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Discovering Melbourne's Indigenous history by bike

Alia Parker's picture
Cyclists on the Bay Trail along Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne. Cycle Traveller

Hidden among the sky scrapers, the traffic and the urban sprawl of Melbourne lies an almost forgotten history: the landmarks and places of importance to Australia's First Peoples. As time passes and our cities grow, the visual remnants of their histories are engulfed, their meanings lost to the general population through time. But for those who go searching, there is much to rediscover.

Our ride of discovery takes us down to St Kilda and along the bike path that hugs Port Phillip Bay. It's one of those bright summer days that pairs blissfully with a coastal breeze and glorious water views. Just like us, this stretch of coast attracts people like a magnet, so it is little wonder it actually forms part of an ancient Aboriginal songline. This songline was of particular importance to the Boon Warrung people, allowing them to navigate their way across the land using rhythmic song to follow the paths traversed by the creation spirits in the Dreamtime.

The coast was abundant in food and rich in spiritual significance to the Boon Warrung and we're here to find out more. Guiding us is a route marked out by Meyer Eidelson in the second edition of Melbourne Dreaming. The book, which is part guide, part social history, marks out a series of informative Melbourne walks – most of which can also be explored by bicycle. It is a wealth of valuable knowledge. Written with the assistance of the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria, it is designed to reconnect us with Melbourne's ties to Indigenous Australia by visiting the places of importance, both past and present.

St Kilda's Ngargee Tree. Cycle TravellerSt Kilda's roots

Out first stop is the Ngargee Tree in Albert Park near the northeast end of Fitzroy Street. It takes us a while to find it, but having looked in all the obvious places, we finally follow a little dirt trail that rambles between some scrub alongside Queens Road near St Kilda Junction. And there it is. It may look like an ordinary tree, but the Ngargee Tree is estimated to be 300-500 years old – well before the time of white settlement. This old red gum once stood amid a thick wattle forest dotted with gums and marked out the historic meeting point between the tracks to the north, south and east.

Our guidebook tells us the Boon Warrung frequently camped and held corroborees in this area. The Ngargee Tree has witnessed many changes since those days. Today, it is the last remnant of the forest and only exists because of local efforts to save it. Just one look at how perilously close Queens Road comes and it's a miracle it's here at all.

From there we ride to the water where the shimmering ocean stops us in our tracks. The salty breeze, the sound of seagulls and the mesmerising to-and-fro of the tide hold us for some time before we get on our way. The Bay Trail runs right along Port Phillip Bay and we're going to follow it south.

View to the past

The next place of interest marked out in Melbourne Dreaming is Point Ormond Hill Lookout. We ride up the short but steep hill and look out over the bay across to the Melbourne skyline. From the top, we watch other cyclists cruise along the water's edge. It really is a lovely view.

Our guidebook tells us that this was an important area for the Boon Warrung, who came here a few times a week to collect the food made abundant by the reef along the coast as well as the wetlands, which are now the Elwood Canal. Here, historical shellfish middens and stone tools have been found. But the area was very different back then, and the hill that stands here today pales in comparison to its natural predecessor, once known as Little Red Bluff. The sandstone bluff was a curving red cliff that hugged the water, a strategic lookout over the land and coast and a communications point to send and see smoke signals. Its dunes provided shelter from the ocean winds. But erosion hastened by the quarrying of the bluff to act as landfill for the swampy suburb of Elwood eventually saw most of the bluff disappear.

Cycle Traveller on the Bay Trail along Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne.When a ship of of Scottish immigrants suffering from yellow fever docked in the bay in 1840, the area became the site of Victoria's first quarantine station and consequently, a graveyard. The Boon Warrung were ordered to leave the area, but they were unwilling to abandon this important food source and communications post. During this time, disease swept through the colony and when a census of the Boon Warrung was taken in 1863, it recorded there to be only 11 people left from a community that numbered as many as 500 prior to white settlement.

As we stand atop Point Ormond today and look out over the parklands full of families, playing children, cyclists, walkers and joggers, all enjoying the summer sun, the land is so transformed that it is hard to imagine those times.

The Indigenous Trail

A little further south starts the Bayside Coastal Indigenous Trail, with 15 significant points of interest, including ochre pits, shell middens, an historic Aboriginal freshwater well and modern sculptures telling stories of the past. The trail stretches for 17km between Elwood and Beaumaris. The bicycle path splits from the walking trail about here, with cyclists riding closer to Beach Road and walkers able to stick near the shore. As such, we need to keep our eyes out for the paths that lead us down to the sites. The guidebook has the locations referenced on a Melway map, but you can also find them on this free downloadable city council brochure about the Bayside Coastal Indigenous Trail.

The birightly coloured beach boxes of Dendy Street Beach, Brighton. Cycle TravellerWe make our way south, also sneaking a peak at the iconic bathing boxes at Dendy Street Beach, Brighton. Sunbathers and picnickers are splayed out along the sand and against the walls of the brightly painted boxes. It's an intoxicating atmosphere. The crowds revel in the seaside, most blissfully unaware that the shrubs covering the sand dunes behind them hide inner Melbourne's largest Aboriginal middens. The middens stretch for a kilometre along what was one of the most popular fishing areas for the Boon Warrung, evidence of the muscles, oysters, abalone and fish collected and eaten here for over 2,000 years.

Just south of the Bayside Trail, the guidebook marks out our final stop: the former Mordialloc Aboriginal Reserve. This rich hunting ground was named from the Kulin term 'Mordy Yallock', which means 'near little sea'. In 1852, the government set aside 832 acres as an Aboriginal reserve with the aim of moving clans away from the city. These days, part of it remains in Attenborough Park. It is a pleasant place to end the day's ride and Mordialloc train station is only 1km away, taking us back into the city.

Review

We've had a brilliant day and our exploring has left us quite tired by the end of it. The views on this ride are more than enough to attract cyclists, but the knowledge gained about the history of this land has made the experience all the more rewarding. We feel so much more connected to our surroundings than otherwise would have been the case and as a result, we have a much deeper respect for this beautiful section of urban coastline.

The ride marked out along the coast between St Kilda to Mordialloc in the Melbourne Dreaming guidebook is about 25km. We cycled from the city centre using Melbourne's great bike path network to get to St Kilda, making our entire day's ride 32km one way to Mordialloc, from where we took a train back to the city. 

Melbourne Dreaming by Meyer Eidelson. Book review by Cycle TravellerAbout Melbourne Dreaming

This bike trip was just one of the many suggested routes around Melbourne to uncover the places of importance to the Aboriginal peoples of the area. Melbourne Dreaming is a very important resource and provides easy access to information that might otherwise slip under the radar. All up, the book explores 36 significant sites in the city and, while the guide is not specifically designed for cyclists, many of the places are perfect to explore by bicycle with easy access on Melbourne's bicycle paths and lanes.

We found the guidebook to be very informative and, particularly as visitors to Melbourne, it encouraged us to explore places we may not have otherwise gone to. The day turned out to be a highlight among our many trips into Melbourne over the years and we look forward to using it to explore other parts of the city on future visits.

Melbourne Dreaming is written by Meyer Eidelson and published by Aboriginal Studies Press.

Images from top: 1. Cyclists ride along the Bay Trail seen from Point Ormond Hill Lookout. 2. The Ngargee Tree in St Kilda. 3. Simon on the Bay Trail bike path. 4. The beach boxes of Dendy Street Beach, Brighton with the middens behind them. Source: Cycle Traveller

Comments

I ride the bay trail sometimes (great ride!) and I never knew any of this. Next time I'm going to pay more attention.

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