The Maribyrnong River, to most Melburnians, may be best known as the place to go looking for missing bodies, or parts thereof. But although I do admit squirming just a little seeing people fishing in the river the day after the arm was found, to local residents these stories are merely a quirky sidenote. There’s far more to the river than the odd floating morsel of human flesh. To those acquainted with it, the Maribyrnong is a vital, essential piece of the suburban landscape, both geographically and culturally. Despite the apartment buildings that now punctuate its shores, the surrounding parklands remain both a life-giving and life-sustaining haven of wilderness wedged amidst the clean-cut squares of the suburbs. This is primarily thanks to ongoing efforts of preservation and revegetation of the river.
I have lived next to the Maribyrnong for around three years now, and it’s played an indispensable role in my daily life. I’ve cycled down the bike path to three different jobs; I watched a family of ducklings grow from fluffy waddling balls into adulthood over the course of several months’ commute; I discovered a species of parrot new to me when I thought I knew them all. Ducks and moorhens raise their chicks within the safety of the fenced Newells Paddock wetlands (though the ducks seem to believe they have right of way on the bike and walking paths). A little further down, flocks of Red-rumped Parrots inhabit the trees of Pipemakers Park and take their chances between the driving range and the off-lead dog park across the bridge.
Screeching lorikeets also line the path beside the golf course and I’ve seen this area provide temporary residence for roaming Galahs, Sulphur-crested and Black Cockatoos, and the odd Eastern Rosella, as well as the herons that crouch above the water line and even a few Black Swans. In parts, you can hear the loud chorus of frogs and (though I’ve never seen one – and not complaining!) signs warn of the presence of snakes. It’s an ecosystem that is teeming with life, and each one of these native species that finds a home by or in the river is an argument for the importance of maintaining healthy green spaces like this as habitat for animal and plant life.
There’s another reason, however, that places like this are so necessary to our urban environments. The river provides a habitat for humans, too. On any given weekend (weather providing), the paths and parks surrounding the river abound with human life. Running, fishing, golfing, cycling, team sports on the ovals, kayaking, dog-walking, picnics, sitting in quiet contemplation by the water: these are some of the myriad activities in which people engage, but they all achieve a common aim. The open green space that winds alongside the water provides an opportunity for people to enjoy the outdoors, be active and engage with nature without having to travel great distances. Without places like this close at hand, the barriers of distance to these activities that form such an important part of a healthy physical, mental and social lifestyle become increasingly obvious. If we had to get in a car and drive up to an hour to find a space like this, the reality is that most of us wouldn’t find the time or energy, and we’d all be vastly poorer for it.
I now walk my dog in the off-lead park every day and it’s become an essential activity for the wellbeing of canine and human alike. When working from home on projects of an endless and soul-destroying nature, I started to feel emotionally synced with my dog, both of us waiting sullenly for that time of the afternoon when we could escape the confines of the house-prison. It is remarkable how stress and frustration melt away at the sight of wrestling pups splashing through the mud as owners try in vain to steer them off-course.
I met a woman who told me she fell into a deep depression after losing her job. She lived in the council flats nearby and decided, despite unstable living conditions and financial hardship, to get a dog to help herself out. She now walks 10,000 steps a day with him around the river and makes idle chat with strangers like me (as our dogs run in circles for an hour attached to opposite ends of a palm frond).
Image: Sarah Thomson
Another man told me, as our paths and dogs intersected, that he lived in Caroline Springs. I joked that I guessed he didn’t come all this way just for the dog park, but it turned out he had. ‘It’s a good park,’ he shrugged. He used to play footy there, and kept coming back.
When I first moved into my house a five-minute walk from the river, I felt the location was a compromise, being so far from a train. I realise now that there’s no way I’d swap my proximity to this urban oasis for a slightly more convenient commute.
Banner image courtesy of Sarah Thomson