A hill I’d (happily) die on

Memories of Rooty Hill.

Art by Sonya Thai.

There is a Hill in Western Sydney. From its foot it looks deceptively small, but as you begin the climb, the illusion falls away. The Hill sits at around 70 metres above sea level and towers over everything else in the area, though you might not spot it from the roads around it; the Hill is ringed by native bushland, watched over by silent eucalypt guardians that shield the peak from prying eyes.

We’re coming off the coattails of winter now and the sun still sets early, setting skirts of orange light upon the tufted hillside. Sunset is the best time to visit the Hill, and timing is everything; as the sun sinks into the honeyed sky, the world turns to liquid gold for about 30 minutes. Against the uninterrupted blue canvas, a flight of magenta, lilac and orange reminds you that the world is a little bit more than deadlines, productivity and monotony.

I am a child raised by the West. It makes me sad that Western Sydney is largely considered by residents of more affluent neighbourhoods to be an ugly place. Classism shrouds a great deal of the public perception of Western Sydney. It’s true that for the most part, the sprawl of the West in all its working class suburbia is a far cry from the leafy homes and manicured lawns that are so typical in more affluent suburbs. But it’s also a nexus of different communities: immigrants, First Nations people, working-class people. There is a lot of beauty to the hum of community and quiet struggles shared. Never have I been so struck by this feeling than when I stand at the top of the Hill, when the trees fall away and I’m left with the great panoramic expanse of the world. Wikipedia tells me that the Hill is actually a site for a “significant stone artefact scatter relating to pre-contact Aboriginal use,” and has been used by the Dharug people as a significant meeting place. It’s upsetting to find out that the ‘property’ is owned by the Presbyterian Church (NSW) Property Trust.

For my friends and I, the place is simply called “the Hill”. “The Hill”, because it has become for us a unique and precious haven, the place of coming together, refuge and peace, and so needs no further description. 

I first came upon the Hill when I was in high school. During a particularly uneventful study period, zealously emboldened by the glimpse of freedom afforded by a car and a person who could drive it, a couple of us snuck out for a drive and ended up in (what I thought was the middle of nowhere but turned out to be) Rooty Hill, just a ways behind where the new Eastern Creek Quarter Shopping Centre now stands. 

The Hill is just a turn off the Great Western Highway, which (I have found) is a pleasant drive in itself; if you’re driving west, you can see the Blue Mountains in the distance. To find the Hill, you have to turn onto a dusty unassuming road riddled with old potholes. Upon first glance, the road doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, but if you head a bit further down the beaten track, there is another narrow turnoff marked by a low metal gate. Follow that road, bumpy and serpentine as it may be, and if you’re lucky, the second metal gate won’t be locked, and you can drive all the way to the top of the Hill. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this hill is one of the highest points between Parramatta, Penrith and the Blue Mountains.

I forgot about the Hill for a long time, until Sydney’s lockdown last year, when the feelings of isolation and a world suspended in time stirred wistful memories. I scoured Google Maps, drawing on fuzzy memories of twisting roads and highways, to find a deceptively obscure place titled “Rooty Hill historical site”. I have a photo of a friend taken on this day, taken as we’re both rolling around on the grass laughing, where you can see nothing but the grass, the person, and the open sky. The panoramic giddiness of standing at the top of the world is unparalleled (but best experienced, in my opinion, while listening to Seventeen by Sharon von Etton and dancing with your mum).

Dear reader, I am offering you my memories of this Hill and in so doing entrust you with a part of the history of this place. It has become my happy place; I think of it warmly, and perhaps a little jealously consider keeping it to myself. But the Hill is a place best shared, and it would bring me a smile to think that someone else might visit the Hill and make it part of their lives as well, a shared Mount Olympus from which we might observe the world below and the boundless skies above. It would be pretty cool too, I think, if a visit to the Hill helped us remember that the sky is big and beautiful and blue, and that landscapes that are ill-fitting in the manicured affluence and terraformed greenscapes of the North Shore are lovelier than people give them credit for.

Filed under: