Ian Penrose remembers coming to Melbourne from Geelong for Moomba when he was a teenager and then, a few years later, noticing the industrial landscape of what is now Southbank. “I’d just started uni and stayed at the YMCA for a week,” he recalls. “It was near a big car yard and the Allens sweets factory. The art gallery had opened but otherwise that part of the river was an unattractive area.”
David and Ian are members of the Yarra Riverkeeper Association Inc (YRKA), a group dedicated to ‘working together to protect and enjoy the Yarra’. A new organization, formed in late 2004, YRKA already has a breadth of youth, experience and expertise within its membership.
The members’ interests include native fish, Friends groups, and environmental science. David has extensive local government experience and Ian, who worked for Shell for many years, capped off his career with a senior role in the return of flows to the Snowy River. From 2001 to 2004 he was Director of the Snowy Project with the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
They both see YRKA as an opportunity to give the Yarra a voice. Environmental flows, water quality and encroaching development are amongst YRKA’s key issues. There are already, of course, many groups caring for the river: Landcare groups, Friends groups, field naturalists, primary schools, Waterwatch groups. YRKA is keen to support these types of organizations.
“Ultimately YRKA wants to be at the table, representing the community and the river, when governments are making decisions about the Yarra,”
says Ian. Ian and David are keen for the community – the millions of people who live in the river’s catchment – to further their understanding of the river.
“I have a view that you can only load so much onto the authorities in terms of river care,” explains Ian. “When the community understands and appreciates the Yarra more it will also take more responsibility.”
“With a deeper understanding,” adds David, “the community can say to the government, ‘We love this river, join us in caring for it’.” He says this on a sunny April afternoon, with the waters of Dights Falls tumbling in the background.” It’s a sheer delight to be here, in a place like this, but underneath the surface there are many issues. There are a myriad of things that bring people to the river and we all need to strike the right sort of balance, between industry, agriculture and the river, between its social, economic and environmental uses.”
“The Yarra is a working river,” adds Ian, “with social and cultural connections. And, of course, it is very important to the indigenous community.”
David is president of both YRKA and the Friends of Merri Creek. He joined the latter group in the early 1990s “Friends of Merri Creek has been unique in that as well as getting its hands dirty with community planting days and the like it has also played an advocacy role, which is what YRKA hopes to do.” Ian’s active involvement in environmental issues harks back to his university days. “I knew then that the planet is a finite planet. The sums didn’t add up then in terms of how the human population uses the earth’s resources and they still don’t add up now.”
When David moved to Northcote in the late 1970s he was “really stunned by the sound of bellbirds so close to the heart of a capital city. It was magic.” It partly prompted David to resume cycling and explore the river, mainly around Heidelberg, Fairfield and to Westerfold Park.
“There’s a lovely rural feel to these areas.” Now retired, Ian divides his time between Richmond and Warrandyte. He regularly cycles along the Yarra with his wife Ann and has also done the 80km round trip to Warrandyte a few times.
“There are some delightful sections. I find the area around Heidelberg, where the artists’ colonies were, one of the best. In terms of cultural attachments to the Yarra, cycling is hugely popular.”
At Warrandyte, Ian and Ann are endeavouring to be “good stewards” of the land. “We’re learning about the bush, tapping into the resources of the local shire and local Landcare group. The Yarra is in good condition up there, and the bird life is quite prolific. It’s a wonderful part of Melbourne.”
Written by Vin Maskell, 2005