Toongabbie, a suburb in western Sydney, wasn’t a place I’d considered exploring. However, when a friend discovered a Sri Lankan community in Toongabbie, she suggested I take a look. So, here I am, on the train looking forward to exploring Sydney’s ‘Little Sri Lanka’.
As I step off the train, a tall African woman, hair simply braided and wearing layers of blankets over a long straight patterned skirt steps on. Not quite what I was expecting.
Messy graffiti spoils the facades facing the station. Shops are closed (granted, it is early) and weeds predominate in the small grassed area of a little pocket park. My overall feeling is that life may be tough here in Toongabbie.
Rusty coloured autumn leaves drift across the brown brick path. A chalk board outside the Toongabbie hotel promotes cheap schnitzel, pizza and steak. Opposite the hotel, faded signage advertises Sri Lankan cuisine (with Indian and Malaysian).
The presence of a pawn broker confirms my initial impression that things are tough here. And then there’s the service for sending money overseas, common in areas where new migrants first settle.
Sri Lankan Shopping
Sri Ganesh Selections sells traditional clothing and pooja items, pooja being a Hindu prayer ritual involving offerings and prayers. The shop will open later, and I content myself with peering through the window at the colourful saris, and traditional menswear.
The Surya Supermarket, across the street from Portico Plaza with its Woolworths and Gloria Jeans draws me inside to inspect shelves of food, and other products familiar to immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.
A shrine rests on a sill on the wall behind the till. The refrigerated cabinet displays varieties of Indian sweets including my favourite, barfi. Boxes of incense fill one shelf, bags of rice and flour occupy another section.
Besides the halal butcher in Portico Plaza, there’s a variety store, and florist. Nothing too exciting. What is interesting is how many shops display signs warning that surveillance cameras are in use.
Streets of Toongabbie
Back on the street, a little cottage is ‘under negotiation’. Built on a large block of land, developers are likely to demolish the cottage and build a row of terraces or a unit block as they are doing over the road.
I chat to a man who works for the “Bark Blower”. He’s monitoring twenty tonnes of soil being blown from the back of his truck through a black pipe up to planter boxes on the top floor of the new units. A second truck stands idle, filled with another twenty tonnes.
Next, I notice a thin older woman wearing a sari waiting at the portico entrance of a group of terraces. A car pulls up and she steps in.
My route passes through Girraween Park. At the entrance to the park, Boronia Multicultural Services occupies a small brick building. A registered charity, they support families of refugee and migrant backgrounds.
Smoke hangs heavy in the air from recent back burning while dog walkers stride briskly around the playing fields. On a table near the gas BBQ are two clean pots, a couple of plates and bag of rolls, but there’s no one in attendance.
A man wearing a broad brimmed straw hat smiles and says “Hello”. He’s walking a medium sized long-haired white dog, which he tells me is a Japanese snow dog. We chat briefly about the dog and then part ways.
In the grounds of Seventh Day Adventist Church, a woman wearing a head scarf tied around the top of her head and a loose floral housecoat digs a garden bed.
Along Girraween Creek
Turning off the road, I follow the path to Girraween Creek. Trees line the dual cycle/pedestrian pathway and metal fencing provides privacy for the homes backing onto the creek. Shallow water trickles slowly along the narrow man altered channel. Doves coo softly in the trees.
A woman whose baby is due in a few weeks offers me help with directions. I don’t need help, but take the opportunity to chat. Her mother whose hair, plaited in a single braid reaching down her bare back to a beautiful silky green sari has come to support her once the baby is born.
“Mama’s Pizza and Hoppers Hut” on a corner near the railway line, caters a mix of cultures.
There’s no signpost, but the Settler’s Walk starts from the railway line. Apparently, the land that Settlers Walk passes through was a Government Farm for eleven years (from 1792). It was the Third Settlement of Australia (after Sydney and Parramatta).
This side of railway line has a different, more settled feel. The mostly brick houses, single storey and not overly large, are bigger and sit in established gardens with neatly trimmed lawns.
Men and women in blue uniforms stand in groups or singly, their bowls and white jacks scattered across three busy bowling greens. While bowling clubs all over Sydney are closing down, this one appears to be thriving.
The path continues through an open grassed area under power lines. Trees and bush line Toongabbie creek which runs parallel to the path. Bell birds call to each other in the distance and a wagtail struts his stuff in the grass nearby.
While I happily walk the shared cycle/pedestrian pathway, later I discover a dirt track in the bush alongside the creek. This track would have been even better.
Back to Toongabbie Station
Leaving Settler’s Walk where it joins the Pemulwuy Loop, I walk along a quiet and pleasant street. There’s a relaxed feel. There are few fences and where there are fences, they are low and unobtrusive. I startle a lorikeet feeding in a tall old bottle brush. He circles me, squawking low past my head, settling in the next tree.
The tennis courts at the Toongabbie Leisure Centre are tired. Weeds push through the neglected surface. Approaching the train station, the environment changes subtly. Houses are less well maintained, the gardens messy.
Things are Different Now
Children play on the equipment in the little neglected park that I walked through earlier this morning. Women in traditional colourful clothing sit side by side on benches watching the children and passing the time of day. Similarly, a smaller group of men wearing shirts and trousers in neutral shades chat amongst themselves.
My initial impression of this little park has completely changed. Here is community unseen in many suburbs of Sydney.
A Sri Lankan Meal
While many of the food establishments offer a mixture of Sri Lankan, Malaysian and Indian meals, I choose to eat at Chef Ceylon which only serves Sri Lankan food. Like its neighbours, the main trade is in take away, but there are a few tables at the back.
The lunch special is a meat with three vegetable dishes and roti or rice. Unfortunately, the traditional hoppers are only available after 5pm. Bravely (a wrong move it turns out), I decide not to worry about the ‘heat’ and choose dishes I haven’t tried before – goat, ladies’ fingers, capsicum and beetroot. Tasty, with a hint of coconut, the meal is pleasant, but the goat and ladies’ fingers too hot for me.
Thoughts on Toongabbie
Toongabbie, once the third Australian settlement, these days could easily be called Little Sri Lanka. The people meeting in the small park, the grocery store and the numerous eateries all point to a community making a new life in their adopted country.