Six Walks Episode Two: Sophie Cunningham on Royal Park 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.

In this episode of Six Walks, Sophie Cunningham invites you on a walk through Royal Park. Established in 1854, Royal Park’s very existence was both a gesture towards the colonial administrator’s belief in the role of public spaces to improve the health of the new town’s citizens, and a strategic way of building a green fortress around the city: that is parks were established as a way of displacing the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people, from significant lands.

Sophie’s walk begins at the Burke and Wills Monument, marking the starting point of the explorers’ ill-fated expedition.  On 20 August 1860 a crowd of 15,000 people stood in Royal Park to farewell 19 men, their camels and horses, before they headed north across the continent. Sophie then escorts us to the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens to contemplate the life of the zoo’s first elephant, Ranee, and to reimagine Ranee’s walk from Port Melbourne to the zoo, late one night in 1883. She continues her walk through remnant bushland, and down through the White’s Skink Habitat, ending her walk at one of the city’s newest wetlands: Trin Warren Tam-boore (Bellbird Waterhole). Sophie’s narration of her walk is interspersed with readings from her collection of essays, City of Trees, supported by the sonic landscapes of composer Martin Friedel.

Sophie Cunningham is the author of six books including City of Trees and Melbourne. She is a former publisher and editor and is now an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University’s Non/fiction Lab. 

Martin Friedel studied science but turned to music in the 1970s and has worked as a composer across a wide range of form and genre, from theatre and film to opera and contemporary classical music. His work has been recognised by a number of awards including an Emmy. His Sonic Art project Sounding Royal Park was supported by The City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants.

Sophie Cunningham on Royal Park

My name Sophie Cunningham and I’m going to take you on a walk through Royal Park. Royal Park is on the traditional lands of the Kulin nation. The walk we’re going to go on takes place on stolen land. I pay my respects to the Elders, past, present and future.

This walk starts at the Burke and Wills Memorial Cairn that stands between Royal Park’s grassland circle and McArthur Avenue. It was built to commemorate Burke and Wills’ expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria which left from this place on August the 20th 1860. Earlier that year, the Victorian Government had sponsored the expedition to make the first south-north crossing of Australia, a distance of more than 3000 kilometres.

This cairn was built in 1890. The expedition comprised of six Irishmen, five Englishman, four Indian-Afghani camel drivers, three Germans, an American, twenty three horses, six wagons, twenty six camels, and twenty tons of baggage. They were carrying food to last two years and among many other objects, a cedar-topped oak camp table, chairs, rockets, flags and a Chinese gong. I’ve read talk of a piano but that strikes me as absurd, and I like to think it is more a metaphor for the hubris that killed Burke and six of his men  —but, of course, all this was to come.

On that day, August the 20th, there were endless speeches before a crowd of some 15,000 people. In fact, the speeches went for so long, the expedition didn’t leave until 4pm. This is at a time of year when it would have been dark by 5.00. When they did leave, they headed towards Royal Park south gate, which is slightly counterintuitive to the modern way of thinking about it, but suggests what the layout of the park was like then — that there was more cleared land to the south. Some of the carts got bogged down in the mud at that side of the park, but they finally caught up with the members of the party that were on horseback later that night.

If you want to follow in the footsteps of the Burke and Wills expedition’s first day, you walk past what were once cattle yards near Park Drive, you turn north up Flemington Road, you cross the main bridge over Moonee Ponds Creek — and you can imagine the Flemington Hotel across the way that was established in 1948.

These days, of course, Flemington Road feeds into the Tullamarine freeway and is a dozen lanes wide, but then it was a rutted dirt track. They would have headed left up Mount Alexander Road, which already existed back then, as it had been one of the main tracks taken by those who walked to the gold fields. The expedition got as far as Queen’s Park up in Moonee Ponds, very near the RSL club there. They blazed a tree at the site to mark the spot. The tree died soon after but was maintained, albeit as a grim and ivy-covered stump, out of respect to the blaze carved onto it, and the people who had carved it, even though that was finally removed in a 1938.

