Walking the moat

12 October, 2021

Day 12 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Today I’m walking the length of the moat.

It runs in a semi-circle around the campus and I’ve walked over the bridges and alongside stretches of it for years, but never all the way along.

I start off with a visit to a waterhole I’d forgotten existed. It’s a big campus, and we tend to arrive – walking, riding, driving, parking – on one side or the other and go about our business oriented to the point of arrival. Classes might be anywhere, cafes, shops and library are in the centre in the Agora, and we find familiar ways of walking from office to preferred barista or noodle maestro and back again. So I don’t usually walk around this side of campus at all – except when the Sunday market is on. But of course none of that has been happening for so long, I’m going to act as if it’s all a surprise.

Waterhole ringed by trees with bus passing

Which this waterhole totally is. It’s ringed by trees, but with the busy bus terminal on one side, and car parks on the other. You’d hardly know it was here. But there are frogs bleating and ducks wafting about, and it looks like a billabong you might find on a country property (except for the buses passing by). I bet there are yabbies. Weird thing, the buses keep on coming even though nobody gets on or off. Of course, they service the surrounding areas, and many go all the way into the CBD, but this is their last stop, on this locked-down campus. They glide in like ghost buses, wait for nobody, and then glide off again.

Will we ever get used to this world, I wonder? When the pandemic is over, will we remember these little details of suspended life?

It’s the final week of semester, and I said goodbye to my students earlier. We’ve never met in person. And they are mostly second-years, which means they’ve spent most of their university lives on Zoom. They didn’t choose to learn online but we all had to adapt fast in 2020. They are amazing, but I feel for them, missing out on all the other aspects of university life. I miss it too.

So here I am walking through a largely empty campus. I head to what I think is the start of the moat – I’ve never bothered looking for it before. It begins in a rather unprepossessing fashion with a storm water drain below the main campus ring road, near a major intersection.

The start of the moat - not glamorous

When I think of the word moat, my brain goes in two distinct directions – either the excellent Moat restaurant under the State Library, where I’ve had more meetings than I can count, or, more often, the many ancient castle defence systems I’ve walked through in England, Ireland and France, where once armies clashed and swords clanged and everything was as grim as the Battle for Helm’s Deep.

This is not that kind of moat. Although I understand there were some pretty fierce boat races back in the day. Its first stretch is clogged with an aquatic plant I don’t recognise – could be a weed, could be some Bio-Ag doctoral project. I haven’t walked here before. I wander along the bank – there’s pigface in flower and willow trees – on well-groomed grass. Even in lockdown, the lawn-mowing must continue.

View of water in the moat and gum trees
The view downstream from my own personal footbridge

The first footbridge is one I walked across every time I visited when I was doing my PhD, years ago. I was living on the other side of town then, so drove in here, hopefully found a park under a gum tree for shade, and then returned to my car at the end of the day to find it covered with shredded eucalyptus blossoms and lorikeet shit. It goes with the territory. Everyone has a favourite car park and this one was mine, mostly because I got to walk over the bridge, admire any ducklings, poke my nose into the community garden to see how everything was coming along, and pick up a coffee on my way to the office. Well, after 21 months of the pandemic so far, the community garden needs a bit of a weeding working bee, but everything else is looking pretty fine. I continue past sections that have been revegetated over the last few years with plants local to the area – grasses, especially, which provide nesting and cover for waterbirds, lizards, and, yes, the odd snake (but not today).

Revegetation on banks of moat - grasses and indigenous plants

This stretch of water splits around a little island, houses an area for some mystical (to me) plantlife or water experiments, is crossed by another footbridge beyond which cars line up for drive-in COVID-19 tests, and ends in a glorious stand of casuarina, one of my favourite trees. Here the water trickles over one of many small dam walls, vanishes under the driveway, and reappears on the other side in the middle of what is usually the busiest open space on campus. But off to the left is another waterhole, and this one is hard to forget because in heavy rains a few years ago it flooded the nearby John Scott Meeting House, which had only just been renovated, and colleagues had to face sodden office carpet and wrecked furniture. (I’ve just discovered it’s called Upper Lake.)

Past here, we’re onto more well-trodden paths: it’s the running track, laid with granitic sand, that stretches alongside the moat and wends its way around campus. This is the walking track I followed a few days ago, but there are no turtles on show today. I wave sadly up at my own office, sitting locked up in a locked up building, and even more sadly pause for a moment in the Moat Theatre. This is where generations of students and staff have performed, laughed, announced, sung, danced, probably rioted, and celebrated. But given the Federal Government’s utter disdain for universities and for the arts, its refusal to allow public universities to access JobKeeper support, and the funding reductions inflicted on top of the impact of the pandemic, this university and many others have decided to discontinue Theatre as a discipline. It’s a tragedy. Seriously. And it’s wrong. We need the arts and we need performance more than ever before.

I’ve stood in ancient amphitheatres in Greece, Turkey, Italy and France, and this one may not be marble, and it may not be two thousand years old, but it feels inexpressibly sad to stand here today and know that it won’t host more Theatre program performances.

But my reverie is slightly disrupted by a young guy who decides to try riding his BMX down the stairs, so at least we know that rowdiness lives on. (He doesn’t crash, you’ll be pleased to know, which is really quite impressive.)

The moat path here is down below building level, cool and shaded, so you pass under footbridges and tall River Red Gums until you pop out the other end where the moat runs out into what is apparently and imaginatively called Main Lake. It runs under the bridge and into the equally exotic-sounding Small Lake, which then flows into the – and you know what I think about this name – Sports Field Lake.

Main Lake

Main Lake looks much more formal and European, with sweeping lawns and willow trees. It’s like the fancy front yard, with flagpoles and green grass, and Inge King sculptures instead of garden gnomes. But there is a lovely row of young acacia growing along one bank, and great gusts of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos swirl around it.
It’s La Trobe. There’s always a bit of the unruly.

Sign - welcome to Nangak Tamboree

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