Thursday, 11 October 2018

How South Gisborne Drain became Bungil Creek

We gather in light rain in a cleft of open ground between two creeks and a road, here in one of the growing edges of Gisborne. The rain is welcome. It gleams on the roofs of the new estates, trickles its way to downpipes and disappears, but the drains lead here to this confluence of creeks.

Amanda Gauci, Helen Radnedge and David Galloway at the renaming

We're celebrating the renaming of the South Gisborne Drain. It is now Bunjil Creek, a name chosen by the Wurundjeri Council. It’s on the Victorian Register of Geographic Names. Bunjil as in Bunjil the edge-tailed eagle, the ancestor, who circles high above Mount Gisborne, where this creek begins.

Search for Fersfield Road and Aitken Streets on Google Maps, and east of that junction you'll see a dotted blue line that disappears, then reappears a little north as 'South Gisborne Drain'. Then it disappears again. Where has it gone? It’s a creek, so it going downhill, north towards Jackson's Creek. When you drive from Riddell to Gisborne on the Kilmore Road, and come into Gisborne town past the bowling club, right onto Melbourne Road – there it is again Bunjil Creek, safely housed in a broad bluestone culvert that sends water under the road to Jacksons Creek. A forgotten creek, a hidden creek.

When I was a kid in North Box Hill, before the suburbs finally settled in, we played in creeks like this. We dammed them and built bridges and got covered in mud and burrowed our way inside groves of gorse and broom to secret hideaways. One big adventure was this: to walk underground through a big concrete culvert, a thin flow of brown water between your legs as you rocked side to side, and come out 20 or 50 metres later at the edge of a road or creek, blinking in the sunlight.

Creeks and open drains gave way to bitumen and underground drains. That's brought safety to the suburbs, and less mud, but we lost our creeks. They are still there, underground, but not the creek as a living thing. All that rushing, muddy, sweaty creekness disappears, the creek swollen in winter, dangerous, and in summer, a thin stream and the sound of crickets. We lose the danger and forbidden edges. It’s been no contest of course. Drains deliver efficiency in managing water, and also a fair quantum of land. New land that can be sold. New land that is appropriated by the quick and opportunistic.

So to recapture a creek in the middle of urban expansion anywhere in metropolitan Melbourne is a major achievement. After the renaming ceremony, Melbourne Water and Council staff headed into the rest of their working day and a few community people repaired to a local cafe to dry off and rest a little longer in the moment. Of course, it's not 'a moment'. The renaming has been two and a half years of patient work, pulling to light what was hidden in plans and Council minutes and agency files. Time spent not taking things for granted, asking difficult questions.

Some of the Gisborne gang: Jackson O'Neill, Helen Radnedge and Amanda Gauci

It's always bemused me that Landcare is promoted through photos of hillsides covered with those plastic plant guards, when the hard work is the hours at night spent reading plans closely, untangling who is responsible, writing letters and funding applications, insisting that what was promised in the plan or strategy is delivered, here, right here, in the middle of this messy contest between private and public interests. Caring for where you live means wrestling with cumbersome bureaucracies and entrenched perceptions and values within local communities.

So here’s cheers to the good folk at Gisborne! You’ve got us thinking about our own drain here in Riddells Creek!

The Riddell Main Drain, outside the Bakery
The Main Drain heading to Station St and eventually Riddells Creek

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Sunbury Rings

We’re standing beside one of the Sunbury Rings with Uncle Dave Wandin, part of the Narrap Team that manages  properties owned by the Wurundjeri Council. When I first heard about these ceremonial grounds on the outskirts of Sunbury, I imagined in my mind’s eye a broad raised mound on the creek flats, hidden away somewhere, an ancient gathering place for hundreds. The reality is different: the rings are small, inscribed into the hillside above Jacksons Creek, the weathered shape of bank cut into on one side of the slope and the earth moved to the other side to make up a circle of level ground four metres or so across.

In fact, nothing is as I imagined it. The Rings are not hidden away, but in plain view, on the side of the valley across from the railway line as it descends into Sunbury. I must have looked out towards the Rings many times on the train to Melbourne. And these are not broad mounds where hundreds gathered, warriors rattling their spears, but something more intimate, a place where the men and women convened separately to make preparations, each out of sight of the other, then met in the third ring for a marriage ceremony, this site more complex, a circle contained in a wider circle, but still nothing grand, a place to sit in groups in the firelight, with singing and dancing in the centre of the circle, a living room if you like.

