Steven Dunesky


Interviewee: Steven Dunesky, born 1950

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 14 May 2008

Transcription: Glenys Murray, June 2008

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Now Steve, you grew up in the Hills district in the nineteen fifties and sixties? Tell me what was life like for you as a young boy?

Well I suppose I could wrap it up in one word and it was called adventure. Being in the Hills district at that time it was deemed to be the country in the nineteen fifties and the nineteen sixties. That was confirmed by some of my cousins who used to travel out from places like Maroubra and the inner city and they’d come out they’d say” oh are we in the country now”? They would look forward to coming out to visit us. We would be involved in numerous things. We would go swimming in dams. We would go to the local orchards and “borrow” some fruit to eat. We had billycarts we would have horses to ride on. It was a very friendly, very safe environment. The notion of the “stranger danger” didn’t even exist. It was a situation where your day would start at four o’clock in the morning because that’s when we thought the light would come up. So you would be out and about and there was a group of us, I was the only boy in our family, but the next door neighbours had three sons. We were inseparable at the time. They and myself we would be just on the go all day long. Now in those days of course you could be several miles away from home. It would take nothing to track us down because you’d only have to ring up neighbours down the road. They’d say “oh yes we saw the boys travel past this morning”. We always felt very, very comfortable. There was a lot of bushland around. There was an enormous amount of agricultural activity that occurred. So I was introduced to agriculture, growing things and the green thumb I think established back in those early days. My green thumb my love of horticulture arose I think through the family because they ….even my grandparents and their grandparents used to get involved in the business of exporting ferns. On the South Coast they had licenses to go out and pick ferns and acquire things like stag horns, elk horns and orchids and a whole range of things. We used to go and spend time with them. So I really enjoyed my youth. I would liken it to a life of Huckleberry Finn. We would get up to mischief at the same time the mischief never affected anyone but we had a lot of fun doing it. They were great days.

Where did you swim? In the creeks or where would you say?

Well being in the upper reaches of the river systems the creeks never flowed sufficiently enough. But there were many, many dams around. All the properties relied on dam water for their irrigation purposes. So we would just have our run of dams. If one was a little low we’d go to another one and you’d share the dam with all the eels and with the occasional snake. Sometimes the dogs that would bail us up I’m sure the dogs were set on us a few times to keep us out of the orchards. Because really the peaches were lovely and the apricots were lovely and the nectarines were just right. Of course you would never consume enough. But I think they would get annoyed at us every now and then after doing that. At the same time though it was still an hour’s drive down to the coast we would go to the coast to swim. In fact I learned to swim at Clovelly. I remember going on holidays to one of my cousin’s place when I was very, very young. They used to throw you in the water and let you swim up along the concrete embankment. I think it put the fear of God into me. But it never really did cause any great concern and I learned to swim very well.

Dam at Highs Road West Pennant Hills 1986

Now a lot of kids in that era had billycarts? Did you have one?

Oh yes a range of billycarts. One of the fortunate parts of course back then you were able to scavenge in the local rubbish tips. So whenever you went to the rubbish tip you would always look around for billycart wheels for axles for anything that you could build your billycarts out of. One of my friends his grandfather used to restore pedal cars and dinky toys and tricycles so we had good access to wheels, axles, grease and all the timber we needed. We entered into a few billycart competitions and took them out with great pride.

What was the vegetation of the area of the Shire in those days? Was there more shrubs and trees than now or not and were they different?

It was heavily vegetated. It comprised mainly of native bushland however the influx of weeds was evident. A great proportion of the land had been cleared. People bought portions of land and they set forth to clear it. A lot of the farms people derived their income from them so they would clear them. They had to use it, it was good fertile soil. So weeds were introduced at an early stage. There was not the influx of weeds into some major bushland areas as occurs now. Certainly the evidence of wildflowers was enormous. You could go and pick them. Today of course you can’t. Then you could go and pick them we would always have wildflowers at home particularly the smell of Boronia. We would have massive bunches of Boronia in the house. Today you would probably be in between bars if you went out to pick them. How it’s changed. But it certainly was a lovely bushland area with a very low impact into it except for the clearing for agricultural purposes.

So how much was the clearing for agriculture I mean how much of the Shire would you say was used for fruit growing etc poultry farming all that sort of thing?

