Oblique Territories Journal – Part 4: leaving the hills

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This is the fourth instalment of a series of posts covering my preparation (and eventual work) for a residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga commencing in October 2018. As part of my preparation and research I am following the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri river from its source to the sea.

Bad weather/good weather/injuries

Given that the weather in the broader Adelaide-region was absolutely abysmal on Saturday, I decided to be sensible and defer this road trip to Monday. This promised much better weather conditions and would also allow me to take it easy and do what one should do on a Saturday morning: ideally nothing at all. Another factor which moved the road trip to Monday was due to a bicycle accident I had a couple of days prior, resulting in a series of bruises on my right side and a graze on my elbow which – by Friday night – had turned into a gross and concerning infection. So, although Saturday didn’t involve observing and recording locations, it did involve trying to hastily see a doctor who could provide some much needed antibiotics.

By the time Monday came around, the infection had been banished and I was refreshed enough to hit the road once again; continuing to follow the course of the Onkaparinga River from its source to the sea.

My partner Lauren joined me this time around and given the ridiculously beautiful weather, it was a great opportunity for us to get out of the city for a few hours and do the things that couples do in the Adelaide Hills: fill the car with recording equipment; carry around recording equipment; untangle recording equipment; and waste precious time explaining to strangers what it is that you’re doing with said recording equipment.

My previous road trip had ended south of Mylor at the Valley Of Delights, as the river crashed over a weir, rounded sandstone cliffs and continued its passage through the remote (and practically inaccessible) regions of May Valley and Black Rock. Examining Google Maps, the river narrows considerably through this region before meeting a huge body of water. This body of water would be the first designated stop on Monday’s road trip.

Mount Bold Reservoir

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Mount Bold Reservoir is located a few kilometres east of Clarendon in the lower Adelaide Hills. The reservoir was constructed from 1932-1938, is the largest in South Australia (approx. 3.1 sq km) and supplies the bulk of Adelaide’s water supply. The only point of public access (that I know of) is the lookout adjacent to the dam wall at the southwestern fringe of the reservoir.

Pulling into the car park, it was the valley surrounding the dam wall that first caught my attention. It’s a stunning landscape; and the scale of it (in terms of height, distance and space in between) left me slightly awestruck. Speaking of scale, the dam wall is certainly imposing. Engineering feats like this always make me marvel at the degree of human ingenuity involved in taming and withholding the forces of nature – for better or worse. At the base of the wall, a continuous roar filled the air as a continuous jet of water was discharged from the wall’s valve chamber.

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We had hoped to make our way down to a rope bridge that was suspended over the water, which would have made for a great recording. Unfortunately, it was closed off for maintenance so I was left to survey the area from above. I set up my stereo rig at the southern end of the dam wall (via a walkway) and clamped a contact mic to the guard rail to capture gusts of wind that were blowing across it. These gusts of wind certainly put the windjammers on the stereo rig to the test. The wind was strong enough for me to ensure that all of my gear was secure and not partial to blowing into watery oblivion below.

The challenges of a stereo field

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Since upgrading my field recording set up from a handheld recorder to the adjustable stereo rig, I’ve realised that I’ve got a lot more to learn about recording environments. Because I’d used stereo handheld recorders for most of my field recording practice (Edirol HR09 [2010-2013], Olympus LS-100 [2013-2017] I’d obviously grown accustomed to the non-flexibility of the stereo arrangement of these devices – which have the microphones set in fixed positions. Much like a musical instrument, I’d gradually taught myself how to best manoeuvre it, whilst accepting it limitations of both the device (and myself.) By upgrading to the rig I had greater flexibility: I could now fully adjust the stereo field. However, once I’d gotten over the initial thrill of this, I gradually realised that this presented some new challenges. Now that I was able to broaden or tighten the stereo field, I found myself listening to environments in a completely different way than before, and realised that in order to faithfully capture environments, I would have to pay closer attention to everything.

With flexibility comes great responsibility.

I believe that through this process, I’ve become far more aware of just how weirdly sound can behave in particular environments and how much care I must take with regard to the recording process. I’m not simply pointing, recording and capturing sound anymore; I have to work with it, manoeuvre with it sympathetically, whilst monitoring and listening more attentively. In my previous post, I’d observed the peculiar phasing effect that was apparent whilst recording beneath the Princess Highway bridges. I’d attributed this to a combination of factors: my position in relation to the underside of the bridge and the river; the positioning of the mics; and what I was hearing via the rig against what I heard with my naked ears.

