It's not every day a 37-year-old man is moved to pen a letter to his city. Even more unusual if he writes that letter on behalf of a river.
But that's exactly what Andy Lowes of Gordon has done in publishing a thought-provoking 3000-word letter "from the Murrumbidgee River to the residents of Canberra".
Having grown up in Tuggeranong, like many proud southsiders, Andy has fond childhood memories of skimming stones at Tharwa Sandwash, drifting past Pine Island on a Lilo and plucking yabbies and turtles from the deeper water holes.
However, as Andy grew older his view of the river changed. He began to see it as much more than just an aquatic playground. "I started to piece together bits and pieces of indigenous and colonial history to understand more about the river," he explains.
"Stories like Aboriginal warrior Onyong who helped Garrett Cotter [yes, after whom the Cotter is named] when he was banished to the western side of the river in 1832," explains Andy.
On several occasions Onyong risked his life and swam across the flooded river to bring important news to his friend.
Unfortunately, not everyone was as lucky as Onyong and several early settlers drowned attempting to ford the flooded river, a sad trend that continues to this day. Just last year an experienced kayaker lost his life at Point Hut Crossing during a minor flood event.
However, it wasn't memories of a Huckleberry Finn-esque childhood or distressing tales of tragedy that prompted Andy to reach for pen and paper. No, it was the tumultuous series of recent natural and human events, or in the words of the 'Bidgee, "I've seen a lot in my life, but this last couple of years or so is certainly one for the books".
The heartfelt 10-page letter begins in December 2019 "looking up to the grand old Brindabellas covered in snow. It was a cold one to start the summer indeed, but a chill that was soon to be replaced by oppressive heat, gusting warm winds and bushfire".
The 2019-20 summer was one that none of us will ever forget, nor it seems, will the 'Bidgee. "In the middle of December, I finally stopped flowing. As we geared towards Christmas, water was trucked into the township of Tharwa, and the cod, yellow-belly and crayfish which rely on my water, took refuge in the remaining stagnant pools to await the return of flowing water."
But that was just the beginning. Then came the firestorm. Sure, the river had witnessed many bushfires before, but "for me, this was the saddest part of the year as I watched 80 per cent of the national park and the animals within it be destroyed".
"For those of us in the southern suburbs who remember the 2003 fires, when we saw those flames coming over the mountains again, we got a sinking feeling," reveals Andy, who asks us to also "spare a thought for the river", with "choppers sucking water out of its last remaining pools".
In true Dorothea Mackellar style, soon after the fire threat dissipated, flooding rains eventually arrived. Although not as menacing as floods like that of 1852 which changed the course of the river forever, the first big rains after the fires were memorable for different reasons. With all the vegetation razed, thousands of tonnes of topsoil and ash quickly clogged the 'Bidgee's tributaries.
"I'm not sure if it is possible to have varying shades of black, but in February 2020, the Gudgenby River just upstream of Tharwa turned a shade of black I'll never forget. It is not a colour you want to see a river turn too often."
As if the triple torment of drought, fire and flood in quick succession wasn't enough to endure, just weeks later a certain virus arrived in Australia.
"I like to listen to people chatting by my banks and have done so for thousands of years. For me, it was a tremendous sight to see people enjoying and reconnecting to the rivers again. I admit though that I did chuckle to myself as I watched walkers on my narrow tracks politely attempt exaggerated social distancing to anyone coming the other way. It was as though each party had invisible jousting sticks, about 1.5m long by my estimate."
Andy's letter is much more than a valuable record of the last two extraordinary years, it also poses serious questions about our connection as a city to Australia's second-longest river, which, in facing local and global environmental challenges admits to being "a bit anxious about the future".
Andy is also hopeful his letter "will leave us with a newfound appreciation for the 'Bidgee" which, before signing off, offers us some timely advice. "I hope some of you enjoy my company at one of the many picnic areas over spring and summer. Enjoy one of my many walks ... or simply find a quiet spot to sit and watch me flow by and reflect on this unusual period we're all living through."
