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 into 2022. 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. The six walks were largely written while under strict COVID-related lockdowns, at a time when walking was one of the few freedoms afforded to those of us in Melbourne. The series release has been timed to coincide with 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 Birrarung to Royal Park, from regal cinemas to abandoned military defence force spaces, tracing desire lines as much as designated paths. They tackle concerns from public housing, to motherhood, colonization, 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.
Tony Birch’s walk along a section of the Birrarung (Yarra River) from the Children’s Farm at Collingwood to the Fairfield Pipe Bridge and surrounding country, is located on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the greater Kulin nation. Each time we walk, we consider the privilege of being on Wurundjeri land and pay respect, not only to their Elders past, present and emerging, but to all of their people. Tony Birch is the author of three novels: the best-selling The White Girl, winner of the 2020 New South Wales Premier’s award for Indigenous writing; Ghost River, winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous writing; and Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. He is also the author of Shadowboxing, and three short story collections, Father’s Day, The Promise and Common People. In 2017, he was awarded the Patrick Wyatt Literary Award. Birch is a frequent contributor to ABC local and national radio, a regular guest at writers festivals, and a climate justice campaigner.
Six Walks has been conceived to be ideally listened to in situ, with headphones, on a personal mobile device. Maps, directions and access notes are included with each walk to assist with orientation. ACCA reminds participants to be aware of their surroundings, and to adhere to road safety guidelines at all times. Please note that when undertaking a walk, participants must assume personal responsibility for any liability, injury, loss or damage in any way connected with their experience of Six Walks. Recorded in podcast format, Six Walks can also be listened to from anywhere and at any time. Text versions of each walk are also available for download.
Tony Birch on the Birrarung:
Hi, my name is Tony Birch and I’m a writer from Melbourne, and I’m going to take you on a walk today on a section of the Birrarung River, or what people may know is the Yarra River. I’ve written a lot about this stretch of the river, particularly in a 2015 novel that I published, Ghost River, and I’m going to read an excerpt of that novel today at a particular spot on the river. I’ve also written many short stories set along this section of the river, and I’ve written poetry about this part of the river which I’ll also talk about today. More recently, I’ve published several non-fiction literary essays about walking the river and the sustenance that it gives me as a person, and the stories and values that are important to me along section of the river.
The walk will be along a section of the Birrarung (Yarra River), from the Children’s Farm at Collingwood to the Fairfield Pipe Bridge and surrounding country. Now, this is the country of the Wurundjeri people of the greater Kulin Nation, and I’d like you to consider that each time that we walk on country it is a privilege of being on Wurundjeri land, and we pay respect, not only to the Elders of the Wurundjeri, past, present and emerging, but to all Wurundjeri people.
The Birrarung River is a very ancient waterway. It precedes the birth of what we know today as Port Philip Bay, by tens of thousands of years. Prior to the formation of Port Phillip Bay and Bass Strait, during and toward the end of the Ice Age, the Birrarung River flowed across a landmass known as the Bassian Plains that joined what we know today as Victoria and Tasmania. The ancient Birrarung River eventually flowed into the Southern Ocean. Now, while today’s Birrarung River has changed significantly compared to what it was over thousands of years, we know that the original bed of the Ice Age river remains. And in fact, it can be located at about 100 metres below Port Phillip Bay, just outside the heads of Port Phillip Bay. The significance of this geological, cultural and spiritual reality should not be lost on us as we walk the river today, because we are sharing in a story of both past and present, enmeshed in the country beneath our feet.
I want to make a couple of other suggestions about how we might walk today, or how you might walk this stretch of the river on future occasions. I think the river and the country around it offers up enormous potential for contemplation, for education, and for an understanding of the places that we inhabit, so you might take a walk along this river on your own. I’m very interested in the solitude of walking, and the ability for walking and being on country to provide an opportunity for us to reflect on ourselves, reflect on our past and present, and reflect on possibly, what sort of community or what sort of society we are.
Also, that walking is a wonderful act of communication with others, so I would really encourage you to occasionally take walks, whether it be along this stretch of the water or elsewhere, take walks with other people. I think what communal walks offer, is a great sense of engagement with others. The snippets of conversation broken by periods of reflection, sharing the sights that we walk, thinking about the country that we’re on, is something I think that energises, that gives us a sense of creative and intellectual purpose, and certainly has a great potential to bring us together. And, I think if we want to genuinely respect Aboriginal country and respectful Wurundjeri people, the communal nature of being on Wurundjeri country, and being able to share experience of country is a great act of generosity for ourselves and for others, so please keep that in mind.
The other issue I’d suggest, is that this is certainly not a tourist walk in the sense of we’re only interested in specific or particular locations, although we will stop at certain locations along the river today, and we will talk about the history of those places. This section of the river offers up enormous opportunity for you to wander, for you to meander, so the various pathways and tracks along this section of the river, and some of the – what we might call ‘organized pathways’ of the bike and walking paths that have been constructed in more recent years, or a series of almost ‘desire paths’, where the dirt tracks wander off into very secreted locations. And, if you follow some of those dirt tracks and you’re unsure of where you’re heading, you sometimes get a wonderful surprise, and there are wonderful discoveries to be made.
I would suggest that today’s walk, for those who haven’t walked this part of the Birrarung, I hope it’s only an introduction to your experience of enjoying this country on future occasions. And, even if you know this part of the river well – as I know it very well – I would suggest that each time that you walk country here, you discover something new, whether it be a physical location, or something much more psychological and metaphysical.
We begin the walk just before the entrance to the Collingwood Children’s Farm. Now, the Children’s Farm, of course, is attached to the convent complex, the arts and community complex, and the convent – as the name suggests – was a location for a religious order of nuns for well over one hundred years. It was a site that also was used as an institutional setting for teenage girls who were often placed there as wards of the state, and for a time, it was also the location for a Catholic girl’s school. The Children’s Farm itself is a very productive centre. It offers great educational value for young people in particular, to be engaged with the practice of local agriculture, but the amount of farmland that’s used today is only a remnant of what was used when it was a functioning farm and run by the nuns for, as I said, over one hundred years.
We leave the Children’s Farm, and we head down to the bank of the Birrarung, and we walk along a bicycle track, a walking track, heading north between the Studley Park Bridge and the Dights falls area of the Birrarung. Just a couple of things worth noting, I suppose, a couple of historical changes that we could note at this point is that the Studley Park Bridge that we walk under is itself, in relative terms, a more recent construction. At one point early in the twentieth century, the road between Johnston Street in Collingwood and Studley Park Road on the Kew side of the river was realigned, and when that realignment occurred, the old bridge set across the river was demolished and this new bridge was constructed.
As you walk under the Studley Park Bridge, and if you look across to the Kew side of the river, you’ll actually see the original bluestone foundations of the old bridge that had been here. The other thing to note here is that on the Collingwood side of the river here at this location, the whole of the riverbank above the Birrarung was dominated by a series of factories, and those factories were largely textile mills. The textile mills were established here in the late nineteenth century for, I think, two major reasons, or three possibly: one was the availability of cheap land; two was the availability of labour – in other words, people living in the then industrial suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood, who could supply the labour force for the mill; and thirdly, and most importantly, is the river itself. So, the river was able to be harvested, water was taken from the river to help the textile mills function. Unfortunately, the river was also used as something of an open drain way. The people operating the textile mills would then, of course, be able to return refuse water, dirty water, and other noxious liquids back into the river.
The poisoning of the Birrarung River by industry in nineteenth century was such, that by the end of the nineteenth century, the Birrarung River – certainly at this point or these points of the river, were one of the most polluted waterways in the world, and even into the twentieth century. These mills were allowed to function at will and with little responsibility towards the environmental damage that was being done. The mills gradually closed-down in the post-war era, although they were functioning well into the 1960s and early 70s, but they gradually closed-down and some fell into disrepair. And, as you can see today, what has happened is that the mills have been retooled, reconstituted as apartment blocks. So, now the people living along this section of the river have a very privileged view of the Birrarung, and particularly the Dights Falls area, in ways that certainly weren’t available to people who lived in this part of the Collingwood area in the past.
As we approach Dights Falls, there’s a few things that I think we should note. One, is that this area has always been an important cultural site for Wurundjeri people, both in relationship to ecology, in relationship to food – particularly through the river, and in relationship to this being an important meeting and gathering place for Wurundjeri people. This is not just a historical reality. We know through the Wurundjeri Tribal Council, that today this whole area along the Birrarung is of absolute importance to the Wurundjeri who are, of course, the important owners and custodians of this area. Post-invasion, this area around Dights Falls – or what we know as Dights Falls today – became an important industrial site. You can imagine this almost as a factory complex. The falls itself was constructed to shift water away from the river to the textile mills, as we discussed earlier, and there were factories built down here on the riverbank itself on the Collingwood side of the river.
You’ll notice as we approach the falls, there is a ruin, or the remains of a red-brick building on the right and it’s heavily tagged with graffiti. That is the pumphouse that was used to send water up to the mills. You’ll notice in front of the ruin, there’s old channel that was created to draw water away from the river into the pumphouse and then, of course, up to the textile mills above. The other changes that we should note here, is that the Dights Falls area itself has been reconstructed and reconfigured over recent years, to try and return some ecological value to the river, particularly in relationship to the way that fish actually move up and down river along this watercourse.
This is also the site for one of those great urban myths of Melbourne. People may or may not be aware that in the Second World War, Douglas MacArthur – the American head of the Pacific Fleets – was located in Melbourne, his headquarters at the Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road. The myth goes, that along this section of the river, a series of air-raid shelters were constructed in the event of the Japanese Air Force being able to bombard Melbourne. In the event of that bombardment, it was said that MacArthur and his leadership group, and possibly the Victorian Premier or heads of Parliament, would get into military speedboats that were supposedly located on the old Docklands area of Melbourne where you see Southbank and Docklands today, and they would take those speedboats up river to these air-raid shelters that were built here.
Now, no one has ever found them. No one has any certainty that they existed, but I can tell you that a group of men, a group of adventurers, have been searching for this air-raid shelter or these air-raid shelters for many years. In fact, still today, on weekends, these men can be found digging around this and other parts of the Birrarung River in search of these supposedly lost tunnels and air-raid shelters.
I mentioned earlier about my writing on the river. So, what I want to do now while we stop at Dights Falls, is read an excerpt from my 2015 novel, Ghost River, and it’s to give you an insight into the stories of the river that were told to young teenagers in the 1970s, and certainly earlier and probably since. But this is a piece of writing which speaks of the delight of these boys, Sonny and Ren who are the characters of this novel, enjoying a swim in the river in 1970.
Stories of the river were told across the city. There wasn’t a child living within reach of the water, who hadn’t grown up warned away from its tales of dead trees lurking in the darkness of the muddy riverbed, ready to snatch the leg of a boy or girl braving its filthy water. Rusting skull and crossbones signs hammered into tree trunks around the old swimming holes, warned of infection. There were also the horror stories of children who disappeared on sunny afternoons, never to be seen again, leaving piles of clothing behind on the riverbank, waiting for a parent or the police to discover the telling evidence. It wasn’t only children who drowned: as well as the suicides, there were the accidents. People fishing fell out of boats from time to time and went straight to the bottom, weighed down by heavy coats and boots. A dark joke claimed that drowning was more fortunate an end, as eating a fish caught in the river would cause a slower and more painful death.
On calm days, when the current moved slowly toward the bay, and the sun sparkled off the water, it would have been easy then to mistake the rivers gentle disguise. During Sonny’s first summer on the river, he decided nothing was going to stop him from going for a swim. He put the idea to Ren, who was less eager. If only half the horror stories he’d heard about the river were true, the riverbed was a graveyard he wanted to steer clear of.
‘I don’t know, Sonny, about swimming here,’ Ren said, sitting on the pontoon, dangling his fish in the water.
‘I reckon you’re scared.’
Although Sonny was right, Ren wasn’t about to confess.
Sonny stripped to his underpants, pumped his arms backwards and forwards as if he were an Olympic swimmer, and willed himself the challenge. ‘It’s only water. Not much different than diving in the deep end of the baths.’
‘It’s nothing like the fucken baths. You can see the bottom of the baths. Here, you would know if your own hand was in front of your face. Could be anything down there.’
‘Like stuff you can’t see. You wanna know what Archie calls the trees at the bottom of the river?’
‘When he was a kid, they called them preachers.’
‘If a person got caught in a snag of a dead tree and they never came back, the family would have to get a preacher to stand over an empty coffin and pray for the life and soul of the dead person. Burying an empty coffin. Fucken spooky?’
The image of a rotting corpse lurking below the surface was enough for Sonny to take a step back from the edge of the pontoon.
‘I think old Sonny’s chickening out now,’ Ren laughed.
‘Bullshit he is.’ Sonny let out a screech and dived into the water.
Ren couldn’t see any sign of him except for a trace of bubbles until Sonny bobbed up halfway across the river, grinning. Ren realised he had no choice but to follow his friend into the water. He stood up, closed his eyes, crossed his heart twice and jumped in. He swam to the middle of the river and flipped onto his back. As the current caressed his body, Ren noticed the shifts in water temperature, from warm to ice cold. He trod water and watched as Sonny let the current carry him downriver, until he reached the shallow of the iron bridge and headed for the bank. Ren swam back to the pontoon and stood watching as Sonny circled the campsite [of the homeless men] and searched their empty humpty. He walked back along the track, jumped across to the pontoon and lay his body in the sun.
‘There’s no sign of Tex and them?’
‘Nah. They’re probably up at the wine shop.’ Sonny was so happy he laughed out loud
Sonny was so happy laughed out loud.
‘What’s funny?’ Ren asked.
‘This is good.’
‘Yeah, it’s the best.’
Ren sniffed his arm. The water smelled like nothing he’d expected. It was a rich scent, the same that was given off by the back garden after he’d watered Archie’s bed of tomatoes for him. As his skin dried, he noticed specks of dirt, fine as baby powder, covering his body. From that day on, the boys carried the river home with them. They went to bed of a night with the scent of the river on their bodies, and through their hair, no matter how hard they tried to wash it out, and it was with them the next morning when they woke.
In the days after their first swim on the river, the boys couldn’t stay out of the water. They explored the banks both upstream and downstream, trying out every swimming hole and increasingly testing their courage, jumping from rocks, out of trees and eventually off the bridges that cross the river. The first bridge jump was from Kane’s, a cable bridge swayed from side to side in the slightest breeze. It was no more than 20 feet above the water, but it was a challenge enough. Having conquered it, they then moved on to other bridges, testing their bravery, each bridge higher and more dangerous and the last.
Late in the afternoons, Ren would sneak along the laneway behind his house, slip into to Sonny’s yard, and stand under a hose trying to wash the silt from his body before returning home. If he thought he deceived his mother about what he’d been up to, it was only himself that Ren was actually fooling. When he bought the river home of a night, Loretta knew immediately that her son had taken to the water. She would pinch her lip and hold her tongue, worrying over her boy as any mother would, but unwilling to crush the free-spirited nature that she’s so quietly admired.
Tony Birch, Ghost River, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2015, pp.32-35
After we leave Dights Falls, we head east, and we very quickly cross a narrow bridge over the Merri Creek where Merri Creek and the Birrarung River meet today. It’s important to stop here for a moment and again to note a couple of important issues. One is, again, this confluence of two waterways is a vital place for Wurundjeri people, and was regarded and is still regarded today as an important meeting place, but there’s also a touch of geographical deception here. What we think or what is, in fact, today’s meeting of two waterways, is a very recent phenomenon in regard to Aboriginal Deep Time.
In the late 1960s, a freeway was planned for this part of the river, a freeway that would dramatically alter these waterways, so that if you look north, you’ll notice a large bridge crossing the Merri Creek. That is, of course the Eastern Freeway as we know it today. In order for that bridge in this section of the freeway to be erected, the landscape here, including the banks of the river and creek, were altered dramatically to allow for this construction. Prior to the freeway being built, this was not the meeting of waterways at all, this was open land.
Immediately after the river left Dights Falls and headed upstream, the river took a very sharp hairpin to the north, and the actual meeting place of the Merri Creek and Birrarung River was further north than we are today. So, where we’re standing and a lot of this area around here is actually a very recent landscape. One of the ways you can get an insight into this change is pretty simple, to look at early maps of the city. You can find the hairpin section of the river on early mailways maps, traffic maps, and certainly maps of the nineteenth century. There is also a phenomenal aerial map of Melbourne that was created in 1945, a military-style map where the whole of Melbourne was photographed from above, in an aircraft.
If you were to look at that 1945 map and if you were to hone in on this section of the river, you can actually see very clearly how different the flow and course of the river was at this point, until the construction of the freeway in the early 1970s. What I’d like to do now is read a short excerpt again from Ghost River, where Sonny and Ren come across one of the workmen from the Road Transit Authority who are going to be responsible for the construction of the freeway, and this is to give you insight into what the impact of this destruction is for teenage boys who love the river so dearly.
The workman spotted the two boys heading his way. He waved at them and smiled. When they got close, Ren read the word sewn into the pocket on his shirt – Road Transit Authority.
‘How you going lads? It’s a warm day.’ He smiled looking up at the sun. He had straw hair and wore sunglasses. He seemed friendly enough to Ren.
‘What are you looking at with that telescope?’ he asked the workman.
‘It’s not a telescope. We’re surveying along here. This instrument provides accurate measurements of distance, height, and the contour of the land. Would you like to take a look?’
He smiled again. Sonny was having nothing of his friendliness. He leaned back on his bike and cross his arms.
‘I’ll take a look,’ Ren said.
‘Good. Hang on a second.’ The workman pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt, pressed the button and spoke into it. ‘Stan, give us an upright, mate.’ He put a hand on Ren’s shoulder. ‘Okay, you take a look through the level, and you’ll see my mate holding an upright pole.’
Ren bent forward and closed one eye. He could see the numbers and lines, and in the distance, another workman standing on a rise, dressed in the same uniform holding a striped wooden pole.
‘Can you see him?’
Ren stood up. ‘What’s he doing?’
The man pointed to the words on his chest-pocket. ‘We’re from the RTA and we’re doing a survey ahead of the excavation for the freeway coming through here. It’s our job to measure and peg the ground before the explosives team come in and begin their work. Once the powder monkeys have done their job, it will be over to the bulldozers. We can’t lay a major new road without knowing exactly where it has to go. We don’t want to blow up the wrong hill.’
He laughed out loud as if he’d told a joke, but there was nothing funny about what he’d said as far as the boys were concerned.
‘But there’s no roads down here.’ Ren said.
‘Not yet there isn’t, but there will be soon enough. Five lanes of freeway each way, stretching from here to the eastern suburbs.’
Ren couldn’t make sense of what the man was saying.
‘Exactly where you were looking through the level. We’re going to gouge out that hill and excavate through here and…’ He turned and faced the other way. ‘See the marker ahead through the trees there?”
He was pointing towards another striped pole, pitched in the ground on a low hill above Deep Rock.
‘The freeway will head in that direction.’
‘How they gonna do that?’ Sonny interrupted. ‘You can’t put a road next to the old swimming pool. There’s no room for it.’
The workman’s smile disappeared. ‘It’s a freeway, son, not a road. And it takes up a lot of land. Accordingly, the hill that’s here will be dynamited, the ground will be bulldozed, and a stretch of the river will be realigned. The derelict swimming basin you’re referring to, will be dynamited and demolished. As will most of the land you see here.’
Sonny’s face expressed the bewilderment that both he and Ren felt. ‘You can’t blow it up. Tell him Ren.’
‘It will be demolished,’ the workman interrupted. ‘And it’s a good thing too. You boys shouldn’t be swimming anywhere along this section of the river. The water here is contaminated.’
‘No, it’s not,’ Sonny protested. ‘We swim here all the time and we’ve never been contaminated.’
The man picked up his gear and rested the tripod on his shoulder. ‘Oh, it’s contaminated. Our scientists have tested the water along here. Whether you like it or not, you won’t be swimming here for much longer. All of this land, all that you can see, will be bulldozed and built over within the next three years.’
He studied the boys a little closer, their muddy faces, their scrawny hair, and Sonny’s prehistoric bike. ‘I don’t know how it happened, but somehow the world has passed this place by. These old tracks and pathways, they don’t appear on any of our survey maps. This whole area has been a dumping ground for too long. The job has come to clean it up and prepare it for the future.’
He turned his back on the boys and walked away, whistling as he went.
Sonny leaned over the handlebars of his bike. ‘Can it be true what he said?’
‘’Course not,’ Ren answered. ‘Nobody can blow up a river. He’s just being a smart-arse.’