A dam wall situated in a narrow valley is a unique acoustic space and its slippery  characteristics were certainly emphasised by the way the roar of the water below could be perceived, depending on the position of your body/head in relation to the source of the sound and the erratic behaviour of the wind. In a given position, only a low resonance could be perceived; in another, the roar enveloped my body; then, the wind would pick up and it would appear as if frequency bands of the sound were breaking apart and swirling around. With complex and volatile acoustic properties like this, a humble stereo set-up doesn’t stand any chance of faithfully capturing what’s occurring. For this situation, something like a binaural dummy head or one of Rode’s new innovative ambisonic microphone arrays would have been more appropriate.

Obviously, a stereo field (fixed or versatile) will not replicate what we apprehend with our ears; and at best, can only render a faithful impression of an environment.

What did the recordings with the stereo rig sound like? Messy. As I was monitoring the recordings on the dam wall I realised I would need a good couple of hours (and possibly consultation from expert peers) to figure out how to record this location satisfactorily. At the very least, I did have an impression of the roaring water to the south, the relative tranquillity of still waters on the other side of the wall, and a hell of a lot of wind in between.

Whilst we couldn’t visit the site where the Onkaparinga River flowed into the reservoir (near Black Rock) we could certainly see where it left the reservoir: just a bit beyond the roaring jetstream below, forming the semblance of a crooked river and continuing its passage through the valley.

As we made our way to Clarendon we encountered the river flowing beneath a shallow bridge leading out of the wider reservoir district. I set up the recorder to capture the river’s flow and surrounding birdlife, whilst Lauren took pictures of a dozing possum in a nearby eucalypt.

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Clarendon

Upon arriving in Clarendon, we were less than enthused to find that the bakery was closed. Following a good pummeling by the wind and energies spent wandering around the reservoir area, a pasty and doughnut seemed like the world’s best kind of sustenance. Instead, we put our grumbling stomachs aside (not literally) and wandered down to where the river passed through a large reserve.

Ah, Clarendon. This is a beautiful little town that was established in the early days of European settlement. The last time we had been here was on my birthday earlier in the year. We feasted on pasties and doughnuts, inspected the local buildings, and then drove onto Kangarillia to down a couple of beers. One of the things that I like most about this town is the steep hills and valleys that surround it. Without trying to sounding too whimsical, it definitely has an enchanted feel to it; like a small Ye Olde Village with faeries and sprites hiding just out of sight. Of course, I’m certain it’s got a dark underbelly radiating some seriously bad vibes. Everywhere does.

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As I made a recording just above the banks of the river, I spotted a burnt out car slumped near a fat concrete pipe which led to an imposing wall laced with razor wire. Indeed: venture off the main road in a given town and the enchantment of a place ends there.

This observation was however a minor schism within the overall loveliness of the place. Further downstream, a school group on excursion were exploring the river with nets and notebooks, mucking about and trying to scare the shit out of each other. Despite my initial concerns, this actually made for a good (albeit, slightly obnoxious) recording. The whimsy of children can only sustain so much patience though, so Lauren and I made our way around the reserve to a secluded spot surrounded by reeds with steep cliffs looming above.

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In this spot, I set up the recorder, put my headphones on, blissed out slightly and gazed up at the cliffs dappled with ivy, bushes and little nooks. On top of the cliffs, thin clouds passed slowly though the clear blue sky as craggy old olive trees rustled in the breeze. Birds sounded out around us and frogs at either end of the creek started up in tentative bursts. Eventually the kids finished up their excursion and approached on the periphery. Through my headphones their approach sounded terrifying! Then I realised I’d had my headphone volume up way too high in relation to the actual (real world) volume level. Such was the lovely ambience of the riverside, that I’d gradually cranked up the volume to further immerse myself in it.

Beware the seductive quality of microphones and headphones in the real world. The ontological slippages can occasionally be a little unsettling.

Next time: The final approach – Onkaparinga National Park.

