The Cooks River

The Cooks River, a semi-mature tide dominated drowned valley estuary, flows into Botany Bay in south-eastern Sydney near Sydney International Airport. The course of the 23 kilometres long urban waterway has been altered many times to accommodate various developments along its shore. It serves as part of a stormwater system for the 100 square kilometres of its watershed, and many of the original streams running into it have been turned into concrete lined channels. The tidal sections support significant areas of mangroves, bird, and fish life, and are used for recreational activities.

When Lieut. James Cook - after whom the river is named - arrived in Botany Bay in 1770, he noted the large alluvial deposits, the mudflats and the shoals that impeded navigation. He also commented on the rich and varied array of wildlife the river supported. Since the arrival of Europeans however, the Cooks has become known as one of the most altered and polluted water courses in the country, with sugar mills, tanneries, all sorts of industrial pollution draining into it. Even its course was shifted to make way for an expanded Sydney airport. But through it all, the river has endured.

The Cooks River begins at Graf Park, Yagoona, then flows in a roughly north-easterly direction to Chullora. It reaches its northernmost point at Strathfield, where it leads into a concrete open canal, no more than one metre wide and thirty centimetres deep. It then heads towards the south-east. Where Cooks River runs through Strathfield Golf Course, the concrete lining has been partly removed. Here the plants have returned and have created an environment where the water is filtered and runs clean, and where wildlife has returned. One section here is called the Chain of Ponds.

At Belfield it joins with the Cox Creek Channel and flows in an easterly direction. The canal widens and deepens as it picks up stormwater from surrounding suburbs, such as Campsie and becomes influenced by tidal action.

At Canterbury, it is joined by Cup and Saucer Creek. Industrial areas line the Cooks River at Canterbury. In the past, factories discharged their waste directly into the water.

The valley becomes more pronounced as the river reaches Tempe, where it is joined by Wolli Creek and the Alexandra Canal. The Princes Highway crosses the Cooks River and links Tempe to the suburb of Wolli Creek. Also here is the low-lying Fatima Island, which is submerged at high tide.



The course of the final south-flowing section of river is entirely artificial, altered to accommodate the expanding Sydney Airport. Cooks River connects with Botany Bay at Kyeemagh.

The corridor of land beside the river is a conduit for many services along large parts of its length including electricity, high voltage lines, a high pressure oil pipe owned by Shell, and high volume sewage pipes. Many of the lower lying areas have been filled and are parks and sports grounds. In spite of this the river and adjacent lands are being recognised for their beauty, history, amenity, environmental value, if not also for potential for improvements. The walkway and cycleway beside much of the "river" is part of the path connecting Sydney Olympic Park with Botany Bay.


Tempe House and the Cooks River - Samuel Elyard, 1836

History of Cooks River
Before European Settlement, the Indigenous Australian population used the river by fishing and gathering shellfish. This had little effect on the river's natural ecology as sustainable practices were adhered to. It has been said that, to Aboriginal people, the Cooks River is known as Goolay'yari meaning 'pelican'. As Aboriginal people rarely gaves names to localities but used to identify them by their features, it is more likely that the word Goolay'yari was identifying the river, or part of it, as a place where there were pelicans.

It is generally thought that four different clans, each speaking a distinct dialect of the Darug language, inhabited the area surrounding the river. The Bediagal clan occupied the area on the southern side of the river. whilst on the northern side, it is generally thought that the Gameygal clan lived between the mouth of the Cooks River and the ocean. Further west, the river was used by the Cadigal people (whose country extended north up to Port Jackson and took in the area where modern-day Sydney is now located). Further west still and along the upper reaches of the river, the country was occupied by the Wangal people.

In 1770, British navigator Lieut. James Cook sailed into Botany Bay and wrote the first written description of the river as follows: "I found a very fine stream of fresh water on the north side in the first sandy cove within the island before which a ship might lay land-locked and wood for fuel may be got everywhere." The existence of the river appeared to make settlement a possibility, however when the First Fleet arrived the river and valley was regarded as unsuitable. Captain John Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley both mentioned the shallowness of the water and large swamp areas.

The first colonial land grants along the river tended to be fairly large and used mostly for grazing and timber with some fishing and lime burning at Botany Bay. Governor Macquarie makes reference to a slender bridge in his 1810 diary, adding that "the soil is bad and neither good for tillage or pasturage". Nevertheless, some farmers did find they could till the land and settlement along the river spread, and roads and crossings were made in several places.