Well in the West Pennant Hills area and the Castle Hill area a great proportion of it even from the early days. If you remember one of the early government farms was at Castle Hill and so that was back in the not long after the settlement of the colony so it was recognised as a growing area. So the notions of clearing commenced at a very early stage. I think a great proportion of it was done in the thirties and forties. I wouldn’t wish to guess at the percentage wise but it would be in excess of sixty percent of the area would have been cleared for agricultural purposes. That’s just in what we know as the urban areas now. As you move out towards Dural and Glenorie well they were solid bushland areas and then of course as produce became sought after by the community of Sydney more clearing went on. Particularly around Arcadia and Galston where wonderful stone fruit was produced they used to in the early days of course bring the stone fruit in from Glenorie to Castle Hill so they could put it on the train out to Parramatta. Shortly after the train was introduced trucks became more common so the train went out. Even prior to that on Hawkesbury River an enormous amount of deliveries were carried out along the Hawkesbury River by boat into the city. So along the Hawkesbury River you had water supply you had good soils and a great growing environment. Probably back in those days they didn’t have as many insects to worry about as they do today.

Norman Kentwell above orange orchards near Tuckwell Road Castle Hill c1920

Now you’re very much involved in parks and gardens and horticulture, arboreal culture. Tell me how did you get that interest how did that start with you?

It is interesting because in fact in the earlier days I was involved in… I trained as an engineering surveyor. I was involved in road construction. I was involved in subdivisional works and drainage works and an enormous amount of surveying of course. But I was fortunate enough to be working under the mentorship of the Deputy Shire Engineer of Baulkham Hills Council. A gentleman, now deceased, called Con Hembry. Con Hembry was an Englishman who was an engineer with a difference. He was very artistic, he was a musician and he had a great love of plant material. I think that stemmed from his days back in England. He would often in those days talk to me about the Chelsea Flower Show and just how lovely England was. Maybe he used to reminisce too much about England. So I would sit and listen through my time with him he said “well listen we have some designs that we have to undertake and some construction in our parks and reserves”. “Are you interested in participating in them”? I wouldn’t say no because I’m interested in the whole notion of it. Consequently I got involved in the parks side of it. In fact after a good many years of road construction and survey works and drainage works and concrete works and anything else that you can throw at engineering I decided to take on the challenge of getting involved in parks. I thought to myself well I need to know more about it. What is there available to educate myself a little more?

Coincidentally at that time there was a new course being introduced at the Ryde School of Horticulture which is one of the very few places where horticulture in its true form was taught. There weren’t any university courses at that time. Landscape architecture had come into its own but as I was working at the time and Ryde was very close I thought well I’ll do this new diploma in horticulture. It was called Amenity Horticulture and it was geared around parks management. But part of it was the design factors as well. So not knowing what an Abelia was that was their first shrub. I had to go out and collect an Abelia and I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at. So thence I bought my first books in it. Then I found out that after all these years of having to compact soils and to make sure that machinery could run over the soils. I had to learn to fluff it up. So hence there was a bit of dichotomy there. I spent my life learning how to make roads but I had to reteach myself. Not only to make roads but to be able grow grass as well and shrubs and flowers. So I was very fortunate I had a good mentor and I took on further studies and I’ve been through those studies with great delight. In fact when I finished the year I topped the state in the area of horticulture and won their prize and that only lasted for a short period of time. The following year there were far better people than me in the industry.

So did you have a degree already at that stage?

No I was an engineer surveyor but I did that through the TAFE. At that time to go to a university… I started articles in surveying because that was a way of doing it. To go to university was very expensive. To do surveying at university regrettably was the life of the elite at that time to be able to afford to do it. Living this far out even getting there was difficult. So I worked with a surveyor at that time and then I took on further studies in what they called engineering surveying which gave me a connection between both the engineering field and the surveying field.

Probably a very handy thing to have?

Indeed it is. Unfortunately you tend to still look at things horizontally and vertically.

Former Baulkham Hills Shire Council Depot, Pennant Street Castle Hill, 1965 (now Piazza carpark)

So when you started working with the Council in Parks and Gardens tell me that particular evolution of your career? What was the first thing they asked you to do and how did you progress in that?

When I commenced with Council I actually commenced as what they call a junior clerk. There was a new mentor programme or traineeship, I don’t really think that they had it all worked out at that time. I was fortunate enough to join up with three other people. Two other people I should say I was the third one. One of them was very interested in the administrative side and the other was interested in the accounting side. So I put my hand up for the engineering side because I knew I wanted to go into that area. I knew from a very young age, I remember being at primary school and seeing these surveyors working out on the road. I remember it was etched into my mind that I’m going to do that one day. So fate or luck transports itself with you and so I managed to get into the engineering side.

