THE RIVER BESIDE US
She watched as little black cormorants made their way through piles of trash collecting in the catchments. They were using the rubbish barges to roost. She knew that the brown Yarra had not always been such an unappealing home for its inhabitants. 180 years ago there had been ‘flocks, almost innumerable of teal ducks and swans, and minor fowls’. It was near impossible to imagine what an amazing place the Yarra had once been. As well as the obvious pollution issue, introduced pests were reducing the number of beautiful native birds in her city.
She knew that her friends didn’t care about this. To them the Yarra had always been just another addition to a city they knew too well. They had to cross bridges to get from one side to the other and the boat trips on its waters were only for tourists. They didn’t notice the birds gliding along the water’s surface, and probably wouldn’t notice if they disappeared altogether.
Her mum had told her that years ago that dolphins sometimes made their way into the Yarra from the bay, chasing fish with the sun shimmering on their backs. She knew this river was important, if only for its one of a kind fauna. Looking out at the river from Princes Bridge, she had more questions than answers.
He strolled down Flinders Walk, phone clutched in hand, the battery about to go flat from snapping photos all morning. Having known Melbourne for only a few weeks, the excitement of exploring a new city and impressing friends back in Vietnam was still buzzing. The Yarra river seemed like the most promising location his next Instagram post.
From Princes Bridge, he allowed his eyes to get lost in the scenery of the Yarra, from the water that peacefully coursed under the bridge to the vibrant grass and trees that ran along the river banks. Looking out, something caught his attention: a flock of small black birds that swooped down on the river’s surface looking for catchments.
He immediately remembered an old saying from his culture; ‘đất lành chim đậu’, meaning “where there is good land, birds will build their nests”. Hundreds of years ago, Vietnamese people realized that birds would only appear in areas or places that were blessed with utmost prosperity, where all natural elements mingled in harmony, ensuring a fulfilling life for those residing there. This became one of the most crucial criteria for Vietnamese kings to decide where to build their castles and for monks to choose a sacred ground to build pagodas and shrines.
The joyous chirping of a magpie brought him back to the present.
He’d heard that these birds were believed to carry the spirits of ancestors, watching over their land and give blessings to those living there.
He started to wonder at the history of the land. As he tried to spot more birds, telltale signs of the land’s past, he became curious of the river that he took so many pictures of but knew so little about.
She exhaled slowly, a long, deep pause to align herself with the calmness of the river. A soft breeze made the trees whisper; thousands of years of secrets passed from leaf to leaf. Surely she wasn’t the only one here who saw the Yarra’s beauty?
She caught him in the corner of her eye, his back pressed against the ledge of the bridge, struggling to fit his wide smile into the narrow frame. She smiled and offered to help, turning his attempted selfie into a portrait worthy of sharing on every platform.
The dark cormorants gathered in the near distance, some as still as statues, demanding for more of his photos. Together they laughed and looked on, as the birds posed and fought their way to the peaks of waste, as if they were aware of their human audience.
It wasn’t long before the couple’s shared curiosity of the river came to the surface, and they wondered about its history and significance, neither able to answer each other’s questions. His growing desire to learn about the river was inspiring and she felt motivated to know more, too. At first he only cared about his followers back in Vietnam, but with each step they took toward Federation Square, she knew he was becoming more interested in the Yarra itself. They wandered in the sunshine towards the arts and culture centre of Melbourne, an icon for both locals and international visitors. Koorie Heritage Trust read the large, black sign: they followed it, both fielding a passion to learn more about what the river used to be.
The guide took them inside, up the turning staircase with colourful paintings of Indigenous Australian patterns hanging on the walls, and into a room filled with ancient artefacts. They stopped at a long table full of drawings, maps and models of ancient tools. Their eyes widened and they gasped at the breathtaking oil paintings of what the Yarra river once was. The water was crystal-clear - a fragile, duck-egg blue - like a delicate strip of silk, seeping smoothly past villages of the Wurundjeri tribe. A curtain of white water cascaded over the grey rocks, forming a small waterfall that tumbled into the river. Lush green of gullies, fern trees, sugar gums and tea-trees hugged the river banks.
