Photo Essay: Travelling The Cooks River, From Yagoona to Botany Bay

Collecting images as she journeyed through mangroves and industrial areas, past graveyards, Indigenous cave shelters and suburban homes, artist Clare Britton shares an intimate portrait of one of Sydney’s most overlooked landscapes.

Cooks River, Botany Bay, Sydney. Photo by Clare Britton, 2017

The Cooks River is a tidal estuary that flows twenty-three kilometres from Graf Park, Yagoona, to Botany Bay in Sydney.

“…it is a prehistory of places, a history of roads, footprints, trails of dust and foaming wakes…the flight of birds, the direction of smoke, the lie of the land…It recognises that our life as it discloses itself spatially is dynamic, material but invisible.” — Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay1

Named after Captain James Cook, the Cooks River is not the body of water that springs to mind when thinking about Sydney, and the ways that Sydney-siders have interacted with the Cooks, both intentionally and unintentionally, are revealing. My practice-led PhD research project, A Week on the Cooks Riverattempts to physically trace the river’s length, its tributaries and tidal patterns as a rich frame for contemplating complex layers of contemporary Australian culture.

Over its course, the river flows past suburban houses, an ice-skating rink, through Rookwood Cemetery and industrial areas, as well as Indigenous middens, cave shelters and archaeological sites of the Wangal, Cadigal and Gameygal Traditional Owners, that are a testament to thousands of years of occupation in the region. Today, the river’s mouth flows directly into Botany Bay, engineered a kilometre off course to make way for Sydney’s International Airport.

In 2018, several publications made significant contributions to our understanding of the Cooks River. The Cooks River Alliance published Aboriginal History Along the Cooks River, and the Oral History Project, which documents the perspectives of Indigenous activists, artists, educators and residents who live in the Cooks River Catchment Area today.2 3 Additionally, River Dreams: The People and Landscape of the Cooks River by historian Ian Tyrell outlines over two hundred years of changes along the river and changes in attitude towards the river since 1788.4

A Week on the Cooks River reflects on these recent publications as well as taking inspiration from Vanessa Berry, Ross Gibson, Guy Debord and Henry David Thoreau to collect direct observations of the river, and ultimately, the project aims to physically experience knowledge and express it visually. 5 6 7 8 By following the course of the river from Graf Park, Yagoona to Botany Bay, using the practices of walking, rowing and drawing to document and explore, these site-based observations (photographs, video and descriptions of the river), of which this photo essay is a part, have become raw material for experiments in the studio at Sydney College of the Arts.

A Week On The Cooks River (2017):





1. Carter, Paul. The Road to Botany Bay. An Essay in Spatial History. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
2. Irish, Paul. Aboriginal History Along the Cooks River. Sydney: Cooks River Alliance, 2017.
3. Milgate, Asher. “Cooks River Oral Histories Project.” In The Cooks River Catchment Aboriginal History Project,, edited by Cook River Alliance: Cook River Alliance, 2018.
4. Tyrell, Ian. River Dreams the People and Landscape of the Cooks River.Sydney: New South Publishing, 2018.
5. Berry, Vanessa. Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections.Sydney: Giramondo, 2017.
6. Gibson, Ross. Seven Versions of an Australian Badland.St Lucia: University of Queensland Press 2002.
7. Debord, Guy. “The Theory of the Derive.” Les Levres Nues 9, no. November (1956).
8. Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.London Walter Scott Ltd, 1889.

Clare Britton is a PhD candidate at Sydney College of the Arts and is interested in Australian landscapes, collaborative practice and artworks that are visceral and sensory. Since 2000, Clare has generated and collaborated on numerous award-winning performance/installation works- most recently co-directing Speak Percussion’s Polar Force (2018). For the last four years, Clare has been studying at Sydney College of the Arts harnessing the skills and processes she developed working in performance towards her visual art practice. Clare has developed this work under the supervision of Julie Rrap, Mikala Dwyer and Ann Elias.