25 March, 2012

"It's lovely to live on a raft"

Over the recent long weekend, we dragged out the bikes and went for a quiet ride along the river. As usual, I had the camera in hand and was looking for suitable material. For the first few kilometres nothing interesting presented itself, however as we approached Queen's Park, for a moment I found myself wondering which river we were riding along and indeed in which century.
There, being propelled downstream by two young guys in true Huckleberry Finn-Tom Sawyer style was a raft. Upon closer inspection, the pair were older than Mark Twain's heroes and there had been certain concessions to modern technology, but it was still a bona fide homemade raft.
Raft on the Barwon River at Queen's Park
The 19th century logs of Huck's craft had been replaced by modern industrial pallets and in time-honoured Australian fashion, buoyancy was provided by four 44-gallon drums lashed to the pallets with synthetic twine. In case there was any doubt as to the nationality of this proud vessel, a small Australian flag could be seen fluttering of the starboard bow. In keeping with various pictorial representations on the cover of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this raft had a tented structure composed of poles and black plastic held up by guy ropes.
Rafting on the Barwon River
But here perhaps, the similarities end. The Barwon through Geelong could hardly be mistaken for the majestic Mississippi River which flows for over 4000km and includes in its catchment some 32 US states. By comparison, the Barwon's 160km length seems somewhat insignificant. At some points, the Mississippi is up to a mile in width - a boast which can certainly not be made about any part of our river.
Nor is or was the Barwon a source of transport and livelihood for the region in the way which the Mississippi was in the glory days of steamboat transport. The weirs and breakwaters which span the river between Geelong and Barwon Heads mean that a continuous journey by boat is impossible even if water levels were sufficient to allow passage.
So much for visions of hair-raising escapes and feats of derring-do. The Barwon just isn't that kind of river!
But for now, back to my mystery rafters. They were progressing along the river by way of a pair of plastic paddles - once again not exactly standard 19th century issue - and somewhat curiously had a soccer ball on board with them. Whilst the raft was of comfortable proportions, it was not exactly suitable for a game of kick-to-kick so I can only assume that they had a destination in mind which would enable such activity.
I was also curious as to the significance of the writing on the "tent" part of the raft. Suspecting that it was not related to issues of 19th century racism in the US, I asked my friend Google for an explanation. It soon informed me that Costa Del Fuego translated literally meant "fire coast", but it also told me that Costa Del Fuego was the name of a heavy metal music festival held in Benincassim, Valencia in Spain. It appears these rafters were also into loud music.

23 March, 2012

"...they'll make little creatures..."

In recent months there have been signs that a new type of creature will soon be found in close proximity to the banks of the Barwon. It is a unicellular, eukaryotic micro-organism, which in its wild form can be found almost anywhere. In fact, I have even cultivated my own strain. I am speaking of course, of yeast - specifically brewers' yeast.
In a post some time ago I mentioned that the Valley Worsted Mill - built in 1925 to cater for Geelong's expanding woollen trade - had been purchased by the brewing company Little World Beverages as an east coast brewing base for their subsidiary company Little Creatures Pty Ltd. The estimated purchase price for the 11 hectare site was a cool $6.4 million.
Little Creatures Pty Ltd
Since then, progress has been made and the site is now undergoing the renovations required to convert the facility into a brewery which is tipped to open in early 2013. In recent weeks, I have seen a parade of contractors coming and going through the main gates of the complex including demolition experts, electricians and concrete cutters then, while I was snapping photos, a truck arrived with a large container of undisclosed contents.
Renovations at Valley Worsted Mill aka Little Creatures Brewery
 Just inside the gate is a mysterious collection of large, plastic-wrapped items, the tops of which can be seen poking over the top of he fence and a bobcat is busily clearing away who-knows-what from the yard.
Work continues on the renovations for Little Creatures Brewery
So who - or what - is Little Creatures and where did it come from?
Little Creatures is a micro-brewing company established in Fremantle, Western Australia in 2000 which took its name from a song in the Talking Heads album Little Creatures. The creatures in question are of course the yeast cells which are fundamental to any fermentation process - including beer.
A description of the company and their products can be found on their website, but in short, they produce four beers including a pale ale, a pilsener, an amber ale and a golden ale and are tapping into the rapidly growing cider market with an apple cider they have called Pipsqueak.
Another aspect of the Little Creatures experience is food. Along with their various beverages, Little Creatures provide a culinary experience designed to complement their beers. At their original brewery in Fremantle, you can eat your meal whilst watching the brewing process taking place around you. In Melbourne they have the Little Creatures Dining Hall, located in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy and it is my understanding from various media reports that a dining hall is also in the works for the Geelong brewery.
For those of us who ride/walk/run or otherwise perambulate up and down the Barwon this is good news. I have previously bemoaned the lack of eateries in close proximity to the river, so having a new restaurant a mere 200m or so from the river should be a definite bonus.
My only question for the moment is whether anyone has asked the several dozen resident pigeons what they think of the change of proprietors...