The memorial is close to a magnificent stand of sugar gums which were planted sometime between 1860 and 1890. One of the significant things about this park is its commitment to the planting of Australian native plants, even if they’re not from this very area. The cairn is also only a few hundred meters west from where Burke and Wills were eventually buried in Melbourne cemetery. And that’s one of the things I love about Melbourne and indeed this park, the way layers of history are nestled so closely together through the city.

 Just a little bit on the death of Burke and Wills and their men, and indeed, some of the Indigenous people that they met — more than a dozen died along the way, shot either by Burke and Wills, or by members of the expeditions that were sent out to rescue them.

Offers of help and friendship were extended by First Nations people, for the expedition went through many lands – through many Nations’ lands. The explorers guzzled limited water reserves, they fished and hunted indiscriminately, albeit unwittingly, and generally behaved like boorish intruders so tensions arose. But towards the end, in extremis, Burke Wills and another of the men, King, did begin to watch the habits of the local people. They ate a porridge or bread made from the seeds of an aquatic fern called nardoo, which was filling but not nutritious enough to sustain life in the long run, and some have actually argued that they were poisoned by the nardoo because they didn’t prepare it properly. Whatever the truth of this or whatever the details, hypothermia, beriberi and general exhaustion contributed to their deaths.

The role of that plant in the deaths of several members of the expedition is one of the reasons why Tom Nicholson made his acclaimed video work, Monument for the Flooding of Royal Park,  very close to where I’m standing now. It’s a sequence of historical photographs of various Burke and Wills monuments, in parallel to a text describing an imaginary monument: a temporary blanketing of Royal Park in a red field of nardoo. And the point of this work was to engage with the 19th century Melbourne history and the way memorials used to be built in a fairly reflexive way without really considering what colonisers were doing to the various nations that they passed.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Burke and Wills story I have found, was reading some of the stories passed down orally by First Nations people who saw Burke and Wills walk through their various lands. One such story concerns the witnessing of a fight between Wills and Burke after Burke rejected food from local people. Another story is that Burke actually murdered Charles Gray. Another, that King murdered Burke. This might be literally true or a moral story, hinting that King would have been justified in killing Burke. King is the only man who survived the expedition of the people who actually made it to the north of Australia, and he survived by living with local people for 10 weeks, and he fathered a child. His descendants still live in the area today.

The reason why I mentioned these particular versions of events, even though they’re not necessarily my stories to tell, is I really want people to think about the way history lives in place, and the different histories that live in place. And, as I’ve already said, one of the reasons why Royal Park is such a special place is because it holds these kinds of stories and I believe you can feel them here still.

Sound composition:

Who are you?

Why are you listening to the conversation?

I’m recording the frog sounds.

So, you’re not listening and recording those people?

No, not people, no,


Not people. Animals, birds.

Are you sure, mate?


How can you be sure of that?There’s no people around here. Just you and me.

As you’ve been walking, you would have been listening to the sounds of sound artist composer, Martin Friedel, who has been working on a project called Sounding Royal Park. He did a lot of his recordings during the period of the pandemic, and I think he, like me, found that the opportunity to spend time in Royal Park during this difficult time really, well, for me it was sanity saving. I can’t speak for Martin, but I know that we both got a huge amount of pleasure from our work here.

I’m now walking towards the Melbourne Zoo. This is a significant day. It’s noisier than it might normally be, but I’ve decided that I think I should let that sound stand, because what we see is dozens of people lining up for the opening of the zoo’s first day back after 112 days of lockdown. In fact, the zoo might have been closed even longer.

So, I don’t know how the animals will feel, but there are certainly a lot of birds around who are watching the queues. I’m just going to sit to one side rather than right out the front of the entrance, and in part, that’s…so the microphone works. I’m having to talk without using my mask, and I don’t want to be close to people while I do that – but it’s an exciting day to be here. I am a member of the zoo, and I think after I have taped this walk, I’m going to come back and say hello to some of the animals.

