Over the last few days I've been at the Quarantine Station at Sydney Harbour's North Head, writing and workshopping poetry as part of a writer's retreat run by the indefatigable Kerri-Jane Burke. The station (styled as 'Q-Station' by the organisations that maintain and staff the area) occupies a unique position in Australia's landscape as a heritage-listed historical site situated within the confines of Sydney Harbour National Park. The Quarantine Station itself operated for 150 years until 1984 and is now known as a hotspot for ghost tours and historical preservation, and provides the perfect backdrop for creative observation.
What struck me most about this location was the extreme contrast between the surrounding harbour, with all its buildings and skyscrapers and landmarks crowded along the coastline, and this little three-point-odd square kilometre pocket of history and nature. Between the colonial huts, unmarked one-way roads, and general hilliness and isolation, the Q Station feels like a self-sufficient island. There's something incredible and mildly shocking about standing on an incline, staring out across the water at the city lights with that distinctive Centrepoint skyline, and being surrounded by dense foliage that shelters a Ringtail Possum with a joey on its back just a few centimetres from my arm.
Here are some pics and observations from the last few days:
In the background you can see a big smoke stack chimney; this is 'the Boiler Room', the upmarket restaurant situated within the Quarantine Station. Businesses such as this help to supplement the funding of the heritage site (which goes beyond the remit of National Parks NSW). Many of the buildings in this area date from the 1830s, and the Boiler Room is situated near the wharf where ships would unload their passengers for quarantine purposes. Across it's 150 years some 500+ people died here, which actually isn't that much when you consider that the site serviced 13 000 arrivals in its time of operation.
The rocks near the wharf are covered in hastily-made engravings representing the years of arrivals at the Quarantine Station, and indicate the vast array of ships and cultures that passed through here. The RMS Lusitania mentioned above isn't the same one from WWI, it's an earlier ship that the later one was named after. Note also the flag scratched in by some early Japanese arrivals. The rocks also feature inscriptions from Arabic and Chinese passengers who alighted here in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and are a wonderful insight into the early beginnings of Australia's multiculturalism.
Pictured above are the First Class shower blocks (you can tell that they're first class because the dividers go all the way up rather than to waist height). Upon arrival the passengers would be told to remove all items and clothes, wash themselves in carbolic acid whilst being watched by quarantine staff, and then come back to clothes that had been blasted-free of assumed diseases. Prior to this shower system (implemented circa the late 19th century) the arrivals would watch all their possessions get put to the flame on the beach.
By most accounts, the process of sterilisation at the Quarantine Station was imprecise in the early 19th century due to the pervading belief in the miasma theory. Later in its history, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, there were these huge lockable vaults where everything was railroaded in and exposed to extreme steaming. Clothes would survive but imagine the effect on cardboard-lined suitcases and books...
What you see above are the actual beds used in the early 1900s, which have been preserved in the Quarantine Station Hospital at North Head. Circa 1918, these beds were home to many returned WWI soldiers suffering from Spanish Influenza. Other common diseases of the time were Scarlet Fever, Typhus, and Smallpox.
There are three graveyards at the Quarantine Station, only one of which still retains its headstones. The above image shows the location of the one of the cemeteries that no longer has markers for the graves.
These gravestones are found on the other side of the Head and contain those who passed away at the Quarantine Station during the turn of the century and earlier. It's a very quiet spot, and there is still a lot of archaeological work being done here to establish identities for the worn-away sandstone headstones. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the cemetery is the way it looks over the harbour and the Pacific from its serene vantage point.
I had a hard time with these stairs due to their length and height. I don't deal with heights very well so I found it much easier to do these stairs at nighttime rather than in the day when I could see between each step. These stairs sit in place of the steep railway that used to transport items from the wharf to the other buildings.
The most surprising aspect of this little national park is the prevalence of native wildlife in such close proximity to the city. Ringtail Possums run along the length of the Funicular Stairway's rails, fearless in regards to the human foot traffic alongside them. We also saw this Echidna nuzzling about in the dirt on our way back to our cottage one night - it seemed completely unperturbed by my presence as I crouched down next to it and at one point it looked up at me with its little beaky nose before returning to its antwork.
North Head is home to an endangered population of Long-nosed Bandicoots. I've driven through this area before and registered their presence, hoped to see them one day, and was happy to return to Manly in the hope that I might see one. They emerge at night and the area is apparently full of them. On the first night I was here I stepped out of the restaurant to get some air and looked down to see the little guy above inquisitively weave between my feet in his search for food. I watched as he systematically investigated each table and chair before disappearing into a nearby kitchen door! One of the pictures above also shows the little pockets they dig everywhere in their search for worms.
As you can see, the days were spent doing a variety of activities relating to poetry. The poet and writer Kirly Saunders from Red Room Poetry visited on the Tuesday to talk over a few techniques and strategies she likes to use, and we workshopped some great ideas while exploring The Disappearing, one of the creative apps pioneered by Red Room Poetry.
Anyway, it was a fantastic opportunity to work with other writing English teachers, share valuable feedback, and just have a space where I could write and experiment with different styles.