13 March, 2012

Branching out - a look at the Leigh

For some time I have intended to spend a little more time investigating the Leigh River. In addition to the Moorabool River it is one of only two rivers which are tributaries of the Barwon.
The Leigh begins its journey in the suburbs of Ballarat where it rises as the Yarrowee River in Redan, flowing south through the foothills of the Great Dividing Range where it becomes known as the Leigh River at its confluence with Williamson Creek west of the township of Elaine. From here it flows past Bamganie, through Shelford to Inverleigh where it joins with the Barwon River outside of the township.
Previously I have walked the short section of the river between the township of Inverleigh and its confluence with the Barwon.
The confluence of the Barwon (right) and Leigh Rivers (left).
It is rural, pretty and popular with walkers and fishermen. There is a path running from the township to the junction of the two rivers and beyond that, a rough walking/driving track which extends to the Inverleigh-Winchelsea Road. To one side is the town and across the river on the opposite bank is farm land.
Leigh River downstream of Inverleigh
Today the weather was fine and we decided to investigate the Leigh upstream of the town, but first, a little history:
It has been suggested that the first European to visit the region was the escaped convict William Buckley after whom Buckley Falls on the Barwon is named, but this has not been proven.
The Leigh itself appears to have been named by the surveyor J.H. Wedge in 1835 after his Tasmanian property called "Leighlands". By the late 1830s the surrounding land, known as Weatherboard Station, was owned by the Derwent Company.
Our first stop on our walk was Lawson's Tree near the banks of the river. It was under this tree some time between 1836 and 1838 that William Lawson, a blacksmith from Weatherboard Station, erected his first home.
Lawson's Tree, Inverleigh
By 1842 he had built an establishment which he called - appropriately enough - the Horseshoe Inn, only a short distance away. The township which grew up here - Inverleigh - was known in those early days as Lawson's, although the man himself left the district in 1852.
Where the Hamilton Highway now crosses the Leigh was the site of a ford used by the early settlers traveling to and from the Western District and Geelong. The first bridge was built here by the Lawson family but was replaced in the 1870s by the shire council.
Footings of the old Inverleigh Bridge
Today the bridge is a modern concrete construction, but the footings of the earlier bridge can still be seen slightly upstream of the present structure.
From Lawson's Tree, we made our way to the much newer Federation Bridge built - yes - in 2001 to mark the centenary of Federation.
Federation Bridge over the Leigh River

It is a suspension bridge designed for pedestrian traffic and from here one can walk some distance upstream along a dirt path through areas of remnant vegetation, crossing dry creek beds and in our case, surrounded by fluttering butterflies.
Creek bed along the Leigh River
Efforts to encourage re-vegetation in the area are also under way, however there is also clear evidence of the early days of European settlement along some parts of the river where peppercorn trees jostle for space with gum trees and blackberries have taken over a small island in the middle of the stream.
Peppercorns and Eucalypts, Leigh River
Somewhat like the Moorabool, but in contrast to the Barwon, the channel through which the Leigh flows in this area is relatively deep with steep sides.
Channel carved by the Leigh River
Also like the Moorabool, the water level during floods can rise quite dramatically. The level of a previous flood event is clearly indicated by a hay bale wedged firmly in a tree, well above head height.
Hay bale stuck in a tree
We followed the path to its end and then returned the way we had come to the Federation Bridge where we took the opportunity to climb up to the lookout and view the surrounding countryside. From there, we followed the undulating (and in places slippery) gravel path along the river back to the Hamilton Highway where we crossed the bridge to complete our circuit and retired to the store for coffee and an ice-cream.

