Six Walks Episode Five: Timmah Ball on exploding the Maribyrnong Transcript

Introduction by Annika Kristensen, Senior Curator, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Six Walks is a series of audio walking tours, commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), and released in the lead-up to the forthcoming exhibition and research project Who’s Afraid of Public Space?, opening in the summer of 2021–22. Continuing ACCA’s series of Big Picture exhibitions, Who’s Afraid of Public Space? explores the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life itself, engaging with contemporary art and cultural practices to consider critical ideas as to what constitutes public culture and to ask, and who might it be for?

Six Walks continues a rich history of artists, writers and thinkers engaging with, describing and depicting the various pleasures of walking, This program began as an invitation to six Melbourne-based writers to develop a narrative response to an area of the city that held a particular interest to them either personally or professionally, socially or culturally. These Six Walks were largely written while under strict COVID-related lockdowns – at a time when walking was one of few freedoms afforded to those of us in Melbourne. The series release has been timed to coincide the easing of these restrictions, allowing for expanded horizons and encouraging a renewed interest in our surrounding natural and urban environments and to the narratives, knowledge and histories latent within them.

Across Six Walks writers Idil Ali, Timmah Ball, Tony Birch, Sophie Cunningham, Eleanor Jackson and Christos Tsiolkas take us from the Birraung to Royal Park, from regal cinemas to abandoned military defence force bases, tracing desire lines as much as designated paths. They tackle concerns from public housing to motherhood, colonisation, migration, gentrification, restoration, surveillance, resilience, leisure and pleasure. In following their words, walking becomes a form not only of art and literature, but of thinking, observing, research, remembering, poetry, protest, mapping and making. What is revealed is a complex portrait of Melbourne as a city that is constructed from diverse, diverging and overlapping cultural, social, political, economic and historical paths.

Hidden between parkland and suburbia along the Maribyrnong River, a 128-hectare site formerly occupied by the Australian Defence Force lies vacant as government planners and private developers speculate its future use. Timmah Ball takes us on a walk around the periphery – considering the colonial history of the site, its use by the military in producing explosives and ammunition, its eery abandonment in the present-day, and predicted future gentrification. Considering the resonance between the military history of the site and the unprecedented limitations imposed upon Melbourne during COVID-related lockdowns, Timmah asks, as the city begins to open again, what futures can we imagine as we walk past the site’s forbidding walls?

Timmah Ball is a nonfiction writer, researcher and creative practitioner of Ballardong Noongar heritage. In 2018 she co-created Wild Tongue Zine for Next Wave Festival, with Azja Kulpinska, which interrogated labour inequality across the arts industry. In her various projects Timmah has continued to investigate the links between gentrification, racial inequality and housing affordability. In 2016 she won the Westerly magazine Patricia Hackett Prize, and her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and literary journals.

Timmah Ball on exploding the Maribyrnong


At home the present has no relationship to the future and public space is starting to vanish into the realm of privacy determined by a tenuous radius. In a small apartment crisply white, history is as flimsy as the planning report that states that the property I live in is impacted by:





But according to the document no tangible or intangible Aboriginal cultural heritage sensitivity exists in the land parcel where I now live. I present this story about place and space from Kensington on the (Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung lands of the Eastern Kulin Nations) and pay respect to their ongoing sovereignty, acknowledging the privilege and reciprocity that I have received from their lands that flourish even as the planning scheme attempts to devour them.

From a cloistered apartment I write about space from a position of spacelessness aware that anyone who listens may approach this audio from multiple physicality’s or positions. Walking along the Maribyrnong River trail noticing the scattered remnants of a Military Defence site eerily visible through a hostile barbed wire fence. Riding the full perimeter of the 128-hectare site by bike, or even canoe or kayak along the river possibly the only way you could slip into to the prohibited areas unnoticed, disembarking onto the bank of the Horseshoe Bend of the river and unlikely perhaps to be caught as you enter a slit in the fence. Or even from your own home which is increasingly indistinguishable from other spaces where online geographies enter our rooms and we are anywhere and everywhere but somehow always out of place. Witnessing a story about an abandoned military explosives factory wrapped by the Maribyrnong River from Google maps.

Walk 1 Trespassers will be prosecuted.

