Birrarung, ‘River Of Mists’: Melbourne’s Yarra River

‘River of Mists’ or ‘Upside-Down River’ - ‘sylvan stream’ to stinking sewer – all of these phrases were used to describe Melbourne’s Yarra River. The Traditional Owners called their river Birrarung and it was central to their lives. Its fresh water drew the first European settlers too. The ‘Falls’, a natural rock barrier on the river dividing salt water in the estuary from fresh water up-stream, was the reason for the location of Melbourne.

Start Date: 7 December 2020

End Date: Ongoing

An ancient watercourse

The Yarra River is an ancient watercourse, over one hundred million years old in places. Before the intervention of Europeans its course evolved slowly in response to major climate events. Its silt-laden course once meandered through large areas of wetland to meet Port Phillip Bay just below the site of today’s CBD – the end of a 242 km journey from the Great Dividing Range. Several major tributaries join the Yarra along its course - Gardiners Creek, Merri Creek, the Moonee Ponds Creek and the Maribyrnong River. In years of high rainfall the Yarra burst its banks and spread out over the landscape near Melbourne, filling the wetlands before reaching the sea.


A place of natural beauty

In its natural state, the lower Yarra was a place of great beauty and diversity of plant, animal and bird life. Great stands of eucalypts and other tree species lined its banks - the manna gum, majestic river red gum, drooping she-oak and tea-tree amongst them. Fish and eels were plentiful. The arrival of Europeans changed all this. Within a very few years they felled the trees and built noxious industries along the once-pristine banks. They drained the wetlands and ‘straightened’ the river in repeated attempts to contain its unruly floodwaters. The river that now flows through the city traces a very different course. This exhibition charts some of the history of Melbourne’s Yarra River and of the people who lived along it.


Cultural warning: this exhibition contains material that refers to deceased persons, and colonial records using language now considered offensive. They are included here as historical evidence.