There were two direct routes down to the river from our place on Dooral St. One, the Dairy Road, was mostly bitumen but was gated at the dairy. So you had to jump the fence into the paddock and leave your bike behind. Then stride confidently toward the river, not thinking of the snakes. Which we did, pretty much because it would have been super-cool to actually see a snake in the bushes and also because the heat was an incredible incentive to get to the shade fast. There was a good rope swing down there into a deep hole in the river and, when the river was strong, a hip-high sandy billabong to splash and lounge in. But no-one liked leaving the bikes behind and by the time you got back to them you were in need of another swim.
So mostly we went down to the Old Park. It was a crook in the river, fish all around (mostly carp in those days) and in the lee of whatever modest heights there might have been to the north where the hot winds begin. Shady river forest, gums that filled the horizon. It was a great place to mess about: in boats and on bikes; in trees and over rocks. I loved it, it was so accessible: a couple of blocks from our place you went down Walgett St all the way to the old pump-house. Even on my over-engineered Rep-co BMX I could be down there maybe ten, twelve minutes, in the water in fifteen. There was a little jetty, out over the river, connected to the pump-house from which you could jump, certain of a giddy little thrill as it was a bit higher than expected, once you were in mid-air.
The road continued down along beside the river in a north westerly direction – it petered out into a pair of tyre ruts and then it faded into something else, a suggestion that people used to travel that way, noted by the consistent distance between trees of roughly the same age. An avenue through and around the dips and hollows of the riverside. It wasn’t straight nor even but there was clearly a way there. Lots of ways, as the tracks and paths criss-crossed each other all over the place leading from one hollow to another, one billabong to another, one prime river spot to another. And a thousand little tracks from the trees to everywhere.
The Old Park was clearly old, the pump-house had the architecture of a Longues-sur-Mer bunker facing out over Omaha beach, but even a kid on a bike could see this was an awesome place. A vast park with a thousand camping spots by the water, spots to wash and play, spots to rest in the deep shade of the river gums, spots to get love and watch the sunset across the plains to the south, places to kill food and barbecue. It seems clear to me now that it was a town. It was a gathering place, a significant one. Just upstream from the fish traps where the river gets flat and broad. But at the time I loved it as a playground. It was a vast happy maze of BMX jumps and swimming spots. The people you saw were mostly kids, and blokes in land cruisers, fishing. I didn’t see the absent people.
When the big floods came in 1983 we were cut off by road for a fair while. It was really pretty cool, helicopters used the school oval as its base and every couple of hours, for a week or so, it would land and take off to carry lucerne and groceries and medical supplies to the cut off farms along the swollen rivers. We watched from our classroom windows, and envied those who got a ride. After ten days we got care packages, at school we stood in a line and each received a showbag with soap and pencils and sweets. As the waters slowly receded I would ride down Walgett St as far as the water would allow, to see how high it was I guess. I would look across the elbow of river as one vast lake, noticeably studded with high points, little islands of gums and dirt.
After the floods receded they left behind great puddles of dense mud as the silt brought by river settled, especially in the billabongs. Once my family went to a barbecue down in the park. There were maybe five families, it might have been a scout thing I guess, and when we arrive everyone is standing around this billabong looking at this sheep. The sheep is up to its neck in mud and bleating madly, crazily. And my Dad goes to the car and gets a rope. He wades into the mud and ties the rope around the sheep’s hind leg. He carries the rope back to the riverbank and all the blokes pull out this panicked sheep. My Dad has got mud on his glasses and everything about him is muddy and he can’t get his glasses clean. He looks at me. I can’t understand what it’s doing here, he says.