Chilling in the Yarra, Australia


You’ve seen photos of those monkeys in Japan, fur frosted with icicles, warming themselves in the hot springs. That’s what I’m reminded of on a sweltering day in the Yarra River at Warrandyte, a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne. Groups, couples, families, people with dogs: they’ve all wandered down the path from the main street to soak themselves cool in the river water. Heads are bobbing, some are sitting waist-deep drinking a beer, others lounging in the shallows. Yes, there are kids in life jackets splashing each other, and someone might throw a ball upstream for a dog, but the overall vibe is serenity.

The first thing you notice, the water’s not cold like it is in the ocean; it’s deliciously cool and refreshing and clean. Mid-stream, the current is brisk, and it’s invigorating to push back against the river’s force. Ducks whisk by smartly, avoiding collisions with rocks and bathers. Except where there’s pebbled access, the banks are thick with rambling growth of both native and introduced species. Massive willows droop to the water’s surface, forming vast muddy caverns where the ducks congregate. Looking up, we see the cloudless sky fringed with the familiar patchy tops of Manna gums. In some places, there are cliffs to climb above pools that are deep enough to dive into safely.

As we bask and talk, a small flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos fly in. They land on a dead branch over still water, their usual perch, dipping their beaks in to drink. A far-off thunder crack unsettles and disperses them, screeching alarm, into the adjacent State Park. Slightly downstream, an older couple arrives on electric bikes. Fully-clothed, they ease themselves into a quiet reach to sit side-by-side, holding hands, just gazing companionably. In all the hectic hullabaloo of daily life, this is what people are doing.

The heat has forced us to stop and rest, be calm, go back to what we used to do as kids. In the middle of the river overshadowed with trees, we don’t know what the time is; the angle of the sun is not calculable, so we can only guess. What are we missing out on? What is going on in the world right now that we should know about, or be doing?

A five minute drive from the township takes us further down the river to Pound Bend Reserve. It’s another picnic and swimming spot popular with locals. And there’s a 145 metre tunnel created in 1870, the area’s mining heyday, through a narrow section of rock where the river turns back on itself. Taking strong inflatable mats, we push our way against a torrent of water through the tunnel to a deep tranquil pool. After a pause to regain our equilibrium and board our mats, we allow ourselves to be drawn downstream with the river’s easy-going flow.

For most of the five kilometre journey, bush overgrows the banks and there are no markers of civilization. There’s just the river, the sun, the flip of a fish surfacing, a vigilant kookaburra diving from a low Silver Wattle branch, a koala dozing in the heights, the thrum of cicadas. Occasionally, baby rapids create some thrilling moments, maybe even an upset; otherwise, it’s meditative bliss. Time is lost. Eddies of thought calm and settle; I feel my body collapse in a kind of relief.

I’m the guest of the river and I must accept her hospitality. Drifting, musing, observing, passing the occasional comment, we allow the afternoon to take its course in us. I don’t know how long it takes us to complete the river loop back to the tunnel: three hours, more or less, I guess. When we return to the car, I deliberately don’t look at the time; I don’t want to know. Each time I do this, the river trivializes my fear of wasting time. The minor issues that obsess me are exposed as ridiculous. What the river does is inspire me to focus on what lasts: nature and community, and the part I play in it. That’s why I go back – and I should go more frequently – to take the time to chill in the Yarra; I never regret it.

About the Author:  Anne-Marie is a writer living in Melbourne Australia. Aside from travel, she enjoys humour, wild animals, and spending time with family and friends. In her spare time, she is a French teacher.

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