In 2017, I went on the hunt for azure kingfishers on a steamy day in March. They were known to frequent the Yarra River in the outlying north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, despite their diminutive size and the fact that they were even bluer than their name would have one to believe.
I rode my bike to the river from the Lilydale station along the busy roads that dragged like taut wire between the paddocks and empty lots out there. I came dangerously close to falling off my bike at the bottom of a steep, rapid hill as cars and trucks sped by me.
I eventually made it to the river, but I couldn’t find the kingfishers there. Since I didn’t want to go back the way I came, I chose to ride back along the river instead of the route I took to get there. I was wearing jeans, which is not appropriate attire for a lengthy ride, and because I was unable to locate a direct route down the river, I found myself taking detours until I was almost completely disoriented at the base of a high hill.
It was the middle of the day, and the sun had been up and strong for hours, rarely appearing to budge from its position in the sky. My fatigue and confusion increased to an alarming degree. It probably took me no more than an hour to ride, but it felt like much longer by the time I finally made it back into anything that seemed like the Melbourne I knew: Warrandyte, which was still a significant distance from any train station and an even greater distance from home. And as if I were dreaming, I came upon a beautiful scene: hundreds of people swimming and taking baths in a huge stream that sparkled in the sunlight. I dismounted and removed my helmet, then scooped up handfuls of fresh, clean water and poured it over my head. This removed the sweat from my head and cooled me off. It was a lovely experience.
I reasoned that this stream must be a larger creek or a subsidiary river that I was not familiar with because it was crowded with people and it was clear. When I finally arrived home and checked the map to see where I’d been, I couldn’t believe what it showed: that I’d been washing my face in the Yarra River the whole time!
I spent much of my childhood swimming in fresh water. My house was a two-hour drive from the closest beach, but Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra was only a few blocks away. I chose to spend my time at the lake rather than the beach. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was common for residents of Canberra to go swimming in Lake Burley Griffin. Alternately, one might go swimming in the Cotter River, the Molonglo River, or the Murrumbidgee River, all of which have water-curved boulders, gritty sand, and casuarinas.
I was never taught how to recognize a rip current in the ocean, but I did learn not to swim in rivers after it had rained heavily, not to dive to the bottom of rivers for fear of getting caught in a snag, that the water in a river is heavier and moves more quickly than it appears, and that a swiftly moving river can carry you away and pull you under before you even realize what’s happening. I learned how to walk across submerged rocks, gritting my teeth against stubbed toes as the water rose coldly over my knees, over my belly, and over my chest, and my pale skin disappeared into the dark tanniny stream. Before the river bottom dropped away, I felt the algae and mud between my toes. I learned how to walk across submerged rocks. I learned how to walk across submerged rocks. I was surprised to find pockets of cool water beneath the surface, but the relief they provided was very much appreciated.
I’ve never been much of a swimmer, but the swimming I did always seemed to be at odds with what I was repeatedly informed was the Australian way: golden sand beaches, seawater spray, and crashing waves. I’ve never been much of a swimmer. To this day, I still have a hard time understanding the allure of going for a swim in saltwater and then immediately getting into the shower. If you’ve ever gone swimming in a river or lake that’s in good condition, you’re familiar with the sensation of emerging from the water cleaner than you were when you entered. There is no other form of swimming that compares to it.
However, not all rivers are suitable for swimming, and the people of Melbourne as a whole do not take advantage of its largest river. Sure, people use the Yarra—they row on it, and they walk along its banks—but it won’t be long before you hear it called, derisively, “the upside-down river,” because of its cloudy, clay-filled water; and if you mention that you’ve enjoyed spending some time along its banks, it won’t be long before some wag asks if you saw any bodies floating by. Both of these things are caused by the Yarra’s cloudy water.
And it’s true that these critics have a point: for the most of Melbourne’s history, the Yarra has been regarded as nothing more than a drain, and frequently as something far worse. This has changed very recently, though. Along its length, you won’t have any trouble spotting trash adrift on its surface or entangled in the vegetation that grows on its banks, as well as trash traps that are clogged with enough trash to equal the amount produced by a metropolis with five million residents. The banks of the Yarra River are breeding grounds for a wide variety of environmental weeds, so even if you have a nice view of the river, it could be destroyed by a floating waste pile at any given bend in the river.
It is true that the Yarra has continuously changed – or more accurately, been transformed – throughout the course of Melbourne’s history. The old proverb tells us that we can’t foot in the same river again, and it’s also true that this is the case. However, Melbourne’s treatment of the river that serves as its primary water source has been so appalling that the city as a whole appears to have forgotten that circumstances have the potential to shift in either direction—for the better or for the worse. The Yarra has suffered from neglect for such a significant portion of its history that its surrounding population has forgotten how to treat it in any other manner.
Even though I’ve lived in Melbourne for nearly half of my life at this point, I still have a hard time considering myself a native of the city. I don’t watch the football; I’m not familiar with even half of the suburbs; and I don’t comprehend the majority of the city’s shibboleths. I have a strong attachment to Canberra, my hometown. But all of that changes whenever I’m by the Yarra; there’s something about the way it meanders through the city that makes me feel more rooted in Melbourne than anything else ever did. When I first started falling in love with the Yarra, I got my wires crossed and I thought that its muddy color was natural. However, I later read that the muddiness of the river as we know it now is a result of erosion along its banks and the banks of its tributaries, and that erosion was in turn a result of widespread land clearing ever since European colonization. In other words, the muddiness of the river as we know it now is a result of erosion. It is reported that the Yarra was free of debris and sediment before all of this procedure started.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s an unsettling concept, and it ought to shake us out of how we currently see the Yarra since it’s different from what we know about it. And because of this, we ought to be asking ourselves and the other Melburnians around us: if the Yarra used to flow clean all the way from its headwaters to its terminus, what would it be like to once more live along a river that was able to run clear?