Our river has a history spanning millennia prior to its naming Yarra in 1835. It was known as *Birrarung – 'river of mists' to generations of people, and no doubt by many other names as the river was central to Kulin peoples, the river flats at Heidelberg were the meeting point for great gatherings in late summer for the entire Kulin Nation, as Wurundjeri people hosted ceremony with the feasting provided by the once abundant wetlands of Bolin Bolin, one of many important wetlands annually recharged by flooding in late winter / spring.
*Birr-a-rung - is the name Wurundjeri statesman William Barak had for the river.
Melbourne was founded on this river - initially named by Charles Grimes & James Flemming in 1803 as 'The Freshwater River', in contrast to the adjacent smaller Maribyrnong River’s salty nature.
In 1835 this was a waterworld as Tim Flannery has noted the wetlands once surrounding Port Phillip Bay had the Yarra at the heart of a series of lakes, marshlands, and billabongs that would have been a temperate version of Kakadu.
Traces of the former freshwater wetlands can still be seen on the southern side of the river in today's botanical gardens (LHS of photo below). A waterfall known as the Yarra Falls (this link is an excellent blog on the former falls btw - containing fantastic early paintings, etc) once marked the boundary with the saltwater, they were located at the Queen Street bridge just past the 2nd bridge in photo below, where the river disappears past the Melbourne Art Gallery. The basalt falls were removed by blasting in the late 1880s, turning the river reach in the above photo salty, as today’s high tide pushes saltwater all the way up toward Dights Falls.
The name Yarra came about in 1835 from a linguistic and cultural misunderstanding, from the Boonwurrung word for flowing 'Yarra Yarra', in reference to waters tumbling over the Yarra Falls. I feel this is poetic insight, the Yarra indeed did flow with freshwater all the way past the MCG past those two bridges in the photo above. This was Melbourne’s first source of drinking water for the founding of the settlement.
Do not forget the river today is very much flowing in our lives - every day Melbourne folk turn a tap on they experience Yarra Yarra as they connect to mountain waters. It is as if there is a second Yarra - as half of the Yarra's normal flow is diverted away from the river to supply 1.7 million homes with the Yarra's mountain waters.
Don Butcher is passionate about connecting people to the natural world by facilitating nature observation, and the use of storytelling. Australian landscapes are thick with stories.