I sit alone at a picnic table beside the river at Deep Rock in Fairfield, Melbourne. It’s an inauspicious way to launch my new project, Love Stories of the Yarra Birrarung. I feel a little weird with my hand-written sign stuck to the table just waiting for curious people to turn up and share their love story.
I’m experiencing a mixture of emotions. There’s gratitude for this amazing swim-spot that’s just a ten-minute stroll from home, excitement at the idea of launching such an adventurous project and a sense of unease that I’m a settler here with a lot to unlearn and relearn about this river and Country.
Patiently, I wait with my thermos of black tea, two plastic mugs, a bag of chocolate treats and my notebook. A few people walk past but they don’t make eye-contact. Eventually, some stop to ask what I’m up to, even if they don’t have a story to tell.
Casting my eyes across the river to the 420 million-year-old cliff, I’m searching for signs of wildlife. If I can’t find any human stories, perhaps a Pacific Black Duck or a Swamp Wallaby will drop by and share their love story with me?
Waiting patiently for my first ever love story.
And then I see a familiar face strolling towards me. It’s my neighbour Margaret Quinlan.
Margaret and her partner Bryce, live across the road from me in Clifton Hill. If I had any sort of pitching talent, I could lob a river rock right on their doorstep from my apartment balcony.
She had no idea I’d be here and is happy to see me. With cuppas in hand, she begins to tell me about her day.
‘I was walking over the Merri Creek bridge at the end of my street wondering if I’d turn left to walk along Merri Creek or this way past Deep Rock,’ she says. ‘Something was calling me to come this way.’
I ask for her Birrarung love story.
Margaret at Deep Rock on a windy, chilly day.
‘The river has been a constant source of nourishment for me,’ Margaret begins.
Her fondest memory as a young girl was riding horses with her friends and younger brother at Kooyongkoot Creek (Gardiners Creek), part of the Birrarung’s catchment.
‘Our neighbour owned the horses and they were permanently tethered in different spots along the creek. We’d check them, water and feed them before and after school and ride them every evening—always bareback and usually barefoot.’
‘Often we’d stop to let the horses drink from a trough along Glenferrie Road as there were still horses delivering milk and bread in those days,’ Margaret said. ‘It was the 1950’s don’t forget, a different era.’
A couple of years later she met Bryce and he eventually moved in—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Margaret and Bryce at home in Clifton Hill.
There’s a café on the street in my apartment block. During lockdowns it saved our community from going stir crazy. It became the place for footpath conversations where we’d check-in on each other and offer virtual hugs while waiting on our takeaway coffees.
One morning after a river swim during the August 2021 lockdown, my friend Donna Wheatley and I were telling Margaret about our swimming adventures.
‘I hadn’t swum in the Yarra Birrarung river before. I assumed it was just too polluted to swim in and I never saw anyone in it. It was pretty dirty for many years and people were telling me I’d get sick if I swam in it. That day, you sparked a curiosity in me. You made me think that perhaps I just might one day.’
Not long afterwards, Margaret was walking past Deep Rock where she met Danella Connors and had her first totally unexpected swim.
Some weeks after my first interview with Margaret, I arranged for Danella and Margaret to be reunited at Deep Rock so I can get both sides of the story.
‘So, what happened when you met that day?’ I enquire.
‘It was a glorious day and when I arrived, I did as I always do. I sat and gazed at the river entranced by this peaceful and ancient place,’ says Margaret. ‘There was a woman sitting on the water’s edge in front of me taking photos. She seemed just as entranced as I was so I didn’t want to disturb her but she turned around and said hello’.
Danella responds, ‘It was just chance that I was even there. I’d came back to retrieve my towel which I’d left hanging in a tree. I turned around and saw this beautiful woman with bright red hair sitting on a rock behind me. She was totally in-sync and blended with the surroundings wearing a jade green dress, terracotta beads and terracotta boots.’
‘When Danella said hello to me, I said isn’t lovely and isn’t it beautiful and do you know that people swim here?’ says Margaret.
‘Yes, I swim here too. Do you want to go in? I’ll come with you.’ Danella had replied. ‘At that moment, a flock of rainbow lorikeets flew overhead across the river. It was like they were flying out of Margaret’s dress calling her to adventure. It was profoundly beautiful.’
‘I was unsure but tempted. I told her I didn’t have my bathers or a towel, so maybe not.’
‘I could hear your curiosity and interest, Margaret, so I offered you the use of my towel. You trusted me and the idea I think.’
‘Yes, I did trust you. So, I took off my dress and walked towards the water’s edge in my bra and undies. I was shameless!’
‘What if I can’t get in and out? I asked Danella.’
‘There’s steps to get in and out. It’s all right. If I can do it, you can do it,’ she replied.
‘But I’m 76! How old are you?’ Margaret asked. ‘61,’ laughed Danella.
‘So I did it. I walked down the steps and got in with Danella. I was surprised how soft and silky the mud was. I swam around for about ten minutes. Then I got out really buzzed by the experience. It wasn’t that cold and it was easy enough to get dry and put my dress back on.’
After drying off and a big hug, the women parted ways.
‘I was walking on air. It really was the best thing. I was 100% energised and I felt amazing for hours afterwards,’ remembers Margaret.
‘It was wonderful that you trusted me. It was special,’ responds Danella. ‘I’ve never forgotten that moment and I’ve told the story many times.’
‘Me too,’ says Margaret instantly. ‘I told Bryce when I got home and he thought it was great.’
Today, Margaret immerses herself in the river whenever the mood takes, often with Bryce watching over her. ‘To me, it feels like a benediction. My kids think it’s great but lots of my friends think I’m mad.’
‘I’d rather cark it here in the river than go to an old people’s home,’ she jokes. ‘If I had one wish though, it would be that more of us appreciated the river and that our government would do everything in its power to clean it up. The Yarra Birrarung is a very important part of my life and I would hate not to live close by.’
Love Stories of the Yarra Birrarung is a story-telling project aimed at inspiring Victorians to love, protect and care for the river.