So, the zoo was originally, or grew out of, the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, which was actually established at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens in 1857, but for various reasons, including swampiness and floods, that site was unsuitable. So, the society was given 550 acres in the park for zoological purposes. But an Acclimatisation Society is very different to what we call a zoo today. The objective of the society was to acquire exotic animals and birds that were going to be potentially useful in the new colony and acclimatise them to Australian conditions.  Those animals would include sheep, and I do believe some foxes were in there, starlings, all kinds of birds – some of which have gone on to become pests but maybe not all, I’m not sure. At a certain point 50 acres proper, was reserved in the centre of the park and a building was built. That was in 1862, and the institution became what we think of as the Melbourne Zoo today.

Albert Le Souef was the first residential manager at the Acclimatisation Society. He is the son of William Le Souef, who’d been a protector of the Aboriginal people of Goulburn and a long-time member of the Aboriginal Protection Board. These connections helped the younger Le Souef establish an encampment in the zoo in the 1880s, which accommodated some twenty people. I found this a particularly disturbing image, I have to say, because this camp became an ethnographic village and was included in the Australia Centenary Celebrations, and Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people who were living in Coranderrk near Healesville, would walk back to their traditional lands to perform, and weapons were arranged around them. They were asked to throw boomerangs while onlookers stood around and watched, and stuffed animals were added to the exhibit to add to, you know, contribute to the atmosphere.

I suppose it is worth mentioning at this point that there were very different views and understandings of what was appropriate behaviour, towards our First Nations people – there still are very inappropriate views.  Inappropriate behaviours take place, but nonetheless, I think the intention was not as cruel as that sounds, even though it is hard to think about that kind of – making people perform their lives, without feeling very uncomfortable. This happened in zoos around the world, not just in Australia.

A significant part of the story of the Melbourne Zoo becoming the place it is now, something closer to what we think about as a zoo today is the story, of Ranee the elephant. Ranee was the first elephant in Australia, and the reason why Ranee was brought to the zoo, was because once they became a formal zoo, they needed to charge entrance fees, which meant they needed the star attraction, and Ranee was that star attraction.

She was also a gift from the king of Siam. She arrived in Melbourne from the Calcutta Zoo on March the 5th 1883. That trip lasted for some weeks on a boat, on a ship. She was tethered by chains to the deck, with a shed of sorts built over her head. During one particularly bad storm she is reported to have wrapped her trunk around the iron columns of the hut to support herself. The ship docked in Port Melbourne and she was taken to the police station at 113 Bay Street. These days, 113 has dropped off the map, but number 115 is still there and is now, I think is part of the same building. It’s a lawyer’s office now.

Ranee was walked late at night, in the dark, so people of the city wouldn’t panic, and horses wouldn’t stampede. That sounds kind of crazy now, but there are many historical records of people of big cities reacting in very dramatic – in fairly extreme ways when they first saw an elephant. They are indeed magnificent creatures. So, I couldn’t find a record of the exact route that Ranee walked, but when I traced her steps, I walked the most obvious roads that existed back in 1883: up Bay Street to Sydney Road and Whiteman Street. I assume that she crossed at the Yarra Falls Bridge, which is an early iteration of the Queen’s Bridge. She walked up, or I walked up assuming that she may have, William Street, then through the relative quiet of the Flagstaff Gardens, past the empty Victoria Market. Both of these, the Flagstaff Gardens and the markets, existed when Ranee did her walk. Then you can head up, through darkness, up the Royal parade. They wouldn’t have, I don’t think they would have had,  the same kind of streetlights back then.

If you follow…if you take that walk late at night, it’s really quite uncanny, if you walk into the edge of Royal Park, just in the south-eastern corner,  you get a sense of how ‘other’ this place would have would have felt, and I often think about her walking through the darkness towards her servitude. None of her own kind with her, no possibility of shared language. Elephants are incredibly social animals, and what I keep asking myself is, ‘Was she lonely?’

Ranee’s reported to have walked the nine kilometres from the police station very calmly until she saw the zoo, at which point she attempted to run. I’m not sure if it was the smell of the other animals, or their calls, or whether she imagined what lay ahead. Public viewing, six days a week, Monday to Saturday, from 11 to 12-midday, and from 2pm until 4pm.

