing has rolled over the landscape to the edge of the sea right up and down the coast, Harrison points out it is remarkable to have so much bushland so close to a city.
“Coastal areas have been popular for development, and so to have a coastal conservation area right next to Newcastle and its suburbs is so lucky,” she says.
That luck has been bestowed in part by history, and by the efforts of a community that has come to understand what a gem it has on its doorstep.
NO matter which way you approach Glenrock, the landscape makes an impression. If you walk along Burwood Beach from Merewether and stop before the headland commonly called Leggy Point, there is a rampart of sand separating the sea from the lagoon.
Glenrock Lagoon is an elongated body of water, about 900 metres long, nestling at the end of a valley. If you look from the beach, the lagoon seems to darken and brood the closer it gets to the bush-cloaked valley.
However, if you approach it by walking down the valley, following the bush tracks that trace and cross two watercourses feeding the lagoon, Flaggy and Little Flaggy creeks, you are rewarded with a stunning view. At a spot called Leichhardt’s Lookout, the trees part to reveal the lagoon below. Just beyond the lagoon, seemingly cupped by the headlands, is the sea. The journey down the valley explains how the landscape dictated the name “Glenrock” to early colonial visitors, who saw it as a rocky glen.
The valley view has beguiled many through the years, including the man the lookout is named after, the Prussian naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.
“It is an extremely interesting locality,” Leichhardt wrote in 1842 during a visit to the Hunter. “The valley opens and descends towards the sea, but hills of loose sand have intercepted the communication … and form a kind of lagune at the mouth of the valley.”
Leichhardt also noted the “most luxuriant vegetation” covering the slopes of the “Valley of the Palms”.
“Floods, that have swept down with irresistible power during the heavy Winter rains, have uprooted big trees,” he wrote, “and have produced the wildest confusion of closely entangled life and death.”
Long before the famous explorer wandered through the Glenrock bush, this area sustained the Awabakal people for thousands of years. The Awabakal camped at the mouth of the lagoon, which they called Pillapay-kullitaran.
National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Boyd Carney points out a spot near Leggy Point where middens, containing the remains of shell materials and bones, mark old camp sites. Those remains also indicate how rich this area was as a food source.
Further north along the beach, near the mouth of Murdering Gully, the Awabakal had a quarry, where they would prise out rocks and fashion them into tools, which were traded far and wide. Even a section of the Yuelarbah Track, which the NPWS officers guide me along as it meanders up the valley from Burwood Beach past the lagoon, is believed to have been part of the Aboriginal trading route.
“This area here is, if you were an Awabakal person, ‘Wow!’,” Kate Harrison says. “It was an amazing landscape to have lived in.”
In the early colonial years, it wasn’t just the landscape but what lay beneath that held the wow factor for industrialists. Threaded through the layers of rock and lying in lumps on the shore was coal.
The first Europeans to pick up a piece of coal around the lagoon may well have been the convict runaways William and Mary Bryant, who are believed to have landed here in 1791 during their epic voyage to Timor. They reputedly declared the coal as good as any to be found in England and used it in a fire. A plaque at Glenrock gives the Bryants’ find greater historical prominence; it attributes this as the “first discovery of coal in Australia”.
In 1835, the doctor and entrepreneur James Mitchell bought a parcel of coastal land from Merewether to Glenrock Lagoon, which he named Burwood Estate. On his property, Mitchell created a number of historic landmarks, as he pushed to convert its resources into fabulous wealth.
Mitchell commissioned Australia’s first copper smelter, which was built in the dunes behind Burwood Beach. He built the colony’s first road tunnel, burrowing through a coal seam, to haul materials. That tunnel also helped open the Hunter to independent mining, as Mitchell fought the monopoly held by the Australian Agricultural Company, seeking the right to sell the coal scooped out on his property.
Coal fuelled Mitchell’s fortune. One of the early mines on his estate, which came to be known as the old Burwood Colliery, was on the southern shore of the lagoon. After Mitchell died in 1869, the mining under Glenrock expanded, with up to 400 men and boys working in the colliery. The ruins of the old mine squat in the bush. On the lagoon’s northern side, the smaller Glenrock Colliery operated until the 1940s.
Coal from the mines was carted to the port along a railway that hugged the sand and cut through tunnels, the first built in NSW. During holidays, the trains carried picnickers to the lagoon. Rusted reminders of the railway are strewn along the beach, with sections of line and the undercarriages of wagons poking out of the dunes.
“Geology has dictated here,” says Kate Harrison, referring to the Aboriginal quarry and the history of coal mining. And it has helped save Glenrock, as much of the land was tied up by mining companies.
