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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Clyde River


I don't know if Stuart Magee is still around but if he is I shouldn't think he would mind my quoting from his excellent little booklet "The Clyde River and Batemans Bay" which, published in 2001, is now out of print. Here we go:

"The Nepean/Hawkesbury is in big trouble, and the outlook for the Murray and the Darling is gloomy indeed. All of which brings me, gasping for fresh clean water like some poor old murray cod in a drought, to the wonders of the crystal-clear Clyde River.

Those of you who have peered down at the river from the bridges at Nelligen and Batemans Bay will likely concede that it is at least a nice river but some may jib at the suggestion that it is a wondrous thing. Well now, bear with me.

When English settlers first appeared on the river the people in possession around the area to become known as Nelligen, at least by some accounts, were the Dhurga people. Possibly they were much one and the same as the Bugelli-Manji people, in possession at Moruya, whose language is recorded as Djurga.

Map of the Clyde River, with location of "Riverbend" marked with a red cross

Lieutenant Robert Johnston, Australian-born son of the officer who led the Rum Rebellion, seems to have been the first white man to explore the river, sailing or rowing up it for 25 miles in 1821. He described it as a "fine, clear, capacious river" and those good people who have followed him have done little to change that. His boat, the Snapper, returned in 1822 under the command of William Edwardson with an interesting party of three. Firstly, there was the ubiquitous Hamilton Hume. Then that rumbustious adventurer Alexander Berry, at whose disposal the Snapper had been placed.

Berry, a Scot in his forties at the time, had set off after school to do medicine. After completing the preliminary course of study he broke his father's heart by opting to join the navy. The navy gave him a certificate as a surgeon's mate but he changed aim again to become a merchant buying and selling trade goods around the world.

In 1809 he was loading a ship with spars in New Zealand when word came that another English ship nearby, the Boyd, had been attacked by natives. At considerable risk he set off to assist but found that the crew and passengers of the ship, bar a woman, a 15-year old boy and two younger children, had all been most brutally massacred and eaten. Depending on which account you read, from 40 to 70 people had been killed.

The boy, Thomas Davison, who Berry took with him, was the final member of the party exploring the Clyde in 1822.

Smugglers Cave on Snapper Island

Leaving the "Snapper" in the Bay, at the island which now bears its name, and taking the "Snapper"'s boat, they proceeded up the river an estimated 25 miles till they reached a "stony ford" which barred their further progress by water. Berry, in a paper he read to the Philosophical Society of Australia later that year, wrote "the river winds in a beautiful manner among the hills which slope gradually to the water's edge. These hills are moderately wooded. The spotted gum is prevalent. The soil is rather barren and is covered with low ferns, prickly shrubs and a kind of dwarf palm called burrawang by the natives. As we advanced up the river, the alternative projecting points, on either side, consist of rich alluvial soil but are of small extent." The burrawang, with its lovely rich red nut about the size and shape of a date but with five flat hard flanks, still grows profusely in the area. It interested Berry. He had it analysed by a chemist to find it was nutritious but toxic. On further inquiry he found the aboriginals knew this well but eliminated the toxin by maceration in running water. Berry, as we will discuss shortly, was not the only man attracted to the burrawang.

When the boat could go no further Berry, Hume and Davison set off on foot for a four-day tramp about. Not a venture to be undertaken lightly. There are only two prior landings in Batemans Bay recorded with any certainty - in 1808 and 1821 - and both of those ended in members of the landing party being speared to death. West of the river he found "the sides of the hills are too steep for the plough but the soil is admirably suited to the culture of the vine. We did not find a piece of good pasture, or what is called good forest land in the whole district."

Whether or not he was correct in suggesting the land was suitable for "the vine" has not yet been put to any significant test that I know of, and hopefully the revelation in these pages will yet escape the ears of Penfolds and Hardys. For the rest, his analysis of the country was spot on and the lack of pollution in the river today is due largely to the lack of agriculture. That, plus the fact that the limited industry has been essentially clean.

Branching sideways again, like one of those creeks that feed the river where you may find all sorts of interesting things before returning to the main stream, Alexander Berry's dalliance with the Clyde was brief. Within the year he was seduced to the Shoalhaven where he took up a grant of 10,000 acres near the mouth of the river at the foot of Mount Coolangatta. Through subsequent purchases he expanded the property to 40,000 acres and built a magnificent home. The rump of the property and many of the buildings erected by him are there yet for you to see, and you may purchase good wine made from grapes grown on the property. It seems our man had a good eye for the grape.

However, it was not all wine and roses at Coolangatta as he called the property. Approaching the difficult mouth of the Shoalhaven in a ship on a rough day in May 1822, Berry lowered a boat and sent a party to check the way forward. The boat overturned in the surf and two men were lost. One of them was his friend, Thomas Davison, still in his twenties and never to be seen again.

Tollgate Islands

It was Lieutenant Johnston on his first visit in 1821 who named the river Clyde - for reasons not stated in his report to Governor Macquarie but wholly in step with practices of the time of aligning colonial geographic features with British parallels. Seven years later a surveyor in the area had the good sense to ask the local aboriginals what they called the river. "Bhundoo" they cried. It's a shame the name wasn't reinstated, and unfortunate the surveyor didn't continue to ask about for the names of the places. He it was who named the two islands at the mouth of the river The Tollgate and the Tollhouse. Would you believe!

Pigeon House Mountain

Not far out to sea from the Tollgates as the islands are called today, where the water is still muddy when the river is in flood, if you look north you can spy that odd-shaped mountain that Captain Cook called Pigeon House. A bit beyond Pigeon House mountain, about 120 kilometres upstream from where you are bobbing about in the ocean, is where the headwaters of the river rise.

Pondering on that one day in the year 2000, when the fish off Tollgates were offering little distraction, it seemed a good idea to retrace Alexander Berry's journey up the river. He might have missed something.

So it was, some months later, that yours truly accompanied by one Garth Hay - staunch sailorman of Broulee, well suited to follow in the wake of Alexander Berry - found themselves up the creek so to say. There, at a spot 40 kilometres or 25 miles up the Clyde from Snapper Island we felt ourselves bumping on a stony bottom at a place where a promontory of stones comes across two-thirds of the river. We were at the "stony ford" which barred the progress of Berry's boat.

The "stony ford", today's Shallow Crossing

At that spot, if things have changed since Berry's day it was not apparent to us from the river. Not a roof, a fence, a road or a path, nor sheep nor cow. Nothing but native scrub and trees, the lovely river, and peace - peace you could carry in a bucket. There was, of course, nothing remarkable in taking a boat to where we were. It is easily and commonly done. Nevertheless there was a certain sense of occasion.

Others have done more interesting things on the river. In 1936, John Fairfax and two friends set out from Pigeon House to paddle two canoes to Batemans Bay - see here. That, in the first two days of the five that it took them, required a fair bit of portage from waterhole to waterhole when they ran out of river. In his book, Run O' Waters, so beautifully illustrated by Cedric Emanuel, Fairfax has this to say of the river:

"The Clyde is not a vigorous tumultuous stream such as one finds tumbling down from the tablelands. It flows very stealthily and steadily down through the valley it has quietly eaten away for itself amongst the foothills of the mountains. It does not pound over waterfalls and cascades like the Shoalhaven or the Snowy. Rather does it win its way by peaceful penetration. Occasionally, of course, when a cloud bursts over Pigeon House or the upper valley, the Clyde becomes a large dignified river and swings down to the sea in a broad-bosomed matronly manner."

Googlemap Riverbend