Far Kurnell

On April 28, 1770, the greatest British explorer of his time, Lt. James Cook, sailed his ship around a craggy peninsula and into a shallow bay on the east coast of Terra Australis Incognita, the ‘unknown land of the South.’ In need of fresh supplies, he dropped anchor inside the bay’s southern headland and, with a sizeable crew, attempted to land on a rocky stretch of coast. According to the journal of botanist Sir Joseph Banks, two Gweagal warriors sought to resist their arrival: 

“[they were] in all appearance resolved to dispute our landing to the utmost, though they were but two and we thirty or forty at least.”

A barrage of musket-fire drove them back. Cook and his crew came ashore and so began the colonial story of a region that would one day come to be named Kurnell.

On April 28, 2018, soon-to-be Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced that Kurnell would host construction of a multi-million-dollar monument commemorating the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Cook on Australian shores. The area would be transformed into an ambitious “semi-aquatic memorial precinct” recognising both Cook’s party and the Gweagal tribe that had defied them. In that announcement, Morrison declared:

“This is the place where our ancient Australian story began a new chapter that has led us to the free, peaceful and prosperous nation we are today.”

And yet, since Cook took those first steps upon the great southern land, muskets ablaze, the region has been razed, both culturally and environmentally. Decades of resource extraction and heavy industry have gouged scars across the landscape. Heavy polluters have poisoned the waterways. A flight path carves through the skies above. It is a dead land, a victim of the colonial ideal memorialised on that rocky shore.

Kurnell is a victim of geographical convenience. The peninsula projects into the Tasman Sea, forming the southern lip of a body of water that came to be known as Botany Bay. After newly-colonised Sydney began its outward expansion, areas were needed for what were deemed noxious trades – glue works, tanneries and other malodorous enterprises. Isolated by land, but a short ferry ride across the bay, the peninsula was identified as the ideal location for these undesirable businesses. Heavier industries soon followed. In 1937, the local council was confronted with a binary choice: to protect 290 hectares of coastal scrub, wetland and sand dunes through the formation of a National Park, or to sell that same land to sand-miners. In casting the deciding vote, the mayor declared that all of that land was “completely useless” and thus Kurnell was sentenced to a slow, lingering death.

There is only one road into Kurnell. Captain Cook Drive meanders through scrubby wetlands, punctuated by the industries that have consumed the peninsula; a sewage treatment plant, a rubbish tip, a sand mine, an oil refinery. The side of the road between these landmarks is bleak, windswept, littered with trash. Occasionally, roadkill lies baking on the tarmac, plucked at by wary ravens that scatter for oncoming traffic. Should you feel compelled to stop along this empty stretch of road, you’ll notice the eerie silence smothering the landscape. Nothing can be heard save the whistling of wind through overhead power lines and the melancholy conversation of the scavenging ravens.

Eventually, a sideroad stabs off to the east - Sir Joseph Banks Drive. Along this isolated track, the conflict between man and environment comes into starker relief. An arsonist recently set fire to the scrub out here, causing the destruction of 350 hectares of National Park. In the aftermath, alien-esque weeds have erupted revoltingly from blackened earth. Charred animal remains calcify in the throbbing summer sun and the derelict hulks of burnt-out cars, scrawled with the graffiti of bored teenagers, rot in the salt-swept air. And still, that smothering silence engulfs everything, until you eventually arrive at the end of the road where the rocks meet the sea and the roar of the surf consumes all.

This eerie atmosphere, combined with the region’s grim isolation, has long served as a beacon for those of questionable repute. In the 1970s, these scrublands were an underworld dumping-ground. After human remains were uncovered in 2007, screenwriter Ian David, writer of true-crime television dramas, noted:

"The great thing about the sand dunes down at Kurnell was that it was not only remote but it was a terrifically good medium to get rid of bodies - the corpses decomposed quickly and the bones were scattered. Criminals felt that it was remote enough and accessible enough, because you wouldn't be interrupted in your work."

