Towering over the landscape, it is hard to imagine this wetland has historical importance and is a major part of manufacturing history in Victoria. Presently, it is part of Cheetham heritage-listed wetlands. As I come to visit Cheetham Wetlands, I learn of Richard Cheetham, the industrial entrepreneur and founder of Cheetham Saltworks. These harvesting ponds have been modified to home the various species of bird and plant life creating a unique ecosystem that is now under threat by urban development. Conflict brews in finding a middle ground between development and conservation.
The view is breathtaking standing on top of the lookout tower. Uninterrupted views of lagoons and marshes dot the nine-kilometre span of this beautiful Cheetham Wetlands, a once busy industrious salt refinery.
I can almost hear the ghostly sound of the old Saltworks in operation as the coastal winds swept inland, carrying the voice of Richard Cheetham working the refinery. A former employee of the Saltworks and now a ranger at Cheetham Wetlands, Bernie McCarrick’s words replicate history when Richard Cheetham was once an industrial entrepreneur.
“The first harvesting took place in 1926 and salt production continued up until 1992” says Bernie.
In 1888, Richard Cheetham established the Saltworks with his colleague A.W Cunningham and together they called it the Richard Cheetham & Company. They were well on their way to the beginning of a prosperous and booming company, which thrived from 1926 to 1992. The land was sought along Port Phillip Bay to accommodate the growth of Cheetham Saltworks, which then spread interstate to South Australia and Queensland. It is hard to imagine this wetland, with all its beauty as a major part of Australian manufacturing history for the production of salt. It is fascinating to hear Bernie describe the process of how the salt was manufactured and recall the various ponds that had been built.
As I walk through the grass overlooking the landscape of Port Phillip Bay, I know now the ocean contains over twenty million tonnes of salt per one cubic kilometre of seawater. Though this is how the production of salt occurs naturally, Richard Cheetham chose to create harvesting ponds. These took up vast amounts of open land to allow for sun and wind to contribute to the natural evaporative process in the creation of the salt. Gateways, which controlled the flow of brine, connected the ponds. Throughout the year when higher evaporation periods occurred, seawater would be used to top up the ponds.
According to Bernie, the process consisted of washing, drying, crushing and sieving before it was packaged and sent to the consumer. The machinery would separate and bring the layer of salt from the crystallised ground as the conveyer belt worked overtime, processing the salt into large piles.
Gazing around the vast wetlands, an image of the once thriving Saltworks appears before me to form my newfound knowledge of the history behind this landscape. My view of the altered lagoons and flowing waterways along with the salinity and tidal flows has created this beautiful salt marsh.
A once industrious Saltworks now known as Cheetham Wetlands is owned by Parks Victoria and managed by park rangers and caretakers. I can see this wetland is a popular attraction as I notice numerous visitors carrying cameras and binoculars to witness the array of birds, which have travelled as far as overseas to be here.
A well-displayed sign directs me to follow the walking track, meandering 1.5 kilometres towards the lookout tower. Viewing the information board, I am fascinated to learn of the numerous waders and shorebirds that fly 13,000 kilometres from the Arctic Circle to Victoria’s coastal wetlands.
Walking along the path and winding boardwalks, modified salt ponds and newly structured lagoons appeared to create a suitable habitat for the various species of birdlife. The sound of birds and unique flora are prolific along the walkway and a stunning invitation to explore this hinterland. I can understand how the wetland attracts large number of shore birds and migratory waders as it offers a safe haven with an abundance of food, which the salt marshes provide.
Observing the ponds throughout the salt marsh, recollections of Bernie’s information reveal where the various species of birds reside. With my feet planted on the edges of one pond, where I stand enables me to see how ducks and swans dwell in shallow ponds whereas long-legged wading birds preferred the deep waters of the salt marshes. To witness the Orange-bellied Parrot, last seen in 2004, would have been an incredible sight.
Noisy chatter is heard amongst the array of birds jostling for their evening resting place as the sun set over the salt marshes. Walking further along the track, it is evident predators are near to these birds as their evening rituals would soon turn into flutters of confusion. Along my way, I am informed that Victoria Park Rangers conduct fortnightly culling of rabbits and foxes as these salt marshes create havens for vermin. This is a required procedure to maintain the sanctum of these birds.
Protecting the wetland is part of the process under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty to protect migratory birds at Cheetham and surrounding wetlands. The Ramsar Convention was established in 1971 to preserve remaining wetlands through an ecological and sustainable management strategy.
Along the boardwalk and dirt path, I see the Chaffy Saw-sedge, a habitat for the rare Altona Skipper Butterfly. Other notable grasses and sedgeland are home to various species. The indigenous Rounded Noon Succulent plant displays a contrast of red and green colours across the neutral planes. I can hear the buzzing sounds from insects hovering around the ponds, fair game and food for the hungry birds nearby. The diversity of insects and productive eco-system seemed to act as an ecological buffer as my journey continued through the salt marsh.
The same yellow carpet of flowers that greeted me now sees me out. It provides an alluring visual to one time visitors strolling by. Unbeknownst to them, these plants are Oxilus weeds, distributed throughout the wetlands in vast clusters and appear successful in competing against these native plants.
A gentle wind swirls briskly ahead as rubbish sprawls randomly amongst the flora.
Is the vast amount of pollution scattered in front of the wetlands entrance a sign of impending developments? The metal barricades feel firmly positioned below the ground as I shake the metal bars to see if they are permanently installed. Human touch must still keep its distance but a sense of sadness overwhelms me as I step back to view the array of developments nearby.
It feels as if these developments along with the ever-increasing population of the Hobson’s Bay area will suffocate these unique wetlands. In time, this landscape could become a fleeting moment in our history, depriving future generations of this natural vision once the process of development begins.
A sense of betrayal lingers in these parts and my revelations were validated as I discuss the futures of these developments with Joan Lindros. Joan Lindros is President of the Geelong Environment Council (GEC) and a keen activist who agreed to provide information and express her concerns towards the encroaching development.
According to Joan, Ridley Corporation have a proposal to turn the salt fields into a marina and housing development, including a canal housing estate. Canal estates were previously not approved under the Victorian Coastal Strategy until the previous Liberal Government overturned rulings to allow building proposals on the area.
I can hear her concerns for the locals and the overwhelming power of big money now colliding to seal the fate of this slice of natural wonder.
Disappointment strikes me upon learning about the $4 billion dollar marina, housing developments and golf course plan with no ratified assurance towards the sustainability of Cheetham Wetlands. It is disappointing to learn the purpose of this trade off of the crown land for something less environmentally valuable owned by the Ridley Corporation near Avalon.
Lindros and her colleagues however, have other ideas.
The GEC proposes for this wider hinterland, which encompasses Cheetham, to create a “Victorian Nature Reserve of dispersed water bodies” known officially as the Moolap Wetlands. This is to protect the bird, plant and marine life, which create this gentle circle of harmonious living.
The Victorian Nature Reserve would not only protect the flora and fauna, but would bar proposals of a contrived waterfront living arrangement.
To think this land, which birthed this very ecosystem, could be conserved, sends a flurry of optimism through me as I visualise what would be the concentrated efforts of a community trying to save this wonder.
As I depart from this natural wonder, I reflect on the history of the Saltworks and these salt marshes. I can only envision what the future holds. It is hard for me to comprehend that someday estates could replace this wetland. I would rather have the indigenous plants and the soundtrack of migratory birds be passed down the generations.