We Are Hawkesbury, My Story: Chris Underwood from Bowen Mountain does more than his bit to keep our town clean

PROUD LOCAL: Chris Underwood spends over six hours a week cleaning-up rubbish along Bells Line of Road - and he doesn't get paid for it. Picture: Geoff Jones
PROUD LOCAL: Chris Underwood spends over six hours a week cleaning-up rubbish along Bells Line of Road - and he doesn't get paid for it. Picture: Geoff Jones

BOWEN Mountain resident Chris Underwood is 67 years old and walks multiple kilometres twice a week to eliminate rubbish from his part of our town.

It’s not his job - at least, not in the sense that anyone pays him to do it. But for Mr Underwood, being a Hawkesbury local means it is his job to pitch in. And if he didn’t do it, would anyone else?

In the bigger scheme of things, it's a small patch that he maintains – along Bells Line of Road from Kurrajong Heights to North Richmond.

But when you focus-in, it’s approximately a ten-kilometre stretch that he walks, and he puts aside over six hours every week to do it.

“It’s not an obsession, it’s just a principle,” Mr Underwood said. A principle so strong, that after the Gazette interviewed him in Richmond, he was heading straight to Ham Common to clean a dirty road sign.

“There’s an 80km/h sign under a tree and it’s never been cleaned and all the residue’s got onto it, so I’m going down there and cleaning it up, I am,” Mr Underwood explained.

“Who’s gonna do it? No one does. It’s getting darker and darker – it’s not reflective anymore. The federal government kiboshed the Tidy Towns [awards program], which is disappointing, and councils don’t do what they used to do – mundane work like cleaning rubbish and fixing little things is just not their thing anymore.

“So I just like to keep the place – and I’m proud about keeping the place – nice, and clean.”

Emu parade

Mr Underwood is employed by RMS as a crossing supervisor for Kurmond Public School. He works split-shifts Mondays to Fridays, assisting kids and their parents cross Bells Line of Road.

He said his job is “very satisfying”, but decried the dangerous crossing conditions, and said the lack of casual workers available to take-on his duties when he takes holidays means the crossing is sometimes unmanned.

But it’s what he does outside of work hours that really lights his fire: twice a week at 9.30am, when his morning shift finishes, he sets out on his ‘emu parade’.

Derived from the action of emu-bobbing, the phrase ‘emu parade’ is slang for cleaning-up. “It goes back to the 50s, 60s and 70s – that was the name used for picking-up rubbish, the same as in the military,” Mr Underwood explained.

“On a Monday, I do from the Kurrajong lights, right down to the sewage farm down at North Richmond [near Crooked Lane]. It’s six kilometres and it takes me two hours. On Fridays, I do my extended emu parade going down from Kurrajong Heights – I do ten kilometres and it takes me four to four-and-a-half hours.”

Not surprisingly, Mr Underwood gets noticed; waves and words of appreciation are commonplace. 

“I’ve been picking up rubbish in the Hawkesbury for nearly eight years,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of local people, even car drivers, stop and tell me, ‘geez, you’re doing a good job!’. When people go through Kurmond, hopefully, at least, they’ll think, ‘this place is clean’.”

Indeed, a Hawkesbury resident contacted the Gazette. Ron Ness from Kurrajong Heights said: “It could be lunchtime and I still see him around the area. I like to see people that really go out of their way, like Les Dollin with the mowing.” 

Well-known around the Hawkesbury, Les Dollin is a Kurrajong resident who has been mowing and brushcutting the sides of Kurrajong Road from North Richmond to Richmond since 2007. Like Mr Underwood, Mr Dollin does it in his own time.

Do they know each other? “Oh geez yeah! I’m the apprentice to Les, you could say,” Mr Underwood laughed. 

“Sometimes I’ve mowed the sides of the road, too, and as Les comes up he goes, ‘Oh geez, Chris, you’ve done a wonderful job how you’ve contoured the sides of the road there!

“We’re basically a team, trying to keep the place nice and clean – grass-wise and rubbish-wise.”

He said they had already discussed doing an extended emu parade in time for the World Polo Championship in October.

KIDS CROSSING: Chris Underwood picks-up rubbish twice a week after he finishes his morning shift as a crossing supervisor for Kurmond Public School. Picture: Geoff Jones

KIDS CROSSING: Chris Underwood picks-up rubbish twice a week after he finishes his morning shift as a crossing supervisor for Kurmond Public School. Picture: Geoff Jones

Cleanliness and order

To appreciate Mr Underwood’s work ethic, it’s worth going back to the beginning. Mr Underwood wasn’t always a school crossing supervisor.

He moved to the Hawkesbury in 1982, after serving at RAAF Base Butterworth in Penang (before it was handed over to the Royal Malaysian Air Force). More recently, he worked for nine years at the RAAF base in Richmond. By trade, he is a federal machinist, and did his apprenticeship on NSW government railways.

“I think it’s basically my training,” he reflected. “The instructors put into the apprentices that a good tradesman always cleans-up after his work. You’ve got to keep things clean in the airforce, also. It’s part of my DNA, I suppose. I keep my place clean, I keep the yard clean – it’s just a part of me.”

But the emu parades aren’t just about his training. Working on the side of the road, and seeing how much rubbish is tossed out of cars, keeping his patch of earth tidy is a cause close to his heart. 

“That’s the word about throwing rubbish: they’re tossers. Unfortunately, people are so lazy – they take the easiest way out, throwing it out the door. And there’s no ashtrays in cars anymore: the amount of cigarette butts – I just don’t pick them up any more,” he said.

“I actually got on to the ex mayor: we’ve got new bins everywhere – in Windsor, Richmond, and so forth. Everywhere except Kurmond. In Glossodia, they’ve got the new sulo rectangular bins, and we’ve still got the old pebblecrete bins – they overflow, they do.”

“That’s the word about throwing rubbish: they’re tossers. Unfortunately, people are so lazy - they take the easiest way out, throwing it out the door."

Chris Underwood

Throwaway society

Mr Underwood said “it’s flabbergasting” how much rubbish – and the types of rubbish – he finds. There are all the usual suspects: food wrappers, empty bottles and cans, cigarette butts and empty packets.  

“Even [human] excrement – god-damn-geez-willickers, I can’t believe it! People that’ve got an upset stomach and such, they just pull up on the side of the road, and bingo!” he said.

“And bongs – the amount of bongs I pick off the side of the road – homemade from plastic bottles. Luckily, touch wood, I’ve only picked up one hypodermic needle.”

He usually fills up two chaff-bags-worth of rubbish, which he takes home and deposits in his own wheelie bin. He doesn’t bother with protective gloves or a rubbish picker: in true emu-parade-style, he just bends over.

“Walking helps me, it does. And touch wood, I haven’t had any back problems at all. I pick up even broken glass. People say ‘why don’t you use gloves?’ OK, I’ve been cut a little a few times, but without the gloves you’ve got the ‘feel’,” he said.

When Mr Underwood isn’t helping kids cross the road or ridding the Hawkesbury of rubbish, he can be heard on Hawkesbury Radio 89.9 FM hosting the Retro Radio Show (7-10pm Wednesday nights), and the AutoTrack FM motor sport program (8-9am Sundays).

“Thirty-two years I’ve been doing AutoTrack FM, I’ve been overseas covering motorsport and all around Australia, but I’m basically part of the furniture in the Hawkesbury!” he said.

  • We Are Hawkesbury, My Story, is a series of profiles of Hawkesbury personalities where we will attempt to showcase the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.