The Society’s minute-book – the Royal Melbourne Society’s minute-book for March 19th of 1883 – records that she was gentle and in good health, and that she was undertaking training so she could give people rides, which it was reckoned she would be able to do after two weeks. The impetus was pragmatic, as I’ve mentioned, and The Age reported in the early 1890, how the ‘fast-growing monster’  as they called her, ate alot, but she was also reported to be a favourite with children. ‘It’, as she was called, had to earn her own living. Her upkeep amounted to 150 pounds a year. She managed to take in an income of 170 pounds a year, and during a 21-year residence, she contributed to 5% of the zoo’s annual income.

Ranee died on December the 18th 1904. In her final year, she was not as gentle as she’d once been. In particular, she wouldn’t let anyone near her mouth, and after she died, it was discovered that one of her molars had grown five inches longer than it should have been, and it caused her an enormous amount of pain. One thing that makes me feel slightly better, was that in the end, she wasn’t alone. She became very attached to one of her keepers, and when he lay on the ground sleeping or resting, she would stand over him and wave flies from his face with her trunk. If people tried to approach him when he was resting, she’d become angry and force the visitors back. So, she had a friend.

I’m not going to get too into the politics of whether or not elephants should be kept in zoos, but I suppose the way I’m talking gives some indication of my feeling on this – however I do want to talk about Queenie, who was Ronnie successor. She arrived at the zoo in 1902. She gave rides for 40 years, to up to 500 children and parents each day. She walked an estimated 165,000 kilometres, around and around the same enclosure, and hard surfaces are painful for an elephant’s incredibly sensitive feet. They  effectively hear through their feet, and many elephants who die in zoos, actually die of arthritis, after years of pounding bitumen, and foot and joint problems are the most important health issue for captive elephants.

Queenie’s keeper was a man called Wilfred Lawson, and Kenneth Brown, who was his nephew, remembers riding on Queenie’s head as a schoolboy. ‘I would help uncle wash her down,’ Brown says. ‘It was a big job to wash her down, wipe her all over and dry her.’ She was given a lot of rubbish to eat by children, she had to have her mouth cleaned out. She was, apparently, a very gentle creature and would turn over during her bath and play and enjoy the company of those who looked after her. But that said, Lawson used to hit Queenie with a stick. Quite a lot of people, witnesses, have commented on the way she was treated. ‘I didn’t like my uncle hitting her,’ Brown has said. ‘He used to belt her to get her past the monkeys.’

I suspect it’s an indication of how Queenie felt about Lawson, that she trampled him to death in 1944 and, as a consequence, despite her years of service to the zoo, she was shot. At the time the zoo said it wasn’t because of her attack on Lawson, it was because World War II had made it hard to afford to feed all the animals kept at the zoo.

Back to Ranee briefly. When she died there were a few million African elephants and about 100,000 Asian elephants. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 African elephants left. Far, far less wild Asian elephants. Elephants weep for the loss of their kin when they see their bones, and the reason I’m talking about Ranee and Queenie is because we should be weeping for them too. I don’t want to lose these magnificent animals from the earth, as we are in danger of losing them, and I do understand that’s one of the reasons why zoos continue to keep elephants, is because they are so endangered in the wild. But I don’t just want us to weep for elephants and be sad when we think about Ranee. I would really like for us to fight for these creatures’ survival.

I’m now walking west, with the zoo wall to my right and a stand of trees to my left, and I’m walking towards the tram line that crosses Elliott Avenue. And I’ve always loved seeing the trams go through Royal Park, but understandably, I suppose, there was not such feelings of excitement about the idea of there being a tram line when it was actually built in 1916, and there were a lot of concerns. But you can basically follow a sealed track, all the way down to Brens Drive. So, we’re going to walk there, and then I’ll pick up my chat again at that point.

