Maribyrnong

Maribyrnong, Lifeblood of the West

This is a guest post by Sarah Thomson. 

The Maribyrnong River, to most Melburnians, may be best known as the place to go looking for missing bodies, or parts thereof. But although I do admit squirming just a little seeing people fishing in the river the day after the arm was found, to local residents these stories are merely a quirky sidenote. There’s far more to the river than the odd floating morsel of human flesh. To those acquainted with it, the Maribyrnong is a vital, essential piece of the suburban landscape, both geographically and culturally. Despite the apartment buildings that now punctuate its shores, the surrounding parklands remain both a life-giving and life-sustaining haven of wilderness wedged amidst the clean-cut squares of the suburbs. This is primarily thanks to ongoing efforts of preservation and revegetation of the river.

I have lived next to the Maribyrnong for around three years now, and it’s played an indispensable role in my daily life. I’ve cycled down the bike path to three different jobs; I watched a family of ducklings grow from fluffy waddling balls into adulthood over the course of several months’ commute; I discovered a species of parrot new to me when I thought I knew them all. Ducks and moorhens raise their chicks within the safety of the fenced Newells Paddock wetlands (though the ducks seem to believe they have right of way on the bike and walking paths). A little further down, flocks of red-rumped parrots inhabit the trees of Pipemakers Park and take their chances between the driving range and the off-lead dog park across the bridge.

Image: Sarah Thomson

Image: Sarah Thomson

Screeching lorikeets also line the path beside the golf course and I’ve seen this area provide temporary residence for roaming galahs, sulphur-crested and black cockatoos, and the odd eastern rosella, as well as the herons that crouch above the water line and even a few black swans. In parts, you can hear the loud chorus of frogs and (though I’ve never seen one - and not complaining!) signs warn of the presence of snakes. It’s an ecosystem that is teeming with life, and each one of these native species that finds a home by or in the river is an argument for the importance of maintaining healthy green spaces like this as habitat for animal and plant life.

There’s another reason, however, that places like this are so necessary to our urban environments. The river provides a habitat for humans, too. On any given weekend (weather providing), the paths and parks surrounding the river abound with human life. Running, fishing, golfing, cycling, team sports on the ovals, kayaking, dog-walking, picnics, sitting in quiet contemplation by the water: these are some of the myriad activities in which people engage, but they all achieve a common aim. The open green space that winds alongside the water provides an opportunity for people to enjoy the outdoors, be active and engage with nature without having to travel great distances. Without places like this close at hand, the barriers of distance to these activities that form such an important part of a healthy physical, mental and social lifestyle become increasingly obvious. If we had to get in a car and drive up to an hour to find a space like this, the reality is that most of us wouldn’t find the time or energy, and we’d all be vastly poorer for it.

Image: Sarah Thomson

Image: Sarah Thomson

I now walk my dog in the off-lead park every day and it’s become an essential activity for the wellbeing of canine and human alike. When working from home on projects of an endless and soul-destroying nature, I started to feel emotionally synced with my dog, both of us waiting sullenly for that time of the afternoon when we could escape the confines of the house-prison. It is remarkable how stress and frustration melt away at the sight of wrestling pups splashing through the mud as owners try in vain to steer them off-course.

I met a woman who told me she fell into a deep depression after losing her job. She lived in the council flats nearby and decided, despite unstable living conditions and financial hardship, to get a dog to help herself out. She now walks 10,000 steps a day around the river with him and makes idle chat with strangers like me (as our dogs ran in circles for an hour attached to opposite ends of a palm frond).

Image: Sarah Thomson

Image: Sarah Thomson

Another man told me, as our paths and dogs intersected, that he lived in Caroline Springs. I joked that I guessed he didn’t come all this way just for the dog park, but it turned out he had. ‘It’s a good park,’ he shrugged. He used to play footy there, and kept coming back.

When I first moved into my house a five-minute walk from the river, I felt the location was a compromise, being so far from a train. I realise now that there’s no way I’d swap my proximity to this urban oasis for a slightly more convenient commute.


Banner image courtesy of Sarah Thomson

Not as we know it: Along the Maribyrnong

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

Brimbank Park is only 15 kilometres out of Melbourne city, and yet, embarrassingly, I hadn’t bothered to make the trip up there until about two weeks ago. It’s full of a wonderful range of native plants and wildlife, and even though it’s quite close to the hugely developed Melbourne Airport, it feels like it’s hundreds of miles away. It’s a welcome escape from the residential areas I’ve become so accustomed to. Visiting parks like Brimbank always make me wistful. I’m struck by an awareness that once, everything would have looked like this - minus the picnic spots and water fountains, of course. The north-western suburbs of Melbourne have seen rapid increases in development in the last few years. From Yarraville to Footscray, and stretching out past Keilor, both residential and industrial developments have transformed the suburbs significantly in the last 50 years. It’s almost impossible to fathom the changes made to these areas over the last 300 years, before airports, roads, pavement or farmland.

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Prior to European colonisation, Maribyrnong River and the surrounding areas were an expanse of trees, shrubs, and grassy plains. Up the northern area of the river, which now runs through Keilor and up alongside what we now know as Melbourne International Airport, the river was surrounded by fertile, rich scrubland. Narrow-leaf peppermint would have arched over the water, reaching up to 15 metres tall. Kidney-weed, hairy panic and wingless bluebush would have been common, most of the soil covered by these low-lying species, with only a few larger shrubs and medium-sized trees poking up between the competitive grasses. Away from the river, the trees died back, replaced by a sweeping grassland that occurred across Keilor and Tullamarine, stretching down as far as Essendon North. Grasses such as kangaroo grass, mat grass and kidney-weed would have swept across the area, providing vital habitats for native species, in particular invertebrates. Melbourne’s International Airport, now paved and developed into a hub of transport, was once an expanse of grassy plains, home to some of the 140 species of butterfly found in Victoria, such as the orchard swallowtail and grassland copper.

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

Closer to what we now call the suburb of Maribyrnong, the habitats surrounding the river shifted to riparian woodland. Here river red gum, manna gum and Gippsland red Gum towered up to 20 metres alongside the water, herbs and shrubs making up the understory as the river swept around bends.

Quickly, though, the salty waters of the Maribrynong River would have taken hold, and these great trees would have died back. Even today the river is flushed with salty water from coastal swells, though you wouldn’t realise it when you look at the lush grass along Flemington Racecourse. 300 years ago, these swells affected the habitats as well, sending salt through the soils surrounding the river. The only plants that prospered were ones that were adapted to the salty waters, predominantly low-lying species such as variable willow-herb, creeping brookweed, white sebaea, and Australian salt-grass. Almost no trees would have been found in these areas, the salty soils keeping them at bay. 

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the Maribyrnong River Trail is one of the most scenic in Melbourne. Scattered with parks and picnic areas, it meanders into Melbourne city much like the river itself, lazily looping around suburbs and landmarks. It is particularly popular on weekends, with dog-walkers, families, and fitness enthusiasts making their way along the pathway at their own pace. Though the surrounding areas of Maribyrnong, Footscray, Yarraville, Ascot Vale, Keilor, Flemington, and Kensington have seen much development in recent years, the winding nature of the river has helped shape these suburbs into what we see today.