A river's journey

Susan Gough Henly goes from bay to bush along Melbourne's liquid lifeline.

From its source among the ferns and manna gums of the Yarra Ranges, the Yarra River weaves 242 kilometres through the Yarra Valley, the Warrandyte Gorge and bucolic patches of Melbourne suburbia before passing through the heart of the city to empty into Port Phillip Bay.

Just like a little sister with pimples, we very often take the Yarra for granted, if not downright bully her.

To add insult to injury, we have been calling her by the wrong name for 164 years. She is not Yarra, which means "Ever Flowing". She is really the mellifluous Birrarung, or "River of Mists".

When surveyor John Wedge first rowed up the river in 1835, he asked his Aboriginal guide what he called this place. In saying "Yarra Yarra" the guide was referring not to the river but to a waterfall to which Wedge was pointing.

In the spirit of a modern-day explorer, I decide it is time to find out more about this unassuming river and a good starting point is with Koorie Heritage Centre's Dean Stewart, who leads walks alongside the Yarra and provides insights about the landscape.

Melbourne, he says, was built on a beautiful wetland, teeming with indigenous plants and animals. We can glimpse a remnant of this at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Back in 1846, part of the Yarra River was excised to form the garden's ornamental lake. The lake's black swans, ducks and eels are examples of important food sources for the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri, the two main language groups of the Kulin nation who lived along the Birrarung for at least 30,000 years.

Stewart explains that unassuming Enterprise Park, just upstream from the Melbourne Aquarium, is where John Batman negotiated the "purchase" of 243,000 hectares in a treaty with the Wurundjeri clan in 1834. A sculpture, Scar: A Stolen Vision, comprises 30 tall, recycled river red gum poles carved by Aboriginal artists.

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Beside Federation Square, he shows me Birrarung Marr, which honours an important indigenous sacred site as well as recognising Australia's centenary of Federation with 39 computer-controlled bells ringing three times each day. The River Camp installation is a performance space enclosed by large boulders incised with images of the creator ancestor, Bunjil, or eagle, while carved metal shields and message stick poles represent the Kulin nation.

Next I hop on to a Melbourne River Cruise at the historic bluestone wharves below Federation Square to hear stories of European settlement along the Yarra.

There are now 60 places to cross the river and we pass under some of the most distinctive, such as Melbourne's oldest bridge, Princes Bridge, built in 1888 as a replica of the Blackfriars Bridge in London; Bolte Bridge, which claims to be the tallest in Australia; the pedestrian Sandridge Bridge, which features 10 giant steel sculptures called The Travellers, sliding quietly across the Yarra to depict the waves of immigrants who have made Melbourne their home; and Punt Road Bridge, built at a dog's leg angle to Punt Road because a fellow who ran a one-penny punt, complete with jazz band and beer, continued his ferry where the bridge should have been built.

The Yarra's course has been changed over the years. The entire channel, for instance, was completely redirected and then deepened to create the container wharf precinct near the Docklands. Today, the Yarra's banks in the CBD have evolved into sleek living and entertainment precincts around Southbank, the Melbourne Convention Centre, Docklands, the Arts Centre, Federation Square and Melbourne Park.

Man-made Herring Island, the river's largest island, was created from mining at the Burnley Cut for bluestone for Melbourne's early buildings. Situated near the riverside Kanteen cafe across from Como House in Toorak, which means "swamp with reeds", the island is an environmental sculpture park where works by such notables as the Scottish art star Andy Goldsworthy are hidden among manna gums, silver wattle and spear grass.

When rowing the Yarra at dawn and dusk, I have seen cormorants stretching their wings to dry, herons standing sentinel and willy wagtails zipping noisily around low-hanging branches.

Rowing is a long-standing tradition along the Yarra and the boat sheds are an integral part of the riverscape. Indeed, starting in 1905, the annual Henley Regatta on the Yarra became a fixture of Melbourne's spring carnival, attracting thousands of spectators. In the 1950s, the Moomba Festival, with its water skiing showmanship, flashily supplanted the rowing sculls.

Wanting to venture further, I rent a bike (underneath Federation Square) to explore the Main Yarra Trail, which follows the river for 33 kilometres to Mullum Mullum Creek in Templestowe. There are trails on both sides as far as MacRobertson Bridge, one suspended on pontoons beside the freeway, the other beside bluestone barbecue facilities and shady lawns.

Crossing the footbridge at Walmer Street in suburban Kew, I come across the closest commercial vineyard to Melbourne, the Studley Park Vineyard, sited on what were originally Chinese market gardens.

The trail now enters Yarra Bend Park, the largest area of natural vegetation near the city, where the Royal Botanic Gardens's grey-headed flying foxes have been relocated. A slight detour takes you to the Georgian-style 1863 Studley Park Boathouse, the oldest operating boathouse in Australia. There are rowing boats, canoes and kayaks for rent, wooden picnic pagodas, geese and ducks waddling on the lawns, an elegant restaurant tucked inside a glassed-in veranda, while the cafe deck overhung with willow and gum trees evokes a mood not unlike Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Back on the trail, I cross the river again and pass the Abbotsford Convent and Collingwood Children's Farm. The convent houses artist studios, health and well-being practitioners as well as Handsome Steve's House of Refreshment, The Convent bakery (which produces wood-fired bread from the 1901 ovens) and the Lentil as Anything vegetarian restaurant.

This bucolic bend in the river has changed little since early European settlement, even though nearby Melbourne's earliest factories dumped effluent into the Yarra. The land at the Collingwood Children's Farm has, however, always been used for farming. It is a marvellous place to bring children to milk cows, feed lambs and learn about sustainable farming.

