Growing up on the Paterson

I grew up on a wide tanned stretch of the Paterson River, a good day’s paddle from where it greets the Hunter at Hinton, and many more twists and turns from where it empties into the salty swell at the Newcastle harbour river mouth.

It was an enchanted backyard – the thick bushels of weeping willow sheltering water dragons, possums and mud-encrusted willy wagtail nests; rope swingsthat delivered me and my tribe of siblings squealing into the chocolate brown waters below.

With Fisher Price tracking sets we identified fox, snake, bear and tiger and followed themto the far end of the property where stands of bamboo bentinto tunnels, perfect for hideouts and makeshift rafts. The steepest levee bank was a launch-pad for toboggans that would bump and scrape us over cattle trails. Occasionally we would light a small fire and roast witchetty grubs and fish over the coals. Although young, sitting there on the bank even thenI recall wondering in awe how our river – seemingly so far from the sea– could rise and fall in mysterious collaboration with it.

This summer I returned to the river with my nieces and nephew, now old enough to hold their own in the tide’s eddy. Dusting off the kayaks and mounting a new swing, I held my breath as they baulked at the muddy threshold, relieved as the lure of adventure soon took over and they forgot themselves in a cacophony of splashing limbs;in the spotting of ‘logadiles’ in the shadows; in the spearing ofimagined fish with bamboo canes. I quickly joined them, one more pair of eyes brightened by the river’s wash.

While revisiting my childhood, it alsoreminded me of my time in the forest some years ago, when I spent four seasons in the bushpracticingwilderness survival skills. After almost a decade of political and public campaigning work to protect local forest and marine areas, it was a much needed adventure.I built a shelter from natural materials, lit fires with sticks, hunted and gathered, tanned hides,craftedbaskets, pottery, string and rope, and wandered the land with the curiosity of a child.

Since returning, people ask me the obvious question – why? There are layers of answers I could give but one answer is the memory of me as a ten year old, knee deep in the muddy shallows, eyes lifting to catch theazure blue of a kingfisher moments before I dive headlong in.

The flaws in my river wonderland are glaringly obvious to me now. Denuded of native vegetation and choked with silt, it is a far cry from the deepchannel that once floated the ships of the cedar cutters. But it was wild enough for what I needed then, and for what I continue tocrave – a place to reconnect with more than human world, a place to spark the imagination, to play, to rest in the constancy of the tide’s ebb and flow, and, in doing so, return home.

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild. email: