Notes by Peter Greig, 15 June 2014
It took three days for the first leg to be walked along the Barwon River from its eastern branch headwaters at the top of the Otways near Thompson Track, to Birregurra. As the crow flies, it’s about 32 kilometres, but the 20 folk (see appendix) who did the walk know it was a lot further than that. They travelled on 22 private properties (see appendix), whose owners had kindly granted permission following representations by Loraine Cosgriff, who once farmed in this valley, and still knows many of them.
On the way, the travellers saw a number of features that distinguish the Barwon:
- The forested headwaters (mostly in national park);
- Lake Elizabeth;
- West Barwon Reservoir (Geelong’s main water source);
- Acid sulfate effects in Boundary Creek;
- Some restoration projects in the flood plain and main channel;
- A new fencing system; and
- Plenty of restoration opportunities.
Organizer Jennifer Morrow, and her trusty lieutenant Richard Gilbert are understandably delighted that, after three years of planning and negotiating, the first leg has been achieved, with accolades from all concerned. And they’re reinvigorated in their ambition to complete the whole journey, all the way to the mouth at Barwon Heads.
They and a team of helpers believe that such a walk will enhance the process of reconnecting people with each other and their natural environment, the condition of which is so often reflected in the rivers. It’ll take a few years.
Headwaters to Forrest
A group of 16 did the first day, including Pat Gilbert, who celebrated her 75th birthday on the journey. They were lucky to have expert commentary on bush flora and fauna from Sue Harris and Mike Robinson-Koss, and on geology from Roger Blake. The tour circumnavigated Lake Elizabeth, formed across the East Barwon by a big landslip in June 1952 (the year of the current queen’s ascension). Roger pointed out that such landslips are a feature of the regional geology, probably accentuated by heavy rainfall (and land-clearing, in other places). The rainfall for June that year was 415mm, nearly four times the long-term mean for the month.
A big thrill occurred for Philip Reiter, a student from Germany staying with Richard and Pat, when he saw not one but two platypuses in Lake Elizabeth, which is hard enough to do at any time, as Jill Stewart could attest (having tried in vain on many earlier occasions).
At Forrest, the walkers re-hydrated at the Wonky Donkey, re-named by its new managers in fond memory of an English pub called The Three-legged Horse that acquired the same nickname. Local landholders, Albert Halliday and John James joined us after dinner and spoke on the history of the area. Albert reminisced about his childhood, including helping in the extensive hops fields along the West Barwon River to the west of Forrest, and the sad story of the compulsory acquisition of his family’s farm for the construction of the West Barwon dam.
A few camped overnight, and got pretty wet, and heard a lot of activity from yellow bellied gliders chattering up in the trees after dark.
Forrest to Gerangamete Flats
The 22 landowners downstream from Forrest kindly allowed access on condition that no more than 12 were in the group. On the day, 11 walkers started, and so did the rain. Pat Gilbert – whose early working life was spent getting drenched on ocean-going fishing-boats – thought nothing of it, but the rest of us were less sanguine.
The river in this leg meanders around the western edge of a wide flood-plain, which in association with well-drained valley sides, forms wonderful dairy country. From the flood-plain side, Roger Blake pointed out what until then hadn’t been obvious – that it is lower than the river, which has built up a natural levee from heavier sediments deposited whenever the channel over-topped, leaving the finer sediments to wash out over the flood-plain. Eventually, the channel will break through, creating a new channel, and a remnant billabong.
In the channel itself, there are a few remnant patches of native vegetation – mainly swamp gum and blackwood overhead; and in the mid-storey, native mint, tree violet, sweet bursaria, prickly currant bush, native hemp, hazel pomaderris; and at water’s edge, lomandra, two types of carex and other sedges. But the dominant species by far is willow, which is often so dense in the channel itself that you can traverse it with dry feet.
After crossing Seven Bridges Road, the river changes dramatically, from natural, to man-made – having been excavated in the 1890s (we were told, by horse and dray) to aid drainage from land that was impossible to work in winter. In this stretch, there’s little in the way of native vegetation or stock shelter, but plenty of reeds.
By late afternoon, the rain had passed, and we could see in the distance our destination: a distinctive shelterbelt near our campsite at Nellie Shalley’s at Gerangamete. Our steps quickened, like horses homeward-bound, only to be turned back by an unexpected cul-de-sac, caused by flooding since Jennifer and Richard did their “proof-walk”. By now, darkness was falling, and even the intrepid Pat Gilbert was looking for the end. Yet one more obstacle remained: a channel-crossing in the darkness over a makeshift bridge (thanks again to Richard and Philip) made from an extension ladder and a plank. Worse than tight-rope walking for those of us whose legs were jelly by this stage.
Sadly, we were too late to hear from John Jamesabout his long-standing bird observations in the valley (but we made good at a celebration dinner later).
Luckily, a few had torches, and by seven pm we’d made it to Nellie’s campsite, where she’d thoughtfully started a blazing camp-fire, so we could see to erect tents and dry our feet. Richard Morrow arrived with dinner, and wine – the weather was kind, and spirits were lifted. From Nellie, who dropped in on her quad bike with her little granddaughter, we learned about (a) her shelterbelts and (b) her acidic creek.
