Black Bob’s Creek – Wollongong Art Gallery (2020)

That is the power of a name, a little hook, securing the dropped stitches of history, looping them back into a contemporary narrative of place.

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Catalogue Essay

Driving to Canberra one day, just before the turn off for the Hume Highway at Sutton Forest, I noticed a sign reading ‘Black Bob’s Creek’. This chance event began in my mind a chain reaction of questions. Like many signs naming a feature in the landscape, it suggested a story, a person or event linked to the history of the place, long forgotten to contemporary travellers. Who was ‘Black Bob’? I wondered if it could be a historically racist reference to an Indigenous man and if so, what was his significance, to be remembered with the naming of a place, as a European story of colonisation was laid over the landscape?

Black Bob’s Creek runs through a small gorge located close to Hoddle’s Crossroads on the Hume Highway at Sutton Forest. These place names, of the crossroads, the highway and even Black Bob’s Creek, tell the story of colonisers dividing up and laying claim to land that was being ‘discovered’ for European settlement. Black Bob was in fact Robert Crawford, commander to Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell, renowned for his fiery temper, hence ‘Black Bob’ Crawford. That is the power of a name, a little hook, securing the dropped stitches of history, looping them back into a contemporary narrative of place. Such is the power of naming; such is the power of renaming. Other histories, without such a signpost or point of common remembrance, become hidden to us.

In my curiosity about this strangely layered place, I discovered that the original Great South Road to Goulburn (created by Mitchell, now replaced by the Hume Highway) crossed Black Bob’s Creek, and that convicts had carved steps into the rock there, allowing travellers to take water. At the site there also remains an early concrete bridge, built to replace the two previous wooden bridges that washed away in flood. For the Gundungurra people who inhabited this area in great numbers before the colonisers arrived, I can only presume the gorge, with its deep waterholes, would have offered welcome shelter in otherwise exposed countryside prone to extremes of weather. I also presume the place had a name given to it long before white people moved across the landscape dividing and renaming. This information, of the creek’s first name, is not easy to track down.

The area around Black Bob’s Creek has become one of those strange in-between places that I am so interested in. Remnant bushland layered with the ghost geography of colonisation, wedged between the barbed wire fences of landholders and the contemporary Highway, violently carving its way through the landscape, allowing travellers to hurtle over its surface. A highway that honours our white war heroes (the rest areas named after Victoria’s Cross recipients) yet does nothing to remind travellers that the lands they are passing through were once the site of a different war, much closer to home.

We have discovered so very late that the knowledge of the First People might be precious, even to us, the privileged recipients of a colonial legacy. For the most part, we continue to uneasily inhabit this land stubbornly adhering to a national identity built around the mythology of the first pioneers, bravely pitting themselves against an inhospitable landscape. How is it that we haven’t been able to listen better and learn more? To try harder to build a bridge between what came after, and what was before, across the enormous rift in history, culture, environment and spirit, since our arrival?

After all this time, we still idealise a landscape that exists only in our imaginations, our past on the other side of the world. This is what drew early settlers to this area now known as the Southern Highlands, among others that were quickly settled, divided up and renamed. The landscape echoed the pastoral fields of home. When I drive through the Highlands and marvel at the beautiful pasture growing between tall gums on some of the old farms, I wonder, could this landscape be the result of cool burns undertaken by the Gundungurra? I try to imagine the cattle peacefully grazing are in fact wallaby and kangaroo.

Exploring around Black Bob’s Creek during the day I find remnants and artefacts. Piles of earth have been moved here and left behind the rest area, part of some civil works, I suppose. In them there are lumps of glassy green slag, quite possibly refuse from Australia’s first steelworks, which was once in Mittagong. A dead lizard is being skeletonized by hungry ants. Just by the unused bridge, a grand old fruit tree of some kind (a plum, I think) is beginning to lose its yellowing leaves in preparation for winter. It reminds me of the many fruit trees that spring up along the roads in the highlands, presumably born of discarded apple cores and fruit-stones thrown from car windows. By the impressive, gnarled age of this tree I can almost imagine it was thrown from a horse or carriage, or perhaps early travellers stopped here to rest near the water? Thistles defiantly line the bridge, growing among the cracks and drifts of dirt. To reach the creek’s edge is a battle through a tangle of blackberry. An old car bonnet sits crumpled and wedged behind a sandstone boulder. I marvel at the signs of our use and the imposition of our will on this land, and the way that nature somehow (for now) endures this onslaught where given a chance.

On our way to the creek to take photos in the night, a heavy thumping indicates a ‘roo, unseen, retreating in the darkness. Setting up, we accidentally disturb a water dragon who startles us with a loud splash, diving off sandstone into the waterhole. I expected to feel uneasy here at night, but save the indistinct noises of the Easter holiday traffic streaming down the highway, the quiet, nestled in the small sandstone gorge, is peaceful. Later, back at the rest area, the surprisingly large number of travellers having a roadside dinner before resuming their drive south for an Easter break from Sydney, have gone. I wonder if people also stopped here many years ago, just down the track where the old bridge is, under similar circumstances. And I wonder, before that, what other gatherings of people this area held. A car pulls off the highway and slowly cruises into a patch of darkness and then shuts off its lights, this is a good place to go unnoticed. It feels as though it doesn’t really belong to anyone, but pulses with its own energy.

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