Evelyn tells us about Warneet, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, “but not as others can.” Read her personal, poetic and exquite engagement with this place, and be prepared to breath with the mangroves, travel with the birds and drift in and out with the tide as you do.
When I started researching the importance of Warneet and its protected coastal areas, I realized that I was like a pampered child living in a large mansion without ever fully understanding the historical significance of the place I inhabited.
I can tell you about Warneet but not as others can – the bird watchers, fishermen, sailors and bushwalkers who converge on this tiny coastal village, about 50 km from Melbourne. I am a writer and artist who skates Warneet’s surface, though I know its curves. We are old friends.
Warneet is where I go to write, to draw, to think. But my brother knows it differently; for him it’s where he has always sailed, and for my parents, it is where they entertain, relax, walk along the water and sit in front of the fire, watching the tide go in and out.
I’ve been on my brother’s boat countless times, but I am not the sailor. I admire the women who are, and command the small yachts with strength and skill, idling up the inlets of Westernport Bay, judging the tides that pull like a magnet to the sea and back.
And I enjoy watching the fishermen, young and old, who line the piers and sit in patient contemplation, waiting for hours for that bite. They watch the water and talk perhaps in hushed tones. I would be sitting reading, lost in narrative and unaware of what was lurking below. Those who engage with the water seem to me somehow part of the picture, while I feel as if I am behind the glass looking out. I have always been the watcher, still in one space as the others rush back and forth and the tide goes in and out and the birds sail across the vast sky.
I know Warneet through my eyes alone, drawing its water, the boats pert or tilted, the tide in or out, the mangroves that rise up, at once like legs emerging from the briny surface and then appearing as if they are lungs protruding from the depths.
Warneet and its neighbor Cannons Creek have been my playground since I was 12 years old. I spent my childhood holidaying at Wilson’s Promontory National Park, staying there for up to two months a year, bushwalking, swimming, learning about the flora and fauna from the rangers. So when my parents bought a block of land at Cannon’s Creek, about 50 km from Melbourne on Westernport Bay, I was used to the outdoor life, mosquitoes, and a lack of things like indoor plumbing.
Warneet and Cannons Creek began as fishing camps, and then fibro shacks went up, snaking down to the water. By the time we went there, there were many permanent residents. And weekenders, like us, going down to our boat moorings. We’d wade out and jump onto the old, spectacularly ugly fishing boat and make our way around the small islands. On came friends, extended family, all welcome with the proviso that there were no ‘facilities’ and that the mangroves and their eerie trunks plunging into the mud would service instead. Tide in and out.
Mangroves are small trees with breathing roots that live between high and low tide, that no man’s land of firm and soft – be careful where you tread, and don’t go down at dusk or dawn. It’s alive there, swarming – fish, crabs and insects live in mangroves and are an important part of the marine food chain – and they’ll eat you up, as soon as your flesh invades their space. Spend time around mangroves and you know what to expect –you learn quickly to cover up, stay inside at the critical times and always carry insect repellant. Still, you always came away worse off, you give blood to be one with nature.
From the edge of the water at Cannon’s Creek, we’d look through the mangroves and across the water to Warneet. At the time, the coastal village of Warneet at the head of the large bay of Western Port boasted an actual pier, some street lights and a shop – it seemed from the other side of the inlet the height of sophistication.
When my parents relocated to an old fibro house at Warneet on the water’s edge in the mid 1980s, the most important thing for them and my brother was its proximity to the Warneet yacht club, which was – away from the pier and fishermen – the social hub of the village. But I was seven years older than my brother, and had already left university and was working on my first newspaper by then, and only came down sporadically on weekends, when I would occasionally crew for him.
What I mostly liked to do was walk around and listen to the bird life, and draw. Only a few years before hand, in 1982, a large portion of Western Port had been designated as a wetland of international importance under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat.
Western Port is recognised as a ‘wetland of international importance’ under an international treaty called the Ramsar Convention – it’s on the flight path for migrating shorebirds that fly up to 12,000kms from Arctic breeding areas to Western Port. Here coastal woodlands provide habitat and assist with erosion control and water filtration. There are helpful signs around the foreshore, with illustrations identifying the migratory birds that travel to the Western Port wetlands from as far away as Alaska, Siberia, China and Japan. But serious bird watchers post their sightings regularly online – in 2004 a Bassian Thrush was spotted at Warneet in bush beside the foreshore on the edge of the salt marsh. It was the first sighting of this bird in this area since June 1998.
Warneet has long been recognised for its diversity of native flora and fauna, particularly waterbirds and wetland vegetation, including seagrass, saltmarsh and mangroves. There is still only one general store, and no one wants anything else. Past the nature reserve, away from the precious mangroves, you can easily get the suburban life and all its shops in nearby Cranbourne. People don’t want that intruding on Warneet. Those who succumb to its lure know what to expect; sunsets, tidal waters and mangroves. Tide in, tide out.
Westernport is tidal, so if you go out on the water, you’d better read the maps or you’ll get stuck for hours, as did my younger brother sailing with friends. There is a certain predictability to the way the hours and the days and even the months are counted out by nature – the tide rises and falls, rushes in full or eases out slow. Up, down, empty, full, the tide controls the water at Warneet and all who use it or look upon it. We are in the Bay’s thrawl.
At kingtide, the water pushes up to the swamp paperbark, which grow on the edge of swamps and provide shelter and food for bees and birds and the woodlands, and at lowtide, the mudflats, white mangroves and saltmarsh are revealed. I enjoy walking along the track along Rutherford Parade to Warneet Reserve, east of Warneet on the Warneet Road. Here the coastal scrub is dense with wattles, and walking on the boardwalk along the mangroves, you can see the water’s ever changing level in the saltmarsh estuary. When I was very young, I imagined getting in a boat and going out to remote Quail or Chinaman Islands, or wondering who might live there, amidst the mangroves.
Because of its outstanding natural values, in 2002 the United Nations proclaimed the Western Port region a UNESCO biosphere reserve. But of course, it’s heritage stretches much further back than the white settlers – the Bunurong (Boonerwrung) people are the Indigenous people from the Western Port area, and over thousands of years they lived in the area, enjoying a range of shellfish, mutton birds and plant life.
The pace of life is slow at Warneet – you become part of nature’s rhythm. When I am there, I spend the morning writing, then wander to the pier to sketch. I return to my desk, but like clockwork, the sunset draws me out to the water, where I stand on the pier and watch boats get stuck on the ramp as they come off the water, or fishermen gut their catches and throw the leftovers to the gulls. I watch the sunset, deepening and flooding the water in its colors. And then, the night heavy in my ears, I return to the house to light a fire, and note, while nothing much has happened, I am pushed along by the current of the day, and it is now lulling me to sleep. Tide in, tide out.
Warneet Coastal Park, Westernport Highway, Baxter-Tooradin Rd, Victoria.