For tens of thousands of years the presence of fire has been a reality check in this, the world’s smallest and outside of the Antarctic, the driest continent on Earth. Aboriginal people used these ingredients to their advantage in pre-history, regularly burning the countryside to reduce fuel loads and promote game in a practice we now call “firestick farming”. Early European navigators noted the smoke from the decks of their rolling ships and called Australia that “burning country” while remarking at the same time on the “park like” nature of its scenery. But it was no park. It was a carefully crafted mosaic habitat, created by the locals using a system of land management that had been learned and developed by their forebears over generations.
All human activity has the potential to force changes on the natural order and it seems likely that the Indigenous approach gradually modified the Australian landscape by promoting the spread of volatile, Eucalypt forest at the expense of naturally less flammable plants. The overland explorer of south-eastern Australia Thomas Mitchell observed that, “Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos.” In the Pacific Rim, the extinction of giant flightless Moa birds in New Zealand and the whole sale destruction of the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests of Easter Island shows what can happen when humans get it wrong but generally Australia’s First people lived in a harmonious relationship with the land.
The Australian continent the Aboriginals sought to successfully control is a hugely fire prone land and nowhere is this more-so than in its South Eastern corner. A recent report by an independent assessment group (Risk Frontiers) ranked the top 10 fire danger post codes in Australia by risk potential and wouldn’t you know it? They are all located in Victoria. It’s a danger that might not have been fully appreciated by the initial wave of European settlers in the 19th century but with the end of Aboriginal land management, the bush was primed for what came next. In terms of the area damaged, the devastating bush fires that consumed much of the Port Phillip District on “Black Thursday”, 6 February, 1851 still stand as the most wide spread of the dozens of major fires that have occurred in the State of Victoria since European settlement. Over five million hectares of country burned and a million sheep were destroyed in 1851, while the comparatively low human death toll of 12 is perhaps only a reflection of the small and dispersed population of the Port Phillip District at that time.
“Fire commenced by the upper Plenty River when bullock-drivers left a smouldering fire behind them. Driven by strong, hot, north winds, it swept through the Plenty and Diamond Creek districts and close to Heidelberg before joining with other fires. Thousands of hectares of grassland were burnt; dozens of homesteads, woolsheds, bridges and shacks were destroyed; crops were lost and thousands of head of stock incinerated. Even though so close to the source of the fire, “Yallambee” escaped.”
(Calder, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, recording the tale of the 1851, Port Phillip District bush fires.)
As remarked by Calder, John and Robert Bakewell’s Yallambee Park missed most of the destruction wrought by the 1851 fires although it is known that other properties in Heidelberg area were amongst those affected. Fire was an ever present concern in the colonial period and Calder records that a later fire may have been the eventual fate of the Bakewells’ original wooden “Yallambee” farm house although direct evidence of this beyond the anecdotal would appear to be slight.
“It has been claimed that there was a serious fire in 1866 which destroyed the Bakewell house.” (Calder, ibid, p77)
The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the boundary between two fire services, the Country Fire Authority on the Lower Plenty side and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the Yallambie side but fires are no observer of official boundaries. On Christmas Eve last year fire trucks raced up Greensborough Rd from here towards a fire in the Plenty Gorge near the Metropolitan Ring Rd while the month before, four fires started overnight in Lower Plenty and Viewbank between Edward Willis Court and Seymour Rd. We could see the lights of the emergency service vehicles from that fire flashing across the valley in the night and wondered what was up. It was confirmation if confirmation had been needed that even here in the suburbs the landscape is not without fire risk.
The deadly Black Saturday Bushfires 10 years ago will never fade from memory and most people living on this side of town probably knew somebody directly affected by the disaster, but as our news services continue to ring this year with the latest stories of the calamitous 2020 bush fires sweeping across the country right at this moment, it is the national scale and the sheer breadth of the disaster that makes this fire season stand alone. Virtually the whole continent is on fire in some part or in some place, burning even as I sit here, typing about it like Nero on his fiddle while Rome burned. You can smell it on the air and see it in the afternoon light. There is no escape.
So what can we do? Australia has just recorded its hottest and driest year on record. Again. Many now believe that it is human-caused global warming that has raised the severity of heat events and the associated dangers of wildfire by speeding up the annual drying of the rural landscape. The southern part of Australia has warmed on average by about 1.5° C since 1950 but try telling the politicians that there are consequences to pulling fossil fuels out of the ground with our opposable thumbs to fuel antiquated carbon emitting power stations and you will likely be met by indifference. Some reports state that the 2019/20 fires have already filled the Australian skies with two thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and experts are warning that it may take forests more than 100 years to re-absorb what’s been released so far in this season. That’s assuming that in a hundred years we still have forests.
Addressing the British Parliament in July last year on the dangers of man-made climate change, Legendary natural historian and documentary film maker, David Attenborough said that, “Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”The sight of Sir David looking out from behind the lens of his camera in the future and saying, “I told you so” ain’t going to help us much but maybe, just maybe it might be the consequences of this season’s fires that will at last spur Australia into some sort of climate action. Sir David has long resisted attempts at politicizing his life’s work but at age 93 he’s going for broke and taking aim at government policies head on:
“We have to convince bankers and big business that, in the end, the long-term future lies in having a healthy planet. And unless you do something about it… you’re going to lose your money.”
So there’s the crux of it. Mention furry animals and trees and you will be met by stony silence from Government circles but talk to them about economics and potential damage to property, the financial sector and the danger to the quintessential Aussie way of life and you just might get some action. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series, the Golgafrinchams adopt the leaf as legal tender, burning down all the forests they find in order to avoid the rampant hyper-inflation of the currency that the presence of too many trees has created. The story was a jest, yes but possibly you know a Golgafrincham. I suspect there may be one wanting to stand as your member come the next election.
“Formulating policy means making choices. Once you do that you please the people that you favour, but infuriate everybody else. One vote gained, ten lost. If you give the job to the road services, the rail board and unions will scream. Give it to the railways, the road lobby will massacre you.”