A security light with thin spikes looks down at you as if the metal shards are just moments away from falling. It stands behind a series of signs along a barbed wire fence, illuminating the forbidden territory pressed against trendy suburban town houses. One sign states Warning Do not Trespass the site was a former explosive factory and contains hazardous material. Trespassing constitutes an offence under the Crime Act 1914 and the commonwealth Defence act 1903. While the other proclaimsthat Trespassing is prohibited. It is a punishable offence for a person to be on this property without a lawful excuse.

The first time I noticed the large area securely fenced off from the neighboring pocket park where I stood and the row of two story homes with meticulous furnished balconies eager for people to gather but always empty; there was a distinctive hole in the barbed wire fence behind a group of shrubs and small trees. It was large enough for an adult to crawl through and had most likely been cut with pliers leaving a clean circular entry into the prohibited world. It mocked the signs above it, inviting me in as it whispered that a lawful excuse is not always needed. And it was tempting to rebelliously disobey the aggressive laws which hung above me as I imagined what the people who entered were like and If they were still there, somewhere in the vast area in one of the 400 run down buildings doing something new with the wreck. I assumed they did it regularly and that there was a map somewhere marking all the holes they had cut into private properties across the city. A friend had briefly found one of these openings, a former hat factory in an industrial area of West Melbourne. Abandoned and fenced up she found a small gap that had been widened entering through the roller door, which had been wedged open, to find herself in another place. Inside 100’s of hats that were never worn littered the ground, felt fedora’s, visors and fascinators, plain and ornate amongst the industrial sewing machines collecting dust against the rolls of fabric that still looked new. She said she felt connected to something trying on hats that she would never wear, noticing that there were birthday cards, an empty cheesecake factory box and coloured streamers in the kitchen area as if the staff morning tea had just happened. She encouraged me to go there if I ever needed to be someone else. But I arrived too late, a vacant concrete block and a mannequin lying face down in the back corner were the only things left. I checked the address hoping I was wrong but it was correct the building had gone; demolished for future development it’s emptiness taunting me knowing I would never enter this other place.  

Staring through the opening in the wire fence a small weatherboard shack appeared in the vacuous Defence site grounds. Its presence was puzzling; it stared at me like it was asking me to enter. What stories did her deteriorating paint hold? What did she want to tell me? She seemed different to the large imposing buildings making her connection to the broader Defence site seem unclear unsure why she was there when she looked like an image from a ghost story a place where lost children disappear. Her fragile structure seemed unusual within the enormous area acquired by the Australian government in 1908 in order to build explosive factories, which would later supply ammunition for both world wars. The area was developed into five distinct precincts:

Administration Section: which included Offices and Laboratories, notably different in their design to the production buildings and acted as the key entrance point and focus of the site.

Propellant Section: established to produce cordite buildings and structures which contained nitroglycerine production, acid and chemical production, gun cotton production, incorporation of gun cotton and cordite with mineral jelly and acetone, pressing and reeling the cordite and drying and storage of the cordite.

Detonator Section: well separated from the explosives areas, this section was established for the production of initiators (priming caps) for shells and other explosive devices.

High Explosives Filling Section: which included buildings erected for filling mines and depth charges, in addition to explosive artillery shells.

Cordite, Administration and Workshop Buildings: whichincluded production buildings and storage magazines associated with the production of naval cordite. 

But the small shack stood alone separated from these precincts like she had a different relationship to this place like she knew things and the desire to speak to her grew. I wanted to know how the Defence force had used her, what activities had occurred in the delicate shelter she provided. Or was she built for something else a place of respite for the women in the 1940’s who worked in the explosive factories on the production line of big gun ammunition while men went to war. There were murmurs in the trees movements and I imagine white women from explosive factories assembled in the little shack on their cigarette breaks discussing the war. Imagining the future of a nation that they helped to build amongst the White Cypress-pine trees and native vegetation, the survivors of another war, that they don’t recall.   

As Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker writes:

many girls white linen

men with guns and

harsher things white women

amongst gums white linen

starch’er things later plaques

will mark this war

And as I left the derelict shacks interlocking narratives left a mark for those who cannot see the other war.  


The next time I visited the Defence site the possibility of entering felt different. I’m less curious about the conflict contained and whether rocket propellers, bombs and missiles are waiting to explode. Military staff and special agents working in the underground bunkers whose concrete entrances are just visible beneath the molds of grass that grows over the buildings, to keep us out do not haunt me anymore. These geographies have inverted and to enter is to escape the military surveillance, which pervades suburbia. Where ADF soldiers brush past you in parks monitoring your allotted exercise breaks. And the public becomes private watching TV announcements at home waiting until they say we can leave.  

