Not As We Know It: Melbourne City

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

If you find some spare time in these last few weeks of warmth, I highly recommend getting up early, heading into the city, and standing along Southbank to watch the sunrise. It’s one of my favourite views in the entire world. I love watching as Flinders Street Station bursts bright orange in the growing light, the skyline of the city perfectly reflected in the Yarra’s murky waters. There are almost always hot air balloons, it is almost always quiet, and (most importantly) it almost always smells of fresh doughnuts and coffee.  

Now a hub of expensive restaurants, hotels and boutiques, Southbank was once a riverbank, a mess of swampy scrubland that stretched on either side of the river from Boathouse Drive to the end of North Wharf Road. The soil along the Yarra was rich with nutrients, despite being often sodden due to poor drainage and frequent flooding. Swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree dominated the area, making up about half of the canopy, with the understory a mix of grasses and shrubs such as common reed, soft twig-rush, and gristle fern. Parrots, possums, and bats would have found homes within the aged, hollowed trees scattered through the area. Though the smell of coffee and doughnuts is inviting, the scent of eucalyptus and damp soil would have been just as relaxing to come across in the early hours of the morning.

Just above North Wharf Road, moving into Docklands, the environment transformed from scrubland into a brackish grassland, with not a single tree in sight. The area was dominated by grasses such as chaffy saw-sedge, blue tussock-grass, and Australian salt-grass. The largest plant popping up among the grasses was the annual fireweed, and even that was very uncommon. Though now this area is often flooded with sports fans visiting Etihad Stadium, in the 1750s it was not uncommon to find it flooded by water, the soil almost always water-logged. The low-lying area we now know as the Docklands was then close to a large salt lake, which was located along what is now Footscray Road. This lake, and its surrounding saltmarshes, leeched salt into the soils, limiting the growth of trees and waterlogging the soils around the Docklands.

The scenery changed moving from Docklands into the CBD. Trees began to emerge on the landscape, narrow-leaf peppermint and drooping sheoak dotted across the expanse of grasses such as tall sundew and variable sword-sedge. The soil of this area was often waterlogged, likely due to the frequent flooding of the Yarra River. This extended from Village Street to Queen Street and up to North Melbourne, encompassing what is now the Queen Victoria Market. Now hustling and bustling with stalls, buskers and coffee shops, it was once an expanse of grassland dotted with eucalyptus trees that stretched up to fifteen metres in height. This area would also have been full of a range of mammals and marsupials: the eastern-barred bandicoot, all but extinct on mainland Australia now, would likely have found a home in these grassy woodlands.  

Crossing what we now call Queen Street, the trees became sparser, including species such as river red gum and swamp gum. A few bushes and shrubs would have been scattered across the grassy landscape, species such as black wattle, golden wattle and tree everlasting poking out among the tussock grasses and sedge. In periods of high rainfall, it’s likely that this area would have been transformed into an almost-wetland: a series of interconnected pools of water providing habitats for various wildlife, such as birds and amphibians.  

At Spencer Street, the environment transitioned into a drier system. Where the Town Hall and Flinders Street now stand, the landscape was significantly flatter 300 years ago. Trees and shrubs were rare. Of the few that were in the area, Gippsland red-gum would have been the most prominent, with blackwood and burgan making up the understory. This landscape was dominated by grasses and herbs, with species such as veined spear-grass, wattle mat-rush, kangaroo grass and kidney-weed covering the ground and sweeping throughout the city and across to the suburbs of North Melbourne, Collingwood, Richmond, and Fitzroy. Skinks and snakes would have found their way easily throughout the grassy landscape, catching rays of sun in the patches of soil left bare by the abundant grasses.

Is this what the entirety of the Yarra River originally looked like? Photo: Glenn Guy

Is this what the entirety of the Yarra River originally looked like? Photo: Glenn Guy

It is difficult to imagine the Yarra as it was before European colonisation, with banks of sloping soil instead of hardened cement walls. It is perhaps even harder to imagine the city without the distinctive Flinders Street Station, the Bourke Street Mall, Etihad Stadium and the famous Queen Victoria Market. Try to imagine the sweeping grasslands that covered the city as you walk down Bourke Street, or when you take the tram along Collins Street. Instead of coffee, there was eucalyptus; instead of the sound of trams, there was birdsong and wind rustling the grasses. I love the view of Flinders Street in the mornings, but a few hundred years ago, this very different landscape would have been beautiful to see as well.