I’m standing on the corner of Brens Drive, and this is a point where you can angle off to the right slightly along a dirt path, which will take us towards the residential streets that edge the park, and then we skirt back up into the bush land. If you look up Brens Drive, you’re looking towards the urban camp. There’s ANZAC hall, sentry posts, all kinds of things for those of you who are interested in that kind of…the built history of the park. It’s an area really worth exploring.

Also, worth exploring, but I won’t be taking you there today, is some of the remnant bush land. You’ll see it up to the right. It’s a grassy woodland area that is one of the significant bits of remnant bush land left in the park. I’m taking you to more remnant bush land, slightly more rugged, maybe less aesthetic and planted. The section I’m taking you to, you walk through it to get down to the wetlands in the corner of the park. So, you’re heading towards Manningham Street and Southgate Street, the corner, and we’re going to walk down Manningham Street. Yeah, I think that’s it.

You head down Manningham Street as it veers to the right, and then you will find yourself walking under a railway bridge and a pedestrian bridge. The pedestrian bridge, I think, is an extension of the Capital City Trail. So, there’ll be some stairs to your immediate right. Pass those two quite small bridges, and you walk under the bridges, you turn right walk up the stairs, and walk for about 100 metres, maybe slightly more. Maybe it’s even 200 metres along the Capital City Trail, which is sealed.

So, I wanted to talk more now about remnant vegetation. One of the most significant things about Royal Park is that it’s the only inner Melbourne parkland that has maintained any of its original vegetation, and it’s the only parkland that has been consciously planted since the beginning, to try and maintain the look of what you might describe as pre-invasion Melbourne. When Royal Park was first established, some land was used for grazing and that led to the trampling of some native plants. So that was an early challenge for the kind of retention of some of this remnant parkland, but actually, as recently as 2010, the City of Melbourne won national recognition for its implementation of a 1984 master plan which was dedicated preserving and developing the natural landscape; this natural landscape, so close to the city centre.

And, while some of the original vegetation has been lost, there has been deliberate planning and preservation of native trees to help maintain the appearance of the park for 150 years. So, as early – in the 1860s, between 1860 and 1890, a lot of the first plantings were native trees. The Acclimatisation Gardens, later the Zoological Gardens, that was the area that was planted with exotics, but the area outside this there was a real dedication to maintaining the original character of the area. There  was a genuine passion for native plantings, and this was shared by one of the surveyor generals Clement Hodgkinson. Deputy Surveyor General Clement Hodgkinson was a keen advocate for the retention of native trees in designed landscapes, including Yarra Park and the Fitzroy Gardens.

But another thing that ended up being in the favour of Royal Park in this matter was that it was poorly funded. The parkland didn’t really have a lot of financial support, and native trees were grown because they would manage drought better, which of course, with climate change, and the fact that many parks around Australia, around Melbourne, around the world are having to replant with changed conditions in mind. Royal Park is being helped by these kinds of early decisions in the management of the park. Some of those early plantings were actually donated by Ferdinand Von Muller, who was the first director of the Botanic Gardens and a trustee of Royal Park.

So, you’ll see there’s river red gums which have been retained on Gatehouse Street, the sugar gums that I mentioned, near the Burke and Wills Cairn. Both are examples of both the keeping of some trees and the planting of trees that were Australian natives. So, now we’re just veering off to the left to a – it’s a dirt path, you’ll see a gate, you know, it’s three meters away off of the Capital City Trail, and the gate is there to keep trail bikes and mountain bikes out. As a pedestrian there’s no problem at all getting in here, and this is my favourite spot in the park. You’ll see lots of native grasses on either side of you, notably kangaroo grass and other types of grasses I don’t know the name of.

There’s wattle, I think it’s blackwattle. There are she-oaks, casuarina and she-oaks were a significant part of Melbourne’s early landscape, of this entire area’s early landscape. And when I describe it as remnant, I mean that there’s been no formal planting in this particular area, this particular track. I assume there’s some basic maintenance done, but the idea is that plants that always grown here are left to just seed naturally.

