Returning Home: A Community Journey to Recover Deep Rock’s Lost Picnic Table

Deep Rock swimming hole on the Birrarung (Yarra River) is an absolute oasis just 4 kms from Melbourne’s CBD.

This sacred site is on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung country reminding us that the land and water always was, and always will be, Aboriginal territory.

This place is my nature-home just a short stroll from my built-home, a place to trade the concrete walls for the comfort of water for a while—and where I often swim with my Yarra Yabbies womenfolk.

Deep Rock Swimming Hole in Fairfield, Melbourne

At Deep Rock there is a very special picnic table. It’s where we gather to celebrate the Solstice and birthdays and share our private stories of healing and love for the river.

It’s where the community has blossomed, friendships have formed, and where projects to care and tend to the river have been birthed.

And it’s at this picnic table that I interviewed Margaret Quinlan for my very first Love Stories of the Birrarung in August 2022.

It’s a rare and beautiful thing to hold such love and affection for something as seemingly mundane as an old picnic table, right?

The picnic table where I first met Margaret Quinlan to gather her story.

In late October 2022, heavy rain and flash floods hit Victoria. The banks of the Birrarung had burst in many locations along its 242 km stretch wreaking havoc on trees and wildlife.

One morning, the relentless rain stopped and a promising blue sky offered me a small window of opportunity to escape my apartment and wander down to Deep Rock to see how it was fairing.

I was welcomed by red and white barrier tape flapping carelessly in the breeze across the path, a warning to curious bystanders to keep away from the swirling, eddying waters.

And there was our beloved picnic table, half-submerged in the coffee-brown water not going anywhere and not staying either—perhaps pondering its own fate.

The picnic table under siege. Will it stay or float away?

Assuming the worst was over and the waters would now recede, I trudged home in my mud-encrusted boots hoping I would return in a few days to my treasured pastimes of writing at the table and swimming in the river.

How wrong could a woman be? Days later the water had risen to even more dangerous levels—and the picnic table had vanished!

Had it been smashed beyond recognition and repair as it was tossed over Dights Falls downstream? Or could it have miraculously made it through and lodged itself somewhere safe? And if so, could it possibly be retrieved and returned?

Now I was curious. The hunt for the lost picnic table was on.

The muddy banks of the Birrarung minus the picnic table.

Days later, after the water had receded and we’d somewhat cautiously returned to swimming, I was sharing my enthusiasm to discover the fate of the table with Jedda Bradley.

Jedda’s a cold-water swimmer with the Port Melbourne Icebergs as well as the Yabbies. (Cold-water swimming is a fast-growing phenomenon across Australia, and like me, Jedda is a convert.)

She posted a tongue-in-cheek message in the Iceberg’s group that we’d lost our picnic table in case anyone should spot it floating by during their ocean swim.

Fellow Icerberger Stuart Cousins and volunteer for the Coast Guard St Kilda, immediately responded. The table had been found floating in Hobsons Bay, near Port Melbourne at the mouth of the Birrarung and he and his team had picked it up!

Could the Deep Rock picnic table have possibly found its way 9 km down the river over the falls, through the CBD, under Queens Bridge to the mouth of the river? It seemed impossible, but I had to find out.

Stu Cousins and I at St Kilda Marina checking out the picnic table.

Days later, I was greeting Stu at the St Kilda Marina to check out the table. He was as excited as I was at the prospect that this could be our table.

Alas, as soon as I laid eyes on it, I knew it wasn’t ours. The cross-bar was different and the tabletop was made of a thicker wood.

It was a pleasure to meet Stu and visit the coastguard premises and hear about the great work of these tireless volunteers. Thanks for the invitation, Stu.

And so, the hunt continued.

At the end of October, as I was collecting rubbish with my Love Stories co-writer Christine McFetridge near Dights Falls, about a kilometre downstream from Deep Rock, we came across what just had to be our picnic table.

Smashed up behind the Wominjeka wall, a good four metres above the banks of the river, it was almost buried in driftwood and debris.

The picnic table discovered near the Wominjeka wall at Dights Falls.

Climbing up on the wall and inching along a precariously unstable tree branch, I took a closer look. Hurrah! It was ours.

But was it retrievable? And if so, was it reparable?

For two months, the table sat there as other projects kept me busy. I prayed that it would wait for me and not be removed to end up in landfill or someone’s woodpile.

It was always my intention to finish what I had begun, and so the picnic table waited for me.

In late December 2022, I enlisted my fellow river-lover and neighbour Ian Rutherfurd to assess the damage and undo all the bolts so it could be carried back to Deep Rock piece by piece.

Ian Rutherfurd assessing the damage and undoing the bolts.

Two weeks later, in early January 2023, after a call out on the Yabbies group, Ian, Meg Elkins and husband Tim Pryor joined forces with me to bring the table home.

Huffing and puffing, plank by plank, we hauled the pieces along the path upstream to its resting place. It was no small feat and amusing to observe the quizzical looks of passers-by.

Thank you, team.

Ian Rutherfurd, Meg Elkins and Tim Pryor bringing the table home to Deep Rock.

Then for weeks the table laid in pieces in the bushes at Deep Rock patiently waiting to be resurrected. The damage was extensive and it required new fittings and new planks. And alas, I’m no handywoman.

One day, on my way to the river, I came across Andrew Roberts from Parks Victoria and shared the story of our picnic table and my dilemma in getting it repaired. He kindly gave me his number and said he’d see what he could do.

I didn’t hold much hope given their workload with the extensive recovery and repair work keeping them busy since the floods.

Then one day in March 2023, a text from Andrew arrived. The pieces had been collected and the table repaired.  Finally, our beloved picnic table could be returned to its rightful home!

Thank you, Andrew and Parks Victoria, for this grand gesture of goodwill to our community.

Andrew Roberts from Parks Vic returning our beautifully repaired picnic table.

And now, I can happily return to the picnic table to write, swim and immerse myself in Mother Nature.

And so can you, with thanks to the many people who played a part in its recovery and repair.

While it didn’t happen overnight, it did happen (in five months to be exact). Perhaps all good things come to those who have the will—and the patience to wait.

That only leaves me with one burning question: While we lost and found our own table, which community is still missing theirs?

Written by river swimmer, author and ecofeminist Carolyn Tate. Carolyn lives on unceded Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land. She is also the author of Brave Women Write. Love Stories of the Birrarung is a story-telling project aimed at inspiring Victorians to love, protect and care for the river.