The guide explained that the Yarra river was once known as the ‘Birrarung’, translating to ‘river of mist’. The ‘Yarra Yarra’ was the name of the waterfall, which settlers misunderstood to be the name of the river itself.
‘The beautiful blue mist created by the gums and the eucalypts, when you go down here in summer you can smell the lemon in the air, it’s beautiful, but the wattles and banksias would have created a blue hue over the river that would be there most days and most afternoons and the trees would cast shadows, so it’s called the river of mists and shadows, that’s what it really means.’
The guide said that Birrarung river was a prolific food source for those living beside it, with a copious number of short-finned eels and sand mullets calling its waters home. The Indigenous Australians used branches, grass and vines to make fish traps.
‘This [the woven funnel of the fish trap] would be tied up and floated down the Yarra so the fish and eels would run into the neck. These guys [the fish and eels] would be so upset because once they got through the trap door on the other end, they would not be able to go past the same trap door again. The small layout of the trap prevented them to swim backwards and their bodies were too long to bother.’
He traced his hand along the model of the fish trap that the guide handed him.
It took his mind back to the fishing village that his grandparents came from; to that dusty cottage where Grandma would weave ‘fish baskets’ with bamboo and palm wood . The wood had been woven into funnels, with a long neck and a trap door to keep fish inside without letting them swims backwards, just like the ones made by Indigenous Australians. He thought about his beloved hometown, and the foreign river in this foreign land suddenly became strangely familiar.
Now he knew exactly what made the Birrarung River so special. Birrarung was Mother Nature to the people living along its side; she generously blessed her children with an abundance of food and resources to ensure they would thrive.
The Koorie Heritage Trust walking tour took them through locations they had been before; past ArtPlay where she had finger painted and attended writing workshops as a child; past grassy hills where he had sat with his friends and pigged out during the recent noodle market. The area was named Birrarung Marr - a name they recognised from their guide’s story of mistranslation. They both had memories on this land yet had no idea of its history or even what magic it held in the current day.
Their guide led them to a eucalyptus tree next to the Federation Square car park. He shook the branches and the group watched as white granules rained down around them, drifting like tiny snowflakes to the ground. He explained that it was a natural sugar, often called aperaltye, which Indigenous Australians used as a sweetener. Sheets or bowls would be placed underneath to catch the natural sugar as it fell from the branches, sometimes being rolled into balls and given to children as treats.
The guide showed them a portion of ochre from a nearby rock and encouraged them to try drawing on the concrete. It reminded her of drawing hopscotch squares on the pavement in prep. It reminded him of the school chalkboards in Vietnam.
The tour finished where their questions had begun. It was a beautiful winter day, the wind whipped up peaks in the water which glimmered in the sunlight. Looking over the river their guide told them that ‘sharks, stingrays and eels would come up and dolphins have been seen in the river’. At the thought of dolphins again, she secretly hoped one would appear at any moment. Usually she had to travel to see such incredible marine life in the wild. To him, the thought of seeing dolphins in a big city like Melbourne was unimaginable.
He strolled along Flinders Walk to get back home, his arms relaxed by his side. He looked at the birds rushing home before it got dark; this time he knew their names.
As an international student living in a stranger’s land with unfamiliar culture and people, he often felt left out. But now, he was no longer alone - instead, he could feel the memory of his family walking with him right now. He could hear his grandmother telling him that the black ducks and wood ducks on the river banks represented united bliss and tight-knit family community. He could hear his grandfather telling him that the magpies on the trees here brought good fortune and blessings. He could hear his parents explaining that the white-faced heron and nankeen night heron far on the other side of the river symbolised tranquility, wisdom and longevity.
To him, he knew he would always remember this walk with the Koorie Heritage Trust. The Yarra river brought him so much closer to home, even though he was thousands of kilometres away.
For her, learning that the Yarra river was once named Birrarung opened up a whole new perspective. She was now able to connect what it was before to how she experienced it now - to see beyond its murky waters and discover a newfound respect and love for the Birrarung.
The river is no longer just a waterway running beside us - the Birrarung is an incredibly special place, and one that continues to provide resources to those who reside alongside and within it.