27 October, 2011

Boats, birds and bauxite

Point Henry wetlands and Alcoa pier
Finding a connection between this blog post and the Barwon River will be drawing a long bow indeed, however having discovered yet another hidden wetland in the region (it must be the month for it!) it was too hard to resist the temptation to write something about it.
This time, I headed out to the tip of Point Henry on the edge of Corio Bay. The views from here are sweeping: the You Yangs to the north, Corio Bay away to the left, Portarlington and Clifton Springs to the west. Behind are the buildings of Alcoa's aluminium smelter and stretching out into the water just around the tip of the point is the pier. Built to receive material for processing at the smelter, it is over a kilometre in length. The plant itself was built in 1963 and currently produces about 190,000 tons of aluminium per year for both local and Asian markets.
Part of the Alcoa plant with the wetlands in the foreground
Most surprisingly however, are the wetlands. Located on the land below Alcoa at the tip of Point Henry, these partly natural, partly constructed wetlands are home to the usual array of plant, bird and animal life including a variety of endangered and threatened species. The wetlands have been developed by Alcoa who own the land, in conjunction with Greening Australia. They include both saline and freshwater wetlands fed primarily by rain water and by some recycled water from Alcoa and controlled by a series of mini-weirs.
The "Moolapio" project as it is known also incorporates much of the surrounding land, including not only the foreshore, wetlands and smelter site, but also farmland.The whole is part of an innovative grasslands regeneration program which if successful, may change the way revegetation is managed across the country. It is also intended that the site be used for community education, scientific research, plant propagation and seed storage, providing a valuable resource for other regeneration projects in the region and beyond.
weir controlling water levels in the wetlands
Point Henry however, was not always the industrial wasteland it appears to many to be today. In the earliest days of European settlement, Point Henry was the first point of contact for those arriving in Geelong. The sandbar which blocked the mouth of Corio Bay prevented large vessels from entering, so it was at Point Henry that these ships unloaded their passengers.
As a result, a thriving tourist industry also developed here, with the 'California Tea Gardens' opening its doors in  October 1849. This name was an acknowledgement of the number of people leaving the district and traveling to the Californian goldfields to try their luck. It was not long however, be for the tide turned and waves of gold seekers were arriving at Point Henry on their way to the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo in the early 1850s.
During this period, Point Henry also became a popular destination for tourist boats, with steamers running back and forth across the bay from Melbourne, bringing holidaymakers for a day at the beach. This state of affairs continued until the 1880s when the opening of the Hopetoun Channel allowed for the passage of larger vessels directly into the port of Geelong.
View of Point Henry Wetlands and Alcoa's pier
Following the demise of the tourist trade, Point Henry remained a signal station for incoming shipping whilst the surrounding land continued to be used for farming purposes. That noted Geelong resident James Harrison, inventor of refrigeration, founder of the Geelong Advertiser and one-time resident beside the Barwon River (I knew I'd find a connection) also held a block of land at Point Henry where he lived with his third wife and children in a small cottage. At the time of his death in 1893, he was planning to make soda on the site.
Another important early industry at Point Henry was the Cheetham Salt Works, established by Richard Cheetham - an English industrial chemist - in 1888. Today, the salt works form part of Alcoa's wetlands project whilst the company itself is now part of a multi-national operation with interests in Australia, Japan, Indonesia and New Zealand.
Including the saltworks, Alcoa currently own around 500 hectares of land around the smelter at Point Henry and continue to work with environmental groups and the community to regenerate the surrounding land.

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