IN late November and early December 1934, the Yarra River at Warrandyte rose to its highest recorded level, lifting to beyond a metre above the decking of the old wooden bridge. Homes, orchards and shops were inundated.
I was born in December 1934 at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne. The Yarra River did not touch my life until several decades later.
My first river was the Maribyrnong. Not the polluted, sluggish stream that then flowed through Footscray, but the near-pristine river that twisted its way across the Keilor plain, its passage marked by the River Redgums and Yellow Box trees that lined its banks, emerging into the edge of suburbia beyond the open paddocks, outback from North Sunshine.
Unbeknown to our parents we walked there. I was a small boy at the time, battling to keep up with the big kids. It seemed a very long way. Finally we reached our destination: a high, elevated railway bridge that crossed the river as it cut through its gorge, away down below.
Beneath the bridge hung a narrow pedestrian walkway, perilously close to the dual railway tracks above. This was our ultimate objective, to cross the walkway while a train thundered above. I was terrified. But no-one “squibbed”.
Goods trains were frequent, as the bridge was on a direct line to the north. Occasionally one of these interminably long trains was hauled by “Heavy Harry”, one of the world’s largest railway engines, built at the Newport Railway Workshops. Some were loaded with tanks, Bren gun carriers, field artillery, wingless fighter planes; all the hardware of conflict, for World War II was its height and Australia was under dire threat.
We crouched on the walkway as trains thundered overhead, deafened by the noise, scalded by steam, singed by flying cinders, longing for – and dreading – the moment when the engine would sound its whistle. And it always did.
My first introduction to the Murray River came via a railway train, the overnight sleeper to Mildura. I awoke at dawn, and from my upper bunk watched entranced as the sun arose, through the silhouette of a row of spindly gum trees, etched black against the early morning sky. We crossed the Murray later that morning and I marveled as the wide brown river rolled majestically through the Mallee towards South Australia on its way to the sea.
We travelled up and down the river on several occasions during that holiday, smelling the smoke and the oil-soaked steam, marveling at the great paddle-wheels churning the green water, admiring the deckhand as he leapt with the coil of rope from deck to wharf, envying the captain as he swung the big wheel in the wheelhouse, identifying with the oil-soaked engineer as he threw logs into the leaping flames in the firebox, pulling levers and twisting valves, following directions telegraphed from the wheelhouse above.
So impressed was I with life on the Murray, that when we reached home I spent the next weeks turning the woodpile beside our house into a full-blown paddle-steamer. An old bicycle wheel became the steering wheel and planks and logs became decks, a steep ladder stood in as a companionway and two more bike wheels were transformed into paddlewheels. I recruited a crew from the neighbourhood kids and we steamed the mighty river from the mountains to the sea, battling floods and fires and bushrangers.
My taste for Murray River water was far from sated, so when, decades later, the one-teacher primary school at Torrumbarry on the Murray, some 15 miles downstream from Echuca was declared vacant, I applied and gained the position.
My years on the Murray were among my happiest, and out of them grew a 40-minute children’s film, an educational documentary and my Riverboat Bill series of children’s books.
A new career now required a move closer to Melbourne. We crossed the bridge and headed off down Yarra Street for our exploratory look at Warrandyte: the Mechanics Institute, the picturesque shops, the tree-lined street, and above all, tantalising glimpses of the Yarra River. We were home.