yarra valley

Life of the City: A Short History of the Yarra River

Before dawn, under a soft scattering of clouds, the Yarra River is still and silent. Most mornings the sight goes unappreciated by the majority of Melburnians – shared only by joggers, rowers and the early commuters who pass along the banks. The sky upriver is slow to warm, splashing orange and gold across the tallest city buildings until the day opens with a flash.

Sunrise over the Yarra River.  Image: Paul Jones

Sunrise over the Yarra River. Image: Paul Jones

The banks of the Yarra are a major drawcard for residents and tourists alike. From the 1980s, extensive cleaning, replanting and developing have created a new urban precinct with admirably natural features. During the rest of the 20th Century, the river was notorious for the detritus of industry and the pollution of suburban runoff. Now, fresh beds of wetland plants line the river’s edge; swans, egrets and cormorants call and fly from the nearby refuges of Herring Island and the Botanic Gardens; rubbish traps collect the worst of the upstream spillage.

The thing is, these natural features aren’t very natural at all. The shaping of the Yarra – widening, straightening, grading – has led to a much more stable river course than what was originally present. Water from storms is filtered and driven into the bay along bluestone-lined banks. Upriver, dams and weirs keep the catchment rains and spring snowmelt in check as they tumble out of the mountains above the Yarra Valley. Nowadays, it takes the heaviest downpours to show unsuspecting people just how the landscape originally functioned.

Journalist Neville Bowler's iconic photo of the Elizabeth Street flood.   Image: Neville Bowler

Journalist Neville Bowler's iconic photo of the Elizabeth Street flood. Image: Neville Bowler

A winter flooding in 2014 saw the river leave its banks behind and inundate waterfront businesses, saturating social media with images and stories. Cultural memory recalled a similar event, when the tributary creek sealed beneath Elizabeth Street spectacularly resurfaced in 1972 after heavy rains – perhaps the first time that many were given cause to consider the reason for the street’s low-lying topography.

Before European alteration, however, these events would not have been isolated quirks. The floodplain of the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers is home to an ecosystem that thrived on annual deluges, with the iconic river redgums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) requiring spring floods to stay healthy. Each year, thawing snowfields would deliver a torrent of water through the Yarra Valley (its own floodplain now the location of fertile vineyards) down to Port Phillip Bay, recharging the soil and enriching those extensive wetlands of which Albert Park Lake is one final remnant. There is also evidence from other Australian sites that this cycle can prevent salinity from building up in the soil, having a direct impact on which plants could grow in the area and which animals could reside.

Floodplains rely on variability to maintain a patchwork of ecosystems, both temporally and spatially. Australia’s climate creates an especially changeable environment, with low rainfall leaving many parts of the region dry through the majority of the year. Their occasional submersion led to an eruption of germinating seeds and rapid new growth. Closer to the river, the more stable water supply allowed softer plants to grow and encouraged amphibians and birds. In contrast, the unchanging conditions of modern engineering favour some groups while stressing others, and can eventually lead to a loss of biodiversity.

Apart from the regulation of flow, other changes have affected the vegetation along the riverbanks as well. The slow-flowing surface of the river is undercut by a wedge of heavy salt water from Port Phillip, creating a saline gradient that runs well upriver. Unexpectedly, this common estuary pattern has only made a relatively recent appearance in the Yarra’s dynamic. It’s been that way since the 1880s, when a natural ford damming the Yarra downstream of Queen Street was blasted away to build the bridge that still stands.

Historically, the river was completely bifurcated by this rock formation, to the great advantage of the Wurundjeri tribe who took care of the land. Freshwater from upriver was retained en masse, ensuring a secure drinking supply that was kept separate from the saltwater of the bay. Eels and other fish were abundant in the region, along with birds arriving for the same purpose. The ford, and the waterfall it created, would also become a pivotal component in the decision of European settlers to start building; the deep, wide basin drummed into the riverbed below the falls was ideal to be used as a turning circle for cargo ships visiting the new city.

