The Nepean River is one of the most important waterways in the Sydney basin and has particular significance for Sydney’s southwestern rural-urban fringe.
The Nepean River catchment extends south and east of the Sydney Basin to take in areas near Robertson and Goulburn.
West of Wollongong the tributaries including Cataract Creek, Avon River, Cordeaux River that flow north-west and then into the deep gorges of Pheasants Nest and Douglas Park.
The river opens up into a floodplain and flows past Menangle and crosses the Cowpastures and southern Cumberland Plain past Camden and Cobbitty.
The river then flows north through the gorge adjacent to Wallacia and enters Bents Basin before it is joined by the Warragamba River and changes its name to the Hawkesbury River.
The Nepean River is economically important to the Sydney Basin and is used for mining, irrigation, recreation and other activities. It is ecologically significant to the area and has several rare and endangered species of plants.
The river has an important meaning in terms of its intangible cultural heritage to the local landscape. The river and its surroundings had special meaning to the Indigenous Dharawal people of the Cowpastures area.
The river defines the landscape and the construction of place in the localities along the river including Menangle, Camden, and Cobbitty.
One locality of special significance is Little Sandy at Camden.
Little Sandy on the Nepean River at Camden has been a popular spot with local Europeans for many decades for swimming, picnicking, boating and fishing. It is rich in the memories of local folk played out their childhoods, experienced the pangs of youth and enjoyed time with their families.
Little Sandy has been an important part of Camden cultural heritage for generations. It is a locality with a strong sense of place and identity with people’s memories.
The site has layers of meaning that can be peeled back and reveal a landscape of diverse dimensions. Its story has meaning across the generations.
The site and the pondage were created on the Nepean River with the construction of the Camden Weir in 1907. It is a culturally created landscape.
Today thousands of local residents enjoy the same rituals at Little Sandy on their jaunts along the Nepean River bike path with the friends and family.
In the early 20th century Little Sandy was a favourite swimming spot. In the 1920s the Camden Swimming Club built galvanised iron dressing sheds painted green in an area now known at Kings Bush Reserve.
Water backed up behind the weir for four kilometres through the Elderslie area and provided relatively deep water suitable for swimming.
The Camden Aquatic Sports carnival was organised in 1909 and attracted over 1000 spectators and was the location of the Camden Swimming Club in the 1920s.
The area was divided into Big Sandy, which was a deep hole, near Kings Bush Reserve. About 100 metres upstream was Little Sandy where the water was shallower. Learn to swim classes were held for a short time and Boy Scouts would go swimming there, according to Milton Ray.
Len English says
“In the 1950s the area was used for swimming by pupils from Camden Public School’, ‘The girls went with the female teachers to Little Sandy, while the male teachers and boys went downstream to Camden Weir.’
Olive McAleer says
‘Little Sandy was a popular spot for family picnics between the 1920s and 1940s’.
The river stopped being a swimming spot when it was condemned because of pollution by medical authorities in the early 1960s. It was replaced by Camden Memorial Swimming Pool in 1964. (P Mylrea, ‘Swimming in the Nepean River at Camden’, Camden History, March 2006)
Learn more @ Ian Willis, ‘Elderslie’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008
Footbridge built 1943
In 1943 military authorities from the Narellan Military Camp were anxious to undertake a practical training exercise for engineers. In September they sought the view of Camden Municipal Council on erecting a footbridge and the council immediately agreed with the proposal.
The council covered the cost of some of the timber so that the bridge remained the property of the council. The Australian Military Forces Engineers supplied the labour, supervision, transport vehicles and operators for the transport of stores and construction material.
The site at the bottom Chellaston Street connected two reserves on either side of the Nepean River. One on the Chellaston Street side and the other at River Road Elderslie.
In late September 1943, 40 troops started building a wooden footbridge 120 feet long and 4 feet wide. Construction took around four weeks and was finished by 28 October.
Observers commented on a
‘fine piece of workmanship…that would be much appreciated’ by the local community.
(Camden News, 16 September 1943, 23 September 1943, 28 October 1943).
Nepean River 1900
This image of the Nepean River is taken in the vicinity of the Camden Weir. It gives an indication of the degraded state of the river around 1900. There is evidence of sedimentation and streambank erosion caused by hard-hoofed animals trampling river banks.
These issues were typical of Australia’s inland waterways in the late 19th century after extensive clearing of the catchments for forestry, farming and other activities.
Sue Rosen quotes from James Atkinson’s 1826 An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales in her book on the environmental history of the Nepean River.
Atkinson states that even by the mid-1820s the river banks were undermined and collapsing into the stream. There were deposits of sand in the river channel and clearing practices had caused increased run-off, accelerated the degradation of the river channel and increased obstruction in the river bed. All evident in the 1900 photograph of the river channel at Camden.
Atkinson felt that the original European settlers had failed to ‘improve’ the land for farming and that its farming potential had been compromised. The settlers had in Atkinson’s terms failed to fulfil the original objectives of opening up the land and favoured, according to Rosen, ‘the cultivation of a landscape reminiscent of British romantic pastoral scenes’.
The earliest reports of the Nepean River date from 1795. David Collins wrote about his impression after a wet spring in his An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London, 1798). These impressions have been quoted in Alan Atkinson’s Camden where it states there were
large ponds, covered with ducks and the black swan, the margins of which were fringed with shrubs of the most delightful tints.
After a dry spell, the river at Menangle was reported by George Caley in his ‘Report of a Journey to the Cowpastures’ (1804, ML) to be ‘reduced to a small compass’ and the water having ‘the foul appearance of a pond in a farmyard’.
Sue Rosen Losing Ground An Environmental History of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Catchment, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1995.
Alan Atkinson, Camden, Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales, Melbourne, OUP, 1988.