I sure don't need much convincing - the yowie clan already has the picnic basket ready to go. But I might hold off packing the Lilo for another month or two - I wouldn't want the 'Bidgee to hear the torrent of profanities I might holler if I dived in this weekend. Brrr.
Andy's letter from the Murrumbidgee which is wonderfully complemented with photography by his brother Simon, can be read in full at the Australian River Restoration Centre website.
Tim's top spots along the Bidgee
We're all aware of Pine Island, Kambah Pool, Casuarina Sands and Uriarra Crossing but none of these swimming holes makes it into Tim's favourite four spots along the Murrumbidgee.
Curious Cemetery:While rural family plots are not unusual, this one perched above the confluence of the Gudgenby and Murrumbidgee rivers near Tharwa, most definitely is. After losing three earlier burials to floods following the death of Charlotte De Salis (of nearby Cuppacumbalong) in 1878, the family decided to raise the cemetery up instead. Over many months they created an oval mound of dirt (sourced from the river) and surrounded it by high banks of stone and rock painstakingly hauled by horse and cart from the slopes of Mt Tennent.
Kambah flood terraces: On the eastern side of the river near Kambah grows the rare Tuggeranong Lignum (Muehlenbeckia Tuggeranong). This woody shrub that only reaches a metre in height might not catch your eye, but only ten of these specimens have been documented. That's fewer specimens in the wild than the Wollemi Pine. And just over the hill from the Tuggeranong town centre.
Red Rocks Gorge: Although the gorge, so named for the oxidation of iron in the rocks, which leaves them an orangey-red colour, is a tremendous sight, it's the roaring sound of rapids that local dare devils have labelled the shredder, the toaster and the junkyard, that makes this such a special spot.
Shepherd's Lookout: Once a closely guarded secret, the recent expansion of housing estates in west Belconnen means it's now unusual to have this supreme view of the river to yourself. Still worth the short walk, especially when the river is in flood. It's also a great place to spot birds, including majestic birds of prey, such as peregrines, brown goshawks, kestrels and brown falcons.
Did You Know? The name Murrumbidgee is derived from a Wiradjuri word meaning 'big water'. On its 60-kilometre stretch through the ACT, it drops an average of 2.4 metres per kilometre.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Cryptic Clue: There's more than one
Degree of difficulty: Easy - Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Sarah Standen of Scullin who was first to identify last week's photo, sent in by Steve Leahy of Macquarie, as the sculpture in the brick courtyard just outside the Weston Creek Walk-in Centre at 24 Parkinson Street, Weston.
Solved! The 'Bidgee monorail
The wooden footbridge with curious single metal track that spans Tuggeranong Creek just upstream from its confluence with the Murrumbidgee River (Spotted, October 2) prompted a bulging mailbag.
Most readers supported the theory of John Webber of Gungahlin, who suggested "surely it has to be something to do with the large pipe that runs beneath the bridge - maybe a support to keep it in place".
Meanwhile, Jeff Symonds of Kambah cheekily asked if it was "part of stage 18 of Light Rail - Tuggeranong Town Centre to Murrumbidgee River".
Well, neither of these theories are correct. It turns out that the metal track dates to the 1980s during the development of Tuggeranong and was part of the infrastructure to help measure the water quality of the creek, which during the construction of surrounding suburbs, due to erosion and pollution, was poor.
"The rail was used for a gantry to suspend a torpedo-like flow measurer during high flow events to calculate flow volumes" reports Darren Roso, adding "the rail and gantry allow you to move it horizontally and vertically to get measures from different areas of the flow".
Roso, a wildlife warrior who has been involved in countless conservation programs along the 'Bidgee, further explains "as part of the measures to reduce the impact on water quality in the river the Tuggeranong Dam wall was raised higher than originally planned, and many trees were also planted along the banks of the creek to reduce erosion".
"In fact, just last month volunteers from the National Parks Association took away the last of the wire from the fencing from this project."
"We often dwell on negative stories to do with our environment, but there is a great success story along the Tuggeranong Creek," reports Roso, adding "but sadly, no one really knows it.'' Can I suggest a sign to explain the purposes of the metal track might be a good start?
Oh, and best do it before the Light Rail stage 18 arrives!