‘He looked like a smart-arse, all right. And did you hear that big word he used? Accordingly. Only a smart-arse would use a word like that.’ Sonny defiantly spat on the ground. ‘Nobody’s touching our river.’
Tony Birch, Ghost River, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2015, pp.62-65
So, let’s leave Dights Falls and head east. So, after we cross the bridge, the footbridge above Merri Creek, take a wider track and head due east for about 500 metres. After around 500 metres, you’ll find yourself at what is called Deep Rock, which is a location that commemorates the original Deep Rock swimming basin or what some people know as the Deep Rock Lifesaving and Swimming Club.
On this location, you’ll see that there is a memorial park to the original Deep Rock swimming basin. Unfortunately, this is in fact, not the spot that the swimming pool was located. The pool itself was located further back toward Dights Falls, and it was part of that landscape that we have just mentioned, that was obliterated to create Eastern Freeway. The swimming pool was funded and supported by a man called John Wren. People may know of John Wren, he was depicted as the fictional character John West, in the very famous novel by the writer Frank Hardy, Power Without Glory (1950).
John Wren was a man who began his business life as an SP bookmaker. He had an SP bookmaking shop in Johnson Street, Collingwood, which was fronted by, I suppose, a tea shop selling tea, and he ran a very lucrative SP bookmaking business at the back of the shop. Wren was also an entrepreneur of major sporting events, so that he had his own pony track in Burnley known as John Wren’s pony track; a location that became a housing commission estate after the Second World War. He was a sponsor of the Austral Wheel Race, a famous cycling race that was held in Melbourne, and he sponsored many boxing events in Melbourne in the early twentieth century. In fact, it was John Wren, who brought Jack Johnson to Australia for some exhibition bouts, Jack Johnson being the first black African-American man to hold the World Boxing title.
In 1918, John Wren set about to bring another sporting event or extravaganza to Melbourne. Across from where you’re standing at the Deep Rock commemoration site, if you look up at the cliff face of the Yarra Bend side of the Birrarung River, in 1918, a diving platform scaffolding was erected on that site. The platform came out to around the centre of the river, and from that platform, a man named Alick Wickham dived from an extreme height into the river, and was watched over by about seventy-thousand spectators who came down to the river to see the event. Wren was responsible for bringing Wickham here to Melbourne. By the way, Alick Wickham is also the man who’s responsible for the swimming stroke, the Australian crawl, being introduced into our country.
Now, it may seem odd that Wickham himself was from the Solomon Islands. So, what we might ask is why the swimming stroke was never called the Solomon’s crawl, rather than the Australian crawl. But as, again, a teenage boy on the river, I often would swim around this location, and look up at the cliff face on the other side of the river, and imagine how it was possible that a person could dive into the river from such a great height and survive. I want to read a poem called Swimming Whole now, which is from a new collection of mine coming out in 2021, Whisper Songs. This poem Swimming Whole is an expression of my love for swimming in the river here or around here, by the way, at Deep Rock as a teenage boy.
current stained deep time
clay impressions of bodies
lazily baked with heat
the first day of summer
schooling a life away
silt dusts our contours
we smoke cigarettes – Viscount
dive from pigeon-rock
wonder fuck the night
you the river this place
the temple we worship
earth and water our salvation
Tony Birch, ‘Swimming Whole’, Whisper Songs, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane,(forthcoming) 2021
Okay, so let’s leave deep rock and let’s head up north along a track that goes gradually uphill towards the Yarra Bend Golf Course. So, we walk up for about another 500 metres until we reach a road, and that road, we can take north or south. If you were to take the road in a southerly direction, you would find yourself again at a river crossing, and you would find yourself at Kane’s Bridge, which crosses the Birrarung River, and on the other side of the Kane’s Bridge is Studley Park Boat House.
