Caring for the land

21 October, 2021

Day 21 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

There’s always someone caring for the land around here.

Most of the time when I walk along the creek, there are Council rangers on either Darebin or Banyule bank (or both), and workers mowing or slashing or spraying or whipper snipping. A couple of days ago, I passed two ute-loads of rangers out on the Banyule North Grasslands who were hand-weeding around newly planted patches of kangaroo grass – with those little pokey things we use in our veggie patches. Slowly, carefully, lovingly.

You can see generations of care all around here. There are callistemon planted along the banks (I’m not sure I’d choose them for that spot, but it must have been years ago) and further south a truly impressive bank of hedge wattle and prickly Moses. Both are far too symmetrical to be natural, but they are lovely, and the wattles, in particular, are home to many small birds.

Wattles in flower

I found this terrific short video about Friends of Darebin Creek and the Sweepers who pick up other people’s rubbish. It’s worth a look, even if only to get some great footage of the creek, but also a timely reminder about what flows along with all the storm water we’ve had lately.

But I’m not down there today. I’m at the other end of Nangak Tamboree, in Gresswell Forest Nature Reserve – in fact, technically it’s not part of Nangak Tamboree, but it is, if you like, the other end of the eco-system that Nangak Tamboree connects. A few days ago I walked through the Wildlife Corridor that connects to this area, and today I’ve come to walk in the Reserve itself, which is much bigger and fenced off to protect the wildlife. It is obviously popular with the locals, who are strolling, jogging and exploring along wide, well-maintained tracks, and with the birdlife, which is so prodigious I don’t know where to look next.

It’s remnant bush, but very different to the creekside: higher ground mostly, although there are still tiny creeks running through it into wetland areas. Scrub, rather than grassland, with Hop Goodenias as big as a car rambling under tremendous old eucalypts – Yellow Box alongside the Red and Manna Gums. Fallen branches are left where they land for habitat.

Yellow flowering bush under tall trees

In fact, I’ve never seen the Goodenia so big, and I’m thinking now I may have made a strategic error with the two I planted in my front garden last year. Another example of care: my council runs a Gardens for Wildlife program, where they tell you all about local flora and fauna, help you design your garden, give you a plant voucher and a nesting box, and empower people to care for threatened or precious species by creating habitat. Which is a backyard version of what we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks.

And people do care for places by being here respectfully. Of course the workers and volunteers have a program of maintenance, weed management and revegetation. Wildlife volunteers and local vets and refuges care for injured creatures. But we all help by walking here, admiring everything, noticing if something’s wrong or hurt, logging birds or bugs in citizen science counts, or simply keeping to the tracks. We help by not wrecking the joint, taking our rubbish home, not killing anything. A low bar, I know, but it’s progress.

Yesterday, walking past the Nangak Tamboree revegetation area, I met Glenn, one of the Wurundjeri Narrap Rangers who are managing the cultural burns in the area, and advising on the project. (They were meant to burn yesterday but there’s been so much rain it’s been postponed.) It was Glenn who suggested moving the Frog Hollow. The last couple of weeks, the Narrap Rangers have been out spraying the invasive introduced grass with an agent that dries it off, ready to burn. They burn in patches, controlled and careful. We’ve heard a lot more about the wisdom of indigenous fire management since the 2020 bushfires, but this is gentle but dramatically effective weed management, blending scientific and cultural knowledge. He told me how the Flax Lilies had come back after the initial burn, and that kangaroo and wallaby grass would spread down the hill and re-establish itself quickly. He reckons it’ll take three to five years to get it how they want it.

Glenn said he’d spotted a brown snake the other day, near the ‘mother tree’, and as a former snake catcher he picked it up to have a good look. His colleagues apparently weren’t quite so enthusiastic, and since a brown can kill you about ten times over I’m not surprised. Rare around here, he reckons, but tigers are everywhere. He says all this with a grin I have seen on snake catchers before – they love snakes almost as much as how talking about snakes makes other people squirm. He also said there were roos in the area, though I haven’t seen any – that’s not surprising in all this high spring grass. They are pretty good at not being seen. I’ve seen them on campus from time to time, in the evenings, and once all the way down the creek near Darebin railway station. But never here.