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Oblique Territories Journal – Part 2: tracing the origins of the Onkaparinga / Ngangkiparri river

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This is the second instalment of a series of posts covering my preparation (and eventual work) for a residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga commencing in October 2018. As part of my preparation and research I am following the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri river from its source to the sea.

Springhead and the river’s source

On a bright and sunny Saturday morning I turned off the Onkaparinga Valley main road and headed in an eastward trajectory towards the tiny hamlet of Springhead. I had only become aware of Springhead’s existence about a month ago, when I’d begun searching for the source of the Onkaparinga (Kaurna: Ngangkiparri) river. The collective wisdom of the internet had pointed to somewhere between the townships of Charlston and Mount Torrens, but it was a definitive publication by Tom Dyster (The Mother’s River) that had  pinpointed the source to the district of Springhead.

Well, the approximate source. Although it can be sufficiently established (through Dyster’s comprehensive research on the subject) that the source of the Onkaparinga finds it origin here, the natural springs which inform the river are scattered across several paddocks in the Springhead district. In this respect, a stopover off the main road was the closest I could get to the beginnings of the river. Of course, I could have sought out the springs, but time, resources and a lack of contacts (namely obtaining permission to venture across properties) haven’t been forthcoming. Besides, I’ve got a lot more travelling to do, so I’ve got to keep my expectations and scope of adventure realistic.

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Speaking of expectations, given the relentlessly rainy end to winter we’d experienced over the past couple weeks, for some reason I had expected a raging torrent of water at the source of the river in Springhead. Several factors should have reminded me to keep these expectations in check. Mostly because I’m not an expert in geography and I’m still gaining a fairly basic grasp on how rivers work. I’d parked the car by the side of the road and walked down to a fenceline overlooking a modest and fairly unimpressive trickle of water constituting the river catchment. The springs were located a couple of kilometres from my location, and given the relatively consistent level of elevation across this district  (from the springs convergence to this position) a trickle of water was as lively as the river would get at this stage.

I set up my handheld recorder and made a five-minute recording of the barely-audible water course and surrounding ambience. Rosellas, finches and wattle birds called out in the eucalypts, whilst bees swarmed around the wattles and someone chopped wood in the distance. A couple of cars passed on the main road, punctuating the relative quiet with peals of droning engines and wheels rolling on tarmac.

Intermission: Encounters with the eeire

Within the history of European settlement in South Australia, German populations have featured prominently. The first German settlers arrived by boat only a few years following the state’s proclamation in 1836, and these settlers are largely responsible for the establishment of townships and agriculture throughout the Adelaide Hills. With the German settlers came the Lutheran faith, and in any district or township with a name connoted to German origin (Hahndorf, Verdun, Lobethal) a Lutheran church isn’t too hard to locate.

Springhead was also established by German settlers in 1856 and – bucking the predominant trend – its name was attributed not so much to the homeland, but to the springs that converged into the river catchment.

A beautiful Lutheran church sits at the crest of the road and a few hundred metres down the road there is a small cemetery. Earlier, as I was making my way towards Springhead, I’d driven straight past the cemetary failing to acknowledge it at all. Only on the drive back had I noticed it: adjacent to an empty paddock and occupying a narrow tract of land. A modest wall and gates sit at the roadside, giving way to a wide path leading up to the gravesites on a hillock.

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Cemetaries are naturally disquieting with a heightened charge to them, but there was something about this cemetery site that struck me as decidedly eeire. Recalling Mark Fischer’s definition of the eeire from his excellent 2017 book, The Weird and The Eerie, there was certainly a pronounced absence of something from this site (aside from the living, obviously) that intensified the already uneasy feel of the place. As I made my way up the path towards the graveyard I noticed the patches of barren ground on either side of the path. I thought to myself: Why would they put the graveyard so far away from the gates? Surely something used to be here?

IMG_2193.JPGUpon arriving home later that afternoon, and as I often do when things don’t stack up in my head, I scoured Google (specifically an image search) for something relating to the history of this cemetery which might explain what was missing.

Eventually I came across this uncredited photograph which revealed what was missing: an impressively spooky avenue of pine trees flanking both sides of the cemetery path.

