“On old Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works maps it used to be called Melbourne’s number one drain – without irony,” Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly said.
Even the name was a mistake – surveyor John Helder Wedge reportedly thought Yarra Yarra was the Aboriginal name for river when in fact “yarro-yarro” means “ever flowing” in the Boonwurrung language.
But after years of turning its back on the Yarra, Melbourne is finally beginning to embrace its river.
Arbory Afloat – a floating bar and restaurant – won last year’s Melbourne Award for Hospitality.
Herring Island, which was created from dredging spoils in the 1920s, is a sculpture park accessible only by boat.
Stony Creek Backwash, where 15,000 mangroves were planted in the 1970s, is a nature reserve in Spotswood with a large variety of birdlife including the Australian Grebe, Royal Spoonbill, Great Egret and the Dusky Moorhen.
And the Inflatable Regatta – which started off as a couple of mates floating down the Yarra – has turned into an annual event that attracts thousands of people after the organisers accidentally made their Facebook page public a few years ago.
“People will put a coffee shop up in a shoe box in Melbourne but the Yarra is this wonderful under-utilised resource,” said Inflatable Regatta founder Courtney Carthy.
Mr Kelly believes the renaissance of the river is in part thanks to a community dream of a future swimmable Yarra, which he says has captured the imagination of Melburnians.
Yarra Pools is a community-led group advocating for a 50-metre swimming pool and wetlands in the turning basin precinct of the Yarra adjacent to Enterprize Park, an under-used section of the river’s northern bank.
The concept design, developed with WOWOWA Architects, is inspired by urban river pools such as the Copenhagen ‘Havnebadet’, which has promoted a clean harbour and transformed the use of the harbour front.
Yarra Pools president Felicity Watson says there are many thousands of years of history of swimming in the river.
The Wurundjeri could perform “wondrous feats in swimming and diving”, according to Yarra: swimming on their sides “with hand struck out from shoulder as a steering apparatus, and the other hand and feet acting as powerful propellers”.
In 1910 Harry Houdini jumped into the Yarra bound in chains and handcuffs as part of an escape stunt.
And an annual three mile swim was held from MacRobertson Bridge to Princes Bridge from 1913 to 1963, after which it was cancelled due to pollution fears (it was briefly resurrected in the late 1980s).
“Our ultimate goal is to create a swimmable Yarra River and introduce back all the recreational activities that used to happen,” Ms Watson said.
She said a business case study for the pool, which was funded by Melbourne Water, determined more than 350,000 people would use a swimming pool in Enterprize Park in a year.
Ms Watson said she was thrilled the recent Yarra River – Birrarung strategy, which was endorsed by Melbourne City Council last month, formally recognised the community’s desire for a Yarra pool.
“Recent community-led ideas like the Yarra Pools focus on the idea of swimming to raise water quality issues and provide new recreational opportunities,” the strategy says.
Ms Watson says Yarra Pools also wants to work with the State Government to ensure a swimmable Yarra River is part of future plans for the river.
“We need to start getting serious about working towards the goal and committing resources,” she said.
It is currently illegal to swim in the Yarra south of Gipps Street in Abbotsford without a special permit (such as for the Birdman Rally during Moomba). This is because of boat traffic not the quality of the water.
However the Yarra and Bay 2017-2018 report card found water quality in the Yarra catchment was poor. It said water quality deteriorated as it passed through more urbanised areas with nutrients and pollutants in run-off coming from roads and other hard surfaces.
Even so, says Mr Kelly, for an urban river the Yarra River is “surprising robust”.
“There are lots of cormorants and darters, which are fishing birds, which shows there are fish in the river,” he said.
However there is “no denying” the river is coming under increasing pressure due to climate change and increased populations in the catchment.
Mr Kelly says the Yarra River Protection Act, which was passed by the Victorian Parliament in 2017, called for a holistic Yarra Strategic Plan, but it had been delayed several times.
“It’s a key piece of work and needs to be ambitious and aspirational to make a difference to the Yarra,” he said.
“We have been doing some great things for the Yarra but progress is still too slow.”
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.