But we’re not going to go that way, we’re going to head west, and we’re going to head across the Eastern Freeway. So, we walk along the road towards the Eastern Freeway, probably for about 300 metres, until we find ourselves in the middle of a wide bridge that crosses the freeway. So, we can look in an easterly direction and look at all the traffic and wonder where possibly could be going, or we can look back towards the city skyline directly ahead of us on the bridge. What I’d like to do here is read another poem from my new collection of 2021, called The Arteries, which provides some sense of my feeling of what happened here when parts of the river and Merri Creek were destroyed to create this freeway.
road train hammers a highway
eight ribbons of black tar
four lanes in four lanes out
burying the old creek like a
euthanised geriatric crying
for the mercy of her children
roads were diverted to spare
the sons of private education
straw boaters monogram blazers
the old school ties of an older city
holding sway along riverside mansions
founded on the lie of foundation
the waterways of Country
beaten raped clogged dead
the refuse you leave behind
our heart a parched lake
veins reduced to rust denied flow in the name of progress
Tony Birch, ‘The Arteries, Whisper Songs, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, (forthcoming) 2021
So, after the freeway, we cross the bridge. We’ll turn a very sharp and immediate right. We walk along a bitumen road and then on to a wide, sandy track past a park manager’s office, and I find this one of the most intriguing and enjoyable parts of the park, and soon, one of the most enjoyable sections of the Birrarung River. I like this area because it is an example of one of those locations or places that are in flux. It’s neither, certainly, a pristine bush environment and nor is it one that’s been beautified in a sense. We’re not sure of some of the formations along here, and there’s a sense of mystery to this part of the park and river, I think, I really enjoy.
We walk about 750 metres, and you’ll come to these ‘concrete pools’, is possibly the best way to describe this rectangular pool, with a small pontoon or pontoons on the pool, which I imagine are resting pontoons for birds, although I’m not sure. What I’m intrigued about here, and what I love is, I have no idea why these concrete pools were built. One could imagine that they were build for bird-life, but that would seem unusual, considering that the birds have the river and some billabongs very close by. It would seem unusual. I have looked at the 1945 aerial map of Melbourne and the pools were certainly not built then, and I actually haven’t been able to meet anyone who knows the origin of this site, and when it was built and for what purpose. Now, I’m sure someone out there does know when and why this pool was constructed, but I don’t want to meet them, and I actually don’t want to know. I really love the mystery of this. So, I take a lot of photographs of this site. I like to walk my dog around here, and I like to think about what this place is without ever really knowing why.
If you leave the pool here behind, stay to the right-side of this open area and walk along the cyclone fence that divides this area of the park from the freeway. You will get to a point where you will actually see the very edge of the freeway quite distinctly and you head down a steep path which initially heads to the left, and then very quickly – you continue on that path if you wish to, to the left, but where there’s a fork about 20 metres below, where the pathway begins, you can take that fork to the right which is the way that we’re going to walk.
So, we take that fork downhill about another 100 metres, and we come again to the bank of the Birrarung. If we were to head to our right or to head south, we would walk under another bridge crossing the freeway. You can walk that way for about half a kilometre and then walk up a very steep hill, back up to Yarra Bend Park near the golf course. But, again, we’re going to head north or head to the left, and I love this section of the river and this pathway because here we’re on one of those very narrow, or occasionally very narrow dirt paths, that gets us very close to the Birrarung River. It is a very peaceful location, a very lovely spot and it’s beautiful to walk along here and to contemplate the river.
So, we take this pathway for about a kilometre or marginally less, and that will bring us to what’s called the Fairfield Pipe Bridge, which is a steel bridge which crosses the Yarra River and, again, joins the – Clifton Hill here or Fairfield side of the river, with the Yarra bend side of the river. This is called the Fairfield Pipe Bridge because there is a pipe attached to the bridge which used to, again, take water from one side of the river to the other. This is also, by the way, one of the bridges that I jumped from as a teenager. So, I want to read, again, a poem which deals with the bravado of young people jumping from bridges across the river in the early 1970s, and, on this occasion, the poem is called The Great Flood of 1971, which commemorates what people know as a very famous flood in Melbourne.
One day in 1971 – there are very famous photographs of a flooded Elizabeth street in the city on this day, but it was the same day that I happened to be standing on a bridge above the river, immediately – that the flood arrived. So, I’ll read this poem to you.