In 1839, the Government of the day decided to dam Cooks River at Tempe in the vicinity of where Princes Highway crosses the river. The dam was built as part of Sydney's water supply system and was to be linked to the city by a canal from which water would be drawn for domestic and industrial use. The dam was completed and a canal was formed by modifying a tributary of the Cooks River which began in the swamps of Alexandria. Called Shea's Creek, it was discovered and named in 1788 after Captain Shea of the First Fleet who was the first white person to see it while hunting kangaroos.


Dam at River Street, Earlwood

Nine years later, no water had been drawn from the dam or canal, however an act was passed which banned noxious trades such as tanneries, abattoirs, boiling-down works and wool washers from those parts of Sydney which had been developed as residential areas. A second dam was later built to serve a Sugar Mill at the new village of Canterbury Vale. The location took advantage of the water supply and barge transport. The Mill closed in 1855, however other polluting industries were later to follow including wool washes, tanneries and boiling down works. Despite the increasingly doubtful quality of the water, the river remained a popular place in the late nineteenth century for boating, picnics and swimming. In 1894, artist Sydney Long painted an idyllic scene of boys swimming in the Cook's River, entitled By Tranquil Waters, which was so well received that it was bought by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


By Tranquil Waters - Sydney Long, 1894. Image: Art Gallery of New South Wales

By the 1880s tree clearing resulted in erosion, silting and expansion of reed beds, blocking river flow. On the weekend of 25 27 May 1889, 425 millimetres of rain inundated all the low-lying land. At the height of the flood, the top of the Sugarworks Dam was covered by 3 metres of water. Authorities responded to the extensive damage and loss of animals by removing the dams and weirs. A proposed series of canals connecting the river with Sydney Harbour was not commenced. A sewage farm operated near the mouth of the river from 1889 to 1916. A railway was used in both the construction of mains and filtration buildings, as well as in the day-to-day operation, moving screened solids throughout the farm.

After the Great War, members of the Professional Engineering Association of NSW visited Europe and inspected the canal there with a view to establishing a similar network of canals for Sydney. In 1929, The Cooks River Improvement League presented a detailed plan of how such a scheme could be implemented. In their bold proposal, Shea's Creek would be extended to meet the railway at the newly completed Alexandria Goods station. Goods for export such as wool would be off-loaded from railway trucks into barges which would be hauled by tugs down the canal to ocean-going vessels at a port to be developed where Cooks River entered Botany Bay.

Muddy Creek, also called Blacks Creek, another tributary of the Cooks River which entered from the south, would be made into a canal and extended through the suburbs of Brighton-Le-Sands and Kogarah. The land on either side of this watercourse had been extensively developed as market gardens, and the plan was to use the two canals to ship produce by barge direct from the market gardens to the markets of Sydney.

An essential part of the proposal was the opening up of the Cooks River, which would allow the development of the river as one of a series of canals connecting the Parramatta River with Botany Bay. A number of suggestions were made as to how this could be done. One was to extend Cooks River as a canal as far as Rookwood Cemetery and then extended alongside the railway line north-west as far as Parramatta Road and then north into Homebush Bay.

This scheme would link the market gardens of Kogarah to the Flemington Markets as well as provide direct access for barges between Parramatta and the proposed new port on Botany Bay. Powell's Creek could also be extended as a canal as far as Strathfield and would be linked to the new Homebush Bay - Botany Bay canal via a new waterway. Strathfield would become the major regional centre, and a transport junction for rail, barge and road transport. Hawthorne Canal, which enters Iron Cove, was to be part of the canal system though only a small section of canal was ever built.



Initiatives from 1976 onwards have attempted to preserve and return the natural features of the river system with tree planting, pollution traps and landscaping. Footpaths and a cycle track were built to increase recreational use of the river. The NSW State Government committed A$2.9 million to the restoration of the sheet piling on the banks of the river. In November 2007 the Federal Australian Labor Party, then in opposition, made an announcement of A$2 million for environmental projects on the Cooks River.

In 2009, Strathfield Council established the Cooks River Fun Run. This event is held annually around June or July each year. The event starts at Freshwater Park Strathfield, with a 5 km and 10 km run, a 5 km walk and 2 km kids run.



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