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