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The Long Yarra Walkers: A personal pilgrimage

In April 2003, four people went for a walk. Three weeks later they stopped, having camped and tramped and traveled the length of the Yarra River from its mouth in Williamstown to its sources near Mt Baw Baw.

It was more than a 245 kilometre walk, of course. It was, in the words of the walkers, a pilgrimage, an act of reconciliation, a profound personal journey.

yarra-river_walkersThe four Long Yarra Walkers, as they became known, are: Maya Ward, an urban designer and writer; Ilan Abrahams, a theatre director and lecturer in ecology and the arts; Kate Whitehouse, a teacher of outdoor education and environmental education; and Cinnamon Evans, a long-time staff member of CERES, the Community Environment Park in Brunswick.

The idea for the walk came from Maya, who has long been inspired by ecological philosophies – these lead her to take part in a seven day walk along the Merri Creek in 1998 with Cinnamon and Freya Mathews.

“That first walk was from the confluence of the Merri and the Yarra in Northcote to the Great Dividing Range and was a magical adventure,” Maya recalled. “Walking the Yarra seemed an exciting but daunting idea that I didn’t seriously contemplate until I created a theatre piece imagining what it would be like – that was when I realized that it is important to bring a dream into reality.”

Ilan was first introduced to the idea when he saw Maya perform the story about her dream of walking the Yarra in 2002. The idea was now a step closer to reality.

Ilan saw the walk as an opportunity for “one continuous experience of time and space up the spine of home. Usually we change modes of transport a few times each day, but to be able to just walk for such an extended period was a very grounding experience”.

Kate was inspired by the chance “to walk my home country. Many people talk about going into the wilderness but I wanted to walk an area which included where I grew up, around Croydon and the Yarra Valley.”

Cinnamon was both excited and apprehensive about the walk and set out to walk two-thirds of the length of the Yarra, finishing at her home at Moora Moora Co-operative, near Healesville.

The quartet kept diaries, took hundreds of photographs, recorded soundscapes, and filmed video footage. They met residents, school groups and councillors along the way.

“Many of the people we met had fought for the land, and for the river,” said Maya. “At Herring Island we learnt about people campaigning to restore the Yarra back in the 1850s.

“I was really struck by the number of billabongs along the Yarra,” said Cinnamon. “This gave me an insight into what the river would have been like before white settlement.

“One day, near Coldstream, Maya and I walked ahead and swam across the river to these unbelievably intact billabongs. I remember that it was very still and like being in a glade. I was fascinated by the beauty of it all and took some close-up textural photos.”

Cinnamon also noted the stark contrast between the beauty of this particular billabong and the erosion of the riverbank on the other side.

Kate said the bushland near the city was one of the many highlights of the walk. “Some of the best bush we walked was at Yarra Bend, on public land. The bush is just incredible there.”

Another indelible moment for the four was walking into the Yarra Valley out of the Warrandyte Gorge. To Kate “it felt like being held by the arms of the mountains”.

Just as exhilarating, but perhaps not quite as comfortable, was having to swim across the Yarra to a campsite at the Bend of Islands. “We stored our gear and clothes in dry bags and swam across with the bags in the semi darkness” said Ilan. Two days later they had to swim back across, but this time it was pouring with rain. “It was bucketing down!” said Maya. “And it was freezing.”

Much more devastating though was their discovery of logging near Mt Baw Baw. “We found a huge area of ghastly destruction,” Maya has written. “How did this fit in with the stated aims of Melbourne Water, to keep the catchment ‘pure’… Here at our ‘source’ we find destruction.”

Though Ilan described this as a “disturbing climax”, ultimately the walk was an empowering experience for him. Two years after the walk, he created ‘1803’, a theatre piece about the first Europeans to explore the Yarra. It was performed on the banks of the river at the Collingwood Children’s Farm, where the Long Yarra Walkers had camped. The play explored how perceptions of these first Europeans have influenced our current perceptions of this land and of indigenous people and culture.

Kate Whitehouse says the walk has given her “a greater ability to bring concepts of sustainability back to the environment.” She is currently working on a public art project, a quilt of the Yarra, with three local municipalities along the river.

Cinnamon Evans finished her walk at her home, a cottage on top of Mount Toolebewong. “That was far as I needed to go. A friend had lit a fire for us and we had a beautiful community dinner that night. As well as hot showers!

“Coming home to Moora Moora was a very personal, profound experience.”

Maya Ward, who once only imagined she could walk the Yarra, is writing a book about the journey.

“It was an enchanting adventure,” she said. “It was not an alienating experience as activism sometimes can be. Listening to and talking to people along the way brought everyone in to the spirit of the pilgrimage. There was an emerging sense of the spirit of the land. I think this gave us a tiny glimpse into the lives of the Wurundjeri people, who were custodians for the entire Yarra river – who understood and belonged to this vast and lovely country. For me, this was important, becuase I think reconciliation has to start with respect and a willingness to walk into what we do not yet comprehend.”

Story by Vin Maskell, 2005