11 March, 2012

Growing concerns

Animals are not the only introduced species to be found along the Barwon. With the arrival of European settlers came a wide variety of plants, some provided food, some were ornamental, some no doubt arrived unintentionally and many became weeds in their new environment.
I've mentioned deforestation along the Barwon and its tributaries in previous posts - especially as its effects relate to water catchment and the ability to withstand bushfire in the Otways. Another problem with the loss of native vegetation is the loss of habitat and food sources for wildlife. If eucalypts are cleared instead of being allowed to age naturally and die, those birds and other animals such as Red-rumped Parrots which nest in tree hollows will struggle to find suitable sites in which to build.
Dead tree with hollow branches used by nesting Red-rumped Parrots at Fyansford
Native re-vegetation at Barwon Valley
Birds like the various honeyeaters which rely on the nectar from native plants may be adversely affected by a lack of flowering native trees and shrubs - for instance the White-plumed Honeyeater has a close association with River Red Gums. On the other hand, many of these birds (along with the various introduced species) may also benefit from the presence of exotic flowering plants and fruit trees.
Introduced prunus in bloom near Breakwater
Whilst re-vegetation efforts in recent years have aimed to increase the presence of native plants along the river - especially through the urban areas - there are still many remnants of 19th century plantings along the riverbank.
Apple tree growing wild on the banks of the West Barwon
River below the West Barwon Dam

Cyprus tree on the riverbank at Barwon Valley
Apple trees remaining near the West Barwon Dam are one example of introduced plantings as are cyprus trees found at various points along the river through Geelong. Another is the few remnant willow trees which still grow along the river bank through Geelong. These willows are the last survivors of a string of 19th century plantings stretching from town to the breakwater. Ironically, they were planted in an attempt to control erosion along the riverbank. In actual fact, the opposite may be true as the root masses formed by willows can inhibit fast-flowing water, causing erosion. They can also prevent water flow and the growth of other aquatic plants important to native fauna.
Willow tree below Barwon Grange, Newtown

Willow and other exotic plantings below the breakwater
Despite this, I still love the look of willow trees hanging over the water.

10 March, 2012

Invasion forces

Not all of the flora and fauna to be found along the Barwon River is native in its origin. Of course, there are plenty of eucalypts and wattles, kookaburras and cockatoos, but there are also many foreigners.
Common Starling

Some of the most obvious introduced species are birds. Through the urban areas of Geelong, the Common Myna is regularly seen as are Common Blackbirds, Rock Doves (aka feral pigeons), Spotted Doves, Common Starlings and House Sparrows. All were introduced to Australia in the mid to late 19th century from Asia or Europe and have made themselves very much at home.
Blackbirds, starlings, sparrows and mynas have all become pests, affecting crops and urban gardens across the eastern part of the country whilst nesting pigeons can create unsightly messes on and around buildings.
Rock Dove aka Feral Pigeon
Another species which has been introduced to Australia and to the environment of the Barwon is of course the rabbit. This was introduced to the district in 1859 by Thomas Austin of Barwon Park near Winchelsea as I mentioned in a previous post.
Rabbit on the banks of the Barwon
It took barely a decade before the rabbit population exploded, causing soil erosion and untold damage to native plants. It has been suggested that the rabbit is the largest contributing factor to the loss of native wildlife in the country. Over the last century and a half, various measures have been taken to control the rabbit population including trapping, hunting, destruction of rabbit warrens, the erection of a rabbit-proof fence and in the 20th century, the introuction of the Myxoma virus in 1950 and then in 1995 the calicivirus.
Carp at Breakwater
Unfortunately, none of these measures has been successful in eradicating the rabbit population and in recent years, the return of sufficient rainfall to end the drought and increase food supplies has of course resulted in a huge upsurge in the rabbit population across Victoria. This is also true along the banks of the Barwon and its tributaries. Measures are currently being taken to cull them with baits laid along the river, however there still seem to be plenty of them to be found.
Other pests which are not so easy to see can be found in waterways throughout the country. Carp are common in the Barwon and are often caught by fishermen as are redfin. Both are introduced species which compete with native fish for resources. Carp are omnivorous, eating plants, insects, zooplankton and other small organisms. Significant reduction in the levels of zooplankton can leave rivers susceptible to algal blooms. Redfin eat other smaller fish and the young of larger fish, reducing the numbers of native fish and putting strain on their food supplies.
Mosquitofish in the Moorabool River at Fyansford
Another tiny immigrant which has found its way into the Barwon river system is the mosquitofish. These fast moving little fish form schools which swim close to the water's surface making them relatively easy to spot. They were introduced in the north of Australia in 1925 in a bid to control mosquito numbers, however as with many such introductions, the mosquitofish has done more harm than good and its effect on the mosquito population has been negligible. It is now believed that some native species of fish do a better job than the mosquitofish for which mosquito larvae form only a portion of their diet. In addition to the larvae they also consume algae-eating zooplankton with the result mentioned above and a variety of insects and beetles, reducing food supplies for other native species.
Mosquitofish are aggressive, attacking other fish causing injury and infection, they breed prolifically, are resistant to many of the toxins and chemical pollutants found in waterways and can survive in a wide range of temperatures and salinity levels enabling them to out-compete almost any other species of fish.