TINY LIGHTS | By Laura Stortenbeker
IMAGES: LEONIE BRIALEY
For the first instalment of the Nocturnal Series, Laura Stortenbeker makes a trip to Kooragang – home to one of the world’s largest coal ports, fed by the open cut coal mines that devastate the Hunter Valley. Read more
A man tucked in a security booth watches us because what could two girls in a beat-up car covered in surf stickers possibly be doing here. It’s proper night-time.
We’ve come to Kooragang, the largest yet least populated suburb of Newcastle. G drives slow beside the river. It’s full of black water and the reedy plants on the ground are the same colour – I can only see their shape. I want to get closer to the coal loader. G says, “Look at all of it,” and then neither of us says anything. When I do talk, it’s just, “Look at all those lights.”
This is an area devoted to industry but it’s also the home of a large wetland conservation area – saltmarsh meets fertiliser factory, river mangrove and commercial explosives, red cedar and metal works, coal and over two hundred different species of birds. I was once told that Kooragang means “place where birds gather” or “place of many birds”. All I can think of is touching a black swan and pulling my hand back to find my palm covered in a film of coal dust.
Every road in Kooragang is named after a local bird. There’s Egret, Cormorant, Heron, Raven and Curlew. We’re parked in a gravel clearing on Cormorant, the main stretch. On one side of us lies the river, docked ships and machines. On the other, the rail network and the wetlands. The coal loader spans both sides, arching over the road. Above us is a cloudless sky. I know there are no stars, so I don’t look for them, but the machines are covered in hundreds of tiny lights – lights that stay steady, lights that map the angles of metal. I take a lot of pictures and the light refracts in all of them, lines beaming across the sky.
It’s just us. G with her hair pulled back tight, unclipping her seatbelt and touching the wheel even when the car is still. Me with my notebook pressed into my lap, nervous, choosing to write notes in my phone instead. Our faces are well lit by the clean light of the screen and the yellow glow from the coal loader. It’s not dark here but we don’t feel safe. I’ve wanted to write about Kooragang for a while but needed to be closer, observe it properly. Now that I’m here, I want to leave. G asks if we’ve spent enough time and I tell her I’ll come back with my dad. “I’d feel safer with my dad too,” she says, and we agree that it’s a strange feeling for us to have as adults. The security man watches us leave.
G drives and I try to remember why I’m so drawn to this place. Every time I come home to Newcastle I take pictures of the lights – from the backseat of my family’s car, drunk in taxis with my face pressed to the window. The coal loader changes dramatically when it’s night in this uncomfortable, structured place. Kooragang is ugly in the daytime: white tin buildings, grey wires and the enormous arms of cranes. Even the wetland isn’t much to look at, the landscape repeats and I lose interest. But when night turns everything shadowed, then silhouetted, it’s something else.
As we turn into the neighbouring suburb of Stockton, the roads become wide. The asphalt is a peachy colour under the old streetlights; we are leaving the blackest part of the night behind. Out the back window, the factories loom. We pass a house with SALT WIND painted on its side, and with the window open a sliver, the air does smell of salt.
Across the river, we park among tall palms and pines. Our view is of smokestacks and smog. We can see the industrial area in full and it is beautiful – all those lights, flumes and rising smoke. We watch the stream of traffic, new moving lights bouncing off the ground, shift workers coming home, a bus with print on the back window saying SOULMATES.
We text G’s boyfriend because I want to know how to say coal in Portuguese. He tells us that in Brazil people write messages on walls with coal rocks, things like, The world will end tomorrow, live simply. He says there’s a slum in Rio called Coal, in Portuguese it’s Carvão. That’s the word I wanted.
G and I smoke a cigarette each, the cold seeping in through the window. We talk about doing selfish things, about porn, our office jobs, ugly constructions, and then again about the coal loader, how night makes unnatural things beautiful. Later when she drops me home I think about light pollution. I think that we have so many ugly things, but they’re ours.
I have two distinct memories of Kooragang, both about my dad. In the first, he’s explaining how he fell asleep driving home late and nearly ended up in the water next to the road. It still frightens me.