The Yarra Trail continues to Dights Falls, created by a basalt-boulder bar formed from cooled lava flows over the siltstone river valley. You can see the ruins of the weir, now practically devoid of water, John Dight used to power his flour mill. Below the falls the river is tidal; above, the water remains fresh. At the junction of Merri Creek is a Koori Garden, containing plants used in traditional Aboriginal life. Nearby is the Victorian Indigenous Nursery Co-operative.

The river skims the edge of the basalt plain while cutting into the softer-layered sedimentary rocks on the other side. I'm surprised to find some competition fly-fishing pools before reaching the refurbished 1908 Fairfield Boathouse, renowned for its hand-built rowing skiffs (replicas of 19th-century Thames pleasure crafts) and its Devonshire teas.

The trail now follows the meandering river flood plains of Yarra Flats Park, where cypress pines and hawthorn hedge rows mark the borders of what used to be wheat fields and dairy farms. Today, six golf courses have been built along this stretch (14 courses abut the entire river) and you can see the depressions of (mostly dry) billabongs that have separated from the main river. Bolin Bolin Billabong (from the Wurundjeri name for lyre bird) gives its name to the suburb of Bulleen.

During the late 1800s, large estates were built on the hills above the Yarra and the Heidelberg School of artists came here to paint daily life in the plein-air impressionist tradition. Today, there is a free Heidelberg Artists Trail with reproductions of some of the most famous paintings located near where they were created.

In the 1930s, John and Sunday Reed bought a farm alongside the river in Bulleen and transformed its Victorian farmhouse into an art colony where the likes of Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and Mirka Mora came to share ideas and work.

In the 1960s, the Reeds commissioned an Australian modernist home that could also function as a gallery. It became the kernel of Heide Museum of Modern Art. I wander through Sunday's remarkable kitchen garden beside the Yarra, where I also find an Aboriginal scar tree alongside Heide's eclectic sculptures.

A green belt of parks meanders alongside the Yarra to the Warrandyte State Park, which offers a wilderness landscape only 24 kilometres from the city centre. The site of Victoria's first discovery of gold in 1851, Warrandyte still has mine relics, not to mention the 300-metre-long tunnel at Pound Bend that prospectors blasted through solid rock to divert the Yarra's flow so the riverbed could be exposed for gold mining. In the early 20th century, Heidelberg artist Clara Southern painted the region extensively and attracted many fellow artists to the area.

Warrandyte used to be a canoeist's haven but today the low water level makes for a bumpy ride. There are, however, some delightful walks and I particularly enjoy exploring Pound Bend, Black Flat and Jumping Creek Reserve, where I spot swamp wallabies, eastern grey kangaroos and even wombats.

Entering the Yarra Valley wine region, the river becomes less accessible as farms and vineyards line its meandering course.

By the time I reach Warburton at the gateway to the Yarra Ranges National Park, the Yarra is a small, clear stream and the farms have given way to old-growth forests of towering manna gum and mountain ash.

Once a bustling mill town, Warburton became a Seventh-day Adventist headquarters with the Sanitarium Health Food Company and Adventist Hospital. These are both closed now but there are still pretty wooden shopfronts along the river and the inspiring Environmental Discovery Centre has interactive exhibits at the Warburton Waterwheel Building. I take a stroll along both sides of the river between the timber bridges at either end of town and marvel at the huge tree ferns and tall, straight trunks of manna gums and even spy an elusive platypus in the water.

The road now follows the Yarra quite closely all the way to the excellent campground at the Upper Yarra Reservoir, Melbourne's third-largest water storage dam and the closest public access to the river's source.

After stopping for a beer at the historic Reefton pub (popular with bikies and car clubs heading for the multi-bend Reefton Spur Road), I enjoy walking the reservoir's fern gully trail and spot yellow-tailed black cockatoos and crimson rosellas from the lookout.

The tall mountain ash forests here are sanctuary for Victoria's faunal emblem, the endangered Leadbeater's possum. After a journey from the sea to near the source, I pause to reflect what else might be endangered if the Yarra's flow shrivels to a mere trickle. The Wurundjeri managed to live beside Birrarung for thousands of years, following the seasons of kangaroo apple, manna gum, flax lilies and grass flower, but it has taken us newcomers less than 200 to pollute it, change its course and now rob it of its water.

Perhaps it is because we barely notice this little brown sliver that runs through our lives.

FAST FACTS

Koorie Heritage Trust: 8622 2600, koorieheritagetrust.com.

Melbourne River Cruises: 8610 2600, melbcruises.com.au.

Rentabike: 0417 339 203, rentabike.net.au.

Studley Park Boathouse: 9853 1828, studleyparkboathouse.com.au.

Fairfield Boathouse: 9486 1501, fairfieldboathouse.com.

Abbotsford Convent: 9415 3600, abbotsfordconvent.com.au.

Collingwood Children's Farm: 9417 5806, farm.org.au.

Heidelberg School Artists Trail: 13 1963, artiststrail.com.

Parks Victoria: 8627 4699, parkweb.vic.gov.au.

Heide Museum of Modern Art: 9850 1500, heide.com.au.

Warrandyte State Park: 8627 4699, parkweb.vic.gov.au.

Natural Resources Conservation League of Victoria Environment Discovery Centre: 5966 5822, nrcl.org.au.

Lilydale to Warburton Rail Trail: 9306 4846, railtrails.org.au.

Upper Yarra Reservoir: 8627 4699, parkweb.vic.gov.au.

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