So you started at seventeen did you?


ANZAC Memorial Hall in southern end of Castle Hill Park c1960

One employer all that time?

It seems like a long period of time. I often think to myself wow one employer all that time. But I think I’ve been fortunate in that I had no reason to change. I must say that you do obtain the wanderlust every now and then. Yes I have been offered jobs in other areas. But when I really seriously thought about it I thought well I really do enjoy the work I do and I couldn’t be offered a better job than what I’m involved in. In two instances I think it’s fortunate because those jobs in the other areas that I was offered don’t exist anymore. So I would have been searching for other work. But importantly what’s kept me in this Council is the fact that since I started the place has been developing at a rapid rate. We’ve moved ….it’s moved rapidly from what was an agricultural shire into a very, very sought after urban area. I’ve been involved and instrumental in some aspects but involved in the development of firstly the Crestwood region and then the West Pennant Hills Valley development. The Glenhaven region, now the Rouse Hill region, Kellyville it’s taken these forty years for this to occur and the excitement of that has been continual. Every day you go in and you think “I wonder what’s going to happen today”? Until that ceases, until we become from a growing council into a maintenance council that excitement will remain.

Good I’m glad you’re still excited

You’ve got to be excited about something it may as well be work.

Soccer match Ted Horwood Reserve Baulkham Hills late 1960s

So when you first started working in Parks and Gardens did you do any designing of ovals or sports fields anything like that?

Yes look it was a one man show for quite some time we had I call it the good fortune of being able to go out and do your own survey work your own design work. Then you’d follow up with your own construction work. It’s unlike the more specialised approaches that we take today but it really did introduce you to every aspect of the parks arena. You had to learn very, very quickly and you had to be prepared to take on the challenges particularly when you’re building ovals and tennis courts and netball courts. You have one site and it’s a green field in the first instance and then within a given period of time you’ve got to keep within budget. You’ve got to keep to your design you need to involve the community. It was very, very challenging and I could name places like Crestwood Reserve, Don Moore Reserve, North Rocks Park, Fred Caterson Reserve, Glenhaven. Places that I’ve been instrumental in the development of from woe to go. There was a lot of community participation in it as well. The community I would say was not as demanding as the community might be today. That’s got to do with the pressures of life. The community seemed to have time to come down with their wheelbarrows and shovels and participate in a lot of the work sites. I still know some of the people around today that can remember those days and they would wait twenty years for their playground. Regrettably the patience of people is not the same.

Knights Baseball Field at Fred Caterson Reserve Castle Hill 1999

Is there also an active bush care movement in this Shire?

Yes well bush care is a recent advent when I say recent over the last twenty years if you can call that recent. In the late nineteen eighties there was a group the Excelsior Park Bushland Society and they were very keen on ensuring that Excelsior Park (now Bidjigal Reserve) would remain a quality environment. They also recognised at that time the influx of weeds that were occurring from the surrounding urban development. With increased drainage, with increased nutrient flow just increased impact of people using bushland areas they approached Council with the notion of actually having what we call bushland restoration activities. We’re volunteers, some of us are retired, we have time can you support us? Well you never say no to that sort of energy, that sort of opportunity. There were some very skilled people who had a lot of knowledge from you might say the environmental days. The environmental days commenced in the early eighties. This Shire became a very green shire in the early nineteen eighties. There were several councillors at that time….if I recall Councillor Jenny McCulla who was very pro bush. She was very instrumental in assisting us in getting that movement going. I think that these groups then started to form. We supported the groups in their works in a very loose manner in the first instance because bush care hadn’t actually evolved. The responsibilities associated with it hadn’t necessarily evolved. So yes you’d just meet them on occasions and get in and have a great time. Remove some of the weeds, try and nurture along some of the trees and shrubs. Then the group developed little further and thought if we are removing the weeds we have to grow something in their place. What can we do how can we do it?

