Pondage

8 October, 2021

Day 8 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Today I’m in a spot I really didn’t know existed before we were locked down and unable to travel more than five kilometres from home for exercise.

Gresswell lakes

I haven’t set foot here before. These are a couple of large ponds, or maybe small lakes, forming part of the Gresswell wildlife corridor at the northern end of the Nangak Tamboree waterways. They are carefully landscaped and nestled into what is now suburbia.

But it wasn’t always.

The original inhabitants were the Kurnaj-berring people of the Wurundjeri clan, and before the British invasion there were Brolgas (yes, Brolgas!) and platypus, freshwater mussels, eels and plenty of other creatures. But once the colony expanded, the land was cleared for farming, with only a few pockets of remnant bush left intact.

This specific area was once the Mont Park complex, which opened in 1912, at which time it was called the Mont Park Hospital for the Insane. It was an isolated spot then, surrounded by farmland. My great-grandfather worked there. His Army enlistment file records his occupation as ‘Warder, Lunatic Asylum.’ I hate to think what life was like in the hospital then but it was about to get a great deal worse. War broke out in 1914 and from then on the hospital had to deal with huge numbers of returned soldiers suffering from what became known as shell-shock, and other war-related traumas. My great-grandfather, after years as a stretcher-bearer in Palestine and on the Western Front, returned to work here.

After the war, in the hope of helping the patients feel that the world was not a complete horror, they built cricket grounds and tennis courts, in what is now the Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary. The land stretching to the south, where the university campus now sits, was the Mont Park farm, growing food and grazing dairy cattle to help provision the hospital. It doesn’t sound like a great spot for a picnic:

…desolate, run-down farm in a swampy valley, devoid almost of trees or of views less depressing than the encircling panorama of mental hospitals, a cemetery, school yards, gasworks, and industrial backsides.’ 

Roy Simpson, Master Planner, quoted in Breen, W., Salmond, JA (1989). Building La Trobe University : Reflections on the first 25 years 1964-1989. La Trobe University Press. (p. 39)
Raven staring at the camera
Raven going full Gothic

There are still buildings from Mont Park and its sister institution Larundel dotted about all over here – many were derelict for years and some have now been turned into apartments or townhouses, and a few house university departments or accommodation. They are very stylish – Arts and Crafts or later 1930s brick and stucco. I wonder what stories those walls hold. I remember visiting a friend in a ward in Larundel when I was about twenty and it was pretty stark. But eventually people grew to understand mental health and illness better (and the language around it evolved too), and these hospital-based institutions were closed in favour of (in theory, if not properly supported with funding) community-based health services and supported housing.*

And this huge swathe of land was set for re-use. The Bundoora Mental Hospital became the magnificent Bundoora Homestead art centre & gallery, surrounded by spectacular parklands. The university opened in 1967, and the moat and southern waterways dug over the next decade or so. The housing estates around here are much more recent. Beyond the ponds (look, I can’t call them lakes, seriously) stretches a golf course and the Gresswell wildlife corridor and nature reserve, which I have yet to explore properly.

This doesn’t feel so much like an edgeland anymore, unlike the other end of Nangak Tamboree. There’s a pavilion for people to sit and watch the waterbirds (today, only a pair of ducks, and single pukeko, grebe, and coot eyeing each other off) and the vegetation carefully tended by the Sanctuary staff and local volunteers (I think). I walk around the pond/lake/dam/billabong and up onto the golf course, where people are playing again after months of no sport. To be honest, I preferred it when golf was not allowed in deep lockdown, and everyone could wander all over Melbourne’s fifty gazillion courses and explore them without being shooed away or hit by a ball. I bet the local wildlife liked it too.

This is a suburban open space, edged by houses and roads, with buses trundling by and kids on bikes passing, and clearly enjoyed by people out strolling, masked up, getting their allotted hours of exercise.
yellow daisy
Everlasting daisy

We have never needed these places more than in these last two years, have we? We’ve never so intimately explored our neighbourhoods, noticed the seasonal changes in gardens and parks and our own backyards, chatted over front fences (at a safe distance), counted the birds, pounded the pavements and followed the bike trails.

I wonder if we’ll keep doing it, when the pandemic is over. Or will our horizons shift outwards again?

* Note: There are still hospitals and clinics, of course – just not here, and not enough.The pandemic has laid bare the great need for responsive and accesible mental health services of all kinds.

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