Camden Weir 1907
The Camden Weir pondage created an aesthetic water feature that runs through the Camden township and took in the Little Sandy. The aesthetic has moral, experiential, spiritual and well-being aspects to it.
The Camden Weir was constructed by New South Wales Public Works Department after the completion of the Cataract Dam from 1907.
The compensation weir was one of number constructed along the Nepean River to safeguard the ‘riparian rights’ of landowners affected by the interruption of flow to the river, according to John Wrigley.
A riparian right is the ability to take water from the river. The water supply dams of the Upper Nepean Scheme reduced the flow of the tributaries of the Nepean River, and the weirs were to ‘compensate’ for the loss of water flow.
The other weirs near Camden were at Menangle, Begins, Thurns, Camden Sharpes and Cobbitty. The weirs were eventually transferred to the management to the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board as part of the Sydney Water Supply system.
Learn more @ John Wrigley,’ Nepean River Weirs’, The District Reporter 3 August 2001
Water has a calming effect on the mind and takes the mind to a quiet, tranquil and peaceful place.
Some say it can dim our internal chatter and calm some people.
Water provides a degree of serenity and the purifying effect it can have on the soul. Water can have a soothing meditative effect on some people.
People need to re-charge and re-vitalise in the tranquillity of the environment provided by the tranquillity and serenity of the pool provided by the weir.
For others, a visually pleasant water feature can also be a source of healing and relaxing in a man-mad environment.
Those that went swimming at Little Sandy had an experiential relationship with the water. Water is used to nourish and replenish man after exertion.
Swimming carnivals were a time of community celebration and strengthening community resilience.
The pondage at Little Sandy also has a scientific value for the marine ecosystem it supports. It supports a range of life from eels, to perch, birds, reptiles and other life.
The Little Sandy pondage creates a pleasant water feature that circles the township. The beauty of the scene with the trees along the water’s edge framing the quiet of the pond.
People doing simple tasks like fishing, picnicking, walking and re-engaging with nature on the water’s edge. The surface of the water is a mirror that reflects the images of the trees and bushes on the water’s edge.
At dawn on a cold frosty morning, steam rise of the water’s surface as the walkers’ feet crackle under the frozen grass on the water’s edge. There is a splash as a kingfisher dives into the water after a fish, that breaks the silence of the space.
The world disappears momentarily as you sit on the water’s edge taking in the serene quiet surroundings of the pond.
A new footbridge
The Little Sandy footbridge was officially opened on 4 May 2014 with another community event.
The weather gods were kind, and while there was a cool breeze and an overcast start the sun came out and the crowd turned up with families of mums and dads and the kids.
Camden Council organised a family fun day in Chellaston Reserve where there were stalls, a free train ride along the bike track and information stands.
The day opened at 11.00am and wound up in the afternoon at 3.00pm. Camden Rotary provided a sausage sizzle which sold out early in the day.
An information stand was provided by Camden Historical Society which was staffed by volunteers John and Julie Wrigley, Bob Lester and Rene Rem, while others turned up later.
This was another community event that has been typical of the popularity of the site for the Camden community.
The new pre-cast concrete 43-metre footbridge at Little Sandy on the Nepean River was completed in April 2014. Camden Council let contracts for the completion of a new footbridge in September 2013.
The new structure replaced a wooden footbridge that was damaged in a flood in 2012. The new footbridge was jointly funded by the council and the state government.
The finished footbridge is part of the Nepean River cycleway that joins Camden with Elderslie, South Camden and Narellan. Local resident Kevin Browne stated in 2012 (Camden Narellan Advertiser 31 July) that:
the bridge was part of the unique attraction of living in a rural area [and] the availability of serene, natural beauty.
After the 2012 damage to the footbridge and its closure, local residents started to campaign for its replacement.
This culminated in a community meeting in the mayor’s office in August 2013 when 19 local residents attended an information session with the mayor, the Member for Camden, and the council’s general manager and engineering staff.
The original footbridge was constructed in 1943 as a military training exercise by the AMF Engineering Corps stationed at Narellan Military Camp.
Camden Council agreed to fund the cost of the materials while the engineers provided the labour (40 men), supervision and vehicles. The original footbridge was 120 feet long and 4 feet wide.
Learn more @ The District Reporter 17 August 2012.
King’s Bush is the reserve adjacent the river’s edge at Little Sandy and is named after Cecil J King, the rector of St John’s Church between 1893 and 1927.
According to John Wrigley, King kept his horse in the paddock next to the river and swam at the same spot in the river.
Reverend King was a keen sports fan and played for the Camden Cricket Club and was the team’s wicketkeeper for several years. In 1927 he was the patron of the Camden Golf Club and president of the Union and St John’s tennis club.
King was ordained at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney in 1887 by the Bishop Barry of the Sydney Archdiocese. (Camden Advertiser 2 June 1949)
Learn more @ John Wrigley, Place Names on the Camden Area, Camden, CHS, 2005.
Chellaston Street ends at the Nepean River in Chellaston Reserve in the vicinity of Little Sandy. Chellaston was a single storey brick residence at 38 Menangle Road built by Camden builder John Peat and used as his family home.
Chellaston Street was part of land releases on the south side of the township in the 1920s. There were several land releases in the area during the Inter-war period including Victory Ave and Gilbulla Ave that run off Menangle Road.
Learn more @ John Wrigley, Place Names on the Camden Area, Camden, CHS, 2005.
Many people have fond memories of Little Sandy at Camden
The Nepean River at Little Sandy is part of the Cumberland Woodland
Not far from Little Sandy there are stands of the rare Elderslie Banksia Scrub
Read about the Camden White Gum which can be found on the banks of the Nepean River at Little Sandy