It’s a cold day here in Melbourne, perfect weather for catching up on a bit of reading. So I’ve been reading a few little books on local history, particularly on the Wurundjeri and the Yalukit-willam people. At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen’s beautifully-produced book People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days. And a cup of tea or so ago, I was struck by these words by Gary Presland from his little booklet The First Residents of Melbourne’s Western Region. I imagine that this was partly because I grew up on the Maribyrnong River, and still travel along its banks on most days:
When Europeans first settled in the Port Phillip district, they saw a landscape which looked vastly different to that we see today. But that landscape itself was a result of long processes of change, some of which had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River [sic] valley, near present-day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago. Since that time there have been enormous changes to the landscape – all of which Koories [sic] must have witnessed and lived through.
Many of the most spectacular and significant changes to the countryside have been to the Maribyrnong-Yarra River system.
Ten thousand years ago the valley of the Yarra River was more than thirty-five metres deeper than it is today and the river flowed at the bottom of a deep canyon. At that time the world’s sea level was considerably lower because a great deal of water was locked up in the ice sheets covering Europe. So there was no water in Port Phillip Bay, and instead of flowing through the flat land in West Melbourne the Yarra turned to the south and flowed down the eastern side of a large grassy plain. At this time the Maribyrnong River flowed more directly to the south east and joined up with the Yarra near what is now Williamstown.
In the long period that Koories have lived in the Melbourne area, the Maribyrnong and Yarra River system has deposited a great deal of mud and silt in the river valleys, and as a result the ground level has been raised by hundreds of metres.
From about 10,000 years ago, the sea started to rise, as the Ice Age came to an end. As the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere melted, the water flowed back into the sea and the level slowly rose. By about 8,500 years ago Bass Strait was flooded, and the gradually-rising sea had reached Port Phillip Heads and began to fill the area of Port Phillip. The sea continued to rise until about 7,000 years ago, by which time the level of water in the Bay was much higher than it is today. The top of the Bay then stretched as far north as Flemington and water covered the area of Flemington Racecourse and many of the inner city areas such as the lower parts of West Melbourne, Port and South Melbourne, and St Kilda. At this time Footscray was a beach-side area and the Maribyrnong River was affected by tides as far north as Braybrook.
When the sea level stabilized at its present height, about 5,000 years ago, the waters of the Bay retreated a little. During the previous 2,000 years a new land surface had been built up by the accumulation of silt in the bay water. The ground surface in the flat area where Victoria, Swanston and Appleton Docks were later constructed, and through which Footscray Road and Dynon Road now run, is a result of this build-up of silt. [ed. – You can read more about that here.]
When Europeans first arrived, they were attracted by the sweeping grasslands to the west of the Maribyrnong River. The wide volcanic plain, the edge of which is now covered by the western suburbs, presented rich pastures for the colonists’ sheep. There was a thick covering of native grasses, with a few trees growing along the major water courses, such as Kororoit Creek.
Those ‘sweeping grasslands’ were elsewhere described thus by George Robinson when he visited the Port Phillip settlement in December 1836:
Saw nothing but grassy country, open forest, plenty gum and wild cherry. Saw where the natives had encamped, plenty of trees notched where they had climbed for opossums …. There are herds of forest kangaroo immensely large, a short distance from the settlement, also flocks of emus on the western plains fifty and sixty in a drove …. The country through which I travelled to the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) River had a park-like appearance, kangaroo grass being the principal, the trees she-oak, wattle, honeysuckle. Saw a blue flower, thorny appearance. Numerous old native huts.