In 1996 Matt Bowker finished work at BHP with the intention of spending a year helping out at his father's Princetown farm and school camp. Twelve years later he is running the business and teaching young people from around the world about the Gellibrand River.
“Yeah, it’s been a long year,’’ Matt laughs. “I grew up on this farm and because I’d been away from it while I was doing high school and university I was able to come back and realise how good this part of the world is. I’ve certainly got no complaints about the working environment – it’s a ripper.’’
Matt and wife Sophie, along with 12 staff, run the Kangaroobie Outdoor Education Centre, as well as the 2000-acre farm on the picturesque property.
Matt’s family arrived in Princetown in 1858, farming dairy cows and turkey. The farm now plays host to 1000 sheep and cows. The school camp, which can sleep about 170 students, was built by Matt’s parents in 1978. “The camp is there to provide a chance for kids to have meaningful interaction with animals on a farm, which a lot of kids don’t get these days,’’ Matt says.
“Everyone used to have an uncle or a grandfather on a farm and when you had holidays you would spend time there. That just doesn’t happen anymore and I think Kangaroobie provides a valuable service by making sure these kids know what farm animals are actually used for’’.
Matt, 35, says it is vital for the camp to have a clean river like the Gellibrand.
“The Gellibrand is such a big part of what we do. We go canoeing with the kids and teach them about the estuary, the fish that are in it, and why it is a healthy river. Our older students also study how rivers are formed and take part in water testing.
An EstuaryWatch program was started by a group of concerned locals 18 months ago because of a number of fish deaths when the river mouth was blocked. “Over the last five years we’ve had six or seven serious fish kills and we once buried over 200 fish. We wanted to get some continuous data on the health of the river so every month we test things like oxygen levels, temperature and salinity’’.
Matt remembers how the flooding river affected his life as a child. “Mum used to drop us off on one side of the flood and my sister and I would jump in a canoe, paddle to the other side and our neighbour would then drive us to the bus stop. It was a funny way of getting to school’’.
His fondest memory of the Gellibrand was swimming and catching eels.
“We’d make a little fire and cook them up on the riverbank. I’ve got a great affection for the river and it’s great to be able to pass that onto my three young children. There are Aboriginal middens there so they obviously saw it as a pretty special place too’’.
By Daniel Clarke, Environment Victoria, November 2008