“I think its mining history almost protected it from development.”
Yet, developers had their eyes on the coastal land in the 1970s and 1980s. What’s more, the area around the lagoon was not entirely protected. Cars and rubbish were being dumped along the tracks, and motorcycles and four-wheel-drives were tearing along the beach and up the valleys, causing erosion problems. Weeds took hold in the bush. Sewage flowed into the creeks and ended up in the lagoon. It was also coming from the sea, as effluent pouring from the old Burwood Beach outfall pipe washed up on the beach. City life was gradually degrading Glenrock.
“It was bad, and it was going to get worse, because it was unmitigated,” recalls environmental activist Nobby Edwards.
Edwards has been going to Glenrock since 1967, when he accompanied his father on a fishing expedition - “it was like a hidden valley”. Then, as a teenager, he surfed off Leggy Point. So Edwards had observed Glenrock’s degradation.
“If it remained unchecked, it was going to be a mess,” Edwards says. “So people started taking community ownership.”
Edwards became one of many who turned their dismay in what they were observing into action to preserve Glenrock. Groups such as the Leggy Point Boardriders Club held clean-up days, while others pushed for the formal protection of the bushland.
The Glenrock State Recreation Area was gazetted in 1986, pulling together parcels previously owned by BHP, the then Hunter District Water Board and Crown land. These days, it is called the Glenrock State Conservation Area.
Within the conservation area is an enduring enclave of childhood adventure. Since 1932, the Scouts have had a campground along the lagoon’s southern shore.
GLAN Willcox strides past a wooden bunkhouse and across the Scout camp carpark to pinpoint his past.
“It was just around here,” the 84-year-old says. He is gesturing to a couple of commercial garbage bins, but in his mind, Willcox sees the cottage he lived in as a small boy for about four years from 1934.
His father was the first paid live-in caretaker at Glenrock Scout Camp, so young Glanmor had a lagoon for a backyard.
“Oh, it was great,” he recalls. “Nobody else has got a backyard like that.”
He recalls how popular the lagoon was with picnickers and fishermen, and how cattle from a neighbouring farm would wander around the grounds. Willcox has fading photos of himself as a toddler at Glenrock and on the lagoon, or “the Leggy”.
“That’s Mum, my brother and myself rafting on the Leggy,” he says of one shot.
Willcox points out that in the photo’s background, on the slopes above the northern shore, “most of the trees are dead - I don’t know if it was due to the pit - but it’s all green now”.
Glenrock has remained in Glan Willcox’s life. He camped here as a Scout. He returned as a Scout leader for training. And now, every week, Willcox comes to the centre, as a member of the Glenrock Thursday Group.
Nearly all of the dozen or so blokes in the group have been in the Scout movement and hold long and fond memories of camping at Glenrock. Yet these volunteer workers, mostly in their 70s and 80s, are maintaining not just their memories but the camp centre itself, as they do everything from plumbing to gardening each Thursday.
“It was a lovely place,” says John Knorr, a coordinator of the group, who did a course here as a Cub leader in 1980. “I said at the time that in retirement, I’d give back.”
Just as it was for the members of this working group, the camp remains a focal point for the region’s young people involved with the Scouts.
“Glenrock gives them somewhere to go, while they’re in the middle of Newcastle,” explains Knorr, who adds the centre is also hired by community groups and emergency services for training and conferences. “The only thing that says ‘civilisation’ are the planes and helicopters flying over.”
More than doing maintenance, group members are here to bring about change.
John Le Messurier is the group’s gardener. Before retiring, Le Messurier was Newcastle City Council’s deputy director of environmental management. He has been a volunteer gardener at the Scout camp since 1976. Back then, the soil sustained little but weeds. The site was all but barren.
“I used to be told, ‘You’ll never get anything to grow at Glenrock’,” recalls Le Messurier. “So that was my challenge.”
Now, as Le Messurier walks around the grounds, he is shaded by the canopy of flourishing native flora he helped nurture - “red cedar, kauri pine, big bunya pine…”
Yet he also sees elements of Glenrock history among the trees.
“This is the old railway line,” he says pointing to a green scar tracing the shore. “And this is the old ash pit, where the ashes were shovelled out of the train engines.”
While inhaling the fresh citrus scent of a lemon myrtle leaf he’s rubbing between his fingers, Le Messurier talks of his love of the improving soil, the returning birds and pollinating insects, and watching a forest rise on these shores once more.
“This is such a special place,” he says, smiling. “It’s good for the soul to come here.”
MORE and more visitors are heading into Glenrock, looking to charge their souls, or, at least, to take a break.
