– by Tom Brown, SPP Writer in Residence
Photo credit: ArchivesACT (used under Creative Commons BY-NC license)
Paul Kelly has a song called ‘The Pretty Place.’ In it, Kelly’s unnamed character talks of golden dawns and shimmering water over rocks, fish slashing their way through foam, rope swings and willow trees. Later the character laments, our pretty place has gone / it’s been so long. Eventually the listener realises that the character in the song is dying, and recounting memories of this idyllic ‘Pretty Place’.
I don’t know exactly which place Kelly had in mind when writing this song, but I’d say Uriarra Crossing, the area surrounding a bridge across the Murrumbidgee River west of Belconnen, would provide a passable substitute for whatever he had in mind.
I first saw the place during my first year in Canberra. Dad had told me about it over the phone, and lights went off in my head. He spoke of camping in abandoned logger’s cabins in ‘magic’ surrounds. He uses that word a lot when talking about place, and more often than not it’s accurate. I took two of my housemates with me for navigation and was too concerned about keeping the car on the road, or more accurately on the right side of the road, to take in the scenery. Even when we arrived I barely even looked around before we left, I don’t remember why.
The Crossing is divided into Uriarra West and Uriarra East. On both sides of the river there are little camping areas: car parks, fire pits, basic amenities, but following the river is a little tougher on the western side. There are thick blackberry bushes and hill-faces rise up sheer, and make it near impossible to keep walking alongside the water.
When visiting a second time for this post though I spent a good few hours out there. I followed the Murrumbidgee River for as far as I could on both sides, climbed fences and eventually explored further away from the river, though never actually finding what I came to see.
Still, apart from the car park and the roads, and some cleared trees, I think the heart of the place remains. Though I didn’t know that on my drive out.
It had been a few years since my last visit and in that time an entire suburb has sprung up, and remains in the act of springing; the northern tip of Weston Creek has crept forward to join up with the rest of the ACT. As I drove past buildings in various stages of completion I wondered how far things had spread. I’ve watched this year as the hilly paddocks opposite Kaleen have turned from suburban paddock to dustbowl.
It’s strange what happens when you build a place up in your head. If you do it enough it almost exists, becomes tangible. If that imagined space is important enough there is a quasi-defense mechanism that we put into place when that space is infringed upon. On the way to Uriarra I found myself angered by Canberra’s developing fringe suburbs, their encroachment on both imagined and real places, and stranger still I felt a similar hostility toward anyone associated with it: the men with lollipop signs, the truck drivers, the owners of houses. As I sat at traffic lights that used to be single-lane unmarked road I felt real worry that the place I had come to see would no longer be there.
At that point the importance of things like finding the cabins, even writing this post, fell away. Anxiety developed. It became less about finding a place I’d heard about and more about making sure a place I knew to exist remained.
The anxiety amplified when I came to the turn-off for Uriarra Road. Closed. No Access. Council vehicles excepted. Fuck. After asking myself some frantic questions including ‘Can I walk that far?’ and ‘Why are there no dirt roads anywhere in Canberra?’ I came to the detour and my anxiety fell away. I turned onto Uriarra Road and saw the hills at the horizon and the single lane road, and knew the place would still be there, but that finding the cabins would be a bonus.
And I didn’t find them. But once I got past the quagmire of roadwork and detours the place opened up to hilly pastures, pockmarks from the shadows of the Brindys, and crazy cloud formations. It lit up in front of me that afternoon, and for now that’s enough. It wasn’t hard to find the magic that Dad had told me about, even if it wasn’t present where I had expected it to be.
Tom’s originally from rural NSW. He’s just finished a Bachelor of Writing at the University of Canberra and hopes to commence Honours in the New Year. He writes fiction, non-fiction and, occasionally, poetry. His work has been published in Burley, and he currently writes reviews and commentary for Dirty Gal.