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It’s quite extraordinary how much of a difference this makes to one’s impression of this space. The avenue of trees form a distinctive physical frame: imparting an impression of natural grandeur, weight and contrast; whilst also being symbolic of the passing of time. These centurion trees would have also visibly punctuated the landscape, and this site would have certainly been noticeable as one approached it from a distance. Without the trees, the site appears (as it did to me, initially and retrospectively) uneasily adrift in the landscape, muted – both visually and audibly. On the morning I visited the tree-less cemetery, a stiff breeze cut across the site. I trained my ears against the wind’s shear and listened for sounds. Save for the distant cry of a crow and the rustle of a plastic bouquet by a gravestone there was nothing else I could hear. Now as I write this, with the impression of these absent trees firmly implanted in my mind, my aural imagination can’t help but add another layer of sonic detail to a meta-memory of this site: one of creaking branches and the whispering of pine needles, for example. I have no doubt that these attributes would have defined the site and shaped one’s impression and experience of it, however consciously or unconsciously. In that same respect, I wonder about the opposite effect: how does the perceived absence of things affect our experience of places?

It might be time I read Mark Fischer’s book again.

If anything, this unexpected encounter has made me eager to look into this phenomena further. In a way, I feel as though this could inform some of my research and work during the residency.

Following the river: Woodside and Verdun

Prior to this road trip I’d studied a couple of maps to determine the best route to a) get to Springhead; and then b) follow the river’s course back through the townships of Charleston, Woodside, Oakbank and Verdun. One of the tricky things about the path of the Onkaparinga river across the Adelaide Hills is keeping track of the 20-odd tributaries that converge with it and/or piggyback their way along it at given points. In some instances, the river ceases to be regarded as the Onkaparinga altogether and assumes another name for a short distance – such as the Mount Charles Creek through Charlston. The best way I can reconcile this is to regard the Onkaparinga River as what it essentially is at this point: a catchment and nothing more. By the time one reaches the main bridge at Verdun, the Onkaparinga River is more clearly defined – both visibly and in a cartographical sense.

On my drive back along the Onkaparinga Velley road I made two stops for recording. Although the traffic had been virtually non-existent on my way to Springhead, the approach coming back and my visits to Woodside and Verdun were met with a seemingly endless precession of caravans and SUV’s clogging the roads and sullying the natural ambience with their din.

There was also the threat of being flattened on the road. For a country town, Woodside had a menacing level of traffic to contend with, as I tentatively crossed the road like a bearded Frogger and made my way to a bridge on a side road.

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It was here that I heard the river for the first time. Looking out from the bridge to the north, two cascades sounded out as the current sluiced its way towards the bridge and reappeared on the other side as a large coffee-coloured pool that seemed motionless. In spite of the traffic pouring along the nearby main road, I got an impressively transparent recording of the river, frogs and birdsong. A couple of (rare) breaks in traffic revealed a beautiful soundscape, full of rich detail and activity.

I survived the return trip across the main road to my car and continued onto Verdun. Earlier I’d noted the large bridge outside the township and had planned to make my way down a steep bank and get a recording of the river environment and vehicles passing overhead. Upon arriving and making my way towards the bridge I quickly realised that I might have to settle with a recording from the road. Blackberry bushes covered all sides of the slopes leading down to the river, and then to complicate matters further, fencelines demarcated the commons from private property. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have flinched at the prospect of having thorns in my skin or being yelled at from afar, but age has ultimately softened me.

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A brief recording of (mostly) cars was made and then I hopped back in the car and headed home. Since around Woodside I’d been beset by a splitting headache so this wasn’t exactly keeping me enthusiastic about spending too long in places, looking for the river and making recordings. I needed a litre of water and a double-barraled hit of paracetamol.

Onwards

Although I hadn’t made as many recording as I thought I would, this was a revealing trip covering my initial stage of following the Onkaparinga River down to its estuary in Port Noarlunga. It was nice to locate the approximate source of the river, whilst getting carried away by a bit of local eeireness too (this happens to me frequently). The stopovers in Woodside and Verdun had some merit too, and an impression of the river, its trajectory and relationship to surrounding environments has strengthened my understanding of the river and made things feel a little less academic and more tangible.

From here (hopefully next weekend) I’ll make my way from Hahndorf onto Mylor and maybe even get down to where the river meets the Mount Bold Reservoir. This time around I’ll make sure I’ve got some water and painkillers on hand.  I’m looking forward to more random cemetery visits too.

Cheerio.

TLR.

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