David Carr has noted the increasing numbers walking past his front door. He is the husband of the Scout camp’s live-in caretaker and secretary of the Leggy Point Boardriders Club.
“We’ve got a lot of people coming through from Sydney now,” he says. “You come here on a weekend, and the cars are parked all the way up the hill.”
Among the keenest users of Glenrock are mountain bike riders. On any given weekend, there can be a thousand riders in the conservation area, according to mountain bike enthusiast Mick Plummer.
The 55-year-old has been riding in Glenrock since he was a kid.
“I was one of those guys building [tracks] in here, before it was a park,” he says.
Since then, Plummer has been a trailblazer in Glenrock on a number of levels. He has helped design and build sections of the 14 kilometres of bike trails in the park, and he’s encouraged fellow riders to help repair older tracks. Since 2004, he’s also been involved with Glenrock Trail Alliance, a volunteer group representing mountain bike riders’ views, especially to National Parks and Wildlife Service.
“I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he explains. “Good trails go hand in hand with sustainability.”
Plummer takes me to a section he helped create, and which was built with the help of volunteers and NPWS. It’s called The Chute, a steep and challenging assemblage of logs and jumps that requires steady balance and an even steadier nerve, similar to the qualities needed to promote mountain biking in a state conservation area.
“I like to see beautiful trails that cause no problem, that have as minimal environmental impact as possible,” says Plummer. “And it is possible.”
PUBLIC spaces are nurseries and repositories for private memories. The Glenrock Lagoon area holds plenty of mine.
When I was a kid, it was my adventure ground. I would rock-hop down Flaggy Creek with mates and ride my push bike along the trails. In school holidays, Mum took my brothers and I bushwalking in there. As a Scout, I camped by the lagoon. At Burwood Beach, I bodysurfed with charming detritus fresh from the outfall pipe. And I would sometimes see an old bloke who had a shack on the creek bank and wonder what had happened in his life to place him here.
So it was with more than distant interest that I recently read a novel, “How Bitter The Dust”, by Stephen White. The book, published after the author’s death in 1993, is mainly set in Glenrock. White had the principal character, David Maxwell, a famous artist and burnt-out Second World War veteran, retreating from Sydney to recover in a cabin on the hill overlooking the lagoon.
White, who lived for a time in Merewether, evidently knew the local landscape intimately. And, going by the novel’s rich and romantic prose, it is a landscape he loved dearly. White described the creeks and the waterfalls tumbling over rock shelves, the wind-bashed headlands, and the old railway skirting the beach.
The book’s characters swim in the lagoon, walk in the valley, and, above all, talk rhapsodically about the place. David Maxwell is “transfixed by the glory” of the lagoon from the moment he lays eyes on it.
“I had found an Elysian retreat, a place green with the moss of age, and magic in the air, sorcery in the column of water rumbling down rock worn by centuries,” he tells a love interest in the novel.
David Maxwell, or at least the author who put words in his mouth, is hardly the only creative soul enchanted by Glenrock.
Barry Maitland is best-known as a crime fiction writer, but he’s also an artist. In his search for inspiration for a 2016 landscape exhibition, called The Forest Floor, Maitland walked the trails of the Glenrock State Conservation Area.
He loved the journey through the bush, as he photographed and sketched the creeks, the rock pools, and the foliage.
“It’s very dense around you, and then you come out and the lagoon appears,” Maitland says of the bushwalk. “You’re looking down on a natural highway out of the blue.”
He then walked down to the beach and around the lagoon: “It all unfolds in a sequence in a relatively short space, and it’s quite unlike anything else around really.”
Maitland’s exhibition included four paintings of Glenrock, depicting a string of rock pools in filtered light, bark peelings at the feet of gum trees, and splotches of leaves. His images lead the viewer into the bush, so near, yet so far from suburbia that surrounds Glenrock.
“You could be anywhere,” marvels Maitland about Glenrock’s great illusion and attraction.
THE illusion that Glenrock is a remote wilderness unravels before you can dip your toe in the lagoon’s waters.
In 1933, this newspaper reported that “Glenrock Lagoon is a fine swimming hole”. These days signs on the shore caution against direct contact with the water, with one advising the area “may be impacted by sewage overflow”. Flaggy Creek, feeding the lagoon, wears a similar warning about sewage and “urban contaminants” in the water.
“Around here is a hard urban catchment,” says Boyd Carney, as we walk along the lagoon’s edge near the beach. “So it’s like a drain.”
His colleague Kate Harrison adds that the lagoon is “flushed out periodically when it breaches … but I wouldn’t swim in there”.
