Settlement

Not As We Know It: Williamstown to Werribee

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth

When I was a little kid, at least once a month I’d convince my parents to take me to Williamstown. I didn’t want to go for the beach, or the ice-cream, and definitely not the coffee – I wanted to go because there was a shop there that sold stone fairies and pretty rocks, and when I was six, I thought that was pretty cool. I’m in my twenties now, and amazingly, despite the surge of eclectic Melbourne designers, that fairy shop is still there. I still think it’s pretty cool, though I have to admit the allure of the beach and the ice-cream is what tempts me to Williamstown now. 

Before Williamstown began to be developed by European colonisers in the 1830s, open grassy woodland occupied much of the area, stretching from the centre of the area up through to Laverton. The area was rich in grasses and herbs, with species such as kangaroo grass, wattle mat-rush, weeping grass and kidney weed making up most of the ground cover. While there was the occasional Gippsland or river red-gum that popped up through the grasses, like in most of Victoria, these areas were dominated by grasses and herbs. While we now have the Princes Highway sweeping across Melbourne, 200 years ago grasslands were what swept through Victoria, over areas such as Williamstown, Altona Gate, Laverton North, and Derrimut. These grasslands contained a mountain of diversity of plants, insects, and animals – a diversity that is now drastically different, due to the huge development these areas have seen in recent history. 

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

There are some wonderful walks around Williamstown, with the Williamstown Beach to Altona Foreshore Trail being one of my favourites. Walking along the beach with the wind in your hair and the occasional shrubs and grasses, it can feel quite wild – especially if you arrive early enough, and you’re lucky enough to catch a water rat scuttling along the trail. It is difficult to imagine that around Victoria Street and up through the coast to Werribee, coastal saltmarsh once surrounded the ocean in a wide band. Succulent herbs, shrubs, rushes and sedges made themselves home along the tidal flats, species such as creeping brookweed, rounded noon-flower, and austral seablite sweeping up along the coast. Around Cherry Creek and extending to Queens Street in Altona Meadows, there was a small band of scrub that differed from the surrounding saltmarsh. Here, taller species were more common, with Moonah species, coast wirilda, and coastal tea-tree growing in the area, up to eight metres tall. Surrounding them were low-lying herbs tussocks such as bristly wallaby grass and coast blown grass that swept through the area, well- adapted to the soils.

Kororoit Creek, now a great location for walks or runs, was once full of aquatic, low-lying plants such as red water-milfoil, tiny duckweed, and water ribbons. Along the creek line there were occasional eucalypts scattered amongst the tussock grasses and herbs, extending up through Laverton North and past Sunshine West. Featherbrook Drive Wetland, another great location for bird-watching and walking, was a fantastic pocket of diversity, with sedgy wetland found in the area. Fine twig-sedge, wetland wallaby grass, and soft twig-rush found homes in the wetlands, which would have been ideal habitats for an assortment of native ducks.

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River meets the bay near Werribee South, and goes straight through the heart of Werribee. Two hundred years ago, wwamp gum, narrow-leaf peppermint and river red-gum would have been relatively frequent along its banks, towering up to 20 metres in height. Large sedges and tussock grasses such as kangaroo grass, tall rush, and the adorably-named bidgee-widgee would have made up much of the ground cover and understory along the river. Of course, this is dramatically different to modern times, as the river travels up through the extensive development that now exists there. While the river has seen some hard times, it has certainly added character to the area, with Werribee Mansion and Werribee Open Range zoo sharing their borders with the winding waters. Luckily, there’s now a lot of effort being made to improve its health, with hopes that doing so will entice back some of our native species.

About five years ago, I went on a rowing tour of the Werribee River. While I recommend one actually practices rowing beforehand, I truly enjoyed it. Our guide excitedly told us how the health of the river had improved monumentally, and was barely comparable to what it had been 10 years ago. He was adamant that one early morning a few months ago, he had been sitting on the banks of the river, and had actually seen platypus swimming together, doing their dance in the waters between reeds.

While I’m not absolutely convinced, I can’t help but be excited when I remember his face as he told the story. ‘Just imagine it!’ he’d said, ‘Wild platypus - In Melbourne!’

It’s certainly difficult, but not unachievable. Let’s hope we can make it happen. 


Cover image by Australian National Botanic Gardens

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. 

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.