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Three Days, Three Waterways

31 October 2023

Words: Wolter Kuiper
Photos: Thomas Roemmelt & Wolter Kuiper

Think of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay as a great big laundry tub where all the city's stormwater ends up. It gets there without anyone lifting a finger, courtesy of the rivers and creeks radiating out from that bay. This river system provided for Victoria’s indigenous peoples with food, fresh water and beautiful, gumtree-lined walking routes for about 30,000 years.

More recently these creeks and rivers became a salve for millions of the State’s inhabitants as they struggled through being confined to 5 km circles, and then 10 km ones, during COVID. Tasteful sections of singletrack got churned into wide, muddy paths as residents rode and walked them to stay sane.

The idea for this ride, which came to me at some point before the whole lockdown zones saga, was to ride three waterways in three days from Melbourne’s Capital City Trail to its 'ring road' freeway, up on one side of each and down on the other, using singletrack where available. The watercourses in question were the Maribyrnong River, Moonee Ponds Creek and Merri Creek, tapering nicely from 60 km to 50 km and 40 km respectively.

The tracks all copped a fair bit of damage during the lockdowns and more with recent flooding. Some bits were buried under gravel to cope with the traffic while others escaped attention. It was time to head out and try it all again. It’s important to point out here that you can’t ride all the way along the riverbanks, as some sections were sold off for residential development. It’s also noticeable that concrete paving is spreading its tentacles further and further out of town.

As you ride blissfully north on the western side of the Maribyrnong, you are confronted with a former Defence Explosive Factory complete with blast mounds, sunken buildings and high fences. It looks like a place Danny MacAskill would ride, but the contamination must be pretty bad, as property developers steered well clear. Further north, the developers have been busy at a former quarry, which apparently provided giant blocks of basalt for diggers to cross the river at Solomon’s Ford during the goldrush. People of the Kulin nation used to set fish traps here. The new, shoebox townhouses don’t really fit it.

From here, the path degenerates into a rubbish strewn, muddy twin track where joyriders would bring vehicles and torch them. It was a great place to practice puncture repairs but seems more popular for dumping car tyres now. A railway viaduct and Ted Whitten Bridge follow in quick succession and then it’s time to climb out of the valley and cross the bridge via the ring road.

On the eastern side, the descent to the river had been blocked off for some reason, but miraculously reopened in time for my ride. Further south, a massive sewer pipe project had been delayed, saving me from an extra nasty climb out of the valley.

There are a few detours onto the tar as palaces with river frontage (flooding at no extra charge) show off their cabin cruisers lying at their private moorings in the afternoon sun.

For much of its lower reaches, Moonee Ponds Creek has been the victim of massive control works and now resembles the concrete-lined Los Angeles River that features rather often in Hollywood movies. The western path is mainly concrete and asphalt, while the eastern goes from concrete, to gravel to dirt, all neatly 'benched' for maintenance vehicles. This is day two and there's a decent headwind for the trip north but nothing my Berglar can’t handle. Ironically, the concrete lining on the riverbanks is being dug up and replaced with rocks, to produce a 'wetland' that may have something to do with slowing the stormwater.

The little-used railway viaduct makes another appearance and then the massive 'plughole' for floodwater in the Jacana Wetlands on the way to the ring road, where traffic roars overhead. The trip south is much more interesting, skirting the creek on grass with fewer residential interruptions to the singletrack. After lunch in Oak Park the gravel starts, and I wonder why people can’t wear brighter clothing when I’m taking pictures. I’m supposed to go south as far as Newmarket, but the call of coffee is too strong, and I take a shortcut to Brunswick.

Day three and the weather is still fine, but cold. My Draft Dodger to the rescue. Merri Creek hasn’t been messed with as badly as the other two, but there are more detours away from the water. It’s Saturday morning and dog city. At Brunswick Velodrome, there’s cyclocross training on the grass infield – either they’re sick of waiting for the promised pump track or practising for the Melbourne Roubaix. In Coburg, I ride under the Merri Creek Bridge, built in 1870 with basalt quarried by inmates from the infamous Pentridge Prison nearby.

Bench seats are multiplying on fresh concrete pads and further along the singletrack is overgrown, with piles of gravel waiting ominously at regular intervals. The trail stops dead at the ring road, courtesy of a former tip site that hasn’t been 'remediated'. Still good enough for a motocross track.

The return trip is fraught, even after I find the access path. The singletrack is seriously unloved and I forgot to pack my chainsaw and whipper snipper. There was an online appeal for help from the local trail fairy a while back, so I guess that fell on deaf ears. The east-bank road route through North Coburg is home to hundreds of office-warehouses, panelbeaters and brick recyclers.

Tame singletrack resumes soon enough, after a downhill zig-zag reminiscent of Lombard St in San Francisco, and then it’s time to sample the new grass track carved through the Northcote Golf Course after COVID.

There are more creeks running directly or indirectly into the bay of course… Five Days, Five Waterways has a nice ring to it…