One of the places I knew I wanted to visit before even coming to Australia was Botany Bay, the place where Cook and his men first landed in 1770. On board the Endeavour were two naturalists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who gathered examples of local species of plants and insects. In just eight days Sydney Parkinson, the ship’s artist, made as many drawings as he could of kangaroos, birds and flowers, as well as of the Aboriginal people they encountered. Altogether he made 243 drawings of Australian plants that have survived; although he didn’t, dying of dystentery and fever on the voyage home.
No one I spoke to had been to Botany Bay; most looked askance, muttering about oil refineries, heavy industry and the working harbour. There is no train station at Kurnell, the nearest settlement – getting there would involve a train ride then a bus. There’s a cycle route from where I’m based but it’s too far to walk. Many places in Sydney are harder to reach than they look because of all the inlets – it’s taken me a while just to get my bearings, to know where people mean when they talk about ‘the North Shore’ and the ‘Inner West’.
In the midst of preparing myself for my departure, my lovely friend Donna kindly offered to drive me there on her day off. We went south on the Princes Highway, crossed the Captain Cook Bridge over the George River and travelled down the peninsula to Botany Bay National Park. They have renamed it Kamay Botany Bay to honour the original Aboriginal ownership and this sensitivity to its history is reflected in much of the interpretative information, created in consultation with local Indigenous elders.
When the Englishmen set foot on their land, the Aboriginals went into hiding, watching from a distance. That has been their strategy ever since as the White man has claimed governance of the colony, refusing to countenance a world view other than their own – anthropocentric, rationalist, linear, hierarchical and competitive. Only in very recent times have gestures begun to be made towards apology and healing, allowing the Aborigines to come out of hiding and start to share some of their wisdom. In the midst of the current global environmental crisis, their deep understanding of the rhythms of the natural world has an important part to play in managing change.
When Banks took his inventory of the plant species at Kamay – first named Stingray Harbour by Cook, then Botanist’s Bay or Botany Bay because of the rich diversity found there – there was indeed a wealth of different trees, shrubs and flowers, recorded by Sydney Parkinson, and later added to Banks’s Florilegium. In the subsequent years of clearing, development and industrialisation much variety has been lost and many individual species are in danger of disappearing altogether. Work is underway to conserve as much as possible and regenerate ‘the bush’ here and elsewhere. Although I’m afraid it will take a while – I’ve heard too many stories of a widespread scorn for anything ‘green’, seen as anti-patriotic and un-economic by many Australians. Meanwhile scientists continue to report major extinctions of plant and animal life across this vast and beautiful continent.
There’s not much botany at Botany Bay but I’m glad I saw it. Maybe I’ll go back some time and do some of the longer walks they’re creating in the National Park. It feels an important place – where something noxious started that can’t be erased but that can, like a bushfire, set in motion a whole new beginning.