The same qualities that had initially attracted noxious enterprises now also appealed to a burgeoning new trade: the criminal underworld.

Out here, the snake is king. In winter, the red-belly finds a comfortable nook and hibernates. As summer approaches and the air warms, so too does his blood, and he emerges to gorge himself on a feast of swamp rats. Snakes are everywhere in Kurnell. Once, as I hiked along a lonesome, dusty trail out beyond the oil refinery, a shriek pierced the stillness. With thoughts of murder on my mind, I trekked on, adrenaline surging, dreading whatever horrors lay ahead. Around the bend, a pair of mortified tourists came bolting through the bush. “Snake!” they gasped, ashen-faced. Their terror was, perhaps, misplaced. The red-belly is usually timid and rarely attacks unless cornered. Even then, their venom is relatively mild, certainly never fatal. That fact, of course, rarely enters the mind when confronted by one of these creatures, with scales dark as pitch and bellies burning like hellfire. Satan took the guise of a serpent when he tempted Eve, and ever since, the slithering form of the snake has tugged at the most primordial fear-sensors deep at the core of the human psyche.

Back on the road, you eventually come to the township of Kurnell itself. The place is a riddle of contradictions, a jumble of working-class cottages, weed-strewn paddocks and waterfront palaces. They take their English colonial history seriously around here. As Captain Cook Drive splutters to its inevitable end, a weatherbeaten sign looms large; “Welcome to Kurnell, the birthplace of modern Australia.” There’s a liquor store here too, and on its back wall, a fading mural depicts the arrival of Cook and his first contact with the Gweagal tribe. Here, an Aboriginal man is portrayed as the archetypal savage - a snarling, animalistic, spear-waving caricature. One assumes that the offensive mural hasn’t been painted over because nobody in the community actually considers it offensive. Liberalism, it seems, hasn’t yet made the long, lonely trek up Captain Cook Drive.

Weird things happen in Kurnell. The natural world seems to be in open rebellion against its colonisers. Whale-watchers flock to the cliffs at the outermost point of the peninsula, and every so often, strong winds send someone tumbling over the edge to a grisly death.  In 2015, a tornado - unheard of in Sydney - ripped a jagged scar through the town, throwing cars, boats and trees around with malevolent abandon. Debris from the storm still lies broken and twisted beside the streets to this day. At one point, while I was shooting this project, somebody’s dog was eaten by a shark in knee-deep water on the bay. The council erected signs to warn of the danger, and within two days they’d all been souvenired by larrikin locals. Within three days, dogs and dog-owners had returned to those same shark-infested waters. The inhabitants of Kurnell seem entirely resigned to their tumultuous relationship with the natural world.

Eventually, every journey to Kurnell culminates in a pilgrimage to the memorial precinct along the foreshore of Botany Bay, where plaques and monoliths stand in reverence of every detail of Cook’s landing. There’s a grime-encrusted plaque commemorating the rock upon which Cook apparently first stood, and a towering obelisk, erected in a moment of surging colonial pride one-hundred years later. A grim headstone marks the burial site of Forby Sutherland, “the first British subject to die in Australia.” There’s even a sign beside the stagnant bog from which Cook first “took water for his ship.” It all amounts to a grotesquerie of colonial celebration, with only a few half-hearted references to the indigenous population who were so devastated after Cook’s arrival. And soon, it will all be superseded by the multi-million-dollar upgrade announced by Morrison 248 years to-the-day after Cook and his crew sailed into the bay and disembarked onto this rocky stretch of coast. 

Standing in the shadows of these towering monoliths, you may be surprised to find that you’re still enveloped in that pervasive silence. There’s a raven here, too, watching you cautiously with beady eyes, and somewhere out past the tree-line, a red-belly basks in the sun on the rusting frame of a burnt-out car. This is the indubitable essence of Kurnell. In every aspect of this place, there’s an unsettling juxtaposition between the natural and unnatural worlds -- the persistent disquietude that acts as the true monument to Cook’s first steps on these now-tainted shores.

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