Sir Humphrey Appleby spelling out the fractious world of transport policy, Episode 5, Series 3, Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails”, 1982.
The release of a little light reading in the form of a voluminous, Environmental Effects Statement by the North East Link Authority last month has been received with interested concern by some, derided by others, while yet proving the truth of that old adage, “When you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing no one.”
The $16 billion Link, which in effect will extirpate the western end of the Yallambie estate with a sunken surface road parallel to the Greensborough Hwy, is due to open in 2027 and is projected to funnel an extra 100,000 cars a day onto an expanded Eastern Freeway by 2036, up to a total of 135,000 with traffic experts rightly summing it up as:
“…a short-sighted solution to population growth and would only increase the city’s dependence on cars.” (Clay Lucas, The Age, April 25, 2019).
While reaching any agreement on Melbourne roads is about as easy it seems as reaching nuclear agreement on the Korean Peninsula, there seems to be a consensus in some quarters that the north east of Melbourne is already an unsustainably car dependent side of town and a suspicion that the creation of a Link will simply encourage thousands more commuters to leave the existing train networks in favour of roads.
Short sections of the Eastern Freeway are expected to expand to up to 20 lanes to accommodate the project but as has been proved time again all around the world, as a general rule of thumb the building of major road projects increases traffic volumes without a commensurate decrease in congestion. After those 20 lanes narrow back to six or eight further along the way, what will happen to the extra traffic? Jago Dodson, a professor of urban policy at RMIT University, summed this up by saying that when it comes to NEL, Melbourne is fast heading “towards the failed situation of Sydney where they try to reconcile the incoherence of planning by building large mega projects.” With Melbourne already predicted to outstrip Sydney in size by 2026, it’s not rocket science.
As an environmental report, the North East Link Authority’s 10,000 page Environmental Effects Statement I must say is a daunting prospect. I don’t suppose there are many who will manage to read it in its entirety. I certainly haven’t done so, but then maybe that’s just the point. As Sir Humphrey would tell you, if you want to make sure some awkward truths stay ignored, try hiding them away in plain sight inside the detail.
You can look at the report locally at an information office that the NELA has opened at 17 Watsonia Rd, Watsonia but for what it’s worth, here is the hard reality of just a little bit of that detail, spelled out here before the first bulldozer rolls past your door next year.
It will be no use saying afterwards we weren’t warned.
The North East Link project will require the permanent acquisition of a combined total of 182,300 square metres of open territory and recreational areas. This is the equivalent of nine MCGs spread across the municipalities of Whitehorse, Yarra, Boroondara, Manningham and Banyule. Dual 3 lane road tunnels will be built under Heidelberg and Bulleen with 12-storey ventilation stacks being needed at either end, including one inside the Simpson Barracks at Yallambie south of Blamey Rd. Three temporary construction compounds will be developed at the Barracks, one at the north west corner of Yallambie and Greensborough roads, a second on the south side of Blamey Road extending south and a third extending further south along the western flank of Greensborough Rd.
About three kilometres of water flowing through two separate creeks will need to be diverted and turned into drains, including the Banyule Creek which has its source within the south western boundary of Yallambie and which in turn feeds the magnificent wetlands environment of the Banyule Flats Reserve over in Viewbank.
Up to 26,000 trees will be removed by the project with open space at Koonung Reserve, Koonung Creek Reserve, Watsonia Station Carpark Reserve and Watsonia Rd Reserve all being lost.
Borlase Reserve in the south western corner of Yallambie near the Lower Plenty and Greensborough Rd intersection will be particularly hard hit. Borlase Reserve will be entirely consumed by a construction compound during the build with less than half of it expected to be returned to the Yallambie community after construction of the Lower Plenty Rd interchange, potentially making the area no longer viable as an area of passive open space. A four metre high noise wall will be a visually dominant feature around the Lower Plenty Rd interchange which will result in a significant and permanent change to the landscape in the nearby surrounding residential streets.
The above-ground sections of the road link are expected to have the biggest and most obvious environmental impact with eight hectares of woodland in Yallambie’s Simpson Barracks alone expected to be destroyed, impacting kangaroos and other wild life along the way by removing their habitat. Hundreds of large, mature trees will either be cleared away during this process or lose water supply to their roots and die, but a trade-off promise to replace lost trees with 30,000 new plantings will take decades to have any significant effect. Of special mention is a 300 year old River Red Gum near a service station in Bulleen which is on the National Trust Significant Tree Register. A local landmark, it is just one of those ear marked for the big chop while another 150 other patches of native vegetation spread over 52 hectares will be removed, including 22 hectares where native and threatened wildlife are found.
So that in a nut shell is what the North East Link Authority is all about. I find it a source of wonder that there hasn’t been more objection heard about this project up to date with the plan still wading around in its early stages. The failed East West Link project copped far more flak, and that misguided idea never moved further than a few lines pushed around a map with some properties peremptorily and unnecessarily acquired before an election. Part of the reason for this apparent lack of interest could be that all those car users living in Melbourne’s heavily car dependent north east may actually be in favour of the road when push comes to shove. It’s an attitude that might hold water with those people who drive on Rosanna Rd regularly, comfortable in the belief that the new road won’t necessarily roll out anywhere near their own back yard, but there is also the Government’s successful policy of divide and conquer to take into consideration, a policy which was implemented to such good effect in the second half of 2017. That battle became a bit of a running theme in this blog for a while, but by suggesting four potential routes for NEL right from the start, Corridors A, B, C and D, the net effect has been largely to dilute the argument right across the board.
Last week Banyule Council, while acknowledging the Government’s mandate to complete the road, released their own, well-considered proposal to modify the existing plan of Corridor A. The Council’s alternative involves a road tunnel that would be 2 kilometres longer than the current 6 km design, increasing the cost by an estimated $350 million and take an extra 1 ½ years longer to complete. It’s a design however the Council says would spare us many of the negative social and environmental consequences of the project. Critics have quickly lined up to dismiss the changes and list what they see as a range of possible negative effects, including a temporary occupation as a work site of a part of Watsonia Primary School and the AK Lines Reserve, and a longer than anticipated shut down of the Hurstbridge rail line around Watsonia Station, but Banyule Council’s Cr Tom Melican speaking in support of the Council proposal said:
“We’re spending an enormous amount of money, dividing the community and wrecking parkland; we’d better make sure we get it right.”
With the environmental impact still a matter of debate, there seems to me to be plenty of opportunity here to get it wrong.
The writings of the early settlers in this country are filled with observations of the harsh climate they encountered and the difficulties they had reconciling local conditions with what they left behind in Europe. It is known that cool and moist air inside a forest can contribute to rainfall in a process called stomata, but the lesson those settlers eventually learned is, you cut down trees at the peril of the environment in this dry country. After more than 180 years of settlement, Victoria is now reportedly the most deforested state in Australia and more than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of John Batman’s arrival is now gone.
Scientists have gathered much evidence to support a claim that trees and the natural environment can improve our mood and general state of health, although in practice the jury is out as to exactly how or why this occurs. One theory is that beneficial bacteria, plant derived essential oils and negatively charged ions all combine to increase our well being. Another way of looking at this would be to simply say that being connected to nature provides us with relief from the stress and anxieties of modern living. A North East Link road might solve a transport problem in an ever expanding capital city, but how much is the solution also contributing to some of those stresses? Does the end justify the means?
Before the last State election, the Government announced a plan to build a 120km hiking trail that would extend from the Cape Conran Coastal Park to the summit of Mt Ellery and the alpine forests of the Errinundra Plateau. It was a pitch to the conservation vote during an election campaign which aimed to create a “Sea-to-Summit” walking track through some of the State’s last remaining areas of unspoiled wilderness. It sounded like a good idea at the time but after the Government was re-elected it transpired that the chosen route passed through many areas already ear marked by VicForests for logging and some clear felling had already begun.
Challenged by the media exposure of this story, Alex Messina, VicForests’ General Manager of Corporate Affairs dismissed the walking trail idea saying that part of the proposed track fell along an access route created for logging trucks.
“The route in remotest east Victoria utilises roads designed for timber haulage, not to optimise scenic tourism experience.”
(Alex Messina, quoted in The Age, February 13, 2019)
The cultural value of our trees is a sometimes under appreciated resource. Out in western Victoria, VicRoads is currently planning to duplicate a 12 ½ kilolmetre section of the Western Hwy from Buangor to Ararat to reduce travel time on the route by an estimated two minutes. The VicRoads plan will require the destruction of over 260 trees sacred to the Djap Wurrung peoples, including an Aboriginal birthing tree, with one elder, Sandra Onus, quoted in The Age saying, “We’re just trying to keep as much of our cultural heritage intact as we can. They won’t listen to us blackfellas.”
Banyule’s Yallambie Bakewell ward councillor, Cr Mark Di Pasquale in email correspondence to us relating to North East Link, voiced a similar concern:
“It needs to be an honest discussion and the community need to voice their wants. Up until now the NE Link Authority has been ‘steamrolling’ through with their work… We are looking to the Army, the traders the residents and finally the State Members to push this barrow.”
The idea that trees might have an aesthetic value beyond their monetary or utilitarian worth might strike some as a surprise, although it is by no means a new concept. Artwork by that famed painter of Australian landscapes, Hans Heysen, is currently on display alongside work by his daughter Nora at a special exhibition at the NGV in Federation Square. Hans, who turned the ubiquitous Aussie gum tree into a work of art in the early years of the 20th century, was famous in his own life time but is sometimes also remembered for his attitude towards conservation in an era when most people never gave it a thought. The story goes that when Hans heard that a road side stand of gum trees he loved was to be removed by his local Council, he approached the authorities and offered to give them the money the Council would otherwise have received for selling the trees as fire wood. It is unrecorded whether those early Council authorities laughed in his face at the suggestion or instead laughed all the way to the bank.
It seems then that the North East Link might not be the only road likely to trample over the environment and the enjoyment of peoples’ lives. It’s just the latest and the largest and by far and away the most expensive.
In Yes Minister, in an episode about the conservation of a wildlife habitat, Sir Humphrey Appleby assured the minister that there are some things that are just best kept out of the public debate. In that episode, “The Right to Know” he burdens the minister’s correspondence with useless detail in an attempt to keep his political master in the dark while explaining to him a fine line of distinction between classing something as a “loss” or “not a significant loss” to the environment.
“Almost anything can be attacked as a “loss of amenity”, and be defended as “not a significant loss of amenity”.
Sir Humphrey Appleby, Episode 6, Series 1, Yes Minister, “The Right to Know”, 1980.
The NEL will obviously cause a huge loss of amenity in the north eastern suburbs of Melbourne and in particular, within the City of Banyule. Taking a page out of Sir Humphrey’s book, the North East Link Authority have cleverly passed this off as not a significant loss of amenity by releasing so much detail about their plans that it seems most people have given up listening.
Once the traffic starts rolling on the new Freeway in a few years’ time, do you think this will make any difference?
By then, will we still be able to see the wood for the tree stumps?
The American writer Mark Twain is generally credited with that oft quoted weather maxim, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Twain was recorded as making a remark similar to this in the early 1900s with his words later paraphrased into the famous old adage but the fact is, the idea had first been espoused by Twain’s friend, the essayist Charles Dudley Warner decades earlier. Twain later borrowed the concept during a lecture tour and the mistake in authorship stuck.
The Twain attribution is an example of how a misrepresentation if told often enough, becomes fixed. The reality is the writer’s name itself was also a fiction but ask anyone who Samuel Langhorne Clemens was in life and you will be met with a blank stare, so with this in mind maybe old Sam won’t mind if I borrow a line from him right now.
“You know, everybody in Melbourne talks about the weather, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”
As our fossil fuel dependent power grid struggles to keep up with the demands of hundreds of thousands of houses across the state attempting to run electricity hungry air conditioning this summer, the talk has been all about the need to build a new coal fired power station, but wouldn’t you say that could be a case of the chicken and the egg?