Walking along the fence I stopped something was missing, realising that the opening had gone; only the barbed wire carefully re-sewn was visible. The faint marking that the mend had left was like a memory of those who got in and the opportunity that vanished from me. Where did the hole in fence go? Seeing in but forded out, the boundary of private and public space had a strange porousness knowing that people had entered while I was locked out, almost seeing their shadows as if they remained inside. The neatly mended wire illuminated the security presence that those on the outside were left with. Unsure where we go when we can’t go anywhere as ADF soldiers circled the river reminding us that we shouldn’t be there beyond the exercise rule. I kept walking in the allocated daily time slots, Searching for openings into abandoned buildings, a hole in the fence, for places to go when you’re lost and unsure if you want to be found again.  

Part 2 Contaminated Land

History is as flimsy as the PowerPoint presentation I was asked to assist with at work, outlining future development options for parcels of vacant land in Maribyrnong contaminated by former industrial use. Industrial use a peculiar term, which re-occurs in planning that shifts the detrimental impact of development onto someone or something else. It Incites images of factory workers on production lines manufacturing cars, railway equipment or military ammunition, like these individual actions are responsible for land degradation rather then the social systems that shaped western industry to begin with.

In Maribyrnong vacant land is also marked by Aboriginal cultural heritage triggering a Cultural Heritage Management Plan before construction can begin. Following my colleagues request to assist with the presentation I raise concerns that further consultation with Traditional Owners are required and marked the point on the map where the developable land parcel intersected with Aboriginal culture heritage and created a slide outlining these issues. When I returned to the PowerPoint presentation a few days later prior to a stakeholder meeting I noticed that the slide had been removed. Instead a detailed environmental remediation strategy to minimize land use conflict associated with future developments was included. Land use conflict another peculiar term, which re-occurs in planning that shifts the detrimental impact of development onto someone or something else. Where land use buffers and contamination plans manage the location of sensitive uses, such as housing in former industrial areas, rather then acknowledge that the conflict was started by the system, which proclaims to manage it. A system, which is triggered by industrial use and land use conflict but remains indifferent to the pale green circle on the planning map, which marks the area of Aboriginal cultural heritage as the PowerPoint slide is removed.   

History is as flimsy as a local newspaper article in The Westsider where concerned residents from local community groups feared that the future development of the defence site was unlikely to incorporate and acknowledge it’s rich past. A place that was responsible for supporting world wars not just in the production of ammunition but through a Remount Depot supplying cavalry and artillery horses for the army established in the Fisher Stables where horses were trained then sent to the front in World War I. A history that according to the Friends of Sandy group lacked recognition demanding that:

A memorial was needed, to commemorate Sandy only horse to return from the First World War and all the other horses that were trained at the Defence site. Horses which were brought from all over Australia and were broken in, trained and shipped off to the first world war with only one returning home safely, Sandy, in 1918 who spent the rest of his life on the site and is now buried down in the area near the community centre. The Department of Defence have organised for us to have a memorial near Fishers Stables but in the interim their needs to be a temporary location to commemorate Sandy. We’re keen that the history of this site is remembered and in some way celebrated because as a multicultural society, a lot of people don’t know about the history of the country that they’ve come to.”

But what should people know about the country they’ve come to? And what do they never find out. Like the lives we lost in the other wars, which were never noticed to begin with. And the plaques that remain absent because they mark the things we were meant to forget.

History is as flimsy as the 1999 Maribyrnong Aboriginal Heritage Study, which remains incomplete available on the internet with track changes and gaps in the content like a map towards something promising but just out of sight.

The study surveyed the former Commonwealth Explosives Factory within the Defence site but due to delays in obtaining permission to access certain sections many areas were missed.  The sites that were studied were heavily disturbed impacting the archeological significance contained. It was found that the ridge along the horseshoe bend of the river would have almost certainly been used by Bunurong, Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people as a campsite and meeting place, but any physical remains of their camps had been completely destroyed by the construction of the buildings and facilities. Construction also destroyed swamplands, which had existed in the area. However, Silcrete was found a type of stone, which is the most widely used material in the production of tools for the peoples of the Kulin Nations.

While the Explosive factories and accompanying facilities eroded physical and environmental places of significance the legacy of colonization was most gruelingly captured by the study, in sections documenting settler encounters and their crude interpretations of the Kulin peoples in the 19th century.