Which brings me back to today. I’m sitting on a bench by the track, thinking over the past few days, when something thumps gently in the bush next to me, and I look up into the eyes of an Eastern Grey. Some people come along, chatting away happily, and it startles, and leaps off into the bush, followed by a friend I hadn’t even seen.

Kangaroo in scrubland

Even when you’re writing, don’t forget to look up.

Slowing down

20 October, 2021

Day 20 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

I may have been slightly hysterical yesterday. I do need to slow down. But I feel calmer today after a long, slow walk beside the Darebin Creek, back and forth along the stretch between Plenty and Southern Roads, on the muddy, grassy right bank. Or is it the left? The north-easterly-ish bank.

It’s early morning but the sun is warm already and the sky a blistering blue. Summer is coming.

Tree branches against bright sky

The creek is still running high from all the rain. It’s not, you’d have to say, a creek famous for white water. Nobody, I’m sure, is going adventure rafting along here. But with high water like this, you do get a few little rapids.

Water running over stones – bird calls

Trying to record sound, I keep having to dodge perpetrators of my new pet hate – people who talk very loudly on speaker phone while walking their dogs out in the middle of nowhere.

Now I’m at my ‘standing desk’, which is, to all other eyes, an unattractive concrete storm water system something-or-other. I’m sure there’s an engineering term for it, but it looks like a miniature Martello tower, just below the Nangak Tamboree revegetation area.

I’m doing the Bird Count in a more relaxed fashion today, after yesterday’s frenzy – glance up, anything there? hear a call, focus binoculars. A Willie Wagtail chirrups from the wire fence, and when I move on it keeps me company, reminding me of the robin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It’s the little birds that elude me but also delight. On my way here, a New Holland Honeyeater almost flew right into me, swerving at the last moment, and a flock of fairy wrens always makes my day.

There’s something flitting about in a Cootamundra wattle on the riverbank, but I can’t for the life of me catch a glimpse. A raven sitting in an old acacia hunches its shoulders at every croak, like some minor Dickens character.

I walk on towards Plenty Road. This is a lovely stretch. The escarpment rises up on one side, just under where they’re moving Frog Hollow. I can hear the heavy equipment in action today – I don’t want to go look because I fear for the swathe of grassland and eucalypts in between the former golf range and the hillock of old fill.

trees on a hilltop

Apparently one day there’ll be a bike path through here too, which my bike-riding self approves, but my walking self wishes it could stay like this always. It’s hard to believe I’m in the middle of an enormous sprawling city, next to a major road and a university campus.

Track through bush

Slow/fast writing

19 October 2021

Day 19 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

I’m back on my writing rock today. Well, it might be the same boulder as I sat on to scribble the other day. Or a totally different rock. So observant.

This morning I was reading this excellent essay on Slow Writing by Melissa Matthewson. It begins:

I’ll invite you to read this slowly. To remember that a voice is embodied in this text, that in this process of following the sentence towards its meaning, in a kind of walking, as in a procession or parade, the writer’s creative process will emerge, a deliberate motion with care as the foundation for which the writer is then able to articulate beauty and suggest some new knowledge, but of course, this will take time.

‘A Revolution in Creativity: On Slow Writing’, Melissa Matthewson, LitHub, 12 October, 2021.

She’s so right. I am all in favour of slow food and slow travel. But when it comes to writing, speedy is my default setting. Even here. Sometimes I dash to Nangak Tamboree, stand and look and listen, scribble a few notes, take a few shots, then dash away again. What I try to do, and want to do, is walk the long way here, then keep walking, and write in a few spots as I go over an hour or two.

