Robyn Gillespie is on her knees pulling weeds from the banks of Andersons Creek in the far north of suburban Melbourne, accompanied by the song of flowing water and a chorus of parrots.
Gillespie founded Andersons Creek Landcare a decade ago with Fritz Uhl, another local resident. It’s had a central role in restoring and protecting the ecological environment along the creek.
The Citizen has joined her and a crew of volunteers as they gather to continue the effort, spending a day planting new grasses – “a huge project”, she declares.
Every Wednesday, except in January, Gillespie and her tireless team of volunteers work for two hours at No. 6 Gold Memorial Road, Warrandyte. The location is near the upper Andersons Creek and a 10-minute walk from where the first gold was found in Victoria in 1851.
The Landcare group’s mission is to return the creek to its pre-colonial glory, when the area was in the care of the traditional owners, several Wurundjeri clans. Along the way, it aims to also provide a friendly social environment, where anyone interested is welcome “regardless of differences”.
Fritz Uhl has spent many hours over the past three years hard at work along the banks of the creek. He squats on the ground, removing weeds and carefully transplanting saplings.
Sam, a younger volunteer, is a relative newcomer, still learning the ropes from Uhl and Gillespie having joined the effort about four months back. He dons rubber gloves and attacks the weeks, slashing them with a small sickle.
“We can only do some simple work at the beginning,” Sam says. “When we are familiar with this environment, [and] we know which plants should be eradicated, which ones should be taken care of … then we can participate in more difficult weeding work.”
The creek, a tributary of the Yarra River, runs seven kilometres through Warrandyte and Park Orchards. It not only provided water for Australia’s Indigenous people in the early days – and later settlers and gold fossickers – but was also a thriving natural habitat for a variety of rare plants and animals. The waterways around what is today modern Melbourne were once so extensive and rich they have been described, by scientist Tim Flannery, as a kind of “temperate Kakadu”.
Sadly, many species have been casualties of natural disasters and human activities. Bushfires have erased much of the recent human architectural history of the area. In addition, due to the urbanised catchment and the number of septic tanks still used by residents, the water quality of the creek is poor.
Another factor that cannot be ignored is the fallout of 19th-century gold fever. As the birthplace of the Victorian gold rush, Andersons Creek was plundered by prospectors after 1851, when Louis J. Michel struck it rich. While gold deposits brought wealth, mining caused tremendous damage to the ecological environment around Andersons Creek. At one stage, frequent clearing wiped out all the vegetation.
Today, there is still a bit of prospecting going on. Parks Victoria allows gold panning for those with a licence at Fourth Hill, off Gold Memorial Road. Only non-mechanical hand tools are permitted, excavations must be back-filled and vegetation must not be disturbed.
Cassie Willis is a nearby resident. She comes prospecting once a month, although gold is rarely found. “It’s my hobby,” she says. Although she tries to minimise the damage to the creek during her expeditions, she points out that many people do not care about the impact on the environment when they pan for gold.
Gillespie says prospectors used to cut down the trees searching for gold. The’ve left circular pits, large and small, along the banks. “You know some of the trees should be big,” Gillespie says, frowning as she points to a large distant pit and surrounding saplings.
Robyn Gillespie began volunteering because she “felt there are too many threats to this beautiful environment. I needed to work to improve it”. But it’s taken enormous commitment. Lack of money is the major problem she and her crew face. Melbourne Water gives them some funds each year to buy seedling and seeds, but that amount has been reduced.
At the same time, there’s still a lot of community disregard for the natural treasures of the creek. People throw away their trash and cut down trees as they please. Gillespie doesn’t hide her fury. “I want to punch them, to be honest, I really want to punch them.”
The State Government has recognised the significance of protecting the Andersons Creek, deeming it part of the ‘Middle Yarra sub-catchment’ (or management unit) that is an essential area for recreation and amenity, especially around the confluence with the Yarra.
Andersons Creek’s water quality has improved slightly in the last few years thanks to Manningham City Council’s sewer backlog program and the recent Yarra Valley Water community sewer program.
And the labours of the volunteers are bearing fruit. Saplings and grasses they have planted over the years are thriving, attracting birds and other small native creatures. “It may look like it’s not a big area, but it is really, that represents lots of work,” Gillespie smiles.
Fortunately, since Andersons Creek Landcare was founded on 2007, the ranks of volunteers have kept growing. “More and more people are joining us, and some of them have relevant knowledge. I believe that everything will get better.”
Gillespie picks up her scythe and continues to weed with the other volunteers, the breeze blowing, the sun shifting, a kookaburra supervising from a nearby branch.
“Everybody enjoys the birds, the animals,” she smiles, “they love the discovery of finding plants that are rare.”
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