A downriver view of the original Yarra course, with the rock wall visible in the centre.   Image: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au

A downriver view of the original Yarra course, with the rock wall visible in the centre. Image: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au

Changing the water from fresh to brackish meant that vegetation along the banks needed to cope with much higher amounts of salt, leading to community restructuring and a general reduction in quality. But while the upstream basin was significantly changed by saltwater mixing, it arguably couldn’t have been made much worse. Industries springing up in 19th Century Abbotsford and Collingwood, along with the suburbs encroaching along both banks, meant that an incredibly high level of sewage and commercial waste travelled directly into the river. At this point, the river was still being used as drinking water for the city, leading to chronic outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Continuous clean-up and revitalisation campaigns through the last century have improved matters, but the river still contains high levels of bacteria and heavy metals.

The unavoidable fact is that, like most metropolitan rivers in the 21st Century, the Yarra is at the mercy of the community around it. But it can also influence that community – as something so very visible in Melbourne, the river is uniquely positioned to remind us that our actions aren’t separate from the world around us. The new plantings along the riverbanks remind us that we can restore habitat if we try; the rubbish traps show us that waste removal doesn’t need to be complicated to work (as well as remind us to be more careful); the calling birds reward us by returning to the spaces we’ve made for them. As long as the river keeps flowing, it can be changed – one way or another.


PAUL JONES

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.


Banner image courtesy of Paul Jones. 

The Wilds of Marysville

The landscape around Marysville is a stark reminder of the power of nature. 

The landscape around Marysville is a stark reminder of the power of nature. 

Last month, Wild Melbourne ventured out to the town of Marysville to explore the surrounding wilderness. During our adventure, we went on a few of the nature walks that encompass the township, including a visit to Steavenson Falls, an underestimated hike up to Keppel Lookout, and a night-time walk to the Trestle Bridge. For me though, none of these stood out quite like the Beeches Rainforest Walk in the Yarra Ranges National Park.

The journey out to the Beeches was beautiful and awe-inspiring in its own right. We took the turn onto Lady Talbot Drive and, soon enough, the towering white skeletons of Mountain Ash trees - relics of the Black Saturday bushfires - surrounded us on all sides. These ghostly figures were all that we could see for kilometres, overwhelmingly illustrating the huge scope of the bushfires that occurred here in February 2009. Although this was sobering, there was also evidence of recovery and regrowth, with almost every naked tree surrounded by a sea of saplings. It looked impenetrable. Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) recover from bush fires by dropping huge quantities of seeds. The developing saplings then grow into dense communities, until one by one individuals are outcompeted for light, nutrients and water by their neighbours. It is these surviving saplings that go on to form the new forest canopy.

 

The pristine water of the Taggerty River gushes down mossy rocks. 

The pristine water of the Taggerty River gushes down mossy rocks. 

Lady Talbot Drive follows the Taggerty River, which bubbled and flowed alongside us as we drove up into the hills. About thirteen kilometres up the road, we reached the Beeches: a pocket of cool temperate rainforest, nestled in amongst towering stands of Mountain and Alpine Ash. Its canopy is dominated by Myrtle Beech trees (Nothofagus cunninghamii), but you will also find Southern Sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum) and Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) trees. Some of the trees in this rainforest are even thought to be 300 years old. This is quite plausible, as Myrtle Beech canopies can be up to 500 years old, with root system of up to 1000 years old. Before eucalupts evolved, Myrtle Beeches are thought to have been much more widespread. However, that was 25 million years ago - now they are restricted to cool, shaded forests and sheltered valleys throughout Victoria and Tasmania.

 

Words cannot express the tranquillity we found in this special place. 

Words cannot express the tranquillity we found in this special place. 

We didn’t see a great deal of animal life whilst wandering through the Beeches, but the plant life compensated for this. You cannot take a step on this walk without seeing a myriad of different mosses, or stumbling across some native ferns. Lichens and creepers cover the trees, whilst rocks and boulders guide the Taggerty River down through the rainforest.

In the town of Marysville, however, wildlife was abundant. Wood Ducks waddled down the main street, Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos foraged for grass seeds on the nature strip, and Currawongs loitered around the cafes. These three species were common throughout the town and seemed to exist in higher numbers than the town’s human residents.

 

Marysville is a wild town. 

Marysville is a wild town. 

