Recovering the lost landscape of the Lower Birrarung
A rich diversity of plants and animals live in places where the saltwater ecosystem meets freshwater. This is due to the wide range of environmental conditions that can occur. This was certainly the case where Birrarung (the Yarra River) merged with Nairm (Port Phillip Bay).
A constant pulse of seasonal change shapes and reshapes the landscape: sometimes parched and sometimes waterlogged. One day, the river mouth is choked with sand brought by waves and tide from Nairm; and the next day, blasted wide open by the river in flood.
A place where freshwater meets saltwater is naturally rich in flora which could be regularly harvested. It would also be a logical point to wait for eels and other fishes that move seasonally between the saltwater and freshwater environments.
At times of low flow and low tide, it’s likely the river could be easily crossed at this point, making it a natural destination for Indigenous people moving around the top of the Bay. The area is close to the boundary of country of the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) people.
Low-lying, inter-tidal land on the western bank was dominated by saltmarsh. White Mangroves (Avicennia marina) established in the mouth of the Stony Creek.
The soil was a mix of basalt rock in clay and silts supporting different plant communities than those on the east bank. This diversified the harvest available to traditional land-owners. The eastern bank was dominated by sand dunes and marshes of varying salinity (from slightly brackish to salty) which provided breeding habitat for many ducks, other waterbirds, long-necked turtles and frogs.
Waterbirds common in Westgate Park today are representative of the pre-European environment. They include Black Swan, Pelican, Banded Stilt, Purple Swamphen, Chestnut Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal, White-eyed Duck, Hoary-headed Grebe, Eurasian Coot, Great Egret and Royal Spoonbill. Apart from providing a seasonal abundance for the Indigenous people, these species would ensure Tiger Snakes (still here today) never went hungry.
As the constant floods did not suit Europeans, the river was deepened and widened in 1879. In 1886 a wide bend in the river was eliminated with the creation of the Coode Canal, which took 2000 workers 20 years to complete.
The beach on the Yarra River bank at Westgate Park provides a clue to the original landscape which supported Coast Banksia Woodland. Significant remnants of the original saltmarsh can be seen at Webb Dock.
The journey of the iilk…..
The months of February and March were known to the Boonwurrung as wygabil nye-weeny or ’Old-Man Sun’, also known as the iilk (eel) season. During this season, the days became cooler as the ngamaee (sun) began to grow tired. The gareeal (summer rain) returned. The female iilk began their long journey down Birrarung (the River of Mists) and the wurneet (creek) that ran into nairm (Port Phillip Bay).
The iilk had grown fat on the food in birrarung and the wurneet and baany taageek (swamp) surrounding nairm. The female iilk were caught in long woven traps as they swam down the wurneet. But many iilk began a long journey, travelling out through the weegabeel wurneet channel of nairm and into the warreeny (sea). Once the iilk left they would not be seen again for many months.
The ngamaee grew weegabeel, changing from Manameet (Autumn) to Beerreen (no more sun). With the arrival of Pareip (Spring) – when the murnong (yam daisy) and kangaroo apple flowered—the iilk began returning from their long journey.
The return of the iilk was celebrated through dances and ngargee held during Pareip. The bagurrk (women) decorated their yarra (hair) with the yellow murnong flowers and the purple flower of the kangaroo apple. They drummed on drums made from walert (possum) skins stretched tightly over their knees.
They beat the drum with a rhythm that represented the pulsating beat of the iilk as they made their long journey. The guleeny (men) danced to the rhythm. The iilk that returned were salty but plump after their long journey. They were caught in long funnel-shaped traps woven by the baggurk.
Some of the iilk were roasted over hot coals, the fat causing the coals to flare. Some were hung over the weeny (fire) and smoked until they were dry then hung on tarrang (branches) to be eaten at a later time.
The migration of the iilk provided certainty for the Boonwurrung. The weegabeel (old) people had always told them that as surely as the sun would rise every day the iilk would always return in Pareip. The numbers of iilk leaving and returning each year was a
sign of prosperity. In good years, when the biik had been cared for—the laws of Bundjil obeyed—the iilk would breed in large numbers and return in Pareip in larger numbers. They would grow fat on the tubers and insects in the baany taageek and provide the Boonwurrung with a steady supply of food during the season of wygabil nye-weeny.
Story by Carolyn Briggs, extracted from ‘The Journey Cycles of the Boonwurrung’ published by Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages.
Photos by Naomie Sunner
This project is supported by Friends of Westgate Park through funding from the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country.