It depends on the day, the time of day, and what else is happening. Ideally, I’d spend long slow hours here, but ideally I wouldn’t have books to finish, emails to send, meetings to attend, assignments to mark, meals to cook, and seemingly endless To Do lists. So I visit before or after work, and can stay for longer when it’s not a work day. Then post each evening.

Old eucalypt tree in long grass

But anyway, I write fast. Even writing a novel, I draft fast. It’s not a race, but sometimes it feels like it. There are so many stories to tell and so little time. I am not one of those people who thinks writing is painful. I enjoy it and I like drafting fast. If I have a writing week or, even better, a month, especially at a writer’s residency, I aim for 2000 words a day and often go well over. But then, I don’t have to think about anything else – just writing, sleeping and eating. Maybe a walk once a day. I wish life was always like that, and I know it is for some people. But not for me.

I have two academic papers to finish in the next two weeks and a big conference this weekend, on top of everything else, and that seems ridiculous (and it is) but it’ll be fine. Somehow. Then I’ll tell myself never to put myself in that position again.

Until the next time.

So even though some days I curse the person whose idea it was to come here every day and write (me), it’s writing that’s just for me. If anybody reads it, that’s a bonus. I’ve had some gorgeous emails and comments over the last few days about these posts and I’m genuinely surprised that you can make head or tail of these scribbles.

But I do admire the idea of slow writing. I link the idea in my mind with the essay by Michael LaPointe I mentioned the other day, on writers walking, and making sure that the walking doesn’t just become a chore – or a race. Or subsumed into some other frenetic activity.

Like the bloody Bird Count. It started yesterday. Today I’m out on a hillock near Sports Field Lake, and the Bird Count app timer is going (you have to do it for 20 minutes) and I’m looking this way and that and madly pushing buttons to record them all (24 wood ducks!) and end up swearing. I decided to do it since I was here staring at birds anyway, and I’ve never been part of a citizen science event, but measuring the blighters is a whole other thing. Thank God it only goes for a few days. Because that does feel like a race, let me tell you. Writing about them is much more fun.

lake with dead tree

Nice weather for frogs

18 October, 2021

Day 18 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Excellent frog action today. All the waterholes – of which I come across more every day – are brimming and everyone in them is filled with the joy of spring rain (and maybe mating season may have something to do with it too),

No idea what frogs these are but they are going off.

I didn’t walk alone today. Instead, I was given a guided tour of frog hollows and tree hollows and the grasslands closest to the Darebin Creek, with Nangak Tamboree project manager, Tony Inglis, who kindly and possibly foolishly agreed to answer my million questions. We even ventured into the (cue dramatic music) Forbidden Zone.

Sign saying 'Authorised Access Only - Native vegetation'

Thrilling. Because this is the area in which the recent use of cultural burning by Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Narrap Rangers has led to the re-emergence of the endangered Matted Flax Lily. It’s also been discovered recently nearby – outside the fence, in a site where a new series of sports fields are planned – and so in the next few days those wild clumps will be removed, divided, propagated, and cared for in the nursery at the Wildlife Sanctuary. In time, those few clumps will become 250 plants, ready to be replanted in the revegetation area – that’s not a bad percentage of the 2,500 left in the state.

The involvement of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Elders and Rangers is central to Nangak Tamboree – after Tony finishes showing me around, he’s off to greet one of the Elders who is providing a cultural heritage briefing to new contractors. That’s important in itself, as a way of thinking for an institution as big as a university, but it also informs the planning for the grasslands. Often, in these kinds of projects, you might see plantings arranged in the same way we think of garden design: layers of ground cover, low shrubs and taller shrubs, in groups around major trees. But this is grassy woodland. And what the Narrap Rangers have shown, Tony says, is that if you let the burning do its work, the local plants that have adapted to the presence of fire for tens of thousands of years will come back. Introduced weeds might take a bit of burning off, but eventually they will vanish. The rangers usually burn in autumn and think it’ll take three to five burning seasons to fully spur this revegetation. It will still be grassland, with these widely scattered eucalypts, but instead of onion weed and Kikuyu, it’ll be flax lilies, wallaby grass and kangaroo grass.

