There are two ways I can turn when I reach the water’s edge. Turn left and it’s a pretty track: golf courses and cricket ovals, luxury apartments with a great deal of glass and a recently constructed artificial lake, destined to be the centrepiece of a flash new housing development.
It may be overlooked, but there are attractive stretches a-plenty along the course of the Maribyrnong. Despite this, most days I find myself turning right, which is definitely the industrial end.
The Footscray Park is pretty enough: classic Edwardian gardens, complete with all manner of deciduous trees that you don’t see much anywhere else on this side of town. Closer to the river’s edge, there are palm trees, distinctive to the area. The city, with its high grey buildings, is in constant evidence; in the opposite direction lies the great, tiered stands of the Flemington Racecourse.
Then the park ends and the racecourse ends and you’re into serious industrial territory. Or almost. You pass under Smithfield Road (called “Lynch’s Bridge” on the map), and there’s a rustic looking wooden fence. The country feel of it is spoiled somewhat by the electricity pylons, towering above the wetlands squeezed between the river and the railway tracks.
There are rushes of some description and a viewing platform. There are two optimistic signs, one declaring it a “wildlife preservation area” and one, faded and blue, charting the “Wetland Birds of Southern Australia”. But I seldom see any.
The next bridge, small and unpretentious, unnamed in my Melways, is what I call the abattoir bridge. Its criss-cross metal frame is reproduced, quite beautifully, in a mosaic under the bridge, showing five hapless sheep and three horned cattle, jostling across to their final exit. This is where the doomed beasts walked over the river, from the railway yards to the Kensington abattoirs on the other side, long ago, before they too were bulldozed to make way for more luxury apartments.
At the tight, western tip of the wetlands, before it’s sliced off by the railway bridge, there is, at last, a sizeable puddle, and a sign proclaiming “Newell’s Paddock, An Urban Nature Park”.
Another massive pylon, then the railway bridge; built of immense blue stone blocks, blackened. There’s impressive graffiti along every available expanse of concrete around here; pink and silver and green, but it must be harder to paint on the knobbly bluestone because it’s almost graffiti-free.
The river turns abruptly right and the path follows, away from the city, towards the bay. There’s a windswept grassy plain with some brave, stunted little gum trees trying to grow. The river continues to curve and there are signs about picking up your dog’s poo. There are rubbish bins and slatted seats too, although I’ve never seen anyone on them. Walkers, yes; and joggers; but no sitters. I park myself on one of the seats, facing the water and the factories beyond. Always, there is noise above the subtle lapping of the river: industry, traffic and trains.
Dynon Street Bridge is where I cross over and turn back. A sign on the other side tells me it’s five kilometres to Port Phillip Bay, and maybe one day I’ll take a seriously long lunch break and walk all the way.
Over on the other side, fences separate the walking track from the factories. There are piles of brick and rubble, cranes, industrial size trucks and empty pallets. I make my way back to the afternoon’s work, refreshed by open air and exercise and by being beside the water, which can be as still as a pond one day, but scuffed up and restless the next.
It’s not the most scenic walk. But there is life here, and beauty too, if you look hard enough.
There are tour boats, there are dogs cavorting and people meandering. There are seagulls on the water and circling above. And there’s me, trying to work out why something in me prefers this industrial landscape to the tarted up other end of the river.
Maybe it’s simply because there’s a kind of raw honesty about it. Industry is what we all live off – the money and the goods it makes – but mostly we hide it away, as far as possible from our tidy homes, and pretend it doesn’t exist. There’s a kind of integrity about this stretch of the Maribyrnong. It’s a real, urban river, and I, for one, am content to take my daily constitutional here.
Story by Clare Boyd-Macrae