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One of the most attractive features of this neighbourhood is its proximity to the Maribyrnong River. We can go for a walk along its banks morning, noon or night, rain or shine. It is best to get out early now that Spring is here. The afternoons are often turbulent, bringing wind and showers. When the sun is out, there are often a few runners gliding along in shorts and tights. The birds and frogs are definitely convinced it is time to find a mate. The water gives off an opaque sheen, often looking a muddy brown. When Melbourne came into its own as a real city, the Maribyrnong river was an industrial sewer. Now, there are fishermen.

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The river that put Melbourne on the map is called the Yarra. It was the river of entry to this whole area. I have been making my way slowly through a fascinating historical book called: “1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia,” by James Boyce. it appears the landscape underlying this city has been so transformed that it would be virtually unrecognisable to any aboriginal or early settler. The Yarra River, from the Botanic Gardens to Port Phillip Bay now flows through an almost entirely artificial channel.

Two hundred years ago, the lower Yarra was dominated by swamps, lakes and lagoons. The river was tidal up to a rocky ledge where Queen’s Bridge now stands. At that point the river was ninety-metres wide (about 270 feet) wide. The ledge acted as a barrier, ensuring that upstream of the rocks there would be a permanent source of fresh water.

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“Of all Australia’s major cities, the natural environment of Melbourne before British settlement is perhaps the most difficult now to imagine. This is in part a product of the city’s size and flat topography, but also reflects the extent to which the the region was dominated by swamps and grasslands – the two ecosystems that were most comprehensively transformed by conquest.”

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What attracted the settlers from Tasmania (then known as Van Diemien’s Land), was the open grassland to the west and north of the site of what is now called Melbourne. Those vast, temperate grasslands have almost completely vanished. What impelled the first settlers to come here was the exhaustion of good grassland in Tasmania. Convicts and ex-convicts had been living there independently since 1805, and the Crown had been generous with land allotments in the early days of settlement.

The aboriginals had been forcibly removed and there were no dingoes, so the problem was white people. Most of the land was too wet or wooded for pastoral pursuits. The vast “empty” grasslands just across the Bass Straits on the souther coast of Australia was a natural magnet.

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It would be an illegal settlement, of course, since the settlers would be occupying Crown land, but the Governor of Tasmania saw it as the perfect opportunity to do the local aboriginals a favour, noting that “nothing would individually afford me greater satisfaction than being instrumental in aiding in the occupation of the coat by means which might tend to secure the protection and promote the civilisation of the Aborigines.” In addition, England could count on a vast new supply of wool and yet another potential “home” for shipping undesirables.

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In the end, the Crown turned a blind eye to the brazen new settlement, instantly negating a policy of restrained growth. Between 1835 and 1838, more land and people were conquered than in the preceding half-century. By the end of the 1840’s squatters had taken twenty million hectares of the most productive Aboriginal homelands. It was one of the fastest land occupations in the history of empires.

All this came with the founding of Melbourne, a bold trespass that changed history.

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Each morning my wife is not teaching or otherwise engaged, we head out for our usual walk along the Maribyrnong River, embarking on what used to be called a “constitutional.” From the house, we thread our way down Hillside Crescent to Van Ness Avenue, a very busy road that siphons drivers off the main East-West artery through this suburb and sends them up to Highpoint Mall or down to Footscray. During rush hour, the traffic moves so fast that it can be hazardous to get across, especially when cars from our own neighbourhood join the jungle off Hillside Crescent itself. But on Sundays, even spectacularly fine ones like today, we can sometimes waltz right across as if it were a country road instead of a major thoroughfare.

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On Sundays, most of the traffic we encounter will be on the multi-use path along the river– cyclists, joggers, pedestrians, dog walkers and real runners. On the river the rowers will be are out, in single sculls or in groups of eight. On the other side, golfers inhabit their own green space, pulling clubs and whacking balls, framed by the path on the other side with its own share of joggers. We walk by the old, graffiti decorated building that was a meat canning factory first, then a concrete pipe company. We are in Pipemakers Park.