Grassy woodland with trees
Nangak Tamboree revegetation area

Inside the fence is two hectares of woodland, undulating down to the creek. It’s the protected (and more glamorous) part of a broader ten hectare area, some of which, beyond the fence, includes an old golf range and building sites, and the dumping ground for old cars and fill I mentioned days ago. This is planned to include new sports facilities for the Matildas (Go, team!) and for Rugby Union in Victoria. I might come back to the details on that another time but in the few days since I was last here what looks like kilometres of fencing has gone up around the soon-to-be-construction zone.

And here’s the most fascinating thing. There’s a waterhole – naturally, full of frogs – by the golf range. It’s not old, and not always full, but it’s ringed with reeds that are apparently endemic to the area. So the Narrap Rangers, the Council, and the project crew are about to move the reeds, the water and the frogs to a newly made waterhole on the other side of the track – out of harm’s way and closer to the creek. A whole waterhole! I’m not sure they’ve given each frog an eviction notice yet, but they are confident if they move the water any stray frogs will quickly follow it.

Excavation for new waterhole
The new waterhole, waiting for its water

I’ll check on progress in a couple of days. But I kinda like that this is a construction site that bothers to move a waterhole.

Tony answers more of my questions than I can report here, and he reckons he’s trying to be vague sometimes because he likes me trying to work stuff out on my posts. Bless. I’ll come back to some of the issues and info later. After he heads off, I wander back to listen to the frogs a bit more. Up on the hillock of displaced dirt, I stand still, one arm outstretched towards Frog Central with my sound recorder, and a flock of red-browed finches flits about me. Fairy wrens dance on the new fence. Lorikeets screech overhead. It’s the first day of the Backyard Bird Count and I’ll have to record them in bulk.

I walk back through the existing sports fields. There’s nobody here at all besides a security guard on their rounds and a dozen silver gulls. The new pavilion and stadium stand empty. Dusky woodswallows sweep low in circles around me as I walk.

Empty football field

The sky threatens more rain. I just make it home in time.

At least the frogs will be happy.


17 October, 2021

Day 17 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

It’s a Sunday. A lockdown Sunday. But this one feels different, because this morning we watched as the Premier announced that lockdown was lifting. Vaccination rates are high, and hospitalisations are lower than expected, so the Health Orders are changing in a few days.

I cried. But then, I cried this time last year for the same reason, and then we had no vaccines. So even though we’ve been here before, it does feel different.

And it does feel a bit different being out in the world today. We ride our bikes along the Darebin bike trail up to Bundoora Park, spy on some roos and emus (what even are they doing there?), and double back to ride through Nangak Tamboree – past the Wildlife Sanctuary, over the moat a couple of times, through the empty campus grounds, and around all the lakes. The water is still high, the creek running fast, puddles everywhere, and all the tracks muddy.

View of the moat

The moat – Sanctuary end

The bike path is like Bourke Street before the pandemic with people strolling and sprinting, little kids on training wheels, an elderly man on an electric scooter, and dozens of dog-walkers; every park is filled with people having picnics on soggy ground, playgrounds are crowded with kids – everyone is out in the world.

Soon we’ll be able to go anywhere we like instead of sticking close to home. I wonder how it will affect the way people use these spaces. Will people still go down the the creek bank for a picnic close to home, at these spots they’ve recently discovered, when instead they can drive across town to the beach or the hills? Or will we keep using our public spaces close to home in ways we never did before the pandemic? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I am limbering up for two citizen science events: The Backyard Bird Count, which starts tomorrow, and the Great Southern BioBlitz (22-25 October). I won’t bore you with my daily counts, don’t worry, but here are the results of today’s practice run.

Kangaroos: 9.

Emus: 2.

Greyhound of our acquaintance: 1.