The Rings are high on the hillside because the valley was once not so deeply incised when they were first made and used sometime in the last 30,000 years. The creek would have been nearby. They were a place for family groups to meet, families that followed the seasons and the food, at a time when perhaps 20,000 Wurundjeri were living in all that country where the water flows to the bay. Not so many people in such a large area; now we have five million and more as development pushes out along creeks and hillsides just like these in Sunbury.

The original shape has weathered down, but the intent remains

And Uncle Dave isn’t quite as I imagined him. He’s wearing an orange AustralBricks jumper. He doesn’t hammer us with a sermon, but talks matter-of-factly of the life of the Wurundjeri then, as he and other elders have pieced it together from the historical record and family stories and from a feeling for how to live in this kind of country. The past and the present are a continuity for him. He is Wurundjeri, and a contemporary man, acceding to the wishes of his elders not to redig the Rings to their original shape, as he would like, but to leave them weathered, protected by fences, to leave them in peace now that a little of what had been has been recovered and granted some respect. Many elders are tired after the long fight, they too want a bit of peace, he tells us.

Uncle Dave Wandin
We walk along the hillside between the Rings and Uncle Dave shows us where he demonstrated traditional burning last year to the Hume Shire and other fire people, burning separate patches of grasses, each lit with one match he says, reading the wind and temperature conditions and the lie of the land to know exactly where each burn would finish. ‘We teach our kids to swim so they are safe and happy around water – why not teach them to use fire, so they are just as comfortable and safe with fire?’

I hear a mind and imagination at work here, learning how to heal Country, building links with mainstream fire and environment people, fighting the constraints imposed by regulation and planning, even when people with money and influence have different plans. 

We’ve been slow in the Landcare movement to make allies here, out of our fear for our property and fear of the other-ness of Aboriginal people. Yet hidden in plain sight, they are people like you and me, getting on with learning how to care for Country, whatever the obstacles.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Monday, 17 September 2018

Suburban riddles

The houses are going up along Gap Road, and I’m a worried man. I’m sad about the Turner block being cut up, but not with the presence of more housing itself. The outer northern layer of the town has had its long term density settled in the Structure Plan, and with no prospect of greater density, the owner decided to subdivide. It had to happen some time.

The earthworks for the new owners have swept all before, grinding terrain into easier shapes for the humans. The roos have fled north to quieter habitat. They are camped out in Barrm Birrm and come down in big mobs to the road verges at night for the grass. The creek flat below my house sees regular visits from an extended family. They have been displaced, but they are mobile and they will adapt. None of this worries me.

What worries me is the houses. Facing the street, not the sun. Without eaves, the body of the house built to its edges like a bulbous muffin. I don’t understand: why would you not build a house to invite in the warmth of the winter sun, and shade you from the wild summer heat? How long have we known this? How much longer will it take for the realisation that we live in a world of sun and seasons to seep into the drafting rooms of project home builders and into the aspirations of their clients? 

What worries me is the absence of regard for the natural world evident in building a residence in ignorance or bloody minded defiance of something as simple as the way the sun travels across the sky. That same lack of regard enables a man to back his truck into Barrm Birrm, just off Royal Parade, and dump a load of earth and gravel. That same defiance of an order other than self-interest is what enables another man, and yes I’ll put money on them being men, to drive his 4WD deep into the woodlands and empty the unwanted contents of his garage.

Combine this self-serving individualism with a town planning regime which aspires only to manage the excesses of developers, and we’re really in trouble. Architecture critic Owen Hatherley on Radio National’s Blueprint for Living thinks that what makes the European city different to the Anglo-Saxon ‘unplanned, car-centred, developer-led urban norm’ is a tradition of planning where what is desired and valued is built into the urban fabric, through deliberation with citizens. We colonials have been consulted and consulted on the future of Riddells and the Macedon Ranges, but precious little of the considered opinion of citizens has made it into our town plan or the new Statement of Planning Policy for Macedon Ranges (go to for an infuriating update). 

We think we’re separate, a species apart, while all around the season surges from cold to warmth and on into heat. A kilometre up the bitumen from the Turner block, Barrm Birrm is coming into its springtime shifts. The wattles are blooming and fading in succession, the delicate hardenbergia bursts purple underfoot. 