David Carr, who has lived at the Scout camp for 11 years, paddles on the lagoon, and his three kids have swum in there, and he says they haven’t fallen ill. But they’ve chosen their moments.
“If you get good rain, it does get polluted,” he says.
Some of the Glenrock Thursday Group members, who used to swim in, and raft on, these waters when they were Scouts, complain the lagoon is not as deep as it used to be. Erosion and run-off have silted up its bed. As a result, they say, it is often more like a creek than a lagoon.
“If only the Leggy could be dredged out,” says Glan Willcox, “it would be great.”
“You could have have the raft races back on there,” adds John Knorr. “Now it’s too shallow.”
A stone’s throw from the Scout camp across those shallow waters of the lagoon, Boyd Carney leads us into a pocket of bushland that he cherishes.
“This is the jewel in the crown, vegetation-wise, the littoral rainforest,” Carney says, explaining it is a threatened ecological community. “There’s not much of this left up the east coast of Australia.”
Carney and teams of volunteers have planted tubestock to rehabilitate more rainforest areas around Glenrock. In the “Valley of the Palms”, as Ludwig Leichhardt called it, even the cabbage tree palms are beginning to reappear, which is considered a major step. After all, even by 1842 when the explorer visited the valley, “not one single palm tree was to be seen”, as Leichhardt wrote; they had been cut down to use as building materials.
As Kate Harrison tells three walkers, including a couple visiting from Western Australia, who are drinking in the view from Leichhardt’s Lookout, “You give nature a chance, it grows back”.
But the ranger says nature still faces some serious challenges in Glenrock. Among the biggest is the growing number of people using the conservation area. Glenrock’s accessibility is a blessing and, potentially, its curse. Not everyone is playing by the rules. Occasionally, motorbikes are still ridden in the park, for instance, and some visitors bring domestic dogs.
“People treat it like their backyard,” Harrison says.
“You can imagine everyone coming here, everyone is having an impact, so you have to juggle that impact.”
There are still degraded and eroded areas in dire need of fixing. The park has a tangle of tracks, some well-formed, a few little more than raw and rutted wounds on the landscape. Harrison says one of her former colleagues described the track network as like tipping a bowl of spaghetti onto a map of Glenrock.
Some tracks have to be closed, which can annoy some of the park’s users. So NPWS’ officers negotiate with groups, such as the mountain bike riders, to maintain other routes, and to build environmentally sustainable tracks in the park.
Environmental activist and long-time Glenrock user Nobby Edwards argues it will take more than negotiation and time for the park to recover and stay healthy. He says NPWS needs more resources to monitor and maintain the conservation area.
Edwards asserts some areas of the park should be closed off to give it a chance to rehabilitate, or to protect environmentally sensitive sections.
“People have to be prepared that areas may have to be sequestered,” Edwards says. “There are going to have to be some sacrifices.”
To Edwards, that would be showing love to Glenrock. He proposes a campaign to promote stepping lightly and gently in the state conservation area: “Love Your Leggy!”
The city’s tourism leaders also want more people to love Leggy, but not in the way Nobby Edwards sees it.
The Newcastle Tourism Industry Group recently released its Newcastle Visitor Economy Vision, and in the report it asserted more could be done to boost Glenrock’s “nature-based recreation opportunities”. One suggestion in the report is for “pop-up” venues, such as facilities for upmarket camping or “glamping”.
“That would be just another straw on the camel’s back,” Nobby Edwards says, arguing accommodation venues would require infrastructure and land in an environment that needs less pressure, not more.
“‘Use it or lose it’ doesn’t apply here. Use it, we lose it. Overuse it, we lose it sooner.”
Kate Harrison says under the current plan of management for the area, camping is not permitted, apart from in the Scout camp.
“It would be difficult to manage the sustainability, and it’s not on the radar,” she says of the “glamping” suggestion.
Glenrock Trail Alliance’s Mick Plummer is also critical of the tourist accommodation proposal.
“This is not wilderness, this is accessible, so why would you need it?,” Plummer says.
“I like to see shared use, but not overdevelopment.”
AS he tends to the plants around the Scout camp and along the lagoon’s southern foreshore, John Le Messurier loves the sense of history Glenrock exudes.
Le Messurier thinks of the Awabakal people - “we’ve got bush food plants growing here that they would have been eating”. He walks past the late 19th century mine cottage, which serves as the working group’s meeting place, and the remains of a well, long filled-in. And he recalls his own history with this place, having been involved with the Scouts for 70 years.
But mostly Le Messurier revels in being in the moment, and in the landscape, at Glenrock.
“When you’re here, you become part of it,” he says. “And it becomes a part of you.”