IT was while teaching history at Sydney University in the mid-nineties that Glebe-based historian and writer Peter Cochrane became fascinated with the Hawkesbury.
“I was teaching about the early colonial history of Sydney, and the Hawkesbury is so important to that because it quickly became the ‘bread basket’ of the colony,” he said.
“I was reading the Sydney Gazette and doing a lot of work on Governor Bligh so I had a strong connection to the Hawkesbury.
“But what focussed my mind and caught my attention most of all was the great flood of 1806. I thought, what a way to start a novel!”
Mr Cochrane was speaking with Hawkesbury Gazette following a packed-out author talk at Hawkesbury Central Library in Windsor, where he was promoting his brand new book The Making of Martin Sparrow - a work of fiction set in the Hawkesbury.
But the novel didn’t end up starting with the flood - it started with its immediate aftermath, with fictional character Martin Sparrow having been dumped by flood-waters downstream of the Hawkesbury River.
Martin’s 30-acre farm has been swamped, his hens are dead, and “he’s in a pretty miserable state all round,” said Mr Cochrane.
Faced with the predicament of heading back and rebuilding his agricultural life, Martin decides instead to head out on a journey over the Blue Mountains to find a place he’s heard rumours about - an unearthly paradise where men are truly free.
Mr Cochrane said it was important for the novel to be historically-accurate, however history had to blend with the story and not detract from it.
He did all his own research and also trekked through the area to get an appreciation of what it would have been like for Martin all those years ago.
“There’s an awful lot of evidence that from the early 1790s onwards, folk lore of this ‘arcadia’ on the other side of the mountains spread quickly among convicts. Even the establishment learned about it and began to worry about it,” Mr Cochrane said.
“The big problem was no-one really knew what was in the mountains let alone on the other side. But the convicts who wanted to get away were able to establish their imaginings on it - that there would be a village with people, the waters would be full of fish, and that life would be easy.”
He said the 1806 flood was catastrophic for the Hawkesbury people, with Sydney Gazette accounts reporting it wiped out all the farms in the area, carried off the grain and haystacks, and killed hundreds of wild animals and livestock.
“The story is anchored in the Hawkesbury community, but the second half of the book is set in the wilderness,” said Mr Cochrane.
“This was occupied by the Aboriginal people and there was a lot of waring going on [with the settlers]. The adventure and the darkness and menace that reviewers have talked about is set in the wilderness.”
Martin meets various people along the way who are either with him or chasing him. The Colo Gorge area in Wollemi National Park features heavily in the book.
“The gorge is so narrow and deep, and caves have been carved out by water over the millennia. There was so much from a fiction writer’s perspective to say this is a place of great adventure!” said Mr Cochrane.
“My understanding of the geography was so seductive. People [in the Hawkesbury] are on the edge of the most spectacular and beautiful country in the world.”
- To be in the running to win a signed copy of The Making of Martin Sparrow, email your full name, daytime phone number, and suburb, along with 100 words or less about what Hawkesbury country means to you, to email@example.com by 5pm on Friday, July 27.