She’s been on this land for more than forty years, and her late husband Frank’s family for over 100. The first trees were planted decades ago, not for shelter, but on landslips as a soil protection measure. Unexpectedly, they soon noticed their dairy cows were more content and productive when near the tree shelter. So bit by bit they put more trees around the property, mainly on less-productive slopes and corners, seeing the benefits to the bottom line, for very little cost.
That observation echoes the findings of a recent report on The Economic Benefits of Shelterbelts (www.basalttobay.org.au), which is being used by Fonterra, Bega, and Murray Goulburn to remind their dairy suppliers that production, profitability, animal welfare, and property value can increase with shelterbelts.
On the acid water question, Nellie pointed out that Boundary Creek, right next to our campsite, was no longer potable for livestock, having a pH of 2 or less (battery acid). We saw the water: it’s crystal clear, and you can see leaves clearly at the bottom, but there’s no aquatic life at all. The reason? It’s outflow from Big Swamp, further upstream, which has become an acid sulfate site, since the water table fell, the peat dried out and caught fire, soil chemistry was altered, and now exudes sulfuric acid.
Again, Roger Blake was able to illuminate the topic, having predicted many years ago that such an outcome was likely, on the basis of his original hydro-geological studies prior to groundwater extraction in the Otways. Sadly, remediation is infeasible (cost $6 million per hectare for lime) so the problem is permanent. So far, the acid effects are apparently not reaching Birregurra, where Waterwatch data in the Barwon over many years have been collected, but what’s happening closer to the source is more worrying.
Gerangamete Flats to Birregurra
Just downstream from Nellie’s, Boundary Creek joins the Barwon, soon after the confluence of its East and West branches . We walked on the west side of the channel in this stretch, which included AKD Softwood’s pine plantation, established in 1972, and harvested and re-planted in 2012, under the supervision of Sue’s husband Neil Harris. Swamp wallabies were evident, both in the flesh, and by their effects on young trees, but Neil’s response has been light-handed if not sympathetic.
Closer to the river, on the steep valley sides and at the river’s edge, revegetation with local native species appears, testament to a collaborative investment by AKD and Corangamite CMA, in the mutually beneficial interests of catchment protection and biodiversity. In the river channel itself, willows remained the dominant species, with rare exception.
Several big landslips were evident on this bank of the Barwon (known geologically, Roger told us, as the Birregurra monocline). Often these slips had been re-vegetated, sometimes with native species, sometimes with pines, but always with better results for the river than leaving them untended. Such land is scarcely productive for grazing, but livestock can benefit from the shelter, so it makes good sense for farmers.
At Deepdene Road, we crossed to the east side of the main channel, which still mostly hugs the western flank. In this leg, two further features were memorable: firstly, several shelterbelts extending across the floodplain (but not along the river itself, which remains almost entirely open to livestock). Fencing on the river is thought to be widely unpopular due to difficulty of access to control pests and weeds, as well as expected damage from flood debris. (These difficulties can be ameliorated by gates for access, and by re-vegetation which catches debris, as shown in the Matthews Creek tributary). Also, a three-wire electric fence along the river at Rob Coulson’s appears to have survived successfully, and some farmers acknowledge that fencing can mitigate livestock getting trapped in the channel.
The second feature was some new fencing on a property managed by Jim Lidgerwood (and owned by Dennis Family Homes, a property developer). The fencing was mostly for new shelterbelts, again across the floodplain, presumably for the same good economic reasons as set out above. What stood out about the fencing, though, was the technique: nine wires (several hot) threaded through strong plastic droppers attached to galvanized steel star-pickets, stretched between conventional end assemblies. Droppers and wires are pre-threaded and assembled in a roll, and laid in one pass, then attached to posts already installed.
New in Victoria, the so-called “Weston” system was imported from its eponymous inventor, a New South Wales farmer, and used for several decades on big runs. The contractor here is Mark Jordan-Hill of Winchelsea, who advises that the result is an almost maintenance-free electric fence, with installation costs equivalent to current practice (lower labour, but higher materials cost). He’s happy to run a field day sometime.
The party reached Birregurra in balmy conditions around four pm on the third day, after rescuing scores a golf balls that had strayed from the links on the valley side on the other side of the river.
Everyone enthused that the walk was better (though more challenging) than expected. All were loud in their praise for Jennifer Morrow (whose idea it was in the first place) and to Richard Gilbert (who kept Jennifer going during the inevitable low spots in the long preparation phase).
Also gladly acknowledged were the 22 landowners (see list appended) who allowed us on to their properties, and their livestock – bulls especially – who left us un-harried. Countless electric fences were negotiated; bird observations were kept (see appendix); the scenery both close and far was absorbed; and by the end, we all felt closer to each other and our river than before, just as Jennifer had hoped.
Appendix 1: Walkers
Appendix 2: Property owners
J P Murnane
Dennis Family Homes
R W Kemp
A G McNabb
Appendix 3: bird observation list
White browed scrub wren
grey strike thrush
purple swamp hen
Eastern spine bill
Yellow-tailed black cockatoo