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Melbourne Canoe Club family day at Fitzsimons Lane bridge. Photograph: Warwick Draper

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By Ian Beasley

Surprisingly, there is a group of three or four people, standing knee deep, in the middle of the river. They are studying rapids. 

The river forms many rapids as it falls and carves its way to Melbourne and Port Phillip. Many are simply a ripple; easy to negotiate. A bigger challenge, and threat, are clusters of jagged rocks changing character with changing water levels. Some have names: Bob’s Rock is a drop over a rock ledge, the Island Rapid has strong currents with pressure waves and the Bend of Isles zig-zags over a rock shelf covered in native grasses to exit over a drop of a metre or so. 

Putting in at Lower Homestead Road, flanking Mount Lofty, is easy, the water is flat as the current directs you down stream. This is the eastern boundary of Manningham and entry to the Warrandyte State Park. Passing through Manningham for around sixty kilometres—river distance—community groups, schools, canoe clubs and individuals take to the river in canoes, kayaks and inflatables. Some on their first uncertain trips, others for a day’s adventure, or for the experienced, to test paddling skills. Not far from the city, but secluded amongst eucalypt and wattle forest, the river narrows and widens, widens and narrows as it runs onward. Along its passage are the Yarra Valley Parklands, a series of parks connected by trails, wetlands and waterways through Melbourne’s metropolitan area. 

The Victorian Wildwater Championships are held on this first stretch. And downstream, at Jumping Creek Reserve, wildwater paddlers in training race to Warrandyte. The unusual looking kayaks with wings, that serve no purpose other than to meet a regulation, tell you that it’s a wildwater event. They race on fast moving water, through the rapids. 

An approaching bridge signals a village on river left, renown for its specialist arts and crafts shops, it is a frequent stopover. The steel girder bridge was constructed in 1952 and is the centre of Warrandyte village. Two kilometres on at Pound Bend, gold miners constructed a tunnel to divert the river and search for gold trapped in the riverbed. Not much was found so the company wound up in 1872. Sixteen years later, the Melbourne Water Power Co, considered using the Pound Bend tunnel to generate electricity, but it was just a thought. 

The native forests of Warrandyte State Park, creating new awareness, opens to parks and farming. Manna gums and silver wattles continue to dominate river verges to provide critical habitat for birds such as king fishers, robins and powerful owl. Long ribbons of bark, tangled and twisted, hang from the gum’s branches. In late spring, the wattles produce clouds of fragrant flowers to drape the banks in yellow and delight the eye. Some trees have collapsed into the water to create fish habitat. There are redfin, Macquarie perch and Murray cod. At home along its banks are wombats, echidna, kangaroos and wallabies. In a tantalising but unwanted surprise, paddlers may come across a tiger snake, propelled by serpentine locomotion as it moves across the water. The distinctly marked yellow and black striped snakes can stay under water for around ten minutes hunting frogs and fish. 

The Yarra is not just for paddlers; walkers, hikers, runners and cyclists make their way along the many tracks following the river. The most important of these is the Main Yarra Trail, tracing the river from Melbourne out to Mullum Mullum Creek. It passes by Pontville Homestead, built in the 1840s and Petty’s Orchard, among our oldest orchards. Originally established in 1911 by Thomas Henry Petty, it remained in the family until state government ownership and heritage listing followed. The orchard has more than 250 varieties of old and rare apples, as well as collections of other fruits such as plums, apricots, pears and medlars. 

In the distance . . . there is yelling and a fast iterative Up Up Up Up! Brightly striped red and green poles come into view. They mark a canoe slalom course, luring paddlers and spectators to stop and enjoy the competition. Candlebark Park is home to canoe slalom in Victoria and a career start for many Australian champions. The previous day, paddlers were standing in the river, looking at the rapids—learning about the flow of water, learning about the formation of eddies. 

Under Fitzsimons Lane bridge and on to Westerfolds Park, school groups play canoe polo with inflatable goals sitting on the water. The goals certainly won’t make competition standard, but are ideal for the introductory team games of chasing a ball to pick from the water and shoot at goal. A kilometre or so on, a wire rope suspension bridge forms a catenary curve across the river. Its timber frame taking pedestrians across the river to Finns Reserve and the Wombat Bend playground, alongside Ruffey Creek, home to platypus. At the river there is a newly constructed canoe launch area. 

The river continues downstream, coming across sprint and marathon kayakers putting in long distances to build stamina and aerobic fitness. Just opposite the confluence of the Plenty River with the Yarra is Birrarrung Park. Classified as riparian floodplain woodland it features river red gum and ephemeral wetlands, occasionally drying out completely, but returning with rain to trigger increased frog and bird numbers. 

Looking river left, up the hill and over kitchen gardens, to glimpse Pont de l’Archevêché and Half Moon Shine, just two of the many sculptures of the Heidi Museum of Modern Art. Originally a grazing property and dairy farm in the nineteenth century it was frequented by artists and writers who valued the inspirational setting of river and surrounding hills. Now an exciting museum of modern and contemporary art Heidi is set in a sculpture park and heritage listed gardens. 

As we approach the western boundary of Manningham, the Bolin Bolin Billabong appears, it is part of a network of billabongs. Giant river red gums create an environment of quiet and stillness. The ponds of water and reeds are sacred to the indigenous Wurundjeri people. Earlier Wurundjeri came together at this spot for several weeks during April and May to celebrate and enjoy the seasonal abundance of eels. Today, changing river flows have impacted the billabong and led to restoration works that are steadily returning the area to its former health. 

Paddling on around a hairpin bend, past Bullen Park and an archery, the gums and wattles continue to screen encroaching suburbs to provide valuable habitat and solitude. Fore! calls a golfer on the Fifteenth at the Freeway Golf Course as Manningham boundary follows Koonung Koonung Creek southward and the Yarra departs through Boroondara and onward to Port Phillip. 

Anyone for a paddle? 

For more about paddling on the Yarra contact: 

Paddle Victoria, vic.paddle.org.au
Melbourne Canoe Club, melbourne.paddle.org.au 

Canoes Plus Racing Team, cprt.paddle.org.au 

Fairfield Canoe Club, fairfieldcanoeclub.org.au 

INCC Yarra Paddlers, incc.org.au 

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