In the second, it’s also very late. Dad’s in the kitchen and I’m meant to be sleeping. He’s still in hi-vis work clothes, telling how he was on his way home from work and accidentally hit a small bird that didn’t move from the road. He got out to find it but its body was ruined. He broke the bird’s neck, dug a hole by the side of the road, buried it and put a flower in the ground to mark its grave. I remember him saying he didn’t want it to suffer. Cars streaming past, just the two of them. My dad making a hole in the dark and offering the bird a small kindness in the midst of all those coal mountains.
Blue dark becomes true dark as Dad and I head to the coal terminal the next night. The machines are all lit up, the sky is swallowed by a bruise-coloured cloud. We’re in the car and he tells me those lights are always on, you just can’t see them until the sun slips away. Dad’s worked with coal trains for over thirty years and I’ve been past this place hundreds of times. There’s something moth-like in the way I’m drawn to the dull glow of these hulking machines.
The last of the early purple evening fades as we head to the wetlands of Ash Island. I turn the radio off. The narrow road is overcome with saltmarsh and plants I don’t know the name of. A sign warns that the ponds contain contaminated material. A group of birds is gathered out in the centre, dipping their heads in the water. They move further into the night and so do we, back towards the main industrial estate. Dad shows me what he refers to as Rotten Row, the place where old train carriages are dumped. I point out all of the emergency evacuation points as we pass. A pink neon sign says, IF IT’S NOT SAFE DON’T DO IT THAT WAY.
There are signs of life, or life that once existed: a hare in the headlights, a tree growing branches into the ground, a small white cross on a power pole and a garland of plastic flowers hanging from it. It’s difficult to see further than what’s illuminated by the high-beams. The land is low, all flat, except for the coal piles and a hill that rises from the wetland, almost an island. During bad droughts, the surrounding water dries out and foxes can walk across the crust to where the black swans nest. Dad tells me when he first started working here there were so many swans that the ponds were completely covered with them, that you could only glimpse the water when they moved. “That sounds impossible to me,” I say, and he nods.
We pull up under the Stockton Bridge. It’s an area known for drag racing, hundreds of people and slick cars gather here, pump exhaust fumes. I guess I had some kind of The Fast and the Furious fantasy but there’s no cars, no racers, we’re the only ones here. I get out to look around. The cracks in the road are filled with black resin. Burns mark where cars have spun: thick lines of rubber diverge, curve and then switch back to neat straight streaks. A rusted-out van full of twigs has been dumped near the road, beer cans and strawberry milk cartoons, a spill of set concrete. It feels like it’s just me here, moving slow in the cold June air. I hear something move in the scrub, but there’s not enough light to see. There’s a low hum of cars on the bridge, a wheel on the coal loader turning. Dad’s work yard is close and I ask if we can go. I want to watch the trains file in.
I know how coal travels from train to surge bin to ship but I can’t see much of it; it’s hidden in the metal conveyor, gathered in a groove. “There are always trains moving,” Dad says. “More so at night; there’s less rail traffic.” The trains will run all night and so will the loader. These machines will process approximately 200 million tonnes of coal per year, coal that will be burnt to power more machines, more lights. He points out places between the tracks where coal spills. Some of the workers take it home for their fires in winter.
The coal waiting to be shiploaded is gathered in monolithic piles, great shadowed mountains. Dad stops the car and tells me that sometimes the coal catches fire. “It happens right in the centre. It’s hard to notice, there’s no real flames. It can take days to smother – it’s the heat of it.”
On our way out we stop to let a train pass. I point out the window and say, “What are those two stars?” Dad says, “A bloke at work told me about them. It could be Jupiter,” and I feel stupid for not noticing them the night before. I’d seen two bright marks in the pictures I took, but I thought they were a reflection from the car. Dad tells me to call him when I find out, tell him what they are. He wants to know which planet is brightest. It feels important, the two of us with our heads tilted back, pointing at them like this. There’s nothing else. Two lights in a pitch dark sky.
We drive back home. Dad turns the radio on and I watch the coal loader lights constellate as we get further away. I fall asleep thinking of machines.
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