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In 1803, the first Europeans to explore along the river were led by Charles Grimes, Deputy Surveyor-General of New South Wales. John Batman, considered the founder of Melbourne, is likely to have explored the river in early 1835. With the establishment of the colony of Melbourne later that year, sheep runs were established by Edmund Davis Fergusson and Michael Solomon in what is now the Avondale and Sunshine areas.

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On Solomon’s sheep station the ford now near the west end of Canning Street in Avondale Heights became known as Solomon’s Ford. This was the lowest crossing on the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River, and the furthest inland point of tidal influence. Batman is believed to have crossed the river at this point probably in the well worn steps of Aboriginals. It was for many years the only way from Melbourne to Geelong and land west.

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During the second half of the nineteenth century much of Melbourne’s industry was located along the river, and the river became a sewer. With the closure of many industries since the 1960s and 1970s, much river front land has opened up to parkland and residential estates. Some of the land adjacent to the river has been terraformed into settlement ponds and estuaries, to attract wildlife and skim off sludge.

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Some days we head out into dismal weather and come across only a handful of individuals, people as determined as us to get some exercise no matter what. Or people with dogs who have no choice. Occasionally, we get caught in downpours. Melbourne weather is the most unpredictable I have ever seen, anywhere. Just one week ago we got caught in a heavy-duty hail storm and had to take shelter in a gazebo until it let up.

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Spring seems to creep up on us here. It doesn’t reveal itself in such dramatic fashion as in lands with a prevalence of leafy, deciduous trees. THe birds announce it. Flocks of colourful, noisy lorikeets follow the flowering of the eucalypts. They fly onto the highest branches, using the tips of their tongues to extract nectar, then move on with much clattering and screeching to the next tree.

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Today, I spotted some old friends, a pair of black swans, and they have two young cygnets. They were too far away to get a good photo. Another day, perhaps. For the last two weeks, I seem to have done nothing but work on taxes. And our migration pattern saddles us with too many winter days and long winter nights, so the arrival of Spring is very welcome. Even in September.


Despite my recent rant against the Grand Prix, I am as addicted to the convenience of the automobile as anyone else. I use our car for errands, occasional grocery shopping, carrying my bicycle to the starting point of group rides, and, (here comes the hard part) going for walks.

Two or three times a week my wife will hold out an imaginary leash and do her best Barbara Woodhouse imitation of “walkies.” For those of you too young to have seen Barbara on TV, suffice it to say that she was the Margaret Thatcher of dog training. Viewers sat up straighter when her show came on. Dog owners knew instinctively that they were the ones being trained; not the dogs. My wife doesn’t drive, so if she is to have her favorite walk, I’m part of the deal.

The walk she has in mind is a four-kilometer loop down along the banks of the Maribyrnong River. It is pretty, generally quiet and just enough of a walk to feel like a workout. The alluring part is along the river itself. I’m not sure why, but getting there by foot has always seemed out of the question, even though the river is only about three kilometers from our home.

It is the contemporary conundrum, of course. How does one justify driving a heavy piece of machinery to go for a walk? Or to an exercise class? Or a bike ride? As I suggested in my previous post, it may be time to rethink everything. The perils of global warming and major increases in the price of oil are going to require big shifts in our habits, sooner than we think.

The name Maribynong was probably derived from a native word meaning saltwater river. Although the river starts at Mount Macedon about 50 km north of Melbourne, it is tidal in its lower reaches. Although in the early days of settlement in Melbourne, it attracted polluting industries, it now supports many recreational activities, from biking to boating. It is particularly popular with dog walkers, which may be why my wife has associated it with Woodhouse.

On our last outing, we happened upon an annual regatta called Henley on the Maribyrnong, or Henley on the Mud. Not quite on a par with the glamorous Grand Prix, it is, nonetheless, a colorful event, complete with sleek boats and lycra clad paddlers. The race day commemorates the original Henley Royal Regatta dating back to 1829, a competition between the rowing teams of Oxford and Cambridge.

Summer is finally drawing to a close. Everyone is eager to take advantage of the last long days of sunshine. Even if they feel compelled to drive to the one place they most enjoy going for a walk.

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