Although we didn’t see many mammals (despite our keen searching), there is one marsupial that I would like to draw your attention to. The Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) was originally declared extinct in the 1950s, having not been sighted since 1909. However, after the discovery of a colony near Marysville in 1961, the Leadbeater’s Possum was declared Victoria’s faunal emblem and is now an ambassador for the endangered species of Victoria, and even Australia.

 

The Leadbeater's Possum. (Image courtesy of   http://www.zoo.org.au  )

The Leadbeater's Possum. (Image courtesy of  http://www.zoo.org.au)

Leadbeater’s Possums are most often seen at dusk when they emerge from their tree hollows to feed on insects and tree sap. From head to tail, this possum is just thirty centimetres in length, its body measuring just half of that, and is primarily distinguished by its club-shaped tail that is characteristically wider at the tip than at the base. These marsupials live in family groups consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring from previous years, often including as many as twelve individuals. Due to their highly endangered status, Leadbeater’s Possums are only found in Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve and the Victorian Central Highlands. These secretive creatures are found mostly in forests with a high occurrence of tree hollows, smooth-barked eucalypts and dense vegetation structure. As such tree hollows need over 150 years to develop, these possums can generally only live in mature, old growth forests (hence their localisation in only two particular areas).

It is these tree hollows that are the core issue surrounding the plight of our Leadbeater’s Possums. As they are essential habitat features for these marsupials in terms of nesting, tree hollow abundance directly affects the number of Leadbeater’s Possums in the wild. Due to logging, land clearing and bushfires, the number of tree hollows is unfortunately decreasing, with any destroyed tree hollows of course not being replaced for at least another 150 years. Bushfires also provide a threat to Leadbeater’s Possums, the Black Saturday fires wiping out almost all of their already diminished habitat. Subsequently, this loss of a suitable environment can lead to habitat fragmentation and a decrease in connectivity between populations, further worsening this fragile species’ chance of survival.

However, although population numbers are expected to decline further, there are a few things that we can do to help our state emblem. Zoos Victoria is currently running the ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ campaign, which encourages people to buy locally produced toilet paper made from 100% post-consumer paper, whilst containing no harsh chemicals. We can extend this notion to many other aspects of our lives, such as purchasing products that are sustainably packaged, as well as choosing wood and paper products that are ethically and sustainably sourced.  In doing this, the high rate of logging in Victoria can perhaps be decreased enough to give this species a fighting chance to achieve higher population numbers, as well as a less vulnerable position on our endangered species list.

With fewer than 1000 individuals remaining, Leadbeater’s Possums are in desperate need of our attention. The extinction of this iconic species would be a huge loss to our state and nation, both biologically and culturally, and would leave a stain on Victoria’s already unfavourable faunal history.

 

For one thing, the beautiful wilds of Marysville would not be the same without them.  

Marysville: A Place in Nature

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A beautifully scenic drive from Melbourne’s CBD, the township of Marysville boasts enviable views of Victoria’s temperate forest landscape and is a prime location for discovering what it truly means to get in touch with nature. Nestled amongst the surrounding Great Dividing Range, the town could be described as quintessentially country, but with a unique take on its interaction with Victoria’s native wildlife.

Simply by walking down the main street, it is obvious to residents and visitors alike how seamlessly local flora and fauna fit into the picture of this country town. Cockatoos, wood ducks, king parrots and currawongs are just some of the native birdlife that can be easily spotted from your table at the central Marysville Bakery, whilst the encompassing hills provide a rich backdrop of native temperate flora.

 

 

The iconic Marysville Bakery.

The iconic Marysville Bakery.

Although Marysville’s connection with the nearby and often inescapable native wildlife is not unusual for many country towns of the area, this town’s connection with the sublime power of nature cannot be underestimated.

The township’s unfortunate and devastating confrontation with the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires has since portrayed its history as one that will forever be ingrained by the unforgiving power of nature.

Driving through the surrounding forests of Marysville on the well-known Lady Talbot Drive, it is impossible not to recognise the sublimely black and charred trees and eerily-absent canopy that speak volumes about what occurred here just four years ago.

 

 

 

The view from Lady Talbot drive. 

The view from Lady Talbot drive. 