It got me thinking about truth and the perception of truth in a globalized 21st century society. Any suggestion that the weather we’ve been having and that the associated record breaking temperatures that go with it might have anything to do with Climate Change or with Global Warming is evidence if evidence is needed that there will always be some people for whom denial is their first port of call. I’m told there is a difference between weather, which is what we have been experiencing, and climate, which is what has been changing, but the facts speak for themselves. We might be in need of a cool change right now, but there are still some around us who would have you believe there is no such thing as a changing climate, a belief which is at odds with all the scientific evidence and expert testimony to the contrary.
We live on a planet where climate has changed many times throughout prehistoric earth history, ranging from balmy warmth to long periods of glacial cold. The last Ice Age ended a mere 10,000 years ago and ushered in an era known to science as the Holocene. It may be no coincidence that in this era, the era that has seen the growth of the human species worldwide and which contains the whole of recorded history, there has been no full crash in climate on a world scale. If there had been it is likely that early civilizations would not have survived and I’m thinking we would not be here at this moment to blog about it on a World Wide Web.
The concern now however is that it may be the actions of humans that has started driving the Earth’s climate and that as a result we may be heading in a direction that will take us past what is an already natural tipping point to a place where too much is being asked of an inherently fragile climate system causing it to snap back in protest into as yet unknown territory.
It might seem like “An Inconvenient Truth” to him, but the leader of the world’s largest economy and by default the erstwhile leader of the Western World has said that he does not believe in Climate Change. End of story. The trouble is, although the boffins might generally agree on the reality of that Change, the jury is out on what this might actually mean in practice. Climate is such a tricky thing that change just one bit of it and the consequences become hazy. Some might say hazier than the sky over Beijing on a smoggy morning.
The emergence of a polar vortex of warm air over the Arctic last week actually drove cold air south which resulted in a record plunge in temperatures over the North American continent. One particularly worrying Climate Change theory anticipates an end to the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Current, the current which keeps European temperatures temperate and this would result in an overall drop in temperatures in Europe. So much for Global Warming.
In Australia we have our own Conga Line of Climate Change denying sycophants, many of whom seem to have found themselves into positions of political power where they maintain obstinately that there is nothing wrong with what we have been doing to this planet. While our economy in Australia is not on the same scale as elsewhere, we do have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, the global effects of which are potentially equally as dangerous.
Much of Australia is classed as semi arid, a continent where climate is often variable and where frequent droughts lasting several seasons can be interspersed by considerable wet periods. Thomas Wragge who made a fortune running sheep in marginal country in the Riverina, made a success of these difficulties but chose to live at Yallambie after he purchased the Heidelberg property from the Bakewell brothers. His family gathered there before the Melbourne Cup each year and stayed there throughout the summer to avoid the worst extremes of temperature at their properties in inland Australia. Winty Calder noted the milder environment the family enjoyed at Yallambie in her 1996 book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” writing that:
“Another early purchase made by the Bakewells was land beside the Plenty River east of Melbourne, where the climate was (and still is) temperate. Rain falls throughout the year, with slight peaks in spring and autumn, and averages about 700 millimetres (26 inches) per year. The mean monthly maximum temperature is about 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January, but falls to less than 12 degrees (53 degrees) in June and July. The mean monthly minimum in February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), and about 5 degrees C (42 degrees F) in June, July and August. Any frosts are light and snow is rare.” (Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 1996)
Yes, we’ve always thought it a lovely place to live here at Yallambie but thinking of the climate as something constant is misguided. The weather of our childhood might have felt like the norm but it was in fact a snapshot of a moment in climate history and by association different to what the early settlers found in Australia or indeed to what we are experiencing today.
I remember a time from my childhood when any temperature reaching into the 30s seemed like a heat wave. Now it is a temperature taken past 40. Across the river from Yallambie, the Lower Plenty Hotel in its bushland setting has an illuminated temperature gauge on its signboard visible from Main Rd. I photographed this at 6 o’clock in the evening last month when it was displaying 47° Celsius, or nearly 117° on the old Fahrenheit scale. I don’t know what the temperature might have been in the middle of that day but in the evening the temperature as displayed on the Lower Plenty board was several degrees above the official temperature when I checked it for Melbourne at about the same time.
A story in Domain last month would seem to confirm this. Of all the data examined from all the weather stations across the greater metropolitan area, the weather station at Viewbank right next door to Yallambie came in as Melbourne’s hottest suburb with an average annual temperature there of 20.9° Celsius. The Bureau of Meteorology puts this down to the distance of the suburb from the stabilizing influence of sea breezes but there is also something called the “Heat Island Effect” to take into consideration. The concrete and built structures of Melbourne absorb heat during the day storing it up like a heat bank, then radiating that heat during the night making the city warmer after dark. I’m guessing that it’s those same sea breezes mentioned by the Bureau of Meteorology that are then pushing the warmer air up the Yarra Plenty valley where it is trapped by the hills around the Viewbank weather station.
Trees can provide some form of relief – just take a stroll along the river under the trees in Yallambie Park on one of these warm afternoons to see my point – but as blocks of land in the suburbs are ever more reduced in size and more and more houses are jammed into the existing environment to increase the profits of the developers, the heat island effect is only ever increased. The answer they seem to have to this is to put air conditioning into those jammed in houses but these require electricity to function which in the past has been produced in greenhouse gas producing coal fired power stations. It is a situation that becomes self-replicating. A catch 22.
Yallambie Homestead with its high ceilings and 150 year old walls of solid double brick and plaster, located within a garden setting surrounded by numerous plantings of trees, manages to stay cooler in warm weather longer than most, but when it does warm up it retains the heat far longer. Another example of the heat island effect.
In my October 2017 post about “Conurbation”, I made brief reference to the heat island effect I had seen first-hand at Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific. The story of Ocean Island or “Banaba” has always struck me as being like an ecological mirror of our own planet and if you can think for one moment about our fragile planet as being like a Pale Blue Dot cast adrift somewhere in the dark depths of space, then spare a thought for solitary Ocean Island sitting out there in the vast Pacific, all on its own.