Alfred Solomon, son of Joseph Solomon, one of Maribyrnong’s earliest European settlers and personal friend of John Batman was recorded as witnessing corroborees in around the 1840s stating that:

Aborigines were everywhere, and the nights were split assunder by the sound of corroborees and fights between rival tribes.  Nearly every night a corroboree was gone through with all its grotesque and barbaric accompaniments of music, beaten by the lubras on possum skin rugs, and the songs of excitement.

Others accounts provided by Revered J.R. Orton, who had come to Melbourne to set up a mission within the township reported how four to five hundred Aboriginal people would gather in the area to settle disputes stating:

Upon their meeting a few spears were thrown, but without any serious consequences-and then this vast assemblage of sable savage warriors terminated their disputes by a succession of corroborees for several nights.  It appears to be a part of their design in these native dances for the several tribes to corroboree, or dance, to each other, as an intended mark of respect or compliment…performing…a variety of gesticulations –grimaces, shouting’s and yellings, of the most ludicrous and appalling kind-whilst the other tribe is seated on the ground paying the most profound attention, occasionally expressing their approval by shouts and laughter. 

These degrading attitudes captured in the study are eclipsed by Kulin culture, which reverberates through the generations who continue to express identity and sovereignty in new ways.

But more then just a record the study went further developing several recommendations to address the impact western development had made on the landscape and culture suggesting that the land bordering the south bank of the Maribyrnong River including the former Maribyrnong Explosives Factory site, be managed as a ‘cultural landscape’ including interpretation of the area through appropriate re-vegetation.  And an Aboriginal cultural heritage interpretation trail to celebrate the area as an Aboriginal place.

Far removed from the market compulsion to build and capitalize on Kuiln land, land that is interpreted as vacant and its vacancy viewed as opportunity it recommended that Aboriginal sites were protected within the Local Planning Policy Framework (LPPF). It proposed that an Aboriginal Heritage Zoning Plan and associated Policies on Aboriginal heritage be attached to the Planning Scheme as instruments to assist planners with strategic planning decisions respecting Aboriginal sites and places.

It is troubling to know that in 1999 a new planning methodology was imagined which in a small way acknowledged the fallacy of terra nullius. But like a slide in a PowerPoint presentation it disappeared.

Part 3 A Speculative Dream

In 2010 long before the real estate agent turned developer was even born he discovered that the VPA had developed a policy position and planning framework on the Maribyrnong Defence site as it represented a major urban renewal opportunity in an established area already undergoing significant growth and transformation. The critical outcomes included:

  • Establishment of a new community
  • Housing options at appropriate varied densities, types and scale to suit the location, including social and affordable housing
  • And Conservation of indigenous and historic heritage including the adaptive reuse of significant heritage buildings and elements

An open market disposal to sell the site on behalf of the Commonwealth had also commenced but despite interest from heavy weights such as Mirvac, Stockland and Frasers Property Australia a sale was never secured, most likely due to the cost of environmental remediation which was likely to be more expensive then the cost of the land itself. In 2020 the site still remained abandoned as both developers and government continued to speculate it’s future imagining a new community that would evolve in the suburb “Remount Hill” a name which was proposed to reflect its long history as a manufacturing plant for cordite and other materials used to make military explosives.

Looking through old websites piecing together the visions and plans that had never eventuated Sam went through his urban design framework again conscious to double check that nothing was missing. It set the guiding principles for an infinite future where resources, community connectedness, jobs, social infrastructure and pleasure coalesced in an endless cycles of equitable prosperity. Infinite he enjoyed how the word sounded and what it represented relieved that it had replaced the buzzwords that his millennial parents had gravitated towards, sustainability, resilience, intergenerational equity, decoloniality, social justice? What had it all meant and what had they hoped for in an era where Ted Talks saturated online landscapes and people talked about careers and projects in the built environment that didn’t actually exist.

Infinite brought the past, present and future together in an understanding that cities encompassed their multiple histories which had never ended because they were always re-beginning. And the longing for contemporary urban living found a meeting point with nature because possibility was endless and opportunity immeasurable. The design framework carefully maintained many of the old buildings from the Defence days including the Treatment facility and the strange pipes, which ran along the exterior of the building, which looked onto the river trail at the base of Canning Reserve. People would be proud to think of the bespoke re-use and that these snake like cylinders, which covered their apartment building, had become. Pipes that had once emitted by products from the production of nitroglycerine acid and gun cotton would now service the 16 two-bedroom apartments with fresh rainwater.

