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Postcards from the Lower Reaches of the Yarra
Russell Degnan

When I decided, on Thursday, to take advantage of the pleasant weather, and go for a little walk it wasn't actually my intention to saunter twenty-one kilometres. But once you start...

The first destination was Dight's Falls, which meant taking a route directly east across Parkville, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, and Abbotsford. This is familiar ground, so I contented myself with choosing the more pleasant routes until I got to Wellington Road. Here though, I became more cautious. The last time I went through that area the burnt out cars and unfriendly stares from local porch-sitters made me feel a little unwelcome. However, things are changing here too. Johnston Street still has lots of closed businesses and graffiti, but it is being replaced by cafes, furniture and jewellery stores. Gentrification has been slow getting there, but it has arrived.

The remaining walk down Johnson Street to the bridge is as unpleasant as you'd expect any motorway to be, so I was glad when I got to the river and could make my way to the falls.

And what a glorious disappointment they are. It is a more significant spot to cite than visit: the place where the Yarra winds its way into the suburbs, the spot where the tides (now) stop and the water becomes fresh (though not clean), a former billabong and aboriginal burial site, the confluence of Merri Creek, the place of an old mill for which the falls are named, and now, an unnatural block of concrete, a depressingly boring park, and a noisy freeway to overlook it all.

The other bank is worse again. That part of Yarra Bend Park is one of the few places with reasonable amounts of remnant native vegetation in the inner area, and certainly one of the few that also includes some sort of view. Sure, said view takes in the slums of the inner city, and has almost every attractive building or feature obscured by housing commission towers, but even so the park's condition is a disgrace. Weeds are everywhere, the paths are collapsing under the strain of too many mountain bikes, it makes no use of what it has, and doesn't even dip into its potential.

With not much else to do that afternoon, I decided to walk back to the city along the river, obviously not entirely cognizant of the distances involved. The first part was easy enough, under Johnston Street bridge where the nightmen used to dump their loads, past the Children's Farm and St. Heliers, and across the pedestrian bridge to the stretch under Studley Park golf course. At this point, distracted by the fact that the brewery reeks of fermenting yeast, I almost stepped on a snake crossing in front of me. While I am sure there is no shortage of snakes in Melbourne, this is the closest I've ever seen one to the city, and I'd be just as happy if it stayed that way. The idea of one crawling through the gaping holes in the walls of my terrace abode to nestle on the furniture doesn't appeal.

After this brief flirtation with the dangers of the south-side of the river, I was happy to cross back to the miserable slums where no creature can survive for long. The little strip between the river and Victoria St. is a bit touristy. A couple of riverside cafes have set up shop to attract passing riders, the city's only commercial vineyard lies on the opposite bank and there is lots of new development. Fortunately, the developments are tasteful, and the walk is pleasant.

From the 1850s until the 1960s the next stretch of river had opposing banks as different as the residents they contained: Richmond's "dull, swampy, treeless flat" and Hawthorn's "charming and wooded heights". The cycling trail and new developments are more genteel now, although there is still a certain snobbishness about the houses on the other bank with their river frontages, even if you wonder why they wanted them when the Yarra ran like an open sewer. Other little things remind you how little the Yarra resembles what it was: the bluestone banks, the lack of native trees, and the straight lines and grassed banks, are all remnants of anti-flooding measures dating back to the 1850s.

Finally, at the South-Eastern arterial and the entrance to what's left of Gardiners Creek the Yarra and I turned back to the city. It was about this point I realised two things: I was bloody miles from the city; and there are no marked toilet blocks to be seen (the National Public Toilet Map shows several nearby but not sign-posted). The latter wasn't sufficiently resolved until I got to Birrarung Marr which is fairly poor. Not all cyclists like to do as the professionals and carry a bottle.

The more notable features along the Burnley banks are not necessarily good ones: the freeway, the increased pedestrian traffic, and substantial evidence of homeless people including a virtual encampment near the Burnley Wharves. The other side of the river may be a better walk in retrospect, including, as it does, Como House on other side of Herring Island, Melbourne High School, and the Botanic Gardens. However, you can see some nice bridges, such as the MacRobertson that also bridges the freeway, the Church Street Bridge and after a longish stretch where the trail literally hangs over the water, the always picturesque Morrell Bridge.

The remaining trail is familiar enough to be boring -- at least to me -- passing the tennis centre, the new parklands at Birrarung Marr, and finally, Federation Square and the boat-houses. It is an interesting, if long, walk, but probably a better bike-ride, since you can pedal through the boring bits and except for one or two bridge crossings that still include stair-cases, it is a flat and well made path that allows a bit of speed.

Tales of the City 7th January, 2006 20:44:11   [#] 


junk for code

I did the Johnson Street to Studley Park section of the River a number of times in the early 1980s when I used to work on the Melbourne Trams. It was very popular then---people walking their dogs etc I haven't done it since.

The River does not sound well cared for. But then it never was--being a rubbish dump for the industry in Richmond etvc
Gary Sauer-Thompson  8th January, 2006 12:30:39  

Postcards from the Lower Reaches of the Yarra
Gary, the river lacks someone looking out for little things. There have been lots of major projects to do up the pathways, but there is also lots of evidence of past projects falling into a state of disrepair.

It is an excellent and popular cycling path now, but not so much for walkers. The beach path between St. Kilda and Brighton is much better because it has lots of reasons for you to pause and watch other people go by -- more cafes, toilet blocks, drinking fountains, patches of grass and seats that face the path. The bit between Bridge Road and the MacRobertson Bridge being the most in need.
Russ  8th January, 2006 16:19:14  

Maintaining tracks doesn't get votes
As usual, part of the problem is that maintenance is expensive but not sexy - it doesn't result in nice pictures for electorate newsletters.

But if you think the Yarra has issues, have a look at the lower end of the Merri Creek trail. It's disgusting.
Rob  9th January, 2006 11:55:07  

Postcards from the Lower Reaches of the Yarra
I wouldn't know about electoral newsletters Rob, the only time I lived in an electorate marginal enough to need one the local member was semi-literate.

I wouldn't want to overstate problems. All things considered, the Yarra is as clean as it has been for 150 years. Some sections are quite good, the rest probably suffer from being neither here nor there. There is too much development and too many people about for the river to stay clean by itself, but not enough people in the area for anyone to care if it is filthy.
Russ  9th January, 2006 15:49:48  


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