The Great Flood of 1971
we gathered with the last summer
that morning a school-day pact
to be with our river before winter
stripped to underwear bravado
climbed webs of rusting steel
stood and faced a common enemy
i was courage
fear a thirteen-year-old’s only desire
spread from the rail and flew
humid air fifty-feet of life on skin
i left my bodies
tepid water a magnet drawing down
bands of blackness crushing bodies
the light above extinguished
i was alive
surface gasping in a deluge
lightening tearing holes in sky
this river of rising life
Tony Birch, ‘The Great Flood of 1971’, Whisper Songs, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane,(forthcoming) 2021
Okay, when we reach the Fairfield Pipe Bridge, we go under the bridge and if you were to continue ahead, down slightly to the right, you would arrive at the Fairfield Boat House but we’re not going to do that. You’ll see a bluestone set of stairs soon after you come from under the bridge. You head up those stairs and do a bit of a hairpin. You go to the left and then immediately to the right, and then you’ll come to some signage which indicates that you can travel on in three directions, and what we’re going to do is head back toward the city along the main Yarra trail, as our sign indicates. So we’re heading south, turn towards the west along the same pathway, and then we cross a road onto a dirt track that, again, heads south or heads left back towards Dights Falls.
What I would suggest, as I started with today, you can go in many directions. You can travel in many directions once you’re in this part of the park, and I think it’s my favourite part of the park once I’m away from the river because you are not governed by taking a singular path. There are many, many paths, pathways, dirt tracks that you can meander along. So, I think that if you were to visit this part of the river again, I would suggest that you explore far and wide, because I’ve been using this park for decades and I still run along this part of the river at least a couple of times a week, which I’ve been doing for many, many years. And, each run for me, each walk along the river is very refreshing because I like to choose different pathways each time, different tracks, and I would really encourage you to do the same.
So, we head south. Now, after about half a kilometre, you’ll come back to where the bridge over the freeway would take you, to the left. We’re not going to do that, we’re going to continue along the dirt track which is slightly to the right, although more or less, straight ahead. You’ll notice a bluestone column, maybe about 12, 15 feet high, to the left of you. That’s the only remaining evidence of an asylum that was established here in the nineteenth century, one of the many institutions, by the way, that have been built in Yarra park over the decades, that has long been since demolished. And, what we do, is we follow a dirt track which gradually finds it’s way downhill for about another three-quarters of a kilometre or 750 metres, and at the end of that downhill track, we’ll come to the Merri Creek again.
We return to the Merri Creek and we take a hard-left turn, or heading south, and we walk along the bike track that goes underneath the eastern freeway bridge that we noticed when we were crossing the Merri Creek footbridge earlier. So, we walk back to that same footbridge and we cross back over to the Dights Falls side of the bridge and this is, in a sense, where our formal walk ends, back at Dights Falls.
What I’d like to do to end this formal walk, is to read one final time from a prose poem that I wrote many years ago called Visiting, and I would suggest that this, for me, sums up everything that I loved about the river as a boy, and everything that I love about the river today.
I trace your life at points along the river; below the Cat-Walk where we hung like sleeping bats from the rusting girders we left behind to fall through heat for the touch of silken waters waiting to meet us sixty feet below. We lifted the skirts of Skipping Girl, strobing the night with her erratic neon rhythm. Her beauty lit a riverbank infested with years of stolen car wrecks and trapped wet lovers. Until the day they dressed her and ordered the girl to dance for the peak-hour crawl, homeward bound to the emptiness of suburban life. e river’s edge is beautified now, the bridges are caged in safety, Deep Rock lies drowned beneath a strip of freeway and the long-abandoned sweat shops dazzle with the glass and steel of the market. Sitting at the falls again, I skip stones and think of us, together here on summer nights. We carried this river home with us, her love entangled in rich hair and staining our young skin.
Tony Birch, ‘Visiting’, Broken Teeth, Cordite Books, Melbourne, 2016
So, in conclusion, I want to thank people for taking the walk with me along the river. I want to say, firstly, that I need to reiterate my respect and appreciation to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, for allowing me the opportunity to, again, live, walk and breathe on their country. I want to extend that generosity to those that have taken this walk, and I would finally, again, ask that this be – for those who haven’t done it before, or been on this part of the river before, that this be an introduction to a remarkable part of Melbourne that I hope you spend more time with, and I hope you come back here after having experienced this walk and enjoy the generosity of Wurundjeri country again.
Thank you very much.
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.melbourne. ACCA acknowledges the support of Creative Victoria in the development of the Six Walks series.