Summary: A boat trip along Cowan Creek, exploring some of the Aboriginal rock art and early European settlements along the creek.

I’ve been invited by Collette and Ron to explore some of the Aboriginal rock art sites along Cowan Creek – as well as more recent European settlements. Cowan Creek (or Cowan Water) is the main waterway in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, extending 12km from Eleanor Bluffs to Bobbin Head and forms the boundary between Hornsby and Ku-ring-gai municipalities. Today’s exploration is by boat – the HMAS “Lady Mac” skippered by Ron – which provides access to the many heritage sites located along the creek.

Exploring Cowan Creek with Ron and Collette

I’m being picked up at the Apple Tree Bay wharf (near Bobbin Head), where there’s a kiosk (open on weekends), picnic area and a boat & kayak ramp. A few bushwalks start or pass through Apple Tree Bay, including the Apple Tree Bay Loop which follows an old water pipe up to the Mt Ku-ring-Track, and the longer St Ives to Mt Ku-ring-gai trail.

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Cowan Creek was inhabited by the Darramuragal or Darug people, who lived, hunted and fished along the foreshores of the Hawkesbury River and its tributaries. Cowan Creek was one of these tributaries, which remained undisturbed until the late 1880s. The first development along Cowan Creek was in the 1880s when Edward Windybank developed a popular boating business near Waratah Bay, followed about 20 years later by Francis Hall Woodnut who built a boatshed and cottages near Apple Tree Bay.

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Parish of Broken Bay, 1927. Source: Land Registry Services

Both Windybank and Woodnutt developed thriving businesses catering for tourists who would travel up from Sydney to rent cottages & houseboats along Cowan Creek. Windybank has been credited with introducing houseboats to NSW, at one stage having 11 houseboats that he hired out – the rusting remains of a metal boat hull that was once his home can be visited at Waratah Bay (the Mt Ku-ring-gai to Berowra bushwalking track passes this site).

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Further north at Jerusalem Bay, George Rhodes and his wife Agnes built a house and established another successful boat hiring business in 1895. While little remains of the house and wharf, the tall palm tree at the end of the bay was planted in 1921 by Mrs Rhodes, and quite possibly holds the claim for the most photographed tree in Ku-ring-gai National Park.

There’s little or no recorded history of when the Aboriginal people were displaced from the area around Cowan Creek (which was recognised as Ku-ring-gai Chase in 1894, well before being proclaimed a national park in 1967). Hundreds of rock art and midden sites along the creek are evidence of this Aboriginal occupation. Some shelters have Aboriginal handprints, mostly in red ochre – although one shelter has adult and children’s handprints stencilled in white. (Aboriginal Elders would leave their imprints higher up on the wall of a cave while younger members’ prints were lower down; the inclusion of wrists and forearms indicated a higher status.)

Other shelters include Aboriginal paintings in both red ochre and charcoal, with fish being a common motif.

One deep and weathered cave (which requires a bit of scramble up from the water) frames a nice view over Cowan Creek.

View from shelter over Cowan Creek

On the back wall of shelter are two paintings of two men – unfortunately while most sites are in good condition, this one been damaged by graffiti.

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Although Aboriginal rock engravings are found more commonly on ridges, there are a few carvings located along (or near) the Cowan Creek shoreline. One of these is a long frieze engraved on a vertical rock face, with eleven human figures as well as a fish and a shield (most of the human figures are men, but there are also five boys and a woman).

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Different sites includes rock engravings of footprints, fish and more human figures – many of them engraved on vertical rock surfaces.

One of Cowan Creek’s tributaries is Smiths Creek, along which are a few more Aboriginal sites. Near the end of the creek is the remnants of another old settlement. You can see the old jetty, the remains of what was a swimming pool, a set of stone steps leading up the slope, and some exotic plants. Ironically, while more survives of this settlement than those built by Windybanks, Woodnutt and Rhodes there is almost no history available on-line. I can’t find much information online about the “Angus Farm”, other than: “The 1828 census lists a Thomas Smith, aged 30, working at Pittwater as a labourer to John Farrell. The name appears on an 1894 Lands Department map. Fairley says that prior to 1900 William Angus, a Sydney coachbuilder, and Alfred Jacques, a solicitor, had built a cottage and a wharf there.”

But a couple of months later, I receive an email from David who shares some very detailed information on the fascinating history of the Angus Farm, or The Camp as it’s better known. The site began as a camp sometime in 1873 “when my great grandfather Angus with a few of his mates pitched permanent tents on the plateau on Smiths Creek which for the next 100 years was to become our beloved Tranquillo Camp’.” In 1883 the first wooden structure replaced the canvas tents, starting with the kitchen before other rooms were added. William Angus formed a syndicate with Alfred E Jacques (solicitor), George Robert Cowdrey (civil engineer) and Sir Herbert Maitland (surgeon) who built and imported coaches. The wood from the huge timber crates used to import coaches from England were used for the buildings. The timber and other building materials were sent by rail to Berowra Station, then carted to a boat that was kept at “Windybanks” on Cowan Creek. “The physical effort that went into these operations, including the haul up to the plateau must be recorded in somewhat similar light as the construction of the pyramids”.

More rooms were added over the years, until in 1894 the Ku-ring-gai Trust (the first committee being chaired by Mr Eccleston du Faum) identified “The Camp” as being an illegal structure. However, the committee allowed the building to remain under “permissive occupancy”, with rent initially set as one pound per annum. For a hundred years, The Camp was passed through multiple generations, with each “syndicate” headed by family members related to the original William Angus. The fate of The Camp or Tranquillo Cottage was sealed by the enactment of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, with a ruling by the State Minister for Lands (Tom Lewis) that all dwellings within the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park must be dismantled.

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The Angus Farm marks the end of an enjoyable half-day on the water. Collette points out many more Aboriginal sites along Cowan Creek as we head back to Apple Tree Bay, but it would take weeks to visit them all. And no doubt many more sites are yet to be “discovered” or recorded…

More information on Cowan Creek

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Chris Bolenski · June 15, 2021 at 7:51 pm

Thanks for sharing Oliver. Those aboriginal paintings look amazing. It’s a shame some have been damaged with graffiti.

David Sowden · August 10, 2021 at 6:10 pm

Hi Oliver. I have further information on Angus Farm located at the headwaters of Smiths creek. There are 6 pages plus map. If you would like a copy I can email them. David Sowden

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