Although a tragic event in Marysville and indeed Victoria’s history, it is clear that out of the Black Saturday bushfires has come re-birth, as well as an acceptance and heightened awareness of the influence of nature. The fact that many have rebuilt (and are still rebuilding) both residential and business properties tells visitors that the beauty and serenity of nature makes it worth the possible dangers that this town has already known.

This is not a difficult thing to understand, as it is made obvious from only a short stay in Marysville that the beauty and exceptionality of its natural setting would make living here a completely unique and awe-inspiring experience. Despite past tragedies and the subsequent lack of current economic benefits, many still inhabit the tranquil and picturesque Marysville in an attempt to appreciate the vast splendour of Victoria’s natural world.

The local art aficionado, Bruno Torfs, gives visitors just one incredible example of how the beauty and culture of a country town can be revived following such a terrible natural disaster. His Art and Sculpture Garden, situated off the picturesque Falls Road within Marysville, presents artwork that has survived, been destroyed by, and even created out of the bushfires.

One particular painting, produced days before the disaster, portrays a woman holding a lighted candle walking calmly through a world of fire and destruction. Its significance can only now be remarked upon, as it managed to survive the actual fires almost unharmed (a grateful dog unceremoniously having kicked a hole in it when scrambling into Bruno’s truck amidst the panic of the fires). 

Other standouts of the gallery include a slightly unconventional reproduction of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and several exotic works depicting Bruno’s extensive travels to Africa and the Middle East. A slightly charred and twisted French Horn is also displayed, along with paintings turned black by the fires – all artwork in themselves, again born out of the tragic circumstances that forever altered the originals.

 

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Many of the sculptures on display in the charmingly wild garden also blend together these elements of human culture, nature and rebirth. On entering, a sign informs visitors that following the bushfires, ‘there was not a single glimpse of green to be seen’, and that only through ‘the magic of nature’ has this garden managed to bloom again.

Not far along the first path of the garden is a sculpture of a man and woman emerging from a seed pod – an image that could not be more symbolic of the rebuilding of the gallery, garden and town itself. Such a theme continues throughout, with indigenous, culturally iconic, and humorous sculptures also included.

The famous Lady of Shalott sculpture is one of many that have been remade based on the original. Other sculptures further resonate the integration of nature into Marysville culture; a man with a face made of mice, a naked woman lying asleep next to a fox, and another coming out of a snail shell are but a few examples of the artwork that reflects this human relationship with wildlife.

New love emerging, or just two peas in a pod? 

New love emerging, or just two peas in a pod? 

The famous Lady of Shalott

The famous Lady of Shalott

The Mouse Man: How many can you count?

The Mouse Man: How many can you count?

A woman and a fox resting together in the forest.

A woman and a fox resting together in the forest.

This woman of the forest is literally coming out of her shell. 

This woman of the forest is literally coming out of her shell. 

Marysville’s close association with its surrounding natural aspects is also nothing short of historical. Originally established as a stop-off point for passing gold enthusiasts en route to goldfields further on, Marysville would have been a small and humble mark of civilisation amongst the serene forests of the surrounding mountains. In many ways, the town remains such a place, and as early as the 1920s, was already being promoted as a tourist destination based on the many natural wonders the town had to offer (including the stunning and still-popular Steavenson Falls). The importance of such a connection with the natural world is therefore only strengthened by the reliance many residents had, and still have, on the tourist appeal of so much natural beauty.

 

The famous Steavenson Falls - beautiful and serene. 

The famous Steavenson Falls - beautiful and serene. 

However, even in the absence of tourism, Marysville’s emotional link with nature is one that appears deeply rooted in the minds of many of its citizens - Bruno’s gallery being a strong testament to such an idea. The town’s ability to blend aspects of human settlement with the calm and almost utopian feel of Victoria’s natural environment is both a triumph of the town, and a gift to visitors not accustomed to such a close relationship with wildlife. It is again not difficult to comprehend how the town has managed to establish this connection with nature, and I believe it is with great appreciation and envy that visitors leave Marysville, many unable to forget the great significance and vitality that comes with understanding our state’s beautiful yet sublime natural surroundings.