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Take a punt on Herring Island

‘Steerage’ by sculptor Jill Peck is a metaphor for journeys, water and knowledge on the western end of  Herring Island. Photo: Geoff Durham

'Steerage' by sculptor Jill Peck is a metaphor for journeys, water and knowledge on the western end of
Herring Island. Photo: Geoff Durham

 

Published 7 December 2016

Geoff Durham takes a punt across the Yarra and lands on Herring Island.

There is nothing as liberating as an island experience - and you can have one less than four kilometres from the centre of Melbourne at Herring Island Environmental Sculpture Park in the Yarra River at South Yarra.

My first visit was on a scout leaders' training course in the early 1960s but I did not visit again until an open day, probably in the early 1990s. I recall seeing a fox den. Since then, I have visited on various occasions.

 

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The three-hectare island was created in 1928-29 when a bend in the river was cut through the abandoned Richmond bluestone quarries as part of a flood mitigation scheme.

The Melbourne and Metropolitian Board of Works named the island 'Como', built levee banks around its perimeter with silt dredged from the river, and planted native and exotic trees and shrubs.

The island was leased by the Boy Scouts Association in 1951 and renamed Herring Island after the president of the Association and Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir Edmund Herring.

The scouts gave up the lease in 1971, after which the island was managed by a Committee of Management until 1994 when Melbourne Parks and Waterways (later to become Parks Victoria) took over and released a concept plan.

The old scout hall was renovated and a mud-walled courtyard added for art and handcraft exhibitions, with a display of historical photographs in a side room.

Good picnic and BBQ facilities were installed. Eight outdoor sculptures were progressively commissioned - two by the internationally recognised Andy Goldsworthy. Expectations were high.

It was described as 'A haven for nature and art lovers alike' and 'The Island of Dreams'.

The 2017 Herring Island Summer Arts Festival, running from mid-January to Easter, will feature an arts and crafts show at the hall.

 

Island life

Most of the island's vegetation has been introduced - either deliberately with plantings or accidently in soil or by wind, water or animal-borne seed.

A lightwood is believed to be an original plant pre-dating the island.

Most of the surface is covered in weeds, particularly invasive African grasses: Panic Veld Grass Ehrharta erecta, Annual Veld Grass Ehrharta longiflora and Kikuyu Pennisetium clandestinum. The island has rats and visiting foxes.

Native mammals are possums and Rakali - the native water rat - and a Swamp Wallaby was present for a few weeks in 2003. There are also snakes and some good bird habitat.

The cut-off loop is silting up, creating a tidal mud bank on the south side visible at low tide that attracts waders.

 

River crossings

The park is open all year round, except on days of total fire ban, but to get there you have to paddle your canoe or somehow cross the river.

Parks Victoria operate a punt for weekend access in the summer months - initially during daylight saving, but this year from Saturday 10 December to Easter 2017 on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 5pm.

The punt leaves from the Como landing off Alexandra Avenue - $2 return. The voyage takes about a minute - long enough to turn off your mobile phone.

A mound around the perimeter protects a basin where there is a flat grassed area with shelters, electric BBQs and picnic tables. There is muted background noise of Citylink traffic.

Take your rubbish home. No dogs, bicycles or camping. Bookings can be made for events - phone 131963.

 

‘Stone House’ by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, emphasises the sense of discovery and concealment that an island holds for him. Photo: Geoff Durham

'Stone House' by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, emphasises the sense of discovery and concealment that an island holds for him. Photo: Geoff Durham

 

Unrealised potential

The Friends of Herring Island have been battling the weeds and planting native species for about 25 years. Because there are no rabbits it has not been necessary to guard plants.

There have been disappointments, but particular and spectacular success with saltbushes, no doubt because of the nature of the soil.

The volunteer Friends group meets on the first Sunday of each month throughout the year, with punt access provided by Parks Victoria.

Much more could be done with more help.

The contact is Damian Curtain on (03) 9442 2521. If you haven't been to Herring Island, check it out this summer.

 

More info

This story first appeared in the December 2016 edition of our magazine Park Watch. You can read more stories in our online version, and if you become a member of the Victorian National Parks Association you will receive your own copy in the mail.

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