Ducklings: 0.

Turtles: 0.

Snakes: 0.

Young men in loud drumming rehearsal in the bush near Sports Field Lake: 3.

I might need to sharpen up my observation technique.

Flooded Callistemon

Water, water everywhere

16 October, 2021

Day 16 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

So much rain last night. Just so much. The Darebin Creek is gushing and swirling, way up above its normal sluggish level, and judging by the swept reeds and grasses along the banks it was even higher overnight. I’m worried about ducklings getting swept away, and then as I approach the campus I see a pair of ducks leading a flock of ten or so fluffy dots across a roundabout. I stop to make sure no cars come along but then – drama! A magpie swoops out of nowhere, presumably defending its own nest, and attacks them. Then another.

How dare they? The adult ducks fight back bravely. I shout, though that probably isn’t very helpful since it freaks everyone out. Then the magpies get distracted by a pair of Noisy Miners who are swooping the swoopers and are of course much more threatening to everyone’s baby chicks. So they all go at it and honestly it is like the last flight of the Red Baron. Bird drama galore. While everyone else is busy brawling, the teeny weeny ducklings waddle happily on their way towards the moat. Phew.

It’s very soggy underfoot. I traipse across mown lawn to check out the Small Lake which is, naturally, small and is the link between the moat, Main Lake and the Sports Field Lake. I have walked past it so many times and never bothered to walk around it, because I’m usually striding along from home to office. The view from the footpath next to the road is of a brownish sort of channel, so it hardly invites exploration. But I have long admired the lines of this road bridge.

The underneath and pillars holding up the Kingsbury Drive bridge

Honestly, the aesthetics of basic civil engineering (especially in the 60s and 70s) take some beating, don’t they?

Even though the grass is mown, the Small Lake feels a little bit neglected. It’s not glamorous like Main Lake, which is overlooked by important university offices, boasts sweeping lawns and picnic tables and even has its own island (which I feel must raise the status of any body of water), and it’s not half-wild like Sports Field Lake. There are a few blackberries growing along the banks, a bit of rubbish swept in on the storm water, and not a single duck. There’s a gate under the bridge, twisted open long ago, which leads into a pocket of woodland with grass so vividly green after all the rain it’s almost neon. The traffic thundering overhead along Kingsbury Drive means it’s never going to be a picnic spot of choice.

Small Lake is Nangak Tamboree’s middle child.

But it’s actually quite lovely and I vow to visit it more often.

And as we have established, it has the most excellent bridge.

View of lake looking back towards campus

Things I am/not

15 October, 2021

Day 15 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Things I am not:

  • A geologist
  • A biologist
  • An ornithologist
  • A botanist
  • A herpetologist
  • A scientist of any kind
  • Silly enough to go wandering around in this rain.
A puddle

Things I am:

  • A writer
  • A walker
  • A watcher
  • At home in my ugg boots watching the rain.

I’m also a gardener so I’m not bad on plants. Birds, I often have to look up, in spite of a long ago feverish junior membership of the Gould League and a family of bird watchers. But I don’t mind that because I am also curious and I like solving mysteries. And I’m fond of history and not too shabby at research. So when I’m writing from the field, that’s what I’m doing: walking, watching and writing, taking lots of photos, and then looking up stuff I need to know. I’m not an expert. I’m just doing it for fun. Or something.

And yes, I know I promised to walk in Nangak Tamboree every day but I left it too late after working all day and now it’s dark and pouring. You wouldn’t want me to be miserable, would you?

So here, have some sound from one of the campus car parks. I told you they were rowdy. Rainbow lorikeets, mostly, a few corellas, and one bossy cocky.

I’ll be back there tomorrow, even if it rains. Promise.