Soon will come the lilies, and then finally the grasses, their orange heads of seed on a single stalk sprung skywards from a fine shimmer of green.

I’m with Billy Bragg: “The only antidote to cynicism is activism.” Join me Saturday 22 September, 10-12, then again on 20 October at the same time, at the junction of Gap Road and Royal Parade, to clear weed trees in Barrm Birrm. If you’re handy with a 4WD pickup, a chainsaw, a pruning saw or mattock, bring them. You’ll improve your acacia identification skills as we hunt and destroy Cootamundra, Sallow and Ovens Valley Wattles. Along the way, we’ll be surrounded by Barrm Birrm’s springtime show of lilies and orchids, and a kangaroo or three.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,

Thursday, 30 August 2018

What if we thought of Barrm Birrm as a Park?

In the depths of winter, I drove north to Darwin, and came home with my soul full of this big land and park management on my mind. 

Yellow Waters, Kakadu National Park

Ulluru, on Anangu Country

It was still winter in Riddells, and the weeds and veggies had barely moved, but two new houses on Gap Road had their framing up, and another bush block ‘for Nature Lovers’ was up for sale.

You know what it's like when you come back from a good trip: half of me was still at Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The National Park is a case study in crowd control. The week before our stay, the camping ground stretched to 2000 people a night, in caravans, trailers and tents. Then there’s the four hotels and a couple of low-rise apartment complexes. All full: the winter months brought us greying nomads in droves, and it was the school holidays too.

Most of us were up before dawn, off to watch the dawn break over Uluru or Kata Tjuta, and quite few came back for the sunset, bulging 4wds and campers disgorging happy campers at strategically located car parks to sip vino and wait for that precise moment when the big rock turns bright crimson, a brief flare of luminous light before it sinks into the darkening horizon. 

Again, as it has for a long time.

We were all pretty well-behaved, but then, we were all very well managed. Excellent places from which to view the attractions, with good gravel paths and unobtrusive fencing to keep us in. Sealed roads, no access for off-road driving, good signage, toilets, water points on walks, thoughtful routes, and information at key points to tell us what we were looking at and how it was once used.

The Park is under joint management with the Anangu people, and a high point for me was a video at the Cultural Centre on the 1975 handback. People talked about what the handback meant to them. They were proud to have legal title to their Country, and happy that so many people now come and enjoy the Park, but behind the spectacle of this Park is the politics of white and black. Friends in Alice Springs told us the community is unhappy, ans that many feel that few benefits have flowed through to the community. Aboriginal heritage brings in the visitors, but just what ‘joint management’ means is an on-going struggle.

When I got home, I took a walk through Barrm Birrm, 120 hectares of bush uphill of Royal Parade and Gap Road in Riddells Creek. Eroding tracks run off into this place of many yams, a beautiful but troubled no-man’s land. Sub-divided into 165 lots in 1975, there’s never been permission to build. People hoped there might be, but the conservation value of the area now has priority.

Grsslands meet forest in the woodlands of Barrm Birrm

Who manages this de facto park? Precisely …. no-one. With no signs saying what you can and can’t do, and no fence to keep people out, Barrm Birrm showcases the best and worst of human nature. In the last two months: a truck-sized dump of soil and three trailer-sized dumps of garage rubbish; winter wood gathering and a frenzied axe attack on a cluster of trees; a deer shot, alive and left to bleed out, two foxes shot and laid out as trophies, a dumped sheep and a steel trap with a kangaroo leg in it. 

It's open season on deer at Barrm Birrm

Exotic acacias blooming. Tracks eroding. Bikes and 4WDs bashing more tracks to get around fallen trees. Spring will bring city campers who don’t know this is private land or the damage they do. When I despair, I think of the long game:

“Once a multiplicity of nourishing terrains, there is now a multiplicity of devastations. And yet, the relationship between Indigenous people and country persists. It is not a contract but a covenant, and no matter what the damage, people care.” (Deborah Bird Rose, 1996)

Come to Riddells Landcare’s AGM 15 September, 2-4 to find out what you can do to look after Barrm Birrm, and to learn from Yvonne Cabuang, Waterwatch Coordinator, what’s in our creeks. Then join us Saturday 22 September, 10-12, junction of Gap Road and Royal Parade, to clear rubbish and weed trees in Barrm Birrm and set priorities. If you’re handy with a 4WD pickup or a chainsaw, bring them. 

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare,