A paved mural of blue and green glass pebbles lines the entry path of Boorhaman Primary School. It's a tribute to the Ovens River and just one of many signs that this waterway is intricately linked with the school kids' lives; as playground, pantry and place of wonder.
Eleven year-old Marley Stevenson is the eldest of Boorhaman Primary’s seven students. He is taught alongside brother Kheda, sister Tahnee and friends Hank, Siobhan, Lane and Hannah by devoted principal Gayle Cameron. Their little crop of school buildings is surrounded by expansive farmland, 18 km out of Wangaratta towards the Murray River and a short distance from the lower reaches of the Ovens River.
When bursting with spring-time flows, the Ovens River near Boorhaman spreads its waters across the lower floodplain with such abundance that to cross the river along Peechelba Road you traverse six bridges over a 2 km stretch.
This section of river is one of the very special sites that Boorhaman Primary has monitored and nurtured for seven years as dedicated participants of the region’s Waterwatch program. The other site is on private property of Mr and Mrs Naughton, who kindly allow the school to monitor water on a sweeping river bend.
Good water quality is important, explains Marley: “So the bugs and fish and all the things that drink from the river can survive.”
Boorhaman Primary’s mural tribute to the Ovens River – just one of many signs that this waterway is intricately linked with the school kids’ lives.
Get Marley and his fellow classmates started on their experience of river life and a torrent of stories burst forward with the same gusto as the Lower Ovens does during a flood.
Kheda tells of fishing adventures with much joy:
“We were out fishing once and I got a bite. I reeled it in and here was this turtle on the end of my line!”
“And when it floods,” Kheda continues, “me and Marley put our gumboots on and go and look for things.”
There’s agreement on a favourite flood-time find: “Yabbies!” they chorus. “Once I found this big one with a broken claw,” recalls Marley. “I called him Stumpy.”
But along with floods, the kids have seen the impact of drought on their river.
“I’ve given our baby brother Shannon piggybacks straight across the river bed when it dries out,” Siobhan reports.
Dry conditions have wiped out almost all the native seedlings the children and local Landcare group planted last year to help strengthen the riverbank.
“And we haven’t caught a single fish this year in my new boat,” laments Kheda. “The river level is too low.”
When the fishing is good Murray Cod is a favourite catch, and a whopper of one was once on the menu of the school’s Friday lunch cooking class: “That was delicious!” Tahnee exclaims.
“Yes, so we’re pretty connected to the river,” sums up Gayle.
And thanks to a visit from elder, Uncle Larry, the kids have learnt of indigenous people’s connections to the river and of dreamtime stories about the river’s creatures such as black swans.
This bird species was the focus of a recent school excursion to a nearby swamp. The children were there to see how high the swans were building their nests, a sign for local farmers of how much spring rain to expect.
“If it’s going to flood the black swans will build their nests high,” explains Marley. “And if there’s only going to be a little bit of water they’ll build nests down low.”
It’s examples like this – demonstrating a deep interest in the natural world – that reveal the passion that these young people have for the Ovens River and a confidence that they’ll be looking after it for many years to come.
Without question, the kids’ favourite spot to take a school photo is next to “the big tree”. This tree isn’t for climbing, it’s too sacred. The children have been worried about stress their tree experiences during drought when it loses lots of bark and leaves.
Please note: Kheda Stevenson would like readers to know that the turtle he caught by accident was safely returned to the river.
Story by Leonie Duncan, 2007