Like the Pale Blue Dot, Ocean Island was the only home its native inhabitants had ever known. That was before the mining industry realized its potential. Roughly two square miles in area or to reference our subject, twice the size of Yallambie, an 80-year long phosphate mining industry in the 20th century reduced the island to a weedy, post-apocalyptic, post-industrial moonscape of broken rock and abandoned mining buildings and machinery. Unlike the inhabitants of the Pale Blue Dot however, a new home was found for the local people, the Banabans who were relocated to a small island in the Fiji group, much to the detriment of their heritage and to their identity as a Micronesian people.
The phosphate from Ocean Island was meanwhile used to green farm land in Australia throughout most of the last century, so look around you. There’s probably a little bit of Ocean Island below your feet at Yallambie even now.
The sacrifice of the island to the needs of an industry that aided an agricultural revolution in the 20th century resulting in the population of this planet increasing from 1 ½ billion when mining started in 1900 to 7 ½ billion and climbing today, is an irony. The industry left the island source of a small part of that revolution largely uninhabitable but even so, there is a bigger irony at work here. Should general industrial practices across this planet result in Global Warming and a rise in sea levels which is a fundamental prediction of many expert opinions, then ruinous Ocean Island as a raised atoll and politically a part of the Republic of Kiribati will be the only island within that nation that has the potential of remaining above those projected altered sea levels.
It’s a sobering thought and one that might see future peoples of low lying islands calling out the name of a certain American writer as they measure the water outside their front door. Whoever first spoke those somehow Global Warmingly appropriate words, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” the source doesn’t really matter now. It seems instead appropriate that the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, which found its origins from his years working on the Mississippi riverboats where a safe depth for passage was called out as two fathoms on the line – “by the mark twain” – could one day find another use. In years to come as the waters rise, we might all be hearing a bit more about the “Mark Twain”.
It was in the cold, glowing, radioactive light of the Post-Apocalyptic new day that the truth was unveiled. The facts were utterly undeniable, even by that seemingly discredited Godzilla, post-Karen Silkwood institution which constitutes the nuclear power industry of this 21st century island Earth. A little over a year after the nuclear melt downs at the Fukushima nuclear power station following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, an independent investigating commission found that, given the earthquake prone nature of the country, the disaster had been entirely predictable and that the safety failures that occurred during the crisis should therefore have been perfectly preventable.
It was a finding that was of little comfort to those gleaming in the warm, green glow of the nuclear aftermath. The resulting catastrophic release of radioactive material into the environment was a disaster of atomic proportions for Japan and its neighbouring countries around the Pacific Rim, the ongoing effect of which is still being felt and which may not be fully realized yet for decades to come.
With the finger pointing that followed, the operator of the Japanese Fukushima plant subsequently revealed that one of the main reasons for its lack of preparedness was an underlying fear of the negative publicity and protests that might follow any admission of these safety concerns. When it comes to the nuclear industry then, it seems it is better that we don’t know what we don’t know until such time as we know it.
In Yallambie in 1974 a similar line was drawn in the sands of truth when a proposal was made to carve off about eight acres of green fields from the Army camp and build an Australian radiation laboratory in what even then was an emerging suburban environment. The land was part of a Federal Government reserve but since the start of the 1960s it had been leased by an inoffensive pony riding school fronting Lower Plenty Rd near the corner of the present day Yallambie Rd intersection.
At the time, the proposal was met with stiff opposition from local residents of Yallambie led by the Yallambie Progress Association which had formed in 1972 to give residents of the embryonic A V Jennings housing estate a voice in local affairs. The Association convinced the Department of the Environment and Conservation to stump up $1000 to pay for the Preston Institute of Technology to write an expert environmental impact statement for the proposed laboratory site. It was a move that was surrounded with a degree of irony as the government Department of the Environment and Conservation was effectively paying to investigate the actions of another government department, the Department of Health, which was the body ultimately responsible for the Australian Radiation Laboratory.
The report was written by John O’Connor, an air pollution PHD post graduate from the Centre for Environmental Studies at PIT, Bundoora. His three month study found that the expected radiation created by the laboratory when operational would be about the same amount as the fallout from French nuclear testing in the Pacific, which at that time was becoming a major international environmental concern. On site radioactive waste however was not deemed to be an issue. The report noted that:
“Both low level and high level solid radioactive wastes are to be disposed of at a site remote from Yallambie and do not present a hazard to local residents”.
In light of subsequent developments, it would be interesting now to know what information O’Connor based that statement upon.
The Yallambie Progress Association wrote to the director of the Australian Radiation Laboratory, a Mr D Stevens in May 1974 asking him for a response to a list of 23 questions that the Association had prepared pertaining to the nature of the proposed complex. Mr Stevens reply when received was a typical bureaucratic exercise in evasive double speak:
“It would not be appropriate for me to reply direct to you with answers to your questions. However, you may be assured that answers will be provided at the public hearing of evidence. The Health Department has been advised by the Secretary of the Public Works Committee that explanations, answers to questions and the like should now be part of the evidence presented and considered by the committee.”
Vice President of the Yallambie Progress Association, Doug McConville who lived in Woona Crt at the back of the proposed site at this time said in response, “We should have answers to these questions, otherwise we will not be able to give considered objections.” He might very well have also added, “We don’t know what we don’t know until such time as we know it.”
Nevertheless, a petition opposing the proposed laboratory was signed by 342 local residents and presented to the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works which sent members to visit the site before convening a meeting at the old Lower Plenty Community Hall behind the Lower Plenty shops to discuss the issue over a two day period in September, 1974. Members of the Yallambie Progress Association took time off from their busy working lives to attend the meeting which was chaired by Keith Johnson, MHR in the wide tied Whitlam era government, with seven of the eight bi-partisan Parliamentary Standing Committee members present. A 22 page “Statement of Opinion on Behalf of the Residents of Yallambie” was tabled detailing residents many concerns with the proposed development.