Sam was close to getting a permit the final legal barrier before he could realise his vision for an infinite future. Purchasing the site was the easy part, but he hadn’t anticipated the myriad of applications and amendments he would need to adhere to as he wondered what the planning system was and why it still existed when people were capable of deciding where and how they wanted to live. Instead he had to follow a series of rigid rules as if planners with their augmented sense of authority had any better understanding of environmental impact, integrated transport, cultural heritage and affordable housing then he did. The desire for planning and the form in which it continued to operate within, had become a an ironic self-parody: It protected property from the actions of neighbours, but also restricted the freedom of owners to do what they wished with their property in the first place. But the variables, the pressures, the rewards, and the penalties that moulded planning behaviour were consistently denied by the profession like they were better then the real estate agents and developers, people like him that were never given a seat at the table in the discussions of the future. Planners thought that they were different and couldn’t see that they were the instruments of the market and the variables were based in consumer demand, where what the consumer wanted ultimately determined what the product will be.

Recently a colleague had starting hearing rumors of a positive planning movement, a radical uprising where urban policy and planning professionals started to acknowledge that the industry had historically been part of the problem, and made conscious steps to become part of the solution. To stop, reflect, educate themselves and do better. Because social change mattered and so did planning and there were new ways to work together. There were protests in the CBD shouting climate change is in our backyards (CCIBY) painted on large placards without realising that they were selling the same dream as the developers they despised. The dream of your own backyard to protect to begin with, where fighting for your private property was just a 500,000 mortgages away, while the masses scampered to the remaining shade in over crowded parks that had endured after de-regulation.

Sam liked honesty and had always resented the reputation his profession had developed overtime. Confused why they had become the symbol of capitalisms most grotesque characteristics when they were really just dream facilitators supporting people through one of the most significant and intimate decisions of their lives. An experience they understood, dedicated to delivering their clients a delicate balance between location, architecture, social cohesiveness and connection to nature. There would never be a positive developer or positive real estate movement because they had nothing to hide.

Committed to producing the best in residential construction and design the west had ever seen he envisioned an intimate pocket of apartments fused with the snippets of remaining nature secluded by the rivers horseshoe bend. The exhilarating transformation of the Maribyrnong site would reference the original inhabitants believing that it was important to acknowledge their contribution to this great country by creating a textured render on the exterior of some apartments as a homage to the campsites and corroborees which had occurred along the rivers edge by the people of the Kulin Nations. Imbued with Japanese design principles he wanted to provide innovative, thoughtful, community enriched living for the sites future residents.

Timber and polished concrete flooring, bespoke joinery and brass fittings took their cue from the exterior where the explosiveness of war and missiles became a marbled patterned in the blue stone flooring and the underground bunkers were radically transformed as a network of community gardens featuring aquatic plants and weeds replicating the swamplands which once featured in the landscape. The interior a tactile palette of materials designed to invoke a sense of warmth, culture and tranquillity responded to the original inhabitants as if you could feel the feet and rhythm dancing the corroborees from Australian pre-colonial past echoing beneath your feat. High ceilings and dual aspect windows were developed to invite the outside in with city views that corresponded to the surrounding river where residents found a nexus between urbanism and the wild untameable contours of mother nature.

Sam was in the process of organising billboards which would be erected along the west gate freeway advertising the dream, 15% affordable dwellings attainable to the lower middle classes a promise he had made to give a portion of his returns, given he only had to sell 60% to make a profit. His name and number printed along the side in red anticipating the buzz of his phone as people registered for the beginning of their new life. Where your house was both a financial asset and physical manifestation of your ultimate self.

It was tempting to start building to dig the first hole, to touch the timber and smell the concrete mix as he waited for the final planning approval and permit to come through. It was his entrance into a new world created from what was always there, he had found the future and it was infinite.



Australia Government Department of Defence, Defence Site Maribyrnong

David Rhodes, Taryn Debney and Mark Grist, Maribyrnong Aboriginal Heritage Study, 1999, Biosis Research

Su-Li Tan, Mirvac, Stockland and Frasers eye Maribyrnong defence site, The Financial Review

Mario Varricchio, Maribyrnong Defence Site – Premiere Daniel Andrews meets with locals, The Westsider

VPA, Defence Site Maribyrnong

Six Walks has been commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition Who’s Afraid of Public Space? For more information about the exhibition, and to listen to other walks in this series, please visit ACCA’s website ACCA acknowledges the support of Creative Victoria in the development of the Six Walks series.