 Volunteers at Bidjiwong Community Nursery Baulkham Hills 2007

There was a lady who became very, very prominent in our bush care sources. We started up a nursery, now the nursery was in an old DMR (Department of Main Roads) compound. We had to have something away from the rabbits and away from all the impacts of dogs and cats and of people. So in Showground Road there was an old RTA, DMR compound and we approached them and they said “yes you can use it” So we had a glass house establish itself there and these people who were very keen on growing things. We moved quite rapidly in establishing plants for growing back into bushland areas. From that point the site we were on became a very sought after site by the basketball association and so we had to relocate our nursery. The nursery was relocated to Ted Horwood Reserve. There was an old site there that had been used for deposition of materials over a long period of time so we thought “OK we can occupy this” We sought some funding and with the support of the volunteers thought righto this is going to be our nursery site. That site is now called Bidjiwong Community Nursery. From our humble beginnings from a little polyhouse we now have a production of around twenty to thirty thousand plants annually. Carried out by volunteers, we have educational programmes, we support very strong bush care we support schools. They have schools with disabled people that come in and assist us. We have volunteers who have enjoyed themselves so much that they have completed their commitment as a volunteer but they still come back as a volunteer. We also have a periodic detention service operating from there as well. They come out and do a lot of work in our bushland areas. Now that’s the nursery side of it. In parallel to that is the bush care phenomena bush care phenomena started as I said with the Excelsior Park Bushland Society with about five or six people really keen on doing something. Now we have in bush care registered with us around six hundred odd people.

Now that doesn’t mean that everyone is working in the bush land. Of those six hundred people you would have people who are not able to work so they participate in other ways. We produce quarterly newsletters that we send out. We have regular training programmes we have functions that occur. We have two staff members one staff member works part time and the other staff member works full time just on bush care alone. I think they do an absolutely magnificent job because by comparison to other bush care operations we deal with a very small group of people to run it. We have many working sites. People give up their valuable time at weekends to come and participate in the bush care programme. They are very, very keen people. They are all extremely emotional about what they do and very participative in it. We have managed to resurrect and restore many, many hectares of bushland area which otherwise would probably be just inundated with weed species.

Bushcare training in cutting Lantana 2002

Now landscape architecture became one of your disciplines and did you do any further studies in that subject?

Not myself but I did further studies through the Canberra CAE (college of advanced education) in parks management but I always recognised the benefits of a landscape architect. It took me quite some time to convince our organisation that I think we need a landscape architect. Whilst I myself was designing a lot of our landscape areas it was not with any what I would call formal training or background. I had read an enormous amount. I’d read up on everything from Capability Brown right through to the modern landscape architects. I had a lot of contact with the people in the landscape contract areas. I recall there’s a company run by Stuart Pittenrick now Stuart was a lecturer at the university. Stuart and I had many discussions over landscape design. I knew for us to benefit given that there was more money and more money being spent in the arena of parks. Parks were becoming more important in our community as the lifestyle was changing as our building codes were altering, as blocks of land were becoming smaller as people needed to get out into their parks and into their local environment to enjoy life and to relax and the like. That we needed to be able to present it in a manner that had a lot more scientific background to it. I say scientific but also practical background. So the notion of landscape architect I thought “well if I can encourage our organisation to engage one I think that we will start moving ahead”. I had probably come to the limit of my skills in that arena. Although I did win the Landscape Contractor’s Association Award it was a highly commended award I should say for the design of the landscape around the Administration Centre. I had the good fortune to be able to design that and present it to council and go through the construction of it. That’s been well received in the community I believe. I used palms in that design at the time and it was not a usual plant material to use but I convinced the council that palms of course date back to biblical times when the community would gather together round the oasis. So they always had for me a meaning of a collective environment for the community and so we managed to out the palms in and the palms are there today.

Council Building with palm trees 1982

Grown pretty big haven’t they?

They have indeed they have indeed from little seeds huge palms grow. Though we were lucky enough to attain some advanced palms that were sitting in a paddock and I managed to negotiate at the great expense of some tube stock these palms. It was far more costly to dig them out and bring them up to the site. I thanked those people for those at the time because it gave us an advanced environment. But whilst I say that we were fortunate to engage a landscape architect at that time. His name was Rodney Cox, Rod has now moved on to more significant landscape works but I was very pleased to be able to have Rod. He taught me a lot more skills I was able to follow through his work. From Rodney we had several other landscape architects but the landscape architect today is Dave Ransom. Dave is a very, very skilled landscape architect and he has influenced the look and the outcomes of our parks and reserves over the last fifteen to twenty years.

Go To Part Two