The result was of course a foregone conclusion. The Government needed a site for their laboratory. It needed it to be on land owned by the Federal Government. It needed it to be within the area of metropolitan Melbourne, in reasonable proximity to Melbourne airport and suburban hospitals and also easily accessible from the City. Oh, and it had to be a place no one had ever heard of. Yallambie ticked the boxes, especially the last. In a story probably familiar to followers of the more recent saga of North East Link, a decision may have been made behind closed doors months before the public meeting was played out. The resulting resolution in favour was suitably rubber stamped and construction commenced, the only concession to residents’ wishes being the adoption of a policy to overplant the area with native trees.
The design approved by the Standing Committee placed the “high radioactive areas” in the basement of the east wing of the complex with the direction of radiation going westwards into the undulating hillside. “As earth is an excellent absorber of radiation, this has lowered the amount of shielding that would have been required by other means”. (Standing Committee, Fifth Report, 1974) As the Streeton Views estate was subsequently constructed on that hillside, one would hope that the earth really is the “excellent absorber” described in that 1974 report.
Three 5000 gallon holding tanks were planned as part of the construction, capable of holding low level radioactive waste with the intention of developing a regime of watering the waste down and disposing of it regularly into the Metropolitan sewerage system. The Standing Committee Report noted that this was a standard practice provided for in the Victorian Radioactive Substances Regulations and in similar legislation in other states. The report did not mention any plans for ongoing storage facilities of solid radioactive wastes.
The facility was budgeted at $3,600,000, which was about three times the price the Whitlam Government controversially paid for Pollock’s Blue Poles in the same era. Which do you think was the better bargain?
The Australian Radiation Laboratory moved into the building four years later with their stated objectives at that time being to provide protection standards and codes of practice for radiation emitting devices throughout Australia and to maintain standards in radiopharmaceutical drugs used in nuclear medicine.
A sullen silence descended over the facility, the young trees shadowing the new property like a dark veil of secrecy surrounding the site. What was really going on in there? It was anybody’s guess. The minutes of the Yallambie Progress Association indicate the ongoing concerns of local residents. Minutes from the Annual General Meeting in March, 1986 show correspondence from Victorian State Premier John Cain offering “assurance of no dumping of radioactive waste at the Nat Radiation Lab at Yallambie”. As the site had always been controlled by the Federal Government it is unclear why Mr Cain felt he was in a position to offer this assurance. Maybe it was wishful thinking.
In 1992 the Yallambie Progress Association noted a newspaper article that stated Victoria’s radioactive wastes were stored at four locations – East Sale, Bandiana near Wodonga, Broadmeadows and “Lower Plenty”. The newspaper article went on to say that some of the locations were deemed to be inadequate for storing radioactive material, noting that one of the four sites “was in a flood-prone area”. (Herald-Sun, 1 June, 1992) As the Yallambie facility was built next to the outfall of the Yallambie Creek near its confluence with the lower reaches of the Plenty River, a site that had been known to flood previously, it seems pretty clear which site the newspaper article was describing as inadequate.
In 1998 the Australian Radiation Laboratory changed its name to ARPANSA (the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) in a move some thought was a cynical attempt by the Laboratory to appease the great unwashed by removing the unfriendly word “Radiation” from its letterhead altogether. It’s been 40 years now since the radiation facility first started their operations at Yallambie but residents in the back streets of the south east end of our suburb, together with those in neighbouring Viewbank might have wondered what was up this year at ARPANSA. The obvious thing was a crane. It appeared in the sky over the tree tops at the back of the facility and stayed there for months. But what was it for?
Last week an article by Clay Lucas appeared in the columns of The Age newspaper which gave a hint. Clay reported that an FOI request had revealed that 210 drums of waste from the former Commonwealth Radium Laboratory at Melbourne University had been marked for indefinite disposal at the ARPANSA facility at Yallambie and that the removal to the site which had started on the quiet was already well under way. The material had been classified as “suitable for disposal in engineered near-surface facilities and [requiring] isolation and containment for periods of up to a few hundred years” but alarmingly an ARPANSA spokeswoman was also reported as saying that the 210 drums from the University represented only “a tiny percentage of the radioactive waste held at the facility – 0.1 per cent.” By their own admission then they were suggesting that the facility is holding a staggering 210,000 barrels of radioactive waste at Yallambie.
I beg your pardon, what?
Surely that is an exaggeration of the facility, or as is more likely, a fault with the finger counting of my school grade mathematics. The FOI request asked for a public disclosure to be made about the arrangements of payments between ARPANSA and the University but this had been denied with the plan deemed as being “subject to a confidential memorandum of understanding”, while the University itself described the arrangement as “commercial-in-confidence”.
In July, 1992 the Keating Government announced it would find a site for a national storage site for the “relatively” small amounts of nuclear waste materials produced in Australia. More than 25 years on and with multiple changes of government the Feds are still looking. The trouble is, while all the states think the proposal of a National storage site is a pretty good idea in principle, that principle only holds true if the site is not in your own back yard.
The Age newspaper story last week about the radioactive material going on its one way journey to Yallambie asks more questions than it has answered. Looking back over the old minutes of the Yallambie Progress Association from the 1970s it is clear to me that even with all the strong objections that were mounted at that time to the construction of the Radiation Laboratory, it was never suggested that the facility would later become a defacto nuclear waste dumping ground. Former members of the Yallambie Progress Association and long-time Yallambie residents, Alec and Brenda Demetris told me on Friday when I discussed this with them that if they had known in their younger days what would be revealed this week in The Age, they would not have been writing petitions and reports in 1974. They would have been chaining themselves to the builders’ fencing.
There’s been a fair bit of conjecture about the need for Orwellian truth in society of late. The tabling of a mountain of documents in State Parliament about an old planning decision gone wrong is said to set a dangerous precedent for the system of Westminster Government in Victoria. I say, bring it on. It’s time to fess up. Those outdated and undemocratic conventions where governments can hide their decisions behind a veil of secrecy for decades need to be reversed as it is only by disclosure that freedom of information and the public’s right to know can be satisfied in a democratic society. If the people of Fukushima had known what they didn’t know before the time that they knew it, would the power station operator have been able to leave the Fukushima plant so inadequately prepared for the disaster that overtook it? If we had known in the past what questions to ask about the radioactive waste dump that has been allowed to operate at Yallambie, would it have been able to exist in the middle suburbs of Melbourne for so long?
“The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle. We know he got on the bicycle and started to move. We know that at some point he will stop and get off. We know that if he stops moving and does not get off he will fall off.” (William Golding)
According to one survey, 43% of all Australians own a bicycle. It’s not clear whether that statistic counts every rusted machine parked with bent pedals at the back of every garage, or every bike gathering dust under a house across the nation, but one thing is pretty clear. There are an awful lot of bikes out there. Bike riding is big in the north east and in Yallambie, the history of cycling is probably a lot more extensive than people generally realize as they pedal around the neighborhood.
The late 19th century saw the world’s first “bike craze” and a proliferation in the number of bike makers. Some of them, like the Dux Cycle Co. of Little Collins St, Melbourne which employed 150 workers, were established locally. The Dux cause was helped when a Dux was used for the first Perth to Brisbane cycle ride in 1897, a distance of nearly 6000km.
Australia found itself literally in the mainstream of the world-wide bicycle boom as it emerged from the financial recession of the early 1890s and by 1897 there were over 150 brands of home grown and imported bicycles to choose from. Innovations such as the tubular steel frame, the ball bearing, roller bearing chain and pneumatic tyres were all products of advanced manufacturing techniques but in practice, any reasonably competent home handyman or bush mechanic could assemble or repair them. While bikes were comparatively expensive to buy they were ultimately a much cheaper alternative to keeping a horse and trap or even to buying regular rail tickets. As Jim Fitzpatrick observed in the introduction to “The Bicycle and the Bush”, his widely regarded book on the history of Australian pedalling, the bicycle: “required no food or water, was two or three times as fast as a horse or a camel, and did not drop dead from eating poisonous plants.”
In Yallambie, Henry Ernest “Harry” Wragge, (born 1880), the youngest son of Yallambie Homestead’s Thomas Wragge, was an early exponent of bike riding in this district. Harry had a life-long fascination with all things mechanical and is known to have owned a bicycle by May, 1896. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p145). The first Australian Cycle Show was held in March that year and it would be interesting to know if the teenage Harry convinced his parents to purchase a bike after attending the show.
A photograph in the Bush collection shows a young Harry riding his bike along the Homestead Road in front of the house garden on what is now the Lower Plenty end of Yallambie Rd and another shows Harry at a slightly later date, standing proudly alongside his pushbike in front of the Yallambie stable yard. Harry’s machine was a diamond frame, “safety” bicycle, a style first perfected by Humber in 1890 and known as the “safety” because of the ease and safety of riding one compared to the “ordinary” or “Penny Farthing” type. It is a design that, with few real modifications, has remained the most common bicycle design up to the present day.
Another early rider was Ada Lawrey, the daughter of one of Diamond Creek’s first settlers and a music teacher who at the start of the 20th century used her bicycle to pedal widely around the district giving piano lessons. A photograph shows her inside the gates of her parents’ Diamond Creek home alongside a fine looking machine, complete with a bicycle luggage carrying valise attached to the frame, ideal perhaps for carrying her lunch box and fork, or maybe just a tuning fork.
Cycling clubs were formed in many places and city dwellers travelled on bicycles to places near and far in the country side that were a refreshing change to the grime and factories of inner-city Melbourne. In several of the earliest extant photographs of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, bicycles are seen pulled up outside the building, evidence perhaps of the importance of the old hotel as a stopping place for travellers on the Plenty River on the road from Melbourne to Eltham and beyond.
A 1907 newspaper report in “The Age” described a cycle race organized by the “League of Victorian Wheelmen” and promoted by the publican of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. The route followed country roads from the Plenty Bridge to Bundoora and back again over a “bad course” with “hilly roads and dangerous turns”. For the record, a Mr D Hall won the event, on a handicap.
When I surveyed my old bike at the back of the garage last week with this post in mind, it seemed like it too was starting with something of a handicap. It was purchased nearly a decade ago from a large supermarket chain, familiar to most people in this town, and looked like it was worth what I paid for it that day I went shopping with money for a loaf of bread and came home with a bike.
My thoughts strayed. ‘Whatever happened to the bike my father brought home as a rusted old frame “found in a paddock”?’ I spent weeks sanding and repairing that bit of scrap metal and then delivered newspapers from it on dark mornings throughout Rosanna. It later took me on trips as far afield as Bendigo and Ballarat and for a while it seemed indestructable but as I recall, died a sudden death one day as I rode home from Heidelberg Park with football boots dangling across the handlebars. The boots became entangled with the front wheel and, with the front wheel motion suddenly arrested, the rest of the bike and associated rider were destined to continue, the resulting Barnum & Bailey circus somersault a clown act to recall.
That’s what happened to it.
What chance today? In the end I wheeled out my wife’s old pushbike from the garage instead, a good looking, red “girl’s” version with no horizontal bar and streamers on the handlebars. The tyres were a bit perished but it had been a fine machine in its day although that day apparently had been some time ago.
“You’re not going out looking like that are you,” my wife said when she saw the overall effect of me sitting astride her glorious, red retro riding road machine in an outfit she said resembled a 1920s bathing costume.
“Why not? I forgive people wearing Lycra don’t I?”
“I’m glad he didn’t ask me,” said the boy not looking up from his iPhone.
“You don’t know what you’re missing. It’ll be just like Pokemon Go.”
TRAILING THE PLENTY RIVER:
The Plenty River Trail is a shared path that leaves the Main Yarra Trail near the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers in the south and follows the Plenty River valley to a point beyond the northern margins of Greensborough. The Main Yarra Trail is like a wide open highway compared to the Plenty River trail and gets commensurately more cycling traffic as a result.
