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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