action-story | 10th May, 2016

Peter Somerville

Captain Peter Somerville doesn’t mince words. “Welcome to the Maribyrnong,” he says. “Melbourne has another river, the Yarra, but that’s only a tributary.”

ActionStory_Peter Somerville heroPeter is aboard The Blackbird, a traditional ferry he has been running up and down the Maribyrnong for twenty-six years. It’s also the only ferry offering tours and charters along the river that flows through much of Melbourne’s west.

“It’s a good lifestyle. The river is wide, there is fresh air, clean water and natural river banks,” he says. “And if there’s no work, we can sit and watch the river flow by.” Peter does not live on the boat, but takes it out four days a week.

His tours upstream to Avondale Heights and downstream to Williamstown are full of anecdotes, history and more than a little opinion. As the Blackbird passes the Flemington Racecourse, he tells an old yarn about illegal betting. Peter explains that the racecourse’s drainage is below the high water mark, referring to plans for a floodwall to protect the racecourse as “absolutely wrong” – showing a lack of understanding of how floodplains work.

He reels off names of former abattoirs, tanners and scouring factories. Pointing out a cement works, he describes how it was formerly a meat works where a thousand sheep a week were killed. “In the 1890s the river was blood red.”

The Maribyrnong has changed much since then – especially since the late 1970s, when residents got tired of the polluted state of the river. The upstream cruise now takes you past a succession of extensive parklands before heading into a rural setting just past Essendon.

“You wouldn’t believe you were still in the metropolitan area around here,” he says, looking out for a wallaby.
Peter has seen dolphins, penguins, crabs and even a shark in the Maribyrnong.

He loves all of the river but says one of his favourite places is the valley in West Essendon, where there are no developments. “You can be in any area over there and still witness the natural life and growth. There is no housing to be seen and it’s peaceful and tranquil.”

But the tranquility doesn’t last long. At the end of the upstream cruise, before turning around, he describes the view ahead. “Look at that. Big houses on little blocks. More overdevelopment.”

Rubbish is still a problem, despite the river twice winning an award in the 1990s for being the cleanest city river in Australia. “People throw rubbish in the streets and don’t realise what’s happening down the other end as the rubbish flows into the river.”

Peter cares most about history, environment and the future of the Maribyrnong, all of which he knows a great deal about from being on the river for so many years. He recalls that, “in 1988 the Government banned a lot of boats from the river, to make way for development. Now the Port of Melbourne wants to stop people from mooring their boats near Footscray Rd.”

His 1920s ferry, The Blackbird, having become a significant part of the Maribyrnong, could also become the last regular vessel on the river.

Peter and his son Warwick run tours on the Blackbird four days a week; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and most Public Holidays.

The cruise times are:

  • 1pm – Two hour upstream cruise past the Flemington Racecourse, with a stop at Pipemakers Park and the Living Museum of the West.
  • 4pm – One hour downstream cruise past Coode Island, Scienceworks Museum, the
    Westgate Bridge and Docklands. This cruise also takes you past the Port of
    Melbourne’s Footscray Rd wharf and the former Pivot factory in Yarraville, the site of a
    major arsenic leaching.

The Blackbird is moored at 1 Maribyrnong Street, Footscray. 3011.
Ph: 9689 6431

Story by Nicole Cassar and Vin Maskell
Photography by Vin Maskell