14 October, 2021

Day 14 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

I’m walking with a stick today. It’s one of those fancy hiking sticks, and I bought it years ago for walking along Hadrian’s Wall (but that’s another story). A colleague shared with me a photo of a tiger snake he saw near the Sports Field Lake last summer, and a very impressive creature it was too, so I am prepared. Most snakes I’ve ever met while walking are only too happy to slink away and I’m only too happy to watch them go. Like most Australian kids I was raised to stand perfectly still at any snake sightings, and I have managed to do that. I even do it in New Zealand whenever there’s a scurrying in the undergrowth and there are no snakes there at all.

But one time, high in the lakes of central Tasmania, fly-fishing without the protection of waders, I was chased by a tiger snake – no kidding, you think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? – its head up, rearing and racing towards me. No standing still that time. I have never run so fast in my life and it came after me, like a scene from an old cartoon, with my legs spinning around like the Road Runner.

So forgive me, reptile enthusiasts, but I’m emotionally scarred. I feel safer carrying my stick, although it’s more for poking around before stepping than any possible violence. Many snakebites result from people trying to hurt snakes or pick them up and I have no desire to do either.

Anyway, today I am bravely striding with my stick through the Gresswell Habitat Link, a bush corridor between Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary and the Gresswell Forest to the north that is designed to allow wildlife to move from from end of Nangak Tamboree to the other, and beyond into the forest reserve. This area begins beside the alleged lakes (aka ponds) I visited the other day and runs alongside a golf course and edged by a relatively recent housing estate built on the former Mont Park hospital site.

Walkway through bush

This is grassy woodland, verging on scrubland on the higher ground, and dotted with some truly magnificent old trees – River Red Gums and Manna Gums, mostly. Narrow creeks and channels run through here, under built-up walkways, and alongside wide gravel tracks. There’s even a park bench to sit on and write which is pretty posh, and lots of new planting. I note, with my late spring snake awareness, that there’s no mowing of the grasslands here, but it all looks well-cared for. In the wetland area near the front gate, the frogs are having a lovely time.

There are plenty of people strolling or jogging around here, but the birds seem pretty used to them. I spot galahs, Eastern Rosellas, butcher birds, and hear a kookaburra laughing in a distant tree. But the entire place seems to be populated by Noisy Miners, the annoying neighbour nobody wants to move into the nest next door. I also spot wombat and wallaby or roo poo but there’s no sign of either this evening.

There are a couple of little kids in bike helmets digging a hole with a garden spade. I hope they aren’t burying a body. I suppose since it’s a nature reserve, some responsible adult should stop them, but since I am not a responsible adult, and since I did much the same thing in my neighbouring park as a kid (it was archaeology, I swear!) I walk on by.

I love these pockets of bush tucked away inside suburbs. I used to walk through one to and from primary school and now I think about it that must have been tonic for our little souls, hiking through tall trees every morning and afternoon. On rainy days like today we got to splash through puddles all the way home. Everyone called it “the bush” and when they taught us about the “Bush Poets” we expected to come across Banjo Paterson on our way home from school. Because that was the bush. Right there, past the footy oval. I suppose now people from elsewhere go to walk through it and marvel at the pink heath and the stands of red box. I should do the same one day.

But for now, I’ll keep walking through those kids’ adventure playground.

Update: A few weeks after I wrote this, I spoke to Glenn, one of the Wurundjeri Narrap Rangers, who by the way told me how hilarious it is when people tell tall stories about being chased by snakes. Snakes, he said, if disturbed, are only ever trying to find shelter. They are very territorial and have established bolt-holes in which to hide. So if you ever think a snake is attacking you, it is just trying to get past you to safety. I will try to remember this. (It doesn’t make it any less scary for me, but Glenn is a former snake handler so he has years of experience and great knowledge, and clearly much more empathy.)

On walking

13 October, 2021

Day 13 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

I walk most mornings and have for many years now. I didn’t always. I come from a family of walkers – I mean, serious, best-in-the-country race walkers, who think nothing of a ten kilometre stroll before breakfast. I was brought up by the side of an athletics track as my dad was in Olympic and Commonwealth Games and my grandfather was an Australian champion and lifelong walking official. So going for a walk in my family holds a slightly different meaning to most. My mum also used to walk every morning: not race walking, but more the kind of stepping out for health we’ve all been doing in our allotted exercise times during lockdown.

