Everything is Water by Simon Cleary

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

River journeys are a familiar genre.   Whether it be the mighty Nile, Amazon or Congo, or the less mighty Thames or Murray, historians, geographers, anthropologists and hikers, to name a few, have felt the need to explore and write about it. Closer to home, our more modest Brisbane River has been the subject of many fine writings, on its history, science and particularly hydrology. But these are less journeys and more learned description.

Since the coming of Europeans,  many barriers have arisen to impede a journey along the Brisbane River.  Private land surrounds most reaches  and there are relatively few riverside tracks, particularly upstream of the urban areas. Lack of water and presence of numerous road crossings make the upper reaches uninviting to paddle and there is a major dam and weir that have drowned the original channel in the middle reaches.

So you would have to be mad to try and walk it, wouldn’t you? Well, not if you are the very sane Simon Cleary. In late autumn of 2022, he set out to do just that. The date is important for two reasons. A major flood had occurred in February that brought permanent changes to the river, including many obstacles to foot traffic. More importantly for him, May 2022 had record rainfall that sent the river once again into flood mode. And Simon and friends just kept walking.

Anyone who paddles the river or takes the time to find observation points will attest to the ever-changing nature of the river – fallen trees, eroded banks, new sand bars – that not only demonstrate the power of floods, but also the difficulty of walking on or below the banks. Most people know the river for its estuary – the long, brown, channelised tidal waterway that is part of the soul of Australia’s third largest city. The freshwater reaches are less well known, particularly upstream of   Lake Wivenhoe.

The book is a diary of a 27-day journey from source to sea.  The upper reaches were entirely on foot, clinging stubbornly to the trackless bed and banks. The middle freshwater reaches were flooded and the rising lake required a long deviations through paddocks and roads, supplemented with vehicle trips. The tidal reaches were partially walkable, but with flooding still in progress, a canoe and motor boat were brought into service.

The journey was undertaken with a series of companions who bring their own perspectives to the river, along with a large cast of locals who are generally pretty supportive of Simon’s ambition. The occasional piece of history, myth and science is added, but these are mostly brief writings distilled from sources. There are minor factual errors, but they don’t detract from the charm of the book. Simon pays particular tribute to indigenous culture and one of his companions for the first five days is a very knowledgeable Jagera man.

The book’s depth derives from Simon’s many ruminations on everything from meanders to meteorology. Commendably, he tends to pose questions rather than imposing his own answers. A recurrent theme is the perspective difference from a road versus that from the river:  “We follow…up the river road as it threads the upper reaches of the valley. The road’s relationship to the river feels, at first, strange, and uncommitted: following it briefly before turning away, again and again, to find a more direct route. Until I realise the road’s loyalties are different………the road’s interest is only in ploughing forward, up and over the range [and]…the river is an object to be overcome” [p12].

In the first week or so, the water levels in the upper reaches allowed him to walk the bed and banks as planned. This section of the book has a rhythm that seems to match the author’s mood. Being so close to the river bed is slow going, but inspiring: “Walking down the middle of the sandy bed, we’re following the current as surely as if we were in a canoe….We’re walking in flow, in the heart of a moving river, propelled along by waves of pebble and quartz and sand. The regularity of it is mesmerising, like a musical beat” [p60].

When the rain set in, flooding waterways forced him to finding alternative routes – sometimes well away from the river – and use transport that would keep them safe. The tone becomes more sombre:  “At the top of the ridge we look south to the swollen river and….the great lake it has created. So much swelling water ravenously gobbling bank and shore. There are fingers of land down there…..but the river is destined to break through them, sweep them away, today or in a thousand years” [p138].

The Brisbane River has had a tough time of it since the 1830s. The landscape itself has changed profoundly,  and for the river traveller, so has the botany: “We count weeds as we push our way down the bank to the bridge. A fringe of dead lantana, drowned in February. Potato vine, with its purple flowers, draped from branch to branch, decorating the dead lantana. Swathes of wild tobacco, and later, a wash of castor oil plants”[p129]. Out of context, this could sound romantic, some sort of eulogy even; and Simon even keeps some weeds amongst his trip mementos. But the weeds are often a (literal) pain to negotiate and are a constant reminder that this landscape is an artefact.

Simon Cleary’s records of this journey are unashamedly personal, but always seeing the good, while recognising the bad. This is not a book for scholars, but it is intelligently written and provides food for thought about how people interact with the forces of nature.

Simon Cleary is the author of three novels, including The Comfort of Figs (2008), which was published after the manuscript was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. His second novel, Closer to Stone (2012), was inspired by his experiences in North Africa at the commencement of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. It went on to win the Queensland Literary Awards People’s Choice Award. Simon’s third novel, The War Artist, was published in 2019. Everything is Water (2024) is his first work of non-fiction. He is a life-long walking and environmental enthusiast, and lives in Brisbane.

Everything is Water

(June 2024)

by Simon Cleary


ISBN: 978 070226 850 2

$34.99 (Paperback); 336pp


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