When photographer Louise Hawson realised she was a stranger in her own city of Sydney, Australia, she set herself a mission – to explore and photograph a different suburb every week for a year. During the course of her mission in 2009-2012, many people started to tune into her 52 Suburbs blog to share in what she was discovering. She was travelling slowly, getting under the skin of Sydney and showing the locals (myself included) what Sydney is really about. 52 Suburbs was about the multicultural fabric of Sydney. It was exciting… and it was right under my feet!
A real treat in the Australian bush is the huge numbers of tiny wildflowers. Their real beauty is often only apparent on very close inspection, so a good camera with zoom lens becomes a mandatory accessory. This native pink hyacinth orchidn in Boronia is one of the most common bush orchids in Australia and also one of the tallest. It blossoms from around December to March. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
Always a shock to first-time visitors to Australia is the loud laughing song of the kookaburra. Also a large bird similar in size to the king parrot, the kookaburra is a far more common sight in both urban areas and along the coast. It is carnivorous, feeding mostly on snakes, lizards and small rodents, although they are also keen on barbecues and regularly steal sausages whenever they get a chance. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
Inspired, my wife and I started our own ‘slow travel’ mission. For the past four months, we have been checking out the natural world in and around Sydney – starting in our own backyard. I live in a suburb called Gladesville, located in the inner west region of the city. It borders another suburb to the north called Boronia, both about four kilometres and across Sydney Harbour from the central business district, where you can find places to stay in Sydney. Being this close to the centre, Gladesville and Boronia are two of the older suburbs of Sydney, although as I recall from when I was a boy growing up here (some 50-plus years ago), it was rather sparsely populated and we were surrounded by dairy farms and bushland.
Sadly most of Sydney’s naturally occurring mangrove forests, like this small patch in Gladesville, are gone due to urbanisation and clearing for commercial activities; however, the damage has been curbed and signs of renewed growth are apparent in several areas. The mangroves in Sydney are mostly Grey Mangrove Avicennia marina, with small pockets of both naturally occurring and planted River Mangrove Aegiceras corniculatum. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
Basking in the sun on the side of a walking track in Boronia was this large black snake around 1.5 metres long. They are common on the east coast of Australia, are good swimmers and tend to live near creeks and rivers. They feed on small rodents and frogs and the female gives birth to around 20 live young. They are venomous, although its venom is milder than the brown snake. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
Today, Gladesville and Boronia are suburbs that most people rush through on their way to or from the city. They strike most Sydneysiders as rather nondescript, perhaps also reflected in the fact that neither were selected by Louise in her 52 suburbs. Of course, living here had taught us differently. We set out to explore some of the small pockets of parkland and harbour foreshore we knew were nearby.
Of 86 species of tea tree (Leptospermum) occurring globally, 81 are endemic to Australia. You find them everywhere around Sydney, including Gladesville. They got the name ‘tea tree’ after early white settlers in Australia used the leaves of this tree as a tea substitute. Tea tree oil is a widely used antiseptic due to its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
Bush turkeys are large ground-dwelling birds (up to 2.2 kg and 85 cm tall) common on the east coast of Australia. The male builds a huge nest on the ground from leaf litter in which up to 50 eggs are laid by several females. The eggs are incubated by the heat given off by the rotting leaf litter. The male maintains a constant temperature by digging holes in the mound and inserting his bill to check the heat, then adding and removing leaf litter as required. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
We were amazed – thrilled, even – at what we found. In the large tracts of mangrove forest and bushland, we couldn’t see any hint of suburbia. Instead, we encountered many different species of plants and wildflowers. What also delighted us was the variety and concentration of wildlife, ranging from bush turkeys, cockatoos, kookaburras and king parrots to some very healthy-looking goannas and snakes. Returning home from our first outing, when our collection of photos were taken, my wife and I both felt elated. We had (re)connected with where we live, getting closer to both the natural environment and history in a way we hadn’t expected.
Sydney is built on sandstone, something that becomes very apparent when you see road cuttings and building excavations. Most of Sydney’s early public buildings were built from sandstone, much of it stained red and brown from iron. On this walk in Boronia we discovered a natural sandstone overhang displaying some of the beautiful iron colouration. On a spot not far from this location was an Aboriginal rock carving, a reminder that the area was populated originally by the Wallumedegal people. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
King parrots are magnificent and quite large, growing to around 43cm in height. They reside on the east coast of Australia, mainly in densely forested regions, so they are not commonly seen around Sydney, unlike their smaller cousins, the brightly coloured lorikeets. This picture is of a male in Gladesville – they have the distinctive red colouration around the head and neck. Photo courtesy of Len Cordiner
Our new resolve is to share what we have found, to encourage some of our friends in Sydney (and from out of town) to try a local Sydney suburbs walk. We also want to share how we found it – by travelling slowly in our own backyard.
Planning a trip to Sydney? Interested in other slow and local experiences? Check out Sydney Urban Adventures, unique day tours with a difference, designed to get under the skin of the city, so you get to know it like a local.