I think this path goes for a hundred metres – couple of hundred metres. Anyway, to the left you’ll see various sporting fields, and to the right there is the railway cutting, which is quite deep and  cut through rock. And there was a great outcry when this railway line was cut through the park, and I understand this even more than I understand the concern about the tramway, the trams, which I’ve become quite attached to.

This was in the 1880s and many were concerned that the railway would ruin the park. It certainly does make it a bit trickier to get from this section of the park to the zoo and the Burke and Wills Cairn is, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s not a straightforward walk. If you have a disability, the paths aren’t as clear. It’s a slightly wilder corner of the park.

This is a good area for bird watching. I mean, the whole of Royal Park is but birdwatchers often come up to this ridge, which, if you’re walking it, there’s a gentle slope and you actually end up being quite high. You can look down to the railway line, across to the urban camp, and indeed, across to – and can hear the sound of — the Eastern Freeway. You can see the sporting ovals I’ve mentioned, and soon you’ll be able to see the wetlands, which I’m going to talk about in more detail.

The birds that you’ll probably see up here – so I’m told by those who know more about this than me – are miners, little ravens, red wattle birds, honeyeaters. Welcome swallow, you see further down, they like the ovals. You might be lucky enough to see a spotted pardalote, they’re really beautiful, or a grey shrikethrush.

 I’m just going to leave the tape on. I just want you to hear the peace, really, as we walk along here. I’m looking at some wattlebird now, in fact. Okay, well, I’ll leave you to finish this walk without me talking in your ear, but keep walking along this path until you come to the gate at the other end, and I’ll take up again there.

Okay, I’m approaching the gate now, and I hope you have had a sense of what makes this particular, slightly scruffy bit of the park so special. I think it’s the sense that you’re actually in bushland. You certainly don’t feel like you’re in a city, and for that, I treasure it.

There are several different paths you can take. Certainly, if you hit the Capital City Trail, you can take the dirt path that’s immediately to your left, or one of the little dirt paths that’s slightly before the Capital City Trail, and all these paths wind down to slightly better made, but still unsealed path. And you’ll notice that there are lots of rocks piled around. These are the remains of an old rubbish rubble dump-site in Royal Park west that existed until the 1990s. A highly significant remnant population of white skink  was discovered in this site, so it was reclaimed and replanted to provide an open grassy area with rocks and logs, providing basking sites and shelter for the skinks. And they burrow under the rocks, they lie on the rocks when it’s sunny and warm.

 It’s quite a warm morning, I might even see some if I’m lucky.

I’m assuming actually – this just came to me as I was walking, that the piles of rocks might well have actually been left from the days of when they blasted the railway line through. I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask someone about that, but these are – there are lots of things that are special about these little skinks. I find myself not even sure if a skink is very different from a lizard. Apologies to those who know more about these things than me, but they do give birth to live young, rather than eggs, and this is the only known population close to the urban centre left in Melbourne.

So, I’m going to stop talking for a bit and look out for them. You’ll actually come to a sign that tells you a little bit more about the skink, and after that sign, the path winds down to some stairs and to the right, and you’ll find yourself looking at a some kind of change  room or something, and an oval. And you walk to the right towards the wetlands, so I’ll pick it up again there.

Well, I was blessed on that particular walk through the skink habitat because I saw one. They’re much bigger than I’d expected them to be! That’s the first one I’ve ever seen, despite all the times I’ve walked and looked around here, so that’s a good sign. Now, I’m now at the bottom of the stairs and I’m walking through this year’s resident group of crows. There’s just dozens and dozens of them. It’s really quite dramatic. So, I’m walking through fairly cautiously. They’re staring at me, like I’m very much on their territory. I’m not actually frightened of them, but they have great authority and presence. They’re kind of walking on the path in front of me, strutting in a very deliberate way, and I’m really getting the impression that I am the intruder here, as indeed, I am.

So, these wetlands, I’ve described them in the past as a contemporary reassertion of the ancient landscape, and what I think I’ve meant when I said that is that this area used to be wetlands, and then in 2005 it was turned into wetlands once more. So, the Trin Warren Tam-boore wetlands were built in 2005 for storm drainage and water purification and, that is, to fulfil the functions that the wetlands that once existed here once performed.

