Sunday, 30 September 2018

On Dangar Island

The weekend at the end of the third full week of spring we drove north to the Hawkesbury River and parked the car near the water in the town of Brooklyn. It was still late morning but there was a fish-and-chip shop open near the ferry wharf that also did burgers. There, we ordered barramundi-and-chips, a prawn bun, and some deep-fried battered school prawns. Having eaten we bustled down to the wharf and got on the small white ferry named ‘Sun’ with its long cabin and with its rows of wooden seats that are painted the same simple colour as the exterior of the boat. It was due to leave. I took a photo (shown below) of the water under the wharf, where a small white fish, about an inch long, was swimming in the green water of the harbour.

The pilot is a middle-aged man with a weathered face who took money from passengers and gave them tickets. He made change out of an oversized Tupperware box with clear plastic sides and a lid that was hinged at the back. The tickets we were given had ‘Adult single’ printed on one side and were made from a heavy yellow paper with perforations separating them from their neighbours.

The pilot guided the boat out of the harbour and set it on its course for Little Wobby, which is on the north bank, on the other side of the river. The settlement is a narrow strip of houses built in the lee of a sandstone cliff that hikers negotiate on day trips when they want to see the bush. As we approached the wharf there the boat shuddered at a lower frequency than it had done during the crossing on the open water. Olive slopes loomed above us, their brown-leaved trees and dark-green eucalypts alternating one next to the other.

Three Korean women who were aged in their early sixties stood up, ready to get off, but the pilot placed himself in the doorway and alerted them to the fact that they probably should wait until the boat reached its ultimate destination. There is no café at Little Wobby, he told them, just residences and a path for bushwalkers to use to scale the rises behind them. The women sat down on their bench again and we set off. In the water were brown jellyfish as big as soccer balls.

When we arrived at Dangar Island it was still low tide and everyone readied to disembark but before he cleared the way to the exit the pilot told people when they should expect the boat to return to pick them up. He said that the 3.45pm service would be well-patronised and encouraged people to consider taking an earlier one if they could manage it.

We ended up having a cup of tea at the café that stands next to the wharf. The waitress told us a little about the island to give us an idea of how to get around. After drinking the tea she served us and eating some Portuguese tarts we walked up the hill. Where a path seats out east from the road I asked a woman who was walking behind us if this was the way to the beach. She told us she didn’t know, that she was a visitor like us, and that she was on the way to use the lavatory.

After turning off on the path we ascended a small rise then came out in a clearing where there is a park with swings and other gear installed for children to use. There is also a bowling green with a clubhouse next to it. Some people were sitting on rugs in the park. A sign beside an open gate invited visitors to go in, and the message added, reassuringly, that the resident might be found out the back of the house in the garden. We walked through the gate and called out to alert the people living there that we had arrived.

An elderly woman with a heavy-set figure dressed in tracksuit pants and a sweater came around from the side of the wooden house standing in front of us. She introduced herself and asked us our names, shaking each of our hands, then invited us to go inside to learn about the history of the island. Next to the front door were stacks of books with stickers on them indicating the price of each one. The woman, who said her name was Ann, showed us the books, which she had published herself, that contained histories of the locale. We were told that we could buy copies of the books but that first she would give us a tour.

In the room behind the vestibule, Ann removed the cloth covering a table to reveal a clear plastic sheet beneath which were photographs and pieces of paper with text printed on them. She started to tell us the story of Henry Dangar, after whom the island had been named. Originally it had been called Mullet Island because there had been a time when plenty of the fish were caught in its waters. Ann proceeded to give us a detailed history of the man and, removing the cloth covering a second table next to the first, went on the relay the story of the building of the railway bridge over the river, which had been completed in the 1860s. The company that had won the contract was an American one and hence the township nearby has a name borrowed from the place with the same name in the city of New York.

Ann told us that the bridge had however been poorly constructed because the subcontractor who had been paid to build the piers on which it rested had failed to fill them with cement, so that by the 1930s the authorities had had to make trains using the bridge slow down when crossing it for fear that the pylons would collapse under the stress of transporting them across the river, which flows in a hilly valley. The war arrived before anything could be done about the faulty structure and after it was over a new bridge was built, which still stands today. There is also another bridge for cars that connects the township to the M1 that feeds traffic south and north into and out of the metropolis.

At one point in her delivery, the irrepressible Ann put on a recording of a popular tune titled ‘Rainbow on the River’, from the early part of last century, which had something to do with the Marine Hotel, which Henry Dangar’s son had operated on the island and which took visitors from Sydney who arrived on steamboats that came in from the ocean and along the river to dock at a long pier that has since been dismantled. As the music was playing, Ann hung from a nail, that had been hammered into the lintel over the entranceway of the room we were standing in, a plasticised sheet of paper that was attached to a cord. Twirling her hands and singing along to the recording, Ann sang the words that had set to the tune all those years ago, evoking ideas attached to old phonograph records that you used to be able to find in second-hand music stores, discs that were heavy and brittle and that would crackle with static when you put the needle down onto them as they span on your turntable.

As we stood next to the table near the front door where the books were stacked, with display copies standing on plate racks, I pointed out the two I wanted to purchase. Ann took the books to one of the tables that held the documentary evidence of the early settlement, and obediently signed them for us using a black Biro. I gave her thirty dollars and she put it on the table but while we were there she didn’t pick it up. After this we walked around Ann’s garden looking at the plants as she named them, one by one. Next to a pale green plant with spreading leafy fronds originating in a core hidden in the dirt of a large planter, Ann searched for a word and with her right hand silently snapped her fingers impatiently, as I thought “artichoke”. Which is what it was. We soon left, and walked east, then turned south and headed down a sandy path to a beach.

It was bordered, to the east, by a rocky outcrop covered in oysters. To the west it was clear and we walked in that direction. A jellyfish lay partially buried in the yellow sand. The mudflats were crawling with tiny crustaceans and boats at anchor lay stranded on them, revealing that the bottoms of their hulls were covered with marine growths.

We walked to the end of the beach and then turned back the way we had come. Navigating our way along the dirt paths that thread among the houses on the island, we arrived back at the café near the wharf and bought cold drinks to have while we waited for the ferry to arrive. Mine was off and I threw it out in a bin near the shop’s entrance. On the way back to the car the boat vibrated as it had done on the outward journey. I thought about Ann and her insistence that Henry Danger had not, as I had read in other books, paid for the legal defence in the case of the crown against the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators. It was an inconvenient fact and had to be ignored for the rest of the edifice to stand.

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