Paul’s Big idea

By Vita Forest


Looking north.

This weekend a brand new park has opened in Sydney. Right on the water. Right in the middle of the city, between the Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour. It is land that had been used for maritime ventures for a hundred years, but has now been returned to the public after much debate, compromise and controversy. It is part of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s grand vision for Sydney Harbour. (Remember when we had a Prime Minister who had grand visions?….)  Keating insisted that rather than referencing recent history, the focus should be on a return to what the land looked like before the invasion of the Europeans. He wanted the impression of a “naturalistic” headland as would have been seen and used by the Indigenous people of the Eora Nation.

So today, on its opening weekend, my sister and I jumped on a ferry and went to check it out.  It was glorious summer weather even though it is officially still winter.  (Sometimes we get lucky).

The headland rises to a large open grassed area (aptly called Stargazer Lawn) and is terraced by meandering garden beds containing hardy indigenous plants including gum trees, grevilleas and banksias.  As the terraces curve around towards Darling Harbour, the vegetation changes to rainforest plants – tree ferns, palms and Lilly Pillies.

The hill-top lawns give new vistas out over the harbour, down over Balmain and the Parramatta River, and sweeping around towards North Sydney. It is quite magic. You look across to Goat Island, or Me-Mel as it was known traditionally. Me-Mel was the home of both Barangaroo, and her husband Bennelong. You can imagine her paddling across the water to the island in her canoe.

The shoreline undulates around the headland like a meandering amphitheatre from which you can look out over the water. This was my favourite part. It is built using thousands of huge blocks of sandstone arranged to step down right into the water, like a giant cubist sculpture. At this point, we left the path and scrambled over the rocks, it reminded me of being at the beach exploring rock pools. The massive sandstone bricks were deliberately arranged with their topmost surfaces left rough, uneven and sometimes pitted with oyster shells.

Sandstone blocks at Marrinawi Cove.

We explored the paths and ended up in a small patch of shade overlooking Marrinawi Cove, where they just happened to be interviewing some of the creators of the park. We learned that the sandstone was dug out of the site itself (from what is now a car park). Each block was labelled and allocated to a very particular spot in the park, so the wide range of colours in the sandstone would be spread over the whole area to give a “natural” look. We heard how this “naturalistic” headland was really achieved through a great deal of planning and engineering and deliberation. Apparently, a large part of the hill on which we were sitting had been built up on a kind of giant bridge buried under the earth. As well as the car park, the headland hides an underground water system which is used to recycle water over the entire site. In the future when the plants are more established, this water will be available for other uses too.

People picnicked, strolled, rode bikes and walked dogs through the park. They sat contemplating the harbour from their seats of sandstone slabs. I look forward to visiting again.

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