Tips and things to do in Melbourne: What to see and do along the Yarra River

There are plenty of upsides to this upside-down river.

If there's one aspect of Melbourne that's impossible not to love, it's its flair for pokey, slightly grungy and near impossible-to-find bars. I'm in one such spot, nursing a glass of Victorian pinot noir, surrounded by mooching Melburnians with the incessant sound of footsteps echoing on creaky floorboards from upstairs.

But, wait. I'm not inside a dimly-lit bar in one of the city's famed bluestone-cobbled, graffiti-splattered laneways, where such distinctively Melbourne drinking holes tend to proliferate.

No. I'm ensconced on a tiny island. In the middle of the Yarra River with the odd row boat gliding by. What's more, I'm beneath a footbridge, which explains the patter of those feet from above. The bar, which cutely refers to itself as a "kiosk", is Ponyfish Island, named after a mysterious and almost certainly mythical creature that was once sighted in the river.

As a child of a harbour city, I've tended to accept the Yarra as a river that flows upside down, a handy Sydneysider's disdainful explanation for its possibly unfortunate colouring. Even Melbourne Water, the body that oversees the nearly 240 kilometres-long Yarra, flowing from Mount Baw Baw in the Yarra Ranges to the mouth of Port Phillip Bay, diplomatically refers to its hue as "sepia".

I admit I winced all those years ago when Jim Courier, the US tennis star turned television commentator, flung himself into its gluggy, Ovaltine-coloured waters to celebrate his Australian Open singles victory.

Really, until the southern banks of the Yarra were developed with office blocks, apartments, restaurants, bars, cafes and, yes, a gargantuan casino, even Melburnians tended, unlike Courier, to turn their backs on the river. But, believe me, that's dramatically changed. Today, Melbourne's ardour for the Yarra is boundless. There's even a certain dynamism to it.

"Underutilised, the Yarra really is now the main artery of Melbourne, running through the sports and arts precincts, linking Federation Square via Southbank to the Convention Centre and Docklands," says Peter Bingeman, chief executive of Visit Victoria. "It's exciting to see so many more ways for people to experience the river and appreciate the city from a different perspective.''

Of course, in order to gain a proper sense of any such waterway it's essential to not just view it from its banks but to actually place yourself upon it. To that end, in my effort to rediscover this revitalised river, replete, even, with floating pop-up bars in summer, I've booked a spot on a fully-guided Moonlight Kayak Tour, operated by Kayak Melbourne.

It meets just before sunset in Victoria Harbour, part of the massive, if still spookily subdued, Docklands housing, business and leisure redevelopment that's transformed the west end of the city. Following a short safety briefing and paddling technique session at a harbourside jetty we set off to explore Victoria Harbour before heading into the Yarra proper.

Advertisement

After an hour or so circling the harbour and finessing our, er, lack of technique, we tie up to a dock at a marina on the opposite side of the harbour from where we began. There we're served a dinner of fish and chips by our guide as we remain seated in our kayaks.

Kayak Melbourne was established by Kent Cuthbert, an expatriate Canadian who, before launching the business, worked in marketing inside a Yarra-side building in inner-city Richmond.

"I would often bike into work and ride along the river wistfully enjoying the views along the way, not to mention quite a bit of staring out the window at the river while at the office," Cuthbert says. "As someone who loves the water, the outdoors and being active, when the opportunity came along to make the river my office I didn't hesitate."

Back on Victoria Harbour, fed and watered, if a little salty-fingered, after our meal of fish and chips and mineral water, it's time to head upstream. In failing though fabulous light, we paddle under the imposing Bolte Bridge, the longest in Australia, with its two thin Kit Kat-like decorative towers.

Many a Melbourne visitor travels over this cantilevered crossing, named after the last Victorian Premier to sanction capital punishment en route to the city to or from Tullamarine.

Closer to the city centre, as darkness reveals a dazzling, omnipresent skyline looming over our dwarfed fibreglass craft, we pass under an eclectic succession of road and footbridges, including the Webb Bridge, a triumph of twisted, mesh-like steel designed to resemble an Indigenous eel-trap once employed by the original inhabitants along the river.

Then we power on past the rowdy South Wharf precinct, next to the Convention Centre and the Exhibition Centre, dubbed by Melburnians as Jeff's Shed after the former pro-development Victoria Premier. South Wharf, billed as "Melbourne's newest oldest place" and providing more evidence of the Yarra's revival, features historic cargo sheds transformed into riverside restaurants and bars.

Eventually, after some solid paddling, we reach Crown Casino, our arrival synchronised to coincide with the dramatic riverside fire-ball display which we watch in a certain wonderment from our stationary kayaks, feeling the radiated heat from the towering flames on our collective facial cheeks. We turn around and head back down the river to Victoria Harbour, at one point cheekily paddling right underneath the Yarra's dormant floating helipad.

