The Yarra River is one of Melbourne’s iconic geographical features. It is also largely the reason for its founding as ‘British settlement’. Or rather, it was part of the hostile invasion of the continent started in Botany Bay. The founding of the nascent city along the banks of what came to be known as the Yarra facilitated a rapid colonisation (dispossession) of First Nations peoples throughout the region that has become known as Victoria.*
The work of Gary Presland (The Place for a Village) and James Boyce (1835) clearly articulate the violence committed upon the landscape in the name of setting up and establishing the settler city. The Wurundjeri people were dispossessed of their lands and no longer had access to their hunting grounds and the river: Birrarung – ‘River of Mists’. While this name has disappeared, other place names retain their real name – even if their meanings are ignored. ‘Kooyong’ takes its name from one of the seasons: meaning ‘eel’. Toorak means ‘ready swamp’ and Prahran comes from two words meaning ‘land partially surrounded by water’.
The river was straightened upon colonisation/invasion as a means of making it more amenable to the colonisers. The river was used as a dumping ground for waste for the factories and industry which emerged over time. Present day Melburnians laugh at the idea of swimming in the river; only a few people can be seen fishing from its banks in Burnley. The health of the river has been severely compromised. Over the past 180 years the river has shifted from being a resource to something that is to be manipulated and co-opted for economic development, regardless of questions of sustainability.
Sporting the river. The present-day river, nonetheless, can also be regarded a picturesque scene of sporting activity. The river is a training ground for the many rowing clubs of private schools of Melbourne’s inner suburbia. The more prestigious schools and universities have their clubrooms closer to the St Kilda Road bridge, opposite Birrarung Marr. Schools such as Melbourne Girls College, St Kevins and Essendon Grammar have club rooms in a stretch of the river roughly around Burnley. Rowing was one of the most popular sports in the early days of Melbourne as a settler society and until this day the sport retains its elitist connotations through its fostering by private schools.
The gentle lapping at the water of the boats contrasts with the harsh instructions that are shouted by the rowers’ coaches who ride along the river banks on club bikes. They berate the rowers through a megaphone and create a short-lived cacophony. Their slow riding is also juxtaposed against the speed of commuter cyclists dressed in their lycra and always ready to tell runners and casual cyclists to get out of their way.
Rowing seems deeply implicated in the creation of a secular sporting space upon the river. I wonder what efforts are being made to reclaim the Yarra as the Birrarung. The ongoing decline of rivers elsewhere might perhaps spur a few urban Melburnians to reconsider the river and acknowledge its pre-invasion ownership.
*I try to state this as plainly and ubiquitously as possible for it seems to be a truth unacknowledged by so many. Of course, many are aware of the brutality of Melbourne’s origins, but I want to include it in my starting point for understanding the characteristics of this seemingly very ‘liveable’ city.