The last day

31 October, 2021

Day 31 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Back at the edge of the Sports Field Lake. I’ve been coming here to Nangak Tamboree to write now for an entire month. I didn’t know, at the start, how or even if it would work out. By about day three I decided I’d made a terrible mistake. But then I settled into a rhythm.

It hasn’t always been easy. This month of writing coincided with an extremely stressful and far too busy time, so some days I’ve resented having to come here and other days my visits have been far too brief. Some days I’d think in advance about where to go (like walking the moat or visiting the Wildlife Sanctuary) and even a topic to think about (like the sculptures), but most of the time I simply wander off and see what happens.

I’ve seen and spoken to people working hard and thinking deeply about this place and how to work with it to make it more open for more people, and safer and healthier for more creatures and more local plantlife. I’ve watched the many ways people and wildlife use it already.

Tree by the water

In this month, the acacia and melaleuca bloomed and faded, tadpoles hatched, nests are full of fledglings, and the wallaby grass is throwing up seed heads. Of course, the weeds and introduced grasses are shooting up everywhere too. It’s going to take years to manage this area of Nangak Tamboree into a revegetated, welcoming space. If the work already done around the Gresswell Ponds, Fozzie’s Waterhole, and along the moat is any indication, it’s in good horticultural hands, along with the wisdom and energy of the Narrap Rangers. Other parts of the Nangak Tamboree project may not seem quite so glamorous, like digging holes in the car parks to install reed beds for storm water drainage, but it’s specialist work, and all for the greater good. Cleaner waterways make for happier turtles.

I’ve learned a great deal in this last month: how to identify different ducks (although I still can’t tell one pigeon from another); about flax lilies and fairy wrens and darters; about storm water courses and aquatic plants; and about walking and stillness. I can tell wallaby and kangaroo grass apart (I think), and all this bird-spotting has rekindled a childhood love. My camera failed early on so I’ve had to use my phone, and its inadequacy in the zoom department has spurred me on to think about the kinds of photos I want to take when we’re back out in the world (and order a new camera).

I’ve learned a little about the recent history of the area, which I’ll continue to research. I’ve learned that I have too many projects at once and need to calm the fuck down, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me – several of whom have been telling me that for years. On the other hand, if you teach at a university, you are meant to have a lot on. And on yet another hand, which is exactly what I need, everything is so fascinating and I have ideas bouncing around in my head all the time.

But I hope I don’t lose the slowness of walking and writing practice. And slow reading, for that matter. This month I’ve also been slowly rereading War and Peace, my favourite book, as part of #TolstoyTogether, a global shared lockdown reading project. I tried it last year and then got so carried away with the story I raced ahead. Typical. This year I am trying very hard to only read the day’s allotted chapters. (We’re up to 1812, and the war is heading towards Bald Hills – this is the real test of my commitment.)

So here we are at the end of the month and the end of lockdown. I can walk here today without a mask. Everyone says we’ll soon be back to normal. (By that, I don’t even mean the idea of ‘COVID-normal’ embraced by politicians.) But we won’t or at least we shouldn’t. Because we know and see the world differently now. Instead of getting back to normal, let’s remember the small pleasures and daily lessons of hyperlocal living.

Today, a cormorant drying its wings on one log, a darter on another. Little lorikeets hopping along a branch. The drum band at their rehearsal in the bush. An ant crawling across the page of my notebook. The water glittering in the setting sun. The breeze rippling the lake. Corella cries. Spring warmth.


Dead trees in lake, sun behind them

Calm after the storm

30 October, 2021

Day 30 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

A perfect, almost-still morning in Nangak Tamboree, after the wildness of the past 48 hours.

Path walking towards the lake, edged by trees and long grass

It’s the second-last day of this little writing project, and I’m revisiting a couple of favourite spots – places I will continue to visit. Today’s it’s the ‘beach’ at the top of Sports Field Lake, but there’s only one chair left here. The other one has probably been blown across to Altona, like that flying trampoline. I can hear the sounds of an actual sports team training on the other side of the water. Haven’t heard that for a while.

Oh, no – I see the missing chair. I recognise that glimpse of slender grey bar sticking out of the water. I grab a stick and retrieve it from the lake. It’s not quite Excalibur, but I feel triumphant nevertheless, and lean it up against a tree trunk, where it drips water in a channel through the dirt.

Coots duck and surface, and startle away from me. Fair enough. Across the water, my old friend the Darter is drying his feathers on a fallen tree trunk and shouting at the sky every so often.

Another Darter, a female this time, with caramel feathers, surfaces quite close by and I see now why they are also called Snakebirds. She vanishes and must move fast underwater, because her long neck and dagger-like beak emerge many metres away. She launches herself into the air while her body and wings are still submerged, becoming half-bird, half-waterfall, then drags her feet across the surface before taking flight in an elegant arc across the lake.

View through acacia shrubs across the lake to the island.

There are so many fallen trees and branches down across the state, and this place is no exception. But so many other things have changed in the time I’ve been coming here to write. Lockdown is over now and today is the first day we are allowed to leave the city. So soon, we’ll hit the road to (at last!) get up to my little place in the country to check on it, do some fire season preparation, and spend the night. It feels extraordinary to go somewhere that is not the same as every other night for the past many months. Again. I remember this feeling from this time last year though, and I’m not going to fall for that optimism again. Anything could still happen with this pandemic.

We’ve gone, in the past month of me walking and writing here, from an enforced five kilometre limit to ten kilometres, to 25 kilometres, to the city boundaries, to the state borders. Our horizons keep changing, like a cinematic zoom.

But let’s not forget these little local spaces we’ve explored in such detail while we’ve stayed so close to home.

I’ll be back tomorrow to say goodbye. But I guess I won’t really leave Nangak Tamboree.

Sign showing the way to the university and the creek

Art on the waterways

29 October, 2021

Day 29 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Not much walking going on today, to be honest, and not much writing, because as everyone in Victoria knows, last night’s thunderstorm developed into something rather fierce over night and this morning, and it’s still pretty miserable, with lashing rain. There’s a great deal of damage all over the state – roofs off, power out, NBN down, at least one sighting of a trampoline flying through the air, and everything smashed.

Especially trees.

I went back to the Moaning Tree Forest today, after the worst of the storm had passed. Two big eucalypts were uprooted and crashed right near where I sat in my car to write yesterday, and I could see trunks snapped and tree limbs torn off all along the area and in the Sanctuary – I didn’t go in, because it was still pretty wild and teetering branches are not my favourite thing. To be honest, for the final day of lockdown, a minor apocalypse seemed appropriate, after all we’ve been through, and also a little bit freaky. The roads and lawns were covered in debris – leaves, branches, and blossom – to the great delight of a huge gang of galahs who were feeding on the gum nuts and seeds scattered everywhere. I feel very sorry for all the fledglings who were trying to stay in their nests in that wind. I’m sure there must’ve been quite a few casualties.

So let’s think of something happier. I stopped at one of my favourite pieces among the many in the huge outdoor sculpture garden that is the Bundoora campus: Karen Ward’s Hermitage (2001). Before the pandemic, when I was teaching Writing Creative Nonfiction, I’d bring my students here, or to the Sanctuary, for a walk and a few writing exercises. We’d look at things – bark, mushrooms popping up in the lawn, Hermitage, the old hospital buildings, the waterhole with frogs – and everyone would wander off to write some short pieces about place, then stand together and read them out loud. It was always my favourite class. I hope we get to do it again.

Karen Ward's sculpture Hermitage, which is shaped like a timber shack.

And that made me remember that I haven’t yet written about the sculpture that can be found along the waterways in Nangak Tamboree. So here are a few I have admired on previous days’ walks over the past few weeks.

I find my students often don’t realise that they’re studying in a sculpture park. But then, I didn’t realise we had all these different waterways and open spaces. I guess you take it for granted, once you’ve seen a life-sized bronze rhinoceros or an upside-down Governor La Trobe. And some of the pieces along the waterways probably don’t get noticed so often. Which is a pity, because some of them are splendid.

This is another favourite, partly because of its positioning. You can’t get to it easily – instead you glimpse it through a break in the shrubs along the banks of the moat. It’s Heather B. Swann’s Horned Night Walker (2003).

Heather B. Swann's sculpture, Horned Night Walker, shaped from thin iron bars, seen across the water.

Further along the Moat are two pieces by one of Melbourne’s best loved sculptors, Inge King. (Probably her most recognisable work is the series of massive black-painted waves, Forward Surge, on the lawn between the NGV and Hamer Hall.) There are several of her pieces along here, but the most dramatic (and she was very good at drama) sits almost in the moat, at the foot of the amphitheatre, so that it forms a backdrop to performance and everyone in the audience can see it. It’s called Dialogue of Circles and was commissioned in 1976.

Inge King sculpture Dialogue of Circles - two massive steel plinths hold spirals.

A hundred metres or so further on is a small group work, also by Inge King, called Group of Boulders. It’s right next to the Main Lake, on the grassy slope that I have learned is called Academic Lawn. I imagine that means that it’s a lawn where, on a warmer day than this one, academics are meant to lounge about like extras in Brideshead Revisited, and possibly roll right down and end up in the lake.

Inge King sculpture, Group of Boulders: short painted steel blocks facing each other.

If you want to wander around the sculpture park for yourself and have a look, here’s a map. If you need a reason to go for a walk, it’s a damn good one.


27 October, 2021

Day 27 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

At last! The missing link in the waterways.

Like most of Melbourne, the Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary has been closed for weeks – months. But as an outdoor space, with no contact required of visitors, it has been able to re-open this week.

The Sanctuary is as old as the university, which just tells you everyone had their priorities straight from the beginning. It spreads over 30 hectares and is now protected by a Trust for Nature conservation covenant. The land was once a farm, then part of Mont Park, and includes areas that were once recreation facilities for the patients, like a croquet lawn and cricket oval. That means that while the vegetation now looks substantial, much of it has been reintroduced.

But there are some truly magnificent and very old trees.

Huge old red gum
River Red Gum, estimated to be 450 years old

The older trees are mostly River Reds, but there are also stands of Ironbarks, Manna Gums and what might be Red Box – many of which, I imagine, are around fifty years old and were planted in the early years of the sanctuary. The regeneration work goes on – there are quite a few areas fenced off to protect the flora inside.

When you visit a wildlife sanctuary, you are on the lookout for creatures, right? And I guess I am, but I don’t seem able to concentrate on peering into bushes or focusing binoculars. There are all the usual avian suspects of course, croaking and squeaking and quacking, and I do spot a brushtail possum’s brushtail poking out the hole of a nesting box that is possibly not intended for someone their size.

But it’s actually the trees that are the show-stoppers here, even the younger, possibly self-sown, eucalypts and maleleucas, underlined by local grasses and swathes of goodenia, everlasting daisies, and pomaderris in bloom.

Path through scrub

And of course the waterways. Again, these were dug as part of the creation of the university, and creeks are channelled between them, but I imagine these were planned following natural water courses or seasonal creek beds. So this is the core of Nangak Tamboree, the connected waterways running down from the high ground in Gresswell Nature Reserve and Gresswell Hill, into the alleged lakes at the bottom of the Wildlife Corridor, gathering run-off from the lower slopes on the old hospital site, through the Sanctuary, into the campus moat, where it combines with a creek running underground (now) from Bundoora park, into the campus lake system, and down to the Darebin Creek.

If you can’t visualise it as a system, here’s my little Google map of writing sites.

The sanctuary has its own system of waterways: two waterholes out the front, the reddish pond I admired through the fence yesterday, expansive swampland, and a series of lakes and connecting creeks, with – you won’t believe it – names like Main Lake and Eastern Swamp. (Seriously, someone has to get onto naming all of these waterways properly. That makes two Main Lakes at one university. And name them after trees or creatures, not former Deans. Or maybe ask the Wurundjeri Elders if they would like to put words to them.)

Swamp with trees and reeds
Eastern Swamp

The names may be prosaic, but the waterways are lovely to look at, and are home to endangered Dwarf Galaxia and other fish and eels, a gazillion frogs, and many waterbirds, as well as of course providing water to everyone else who lives here or passes through the bio-corridor, from bats and flying foxes to wallabies and pardalotes. (All I see are a few ducks and a pair of coots diving in the reeds.) In one spot, I walk along an ‘isthmus’ (I definitely approve of that name) with Main Lake on one side, and on the other, a waterhole filled with Water Ribbons (Cycnogeton procerum) while on its banks a line of Manna Gums shed their own ribbons of bark.

Now that’s poetic.

Main lake, ringed with trees
Main Lake (no, not that Main Lake, the other one)

Billabongs & ponds

26 October, 2021

Day 26 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

It’s the last few days of my time walking and writing here, so I headed off with a plan to walk along a neglected stretch of the waterway. But:

A) I failed.

B) Of course, it isn’t neglected, it’s only me who has neglected it.

This is the water that curls like an offshoot of the campus moat, around the back of the Sports Centre, flows under the circle road and ends up in a pond in the Wildlife Sanctuary (which, oh joy, oh rapture, has re-opened so I’ll be visiting in the next few days). It begins with the Infamous Overflowing Lake. I expect it is linked below ground with the moat, as there are suspicious mounds leading from one to the other. They could be Viking burial mounds, or drains. Hard to tell.

Infamous Overflowing Lake
Infamous Overflowing Lake

The plan was to walk around the north of the lake/pond/billabong, because I know the way is blocked on the other bank by Sports Centre fences. But no. It’s blocked on both sides now, because the car park next to it hosts a COVID-19 testing station. It’s not busy yet, but there’s usually a long queue of cars – I’ve been in that queue several times myself. (The car park on the other side is now used for the COVID-19 vaccination clinic; both good uses of public property in a crisis.)

It turns out, though, that this is a very pleasant place in which to be prevented from walking any further. There are picnic tables and, like the rest of the campus, it’s beautifully landscaped – here with grasses and great patches of Brachyscome multifida, or the purple cut-leaf daisy, with its almost permanent happy wee flowers. On the bank, a cormorant stretches its wings in the early morning sun, and lorikeets, as usual, sweep low overhead. All these spaces I never use or even stop to admire. I vow to come back often when we return to campus.

I’m thinking about this cultural walk I did a few years ago in the middle of the Melbourne CBD, along the river bank. It was led by Dean Stewart, to introduce people to the Indigenous history of Birrarung, or the Yarra River. I learned a great deal from Dean, but today I reflect on one thing he said: he shows people old drawings of the south bank of the river, before it was filled in and built over, and asks them to describe it. Older people say it looks like a swamp. Kids say it’s wetland. How our perceptions change over a generation.

And in a country often suffering through extended drought, you’d think we’d be more careful with wetland. As we are here.

Cormorant stretching in front of water

Anyway, no luck walking this way. I retrace my steps past the Sports Centre (empty but soon to re-open, when hopefully my fencing club starts training again – nature is healing!) and cut down a driveway I’ve passed a million times, past the tennis courts and a stunning row of callistemon in full scarlet glory. To my right are some nondescript buildings I never knew existed until COVID meant our mail didn’t get delivered to the office any more and we had to find it ourselves, somewhere over here. I climb over a bank, which I suspect doubles as a levee. On the left, the rock climbing wall. All those people who were inspired by the Olympic rock climbing will be hitting that hard in the weeks to come.

Beyond the bank is the other end of the Infamous Overflowing Lake, and the sounds of very happy frogs. I walk to the end and discover a very impressive-looking something-or-other. I have no idea, but I’m going to say it’s a local version of the Thames Barrier. Or at least Eildon Weir. Here, I assume, because I’m not volunteering to dive in and check, the water flows under the Thames Barrier and the road and into the billabong on the other side, which is in the Wildlife Sanctuary.

Once, a few years ago, I saw an echidna waddling across the road right here.

It’s too early to go in, so I just stare through the fence into the sanctuary. It’s shady by the banks and the normal muddiness of the water is accentuated by some kind of red algae or other growth. It’s quite pretty, for algae.

Muddy waterhole
The pale headless blur on the log is a Darter

Nowadays, I always glance at the water here as I drive past, after a few trips to South Africa where every waterhole is a wildlife-viewing adventure. As if I’m going to see elephants bathing or at least roos drinking, but there’s never anything.

Or so I think. I walk along the fence and disturb a Darter. She flaps across the top of the water and settles on a tree branch, away from the pesky walking creature trying to take photos through cyclone wire. And who can blame her?


25 October, 2021

Day 25 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Sign completely covered in graffiti

I think this sign, which is very small and surrounded by long grass, tells us we are not allowed to fish, swim, paddle canoes, or … I don’t know, maybe waterski? surf ski? on the university lake system. Maybe it’s diving, which frankly I wouldn’t recommend either, because I’m sure the water is filled with dead tree trunks and I have no idea how deep it is.

Needless to say, I’ve seen people doing most of those things, although not until recently, and they can’t be blamed given the state of the signage. When I visited Nangak Tamboree a few weeks ago, on a lovely spring day, a family was paddling happily along the banks of the Sports Field Lake in an inflatable canoe, and three people were fishing (one coarse fishing, which you don’t see often here). I’ve certainly noticed a few kids swimming here over summer, and some just the other week. I’ve written about the uses we make of open spaces, but we also make use of open waterways. Even little lakes like these.

I have seen a couple of whopper fish leap here, but just out of the corner of my eye. I suspect they might be carp. Vermin fish for most of us, but apparently fine if you know how to cook them properly. I’ve seen plenty of tadpoles and in a sign of deep maturity resisted catching them and carrying them around in a jar. I bet there are eels and yabbies in the system too. I could ask someone, but if they answered with really intriguing information, like, ‘Oh yes, we’ve been stocking the lakes with golden perch as an aquaculture experiment,’ I might be tempted to get out my fishing rod, and unfortunately I can’t pretend I haven’t seen the sign.

There’s another No Fishing sign, and it’s my favourite, because it’s right out in the middle of the lake on an island where nobody would ever see it. (I took this with my zoom camera.)

'No fishing' sign

So really, you’d have to be swimming or paddling your canoe in an unauthorised manner already to know that you weren’t allowed to go fishing.

Luckily, staring at the water for hours is permitted, and indeed encouraged.

Apparently they used to have raft races and all sorts of shenanigans on the campus moat. In spite of the lack of warning signs, nobody seems to be tempted nowadays, though who knows what students in the residences get up to after hours. But since there’s a perfectly lovely pool in the sports centre, I guess the brownish duck-infested moat is not as alluring as it might once have been. Or students are not as daring.

But this is the sign that first caught my attention, tied to two star pickets hammered in to the earth by the side of the bike path. It explains what Nangak Tamboree is and means, what it’s for, and also about the cultural burning carried out by the Narrap Rangers.

I am very fond of an information panel (especially in a cute little kiosk with a map), labels in museums, interpretative signs (there are some further down the creek telling you which birds to look for), and hokey little panels remembering people or events. Apparently the Nangak Tamboree project will eventually involve a great many interpretive panels and I am totally here for it. My favourites are those along the Yarra River, in Heidelberg and out in Eltham and Warrandyte, featuring the Heidelberg School and other artists and the scenes they painted right where they painted. (Actually, my favourite in the world are along the site of the old Berlin Wall, but that’s another story.)

I am not as fond of signs ordering you about, but I do appreciate how the signs around here are a bit half-hearted, like maybe we’d rather you didn’t fish or paddle your canoe, but we don’t really mind that much, and certainly not enough to put up new signs all the time if they get tagged.

But seriously, don’t dive.

Heating up

22 October, 2021

Day 22 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Still and warm this morning – feels like summer is finally on its way. It’s the kind of day that has you checking under the log before sitting down, and has people in fire-prone areas cleaning out gutters and revving up the brush cutter. A cap and sunblock morning. A first day out of lockdown morning. There aren’t many people around. I imagine they’re all getting their hair cut and having breakfast in cafes for the first time in months.

Lake surrounded by trees.

I pass the Council rangers on the walk here, getting ready to burn weeds in Banyule North Grasslands.

‘Good day for it,’ they say. I ask them how they go about the work, and they tell me they don’t do spot burns of individual perennial weeds, but rather patches in between ‘the good stuff.’ (I wish they’d come sort out those pesky ash trees that keep reappearing in my garden.)

On the way back, I watch them for a while, as they move slowly in a widening circle out from where they’ve previously planted ‘good stuff’ like kangaroo grass and everlasting daisies. You’d hardly know they were burning, as it generates very little smoke, and even though it’s warm the grasslands are pretty soggy underfoot and the grasses have not yet died off. It’s not a cultural burn, I don’t think, as those are usually in autumn, but the Council recognising ancient practices for managing vegetation in this country.

In between, I’m sitting on the good old fallen log beside Sports Field Lake, counting birds and trying to school myself on different types of ducks and pigeons. I’m not bad on ducks now, but pigeons, I’m sorry, all look alike, unless their hair sticks up in which case I can spot the difference.

In the dead tree beside me I can see at least four nesting hollows – one pair of galahs, two for Rainbow Lorikeets, and one for Mynas. There are more promising-looking hollows, but nobody has poked a head out of those yet. And that’s just one tree. Trees are bloody good, aren’t they? Should be more of ’em. It’s basically an entire apartment complex of the avian world, with panoramic views and pool.

The lake water’s muddy, but apparently quite clean. It seems even more opaque than usual after all the rain, which is excellent for reflections. I mean, what more can you ask of a lake, really?

Lake with dead tree and reflection


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

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