Aside from being a fine workout, this paddle has been a revelation as it's provided me an utterly different and compelling perspective of the Yarra, the waters of which by nightfall, of course, are rendered an inky black rather than that familiar brown.

Yet while it's easy to joke about the river's colouring, for the Aborigines of the Wurundjeri tribe the river was fundamental to their existence. And, to follow that thought, the next day, feeling a little sore after all of that paddling but with my Yarra re-education not yet complete I take a guided Indigenous walk along the banks of the river.

The Birrarung Wilam River Camp Guided Walk, run by the Koori Heritage Trust, is a brief but enthralling and overlooked Indigenous perspective of the Yarra. For the local aborigines the Yarra was a life source, explains Rob Hyatt, our tour guide, but the supply of fresh water only lasted until the point of a waterfall further downstream when it became salty.

Everything changed irrevocably for the traditional owners along the river in 1835 when John Batman, a Tasmanian farmer, encountered a group of Aboriginals on the banks of the Yarra. Batman obtained a grant of land with the local Aborigines after trading items like scissors, shirts and blankets. However, the Aborigines believed they had taken part only in a friendship ceremony.

What's more, there was much confusion around the river's name with a member of Batman's party asking local Aborigines what they called the cascading waters on the lower section of the river. They replied "Yarro Yarro", meaning "it flows", with the Yarra becoming the river's name since European settlement.

Today, the only reminder of Indigenous riverside life in this section of the Yarra are series of art installations including a small but imposing forest of oversized rust-coloured metal shields and spears.

But, even after several days on and around the Yarra I still haven't quite solved the mystery of its notorious colouring. Before European settlement the water in the Yarra was thought to have been pristine but, according to Melbourne Water, land-clearing and development since the mid-1800s resulted in suspended silt being carried downstream.

It claims that the Yarra, far from dirty, is "probably one of the cleanest capital city rivers in the world" following major clean-up campaigns of the late 1970s and 1980s. Platypus have even been sighted in the Yarra in the well-to-do suburb of Kew, less than 10 kilometres from the city and its midstream bars tucked under noisy footbridges.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON AND ALONG THE YARRA

TRACE THE YARRA TO ITS SOURCE

The charming township of Warburton, 72 kilometres east of Melbourne in the Yarra Ranges, is close to Mount Baw Baw, the river's source. It's a lovely place at which to commune along the much quieter banks of the Yarra. See visitvictoria.com; visityarravalley.com.au

HEAD TO HERRING ISLAND

Three kilometres from the city centre, the unspoilt Herring Island in the middle of the Yarra is accessible only by punt in the summer months. Aside from the tranquil natural setting, the island also doubles as a sculpture park. See parkweb.vic.gov.au

TAKE A STEAMBOAT TO A SPORTING EVENT

If you're attending one of Melbourne's major sporting events, such as the Australian Open grand slam, take a vintage river boat to near the venue along the river. The trip is particularly delightful on the tranquil return journey by night. See classicsteamboat.cruises

STROLL ACROSS 'THE TRAVELLERS' BRIDGE

A former unsightly railway bridge, the awkwardly-named Sandbridge Bridge over the Yarra is today home to "The Travellers", a series of 10 giant stainless-steel sculptures. Each depicts the various immigrant groups that have made Melbourne their home over the decades. See visitvictoria.com

PEDAL ALONG THE RIVER BANKS

The Yarra is ideally suited for cycling, with the Main Yarra Trail cycling route starting and finishing at Southbank, across the water from Flinders Street Station and the city skyline. It follows the Yarra River for 35 kilometres through Melbourne's leafy north-eastern suburbs. See visitvictoria.com

TRIP NOTES

STAY

The five-star Langham Melbourne hotel is right beside the Yarra at the Southbank restaurant and retail development. Melbourne's city centre and its major sporting venues are all within easy walking distance. Doubles start from $280 a night. See langhamhotels.com/melbourne

PADDLE

Kayak Melbourne's two and a half-hour-long Moonlight Kayak Tour of the Yarra River begins just before sunset at Victoria Harbour in the city's Docklands Precinct. The tour costs $99 and is suitable for all ages, with no experience necessary. See kayakmelbourne.com.au

WALK

The one-hour long Birrarung Wilam River Camp Guided Walk runs on Thursdays and Fridays at 1pm and costs $33 for adults and $16.50 for children. Bookings are essential. Ph: 03 8662 6333. See koorieheritagetrust.com.au

traveller.com.au/Melbourne

visitvictoria.com

ponyfish.com.au

southwharfmelbourne.com.au

melbournewater.com.au

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Visit Victoria and the Langham Melbourne.

Comments