They’re two-link ponds, and the treatment pond has banks, densely planted with native plants that treat the water naturally, and that clean water goes to the storage pond that’s then used to water Royal Park, or some of it’s left through to – depending on how rain —  to Port Phillip Bay. And this is part of the city’s recent strategy of using soft, rather than hard drainage methods, like concrete drains, to absorb the water that falls and flows through the Yarra’s catchment area. We’re very close to Moonee Creek here. Actually, I assume these wetlands were an extension of Moonee Ponds Creek. So, if you look around, it’s such a beautiful spot. There’s she-oaks that were once present throughout Melbourne’s landscape in vast numbers, and you can see their long leaves shivering in the morning breeze.

Not this morning but other mornings, I found ringtail possums curled up in their dray. There are the yellow New Holland honeyeaters and they’re flitting through the hedges of spiny lignum, which is one of the plants that was planted — it’s like a large hedge — for filtration purposes. In fact, this area has been so successful at attracting birds, that it’s become damaged through overpopulation. So, at the moment, there’s a bit of cleaning work done and you won’t see as many birds as usual, but on a good day, you’ll see Eurasian coots which are dark waterbirds with white foreheads, dusky moorhens, purple swamphens which have red bills and dark blue plumage, Pacific black ducks which are actually brown and have stripes above and below their eye, Australasian grebes pulling up, sort of, those long, stringy bits of aquatic vegetation to build their floating platforms, the wattlebirds which we saw higher up the hill, willy wagtails and welcome swallows, enjoying the cleared area and looking for insects. There is – my favourite birds in Melbourne are actually here, and I’m walking towards them now, and that’s the Royal Park’s famous pair of tawny frogmouths. Sometimes you’ll have a dozen people standing around the tree, the gum that they’re in, looking at this poor mother who has, I think, two or even three babies under her wing. I’m not sure, I haven’t actually succeeded in seeing the babies, even though tawnies are fledging all over Melbourne, for those who know these things.

Birdwatching has become a real thing during the pandemic. I mean, obviously, it’s an activity that people have always loved, but in recent months, it’s really become so important to people. And, I noticed that because of visiting the tawny frogmouth every year, but this is the first year where I’ve seen so many people standing and looking at – staring at the mum, who I think would really rather that they weren’t.

Other birds that you’ll see include lorikeets, and they’ve been reappearing in Melbourne after decades of absence because in the 1970s, a lot of gardens introduced native plants. So, it’s not enough just to have native plants in Royal Park, you need them all through Melbourne. They need habitats. Habitats need to join up, if you like, and so, there are a lot of lorikeets here. You find them particularly in the little hollows, sticking their heads out of hollows or some of the older trees around here.

I’m now standing under my tawny frogmouth tree. I’m going to have to put my mask on and be quiet very soon, I think, because there are quite a few people enjoying this special space. So, I’m standing by Trin Warren Tam-boore, close to the boundary line which is the Westgate Freeway, and Melbourne Gateway is reflected in the waters of the lagoon, the striking reddened columns shimmering. Narrm, as it was once known or should still be known, and newer Melbourne, more contemporary Melbourne, kind of meet in this place.

You can continue to walk around. There’s a path around the wetlands, and there are bird-hides should you want to see them, but I’m going to leave you to it now. I’m just going to look out for my mum. In fact, she’s gone from the nest, and I heard about this a couple of days ago. I think the babies have fledged, which means she’s not stuck in the same spot anymore, but still, it’s quite a shock to realise that she’s no longer here, and I’m feeling slightly bereft. I will sit down and compose myself, and I will leave you to enjoy this really special space.

I’d like to thank, once again, the traditional Elders of this land. I’d also like to thank Martin Friedel for allowing us to enjoy his really beautiful compositions, created, spun out of the sounds of Royal Park over the last few months. And I would like to thank ACCA for allowing me to share my enormous pleasure and enthusiasm for this part of Melbourne. I hope you got something out of it.

Thank you.

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.