I used to think every town had a wide river running through it. Don't all siblings spend Saturday mornings fishing with their Pop? Surely most students pick rowing for high school sport? I thought open water swimming clubs were common? I didn't realise the power of this river until I moved to another town. A phantom limb, I missed it like I missed my own family.
The bridge over the river is full of sharp corners. Getting your L Plates and venturing across it for the first time is a daunting rite of passage. If there's a bus or a semi trailer going the opposite direction, drivers have to stop and make room for the massive vehicles to navigate the bends. I thought every town had a bendy bridge, too.
Kids used to jump off the bridge. Or so they said. The thing is, you could never actually find anyone who had done it themselves, it was always a friend of a friend...of a friend. Word spread that the river was really shallow and full of old shopping trolleys and cars and other junk.
Everyone at my high school had to run across the river's footbridge during PE class. I heard about the compulsory Bridge Run before I even started high school. In the Christmas holidays between grades six and seven I jogged every day, prepping for my first run. Getting a good race time would set me up for the next six years.
There was a story going around about a troop of Boy Scouts who had drowned in the river during a fierce storm. For some reason they'd been carrying empty glass bottles and as their boats sank their bottles filled with water. They refused to let go and went down with their loot.
The river connected us to the coast. It took about 50 minutes to drive to Yamba but with the way we segregated and defined ourselves it may as well have been 50 light years. You were either a river kid or a beach kid and you couldn't claim both.
Riverside homes to the north were regarded as desirable and exclusive. Houses on the south side didn't carry the same gravitas. The Grafton side is where the town's doctors and lawyers moored their yachts while the southern banks were dotted with sad old men and drunk teenagers.
This river is the closest connection to the natural world that I have. I swam in it, swallowed it and sliced through it with the blade of an oar. It was my sporting field, my playground, my listening ear and my steadfast friend.
Whenever my brother and his three daughters visit Grafton they go down there. Andre's trying to get the girls interested in the river in the hope that it'll fill them with the same excitement and wonder it filled him with when he was young. I like the idea of sharing special places, of passing them on. I want my nieces to have their own adventures by the river, discover their own secrets and let its water flow through their dreams, too.
Elize Strydom is a documentary photographer and journalist. She grew up in Grafton, NSW and lately has been telling the stories of small town girls in and outside of Australia.
Website: elizestrydom.carbonmade.com Instagram: @twinrivers_