As I approached the branch to the Plenty River Trail on a recent weekend now past, a tandem bicycle flew past me on a journey down the Yarra, its riders grinding away at the pedals on the level flood plain of the Yarra Trail to achieve a missile like velocity. ‘Cripes, I’d like to see them try that on up there,’ I thought to myself as I looked at the incline that is the start of the Plenty River Trail.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage –
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”
The Plenty Trail leaves the Main Yarra Trail at Viewbank at this point and rises quickly to the vicinity of the old Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, an ascent of about 30m where commanding views are to be had out across Bulleen and Templestowe. The day I was there a fine winter breeze was blowing and enthusiasts were flying a large model sail plane out over the valley. It was presumably radio controlled since like a boomerang, it kept coming back no matter how many times they tried to get rid of it.
Beyond this, the path crosses Banyule Rd and runs in a straight line alongside Hendersons Rd. It passes a pony club where it descends steeply to a point at the end of Martins Lane where, as mentioned previously, my wife’s great grandfather once kept a spectacularly unsuccessful chicken farm.
The Trail then crosses the Plenty River, the first of many crossings, and follows a route at the back of Heidelberg Golf Club between the Club and the River. For many years this was the “missing link” in the trail as the Golf Club and Council struggled to come to an agreement about the siting of the path and a bridge. After agreement was reached, the link was finally opened to riders and pedestrians in March, 2007.
Crossing the River again via the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge adjacent to the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, the Trail is then in Yallambie territory proper.
It passes the Yallambie Tennis Club and the Soccer Ground before rounding out onto the Yallambie common at the next bend in the River. The well-remembered “Lone” Hoop Pine, oak trees, cypresses and remnant orchard are the neglected features of the National Trust Classified landscape that can be found here.
The path then splits in two and there is a choice of following it for some way on either side of the River, a relic of the days when the River marked the boundary between the Shires of Diamond Valley and Eltham and the two banks were under separate administrations. Today the whole of the Plenty River Trail falls within the Municipality of Banyule with Yallambie at its centre.
Up river, the Montmorency Football Oval on the eastern or “Monty side” covers the site of a former tip. Wonder in awe at a time when it was thought environmentally OK to use a river landscape as a tipping ground! The area is well maintained but if you look closely at the river bank below the oval you can see some evidence of its previous use at places where the bank is eroded.
After Montmorency Secondary College is passed, the Trail arrives at the Willinda Park Athletics Track where it becomes a single path on the western side of the River. On the eastern side, the factories on Para Rd show their backs to the River but even here wild life can be found. I stood looking from a distance at what I thought was a tree stump at the back of the factories, trying to make my mind up about what I was looking at. Then it moved and the kangaroo I had in fact been watching, hopped away and out of sight.
At what was formerly the northern most boundary of the old Montmorency Farm, Para Rd and the Greensborough/Eltham single track railway cross the River using separate bridges and here the Plenty River Trail appears for the moment to end abruptly in a residential court. The Trail is not well sign posted throughout its length but at this point it leaves you guessing completely about what course to follow next. The answer is to travel about 100m along Bicton St and resume the Trail at the far end.
At Poulter Reserve the Greensborough rail station can be accessed by riders who have had enough and want to return home via a train or cross to the looming ugly presence of the Greensborough Plaza for a café latte.
Further on, the Trail crosses the River again under the Main Street Bridge next to the remains of the old swimming pool that was built in the Depression within the bed of the Plenty River itself.
Lost history abounds here. A photograph of bicycle riders at the original blue stone bridge in 1897 is another reminder of the area’s historic popularity with riders. The original 1864 blue stone bridge was removed progressively from 1974 until 1983, its massive blue stone buttresses being turned into a barbecue on the corner of Main St and St Helena Rd above in what was surely a loss to local history but a win for sausages.
A dinky little suspension bridge crosses to Whatmough Park on Partington’s Flat where the original farm, Willis Vale, was formerly situated until being burned out by a bushfire in the 1950s. Local football is played at many of the ovals along the River on any given weekend and the day I was at Partington’s, a DVFL game was in progress between St Mary’s and Epping. It might have been a reserves game but it was very popularly attended and an example of how I remember footy used to be played. The skills were of course a long way short of AFL standard but for all that, or perhaps because of it, I found it was a very enjoyable game to watch. Forget the “flood” of players up the ground, a feature of AFL football in the modern day. I saw a bit of mud, a bit of biffo and a full forward who stayed rooted to the goal square, waiting for the ball to be kicked to him.
And further to the record, after trailing early, St Mary’s beat Epping 11.16 to 9.3.
Up-river from Partington’s, the Plenty River Trail passes under the Greensborough Bypass Road which crosses the River on an elevated roadway high above. A plane could fly under it. A Zeppelin could park under it. At this location there is an un-signposted “goat track” from Plenty River Dr at a point just about opposite Booyan Cres. The “goat track” is a mountain bike switch back but by successfully negotiating the mud for a short distance access can be gained to the Greensborough Bypass Cycle Path and thence to the Metropolitan Ring Rd Trail. By all reports you won’t find a single B-Double semi travelling in the outside lane.
Staying on the Plenty River Trail the path arrives at the so called “Batman Apple Tree” next to an easement below Corowa Cres and adjacent to the old Maroondah Aqueduct Pipe Bridge.
Nearby the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery holds the unmarked graves of children from the Whatmough and Partington families, early settlers on this part of the River. Not far beyond is the official end of the Plenty River Trail at the base of a flight of stairs leading down from Punkerri Circuit.
Although it is sign posted to this effect the trail is actually longer than its official 12.3km length and follows a path further along Dry Creek, the merry sound of water running nearby which surely belies its name. The track passes through a closed gate and along an unmade path to an easement running between Plenty River Drive and Mclaughlans Lane where the 520 bus to Doreen has a stop on Sugar Gum Blvd. This is the final end of the Plenty River Trail but the vicinity also marks the south eastern approaches to the Plenty Gorge Parklands, whose mountain bike adventure trails beckon more determined riders.