But I, being the family rebel, didn’t walk until relatively recently. I quite like proper hiking, and can walk all day when travelling and looking at really interesting stuff, but going for an evening stroll on a beach seemed absurd, and walking for exercise far too dull. I’d be on holiday, and friends would suggest going for a walk and I’d inevitably ask why. Pointless walking, without it being a race, or to discover some particularly excellent thing, seemed like a ridiculous thing to do when you could be lying about reading. Still, I guess it’s been ten years that I’ve walked most days, except for a long stretch last year in deep lockdown when I basically refused to leave the house.

I walk for exercise, yes, and sometimes even jog. But mostly I walk to clear my head. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t clear my head; in fact, I’m thinking all the time. I clear it of nonsense, and it fills with better or at least more interesting things. I tried listening to podcasts but I just want everyone to shut up and stop talking at me. If I’m deep in a writing project, even – perhaps especially – on a writing retreat or residency, walking is a time to unravel knotty plots or have conversations with imaginary people. Then, I’ll carry a tiny notebook and stop and scribble as I go.

The connection between writing and walking is long and celebrated – the Romantics made it a thing and it’s a thing again now, with nature writers wandering all over the shop. Writers like Rebecca Solnit have made it a focus of some of the most beautiful prose in recent years. I confess I’m a bit more random and not nearly as intentional – normally – as one apparently should be. Even now, with the daily walks designed as writing process, I never know what will happen and usually don’t plan where I’ll go.

A few years ago, I was in a group led by writer and local legend Sophie Cunningham which walked one night following in the footsteps of Melbourne’s first elephant (Port Melbourne to the zoo) and another day the first leg of Burke and Wills’ expedition (Royal Park to Moonee Ponds, although we didn’t take a piano with us like they did). Sophie researched carefully beforehand and wrote about those walks later in her excellent essay collection, City of Trees. Intentional, writerly walking, but we never really knew what would happen, and a group of writers walking generates its own story.

In 1927, Virginia Woolf went for a stroll to buy a new pencil, and, being Virginia Woolf, wrote the most gorgeous essay about it – ‘Street Haunting’ – about walking, about London, and about how your mind slips and listens and glides as you walk:

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

Street Haunting‘, Virginia Woolf, first published 1930.

See how her prose does what she’s describing?


Sadly, I am not Woolf, I’m just me, plodding along a muddy track beside a creek. I take the long way to Nangak Tamboree today, which takes me about half an hour each way, and longer if you stop to try to take photos of uncooperative birds with an even more uncooperative camera. There’s a stand of wattles and kangaroos apples along the Darebin Creek inhabited by a family of fairy wrens, and a flittery population of robins, honeyeaters, and little hoppy brown things (that’s the technical term) which never sit still for a moment. (On the way home, I’ll meet a group of park rangers in this spot, all pointing and gasping, thrilled at the shenanigans.)

White-browed scrubwren on a tree branch
White-browed scrubwren finally sitting still

When I reach Nangak Tamboree, I sit on a boulder between the creek and the fenced-off revegetation area, and scribble this down, thinking about writing and walking.

There are now books galore about the creative benefits of walking, and research that indicates that Wordsworth was right – walking does enable writing. A Stanford University study claims that ‘A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking’ but it’s creativity of the random kind, not necessarily the problem-solving sort. That chimes with my experience.

And as Michael LePointe warns:

The more conscious writers become of its creative benefits, the more walking takes on the quality of goal-driven labor, the very thing we are meant to be marching against. 

‘The Unbearable Smugness of Walking’, The Atlantic, August 2019.

Much better to wander off, and let your mind wander as well: ‘only gliding smoothly on the surface.’

A white faced heron in long grass
White-faced heron on the hunt

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