[ places - april 11 ]
Underneath Queensbridge Street in Melbourne, just above water level, is a cluster of stones. Just grey, narrow rocks, like fat fingers curled in a fist, they are the only reminder of the waterfall that, until two hundred years ago, was the only point of crossing for more than a hundred miles. Much like the Mekong that divides Thailand from Laos, the Birrarung in the Kulin Nation was a national border. It separated the area that the peoples of the Wurundjeri belonged to, from the area to which the peoples of the Bunurong belonged.
The Wurundjeri lived on the Fitzroy side, in woodlands thick with ancient red eucalypts. The Bunurong people lived on the St Kilda side, in the wetlands. They crossed the river for the same reasons people have always crossed bodies of water: love and shopping. The two tribes traded possum pelts from the woodlands for warmth and clothing, and reeds for baskets and nets from the wetlands. Young women crossed the river for love, and babies. Sent by male elders to other tribes to ensure that bloodlines didn’t cross, they may have travelled hundreds of miles to their new people, and may have never seen their old ones again.
Whatever their reasons, they had to cross at the waterfall. The river was twice as wide as it is now, and deep. The waterfall divided the mountains fresh water from the oceans salt water, and the opposing currents were strong. Swimming it could be very difficult. Now you probably could swim it, but you wouldn’t want to. The mercury levels are dangerous, and it is infected with faecal matter. Human.
Crossing a river requires concentration, the rocks are slippery with slime, sometimes colourless. Rocks pressed into firm holds by the pounding of millions of feet can change, with a shift of the moon, and become loose. Moving water distracts the senses, lulls and seduces the eyes to shift and to follow the movement of a leaf, or a bubble, over the rocks and below. A stumble is painful, a fall disastrous. With babies in baskets on the women’s backs, sticks in hand, the people picked their way carefully across, single-file, in bare feet.
Today, women stride over the bridge in pairs, in black suits with white athletic shoes, or in heels that clickety-click the grubby concrete. Perfume follows them in streams. At lunchtime, men in collared shirts dawdle over, with a plastic bag of take-away food swinging on their wrists, or stand still, looking down into the water, exhaling cigarette smoke from their noses in thin streams. Cars wait impatiently at the lights, then crawl over in short bursts. Cyclists spin past in a blur of needle-spokes and reflective tape.
As the only crossing point for a hundred miles, the Birrarung waterfall was a happy place. People were reunited after long absences and lit fires, ate and drank on the banks. There were ashes, remnants of meals – skins and feathers and scales. The smell was of tired, sweaty bodies, ash and the musk of the eucalyptus. Small children slept with their heads on piles of possum pelts. Fat dripping from roasting meat would have goaded the flames to crackle and spit, as animals lingered, outside the glow of the fires, to scavenge up the bones. When the sun went down, casting shades of flame onto the water, the cackle of kookaburras would have been deafening.
Today, there are plenty of bridges to cross upon, but Southbank is still a meeting place. Bright with lights and restaurants, tourists sit on chairs by the river, laughing and drinking imported beer from glass bottles, their bags of shopping leaning against their ankles. Seagulls squabble angrily over chips that fall from full plates and peck at electric-blue chewing gum glued to the footpath. Honeymooning couples entwine arms and eat ice-cream from paper cups. Low-lying boats chug upstream, emitting black clouds of diesel, and waves of white froth.
The land speaks to people, a Koori woman told me. We just have to shut up and listen. If you try, if you sit at the entrance to the Queensbridge Street Bridge, you will first hear the roar and rattle, like a clatter of old dentures, of the trains that pass over your head. It is dark from the train tracks, and cool, and people hide their faces in grubby blankets and sleeping bags on the concrete pylons that hold the trains in place above our heads. You will hear the chatter and chip-packet scrunching of school children, eating their lunch, excited from their trip to the aquarium. Eventually, you can tune that out, and you will start to hear the faint lapping sounds of the water, against stone walls, and the rustle of leaves from the solitary gums in the wind. You will hear the sound of your heart beating in your ears.
They missed it at first - the mouth of the river that would take them to the waterfall. The English mistook the thick reeds of the river for a wetland, and sailed past. But eventually, someone spotted it and they paddled their canoe upstream, and pulled in by the waterfall.
It is easy to imagine, knowing what we do now, that the beginning of colonialism in Melbourne was terrible, that the water of the river turned red with blood. But the truth is, in the beginning, the majority of the indigenous people from the Kulin nation were killed by good intentions. The English were horrified at the condition of the ‘poor savages’ clad in possum skins, and they encouraged them to burn them, and to take the blankets that they offered. They did, and the blankets were infected with small-pox, for which they had no resistance. The Wurundjeri peoples believed that smallpox was Mindye, a rainbow serpent from the Northwest sent to harm people for bad deeds. She spat her white poison at the peoples of the Wurundjeri.
In an endemic, small children die first, and in the way that children do: quietly and much too quickly. The very old, and pregnant women follow. In a short time, most of the people of the Kulin nation were dead. Their bodies line the banks of the Yarra, around the bridge, underneath the concrete that squeezes it into a narrow tube. Those that survived stopped having babies. Most left, and travelled north. The Kulin nation disappeared very quickly, and a new one began.
The new people built a dam around the waterfall to trap all the fresh water. It overflowed and flooded the wetlands. Realising their mistake, they laced the base with dynamite, and blew it up. Without the waterfall to divide it, the salt water mixed with the fresh, and along with the sewage that the growing population poured into the river, the water was contaminated. Drinking water was carried in from outside the town in barrels. Eventually, after a few attempts and failures, the current bridge was built.
Before the bridge, the men of the Kulin nation wove nets from reeds to catch the fish from the Birrarung. The wetlands were thick with animals for eating; snakes and lizards and fat water-birds. Strange fish swim in the river now. This morning, a school of polystyrene chips lingered near the edge of the bridge, while beneath the surface, a disco flounder of gold foil lay flat between the pull of two opposing currents. Bottles, cigarette butts, cardboard coffee cups – the detritus of city living. Urban off-cuts of modern lives. Metal nets catch the strange fish, and they are taken to the tip. The river water is black, and greasy, and smells like a polluted swamp, which it is.
Occasionally, dolphins are seen playing north of the bridge. It sounds pretty, and it is, but it means that the river is too salty. Without the waterfall, the seawater leaches too far upstream, and kills the life that can only survive in fresh water.
Sometimes, native swans glide slowly down the river in pairs, like a honeymooning couple. They pass the cluster of stones, those gravestones that mark the passing of the waterfall, cross necks, and nuzzle with their flat beaks. Darting under water, they preen themselves with a nibbling motion, and shake their heads to dry. The water rolls down their feathers in black beads.