BRITISH ART HISTORIAN and veteran wheelman Tim Hilton once wrote that most cyclists are topographers by nature. It’s true; there’s an intimacy of engagement with a place that comes from cycling through it that is not afforded by driving past it in a car, which is what you do. Landscape is scenery from a car. You look at it. Riding through it, you feel its contours in your muscles and your lungs. You smell it like the living thing it is: the subtle shifts associated with vegetation and land-use or with water sitting or coursing through it. The smell of cut earth. And you become attuned to the passage of air moving across it as you alternately flow with and work against its prevailing winds.
You could argue that the same applies to walking but you’d be wrong. Walking takes you into a landscape in a particularly grounded, earthbound way. The difference is to do with pace and contemplation. On a bike, you are in the landscape but separate from it. It’s why the advent of the bicycle had such a devastating effect on the rural towns and villages of Europe, offering as it did a means of escape not just in terms of distance, but also in separation or removal from the place that you travel through. Even in a bunch ride, the rhythm and pace of cycling offers a splendid isolation that provides access to a fugitive space that is entirely one’s own. Cycling a landscape, like writing it, is essentially a contemplative act.
My first memory of the landscape that holds me to this day is from the window of my father’s car. I am nine or ten years old and we are travelling east along the South Gippsland highway (the same road I’m travelling today) towards the tidal fishing town of Port Franklin. A few kilometres out of Tooradin the road gradually drops and cuts through a particularly low and flat stretch of land. To the right are mangrove flats stretching to the top end of Westernport Bay. The blind side of French Island floats on a horizon that curiously seems to sit above us. To the left is a wall of melaleuca scrub.
We cross a series of wooden bridges, and each affords a glimpse into a beguiling, vestigial landscape that vanishes as quickly as it appears, as though, even then, it is something remembered, not seen. Beneath each bridge, a steep-banked channel runs in a straight line away from us into a world that seems strangely remote and inaccessible to anyone travelling by road. The channels are overhung by tangled mangrove roots and I glimpse in some the unlikely stilt frames of jetties and boat-houses hunkered below us, as though there’s a layered underworld hidden beneath the level of the road. It’s a world to which I’ve been trying to gain entry ever since.
I know now that what I saw was the remnant landscape of the former Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp.
At close to forty thousand hectares, it was once the largest swamp in Victoria and a virtually impenetrable barrier between Port Philip and Gippsland. The swamp was drained between the 1870s and 1900, although major flooding persisted well into the next century and, even now, the area is prone to flash-flooding and inundation. It’s a reclaimed landscape, famous for its rich, black soil and the dairy, potato and asparagus farming communities it sustains. But reclamation implies a return to what it once was. A constructed landscape is closer to the truth – something fashioned out of what went before.
Today’s race starts and finishes in Cora Lynn where the Main Drain crosses the Nine Mile Road. It was once the heart of the swamp. Driving in from the highway through the farming townships of Koo-Wee-Rup and Bayles, you are immediately aware of having entered a different world, one shaped by resourcefulness and a particularly European sensibility. While not completely self-contained, it owes much to the closed polder landscapes of Holland and Belgium, places it’s easy to imagine you are riding through on a cold, winter’s morning when a block headwind smatters you with rain.
Polders are low-lying tracts of land, often having subsided below water level, that are completely enclosed by embankments. They answer to their own hydrology. Water flow is regulated through a series of pumps and sluices and the landscape is reticulated with channels. Driving in now, the roads follow the channels then branch at right angles from them. Five Mile, Seven Mile, Nine Mile Road. Regular, imperial measurements. It’s difficult to lose your way, but difficult also to see beyond what the place has become to what it once was.
Hedgerows shield cattle from the relentless wind that sweeps across damp, low-lying paddocks. Trees are pollarded to stop short against a vast, expansive sky. The original swamp paperbark (Melaleuca ericifolia) and Prickly Tea tree (Leptospermum continentale), once so thick as to be impenetrable by foot, are all but gone, replaced by open pasture and shelter plantings of cypress, hawthorn and poplar. Fragmented remnant communities persist along creek lines or in isolated patches on the periphery of cleared land, but they are like ghost images from a vanished landscape, simultaneously promising and withholding entry to a place that belongs less to nature than to memory and imagination.
The race signs are out along the Tynong-Bayles Road and riders are warming up, bent low in the lee of the embankment along the Main Drain Road. At Cora Lynn, I sign on and take my number. The wind is freshening from the east. It rattles through the reeds along the edge of the drain and brings the smell of rain from across the bay. Water stands in ditches beside the road from earlier showers. It seeps from the irrigation channels and trickles through culverts and spoon drains away from the raised surface of the road.
Cardinia Creek and the Bunyip and Tarago Rivers feed the catchment area from the north. The Bass and Lang Lang Rivers feed it from the east. Even with the strict regulation of the rivers, groundwater still flows from the alluvial plains that fringe the old swamp into aquifers that swell beneath impermeable layers of clay and peat. The land leaks water. Flow paths pattern the paddocks. The smallest depressions turn to pondage. Nothing seems fixed or solid. It’s as though the land is something other than what it seems: something fluid and elusive that shifts like water the moment I think I know it.
Today’s race is a handicap and I’m off twenty-one minutes. There are twelve of us and the pace is on early, rolling turns into a crosswind up the Nine Mile Road towards Tynong. The aim is to work together, to find a rhythm that will see us gain on the bunch ahead and stay clear of the faster groups behind. It’s an abjuration of sorts, a disavowal of the self to be part of something better.
By the time we pass Daly Road, we are working without thinking. The pace-line moves up the inside, away from the wind. There’s some shelter from a cypress windbreak where the Eleven Mile Road joins at an angle and I’m aware of a small drainage channel passing beneath the road. Beyond that, there is nothing but the rhythm of the pedals and the roll of the wheel in front of me. I am a still point. Everything moves, yet I am stationary, removed from the very place I’m passing through. The further we ride from the centre of the swamp, the closer I feel to gaining access to it.
THERE MUST BE a point where topography intersects with what Gaston Bachelard refers to as the place that has been transformed by memory and imagination into something sacred (The Poetics of Space, Gallimard, 1958). Every venture for me now is an exploration, whether by bike or language, into a place that can’t be mapped. In Soundings (UQP, 1993), a work of fiction I wrote two decades ago, a photographer called Jack Cameron traversed the same landscape I’m riding now, photographing the land from every possible angle in an attempt to capture on film something of the elusive otherworld that was consistently withheld from him. He photographed the passage of time through a single point, producing strips of film that threw up strange, unsettling images of an inaccessible shadow place: isolated moments divorced from time that persisted behind the featureless land he saw.
Geography alone provides only partial entry. Landscape should not be mistaken for place. At Tynong, we swing left into the Nar Nar Goon–Longwarry Road towards Nar Nar Goon. We’ve dropped two and are down to ten. In unison, we rattle through the gears and resume the rhythm. The wind is behind us. There is no sound bar our own breathing as we float effortlessly above the barely perceptible undulations in the road beneath us.
We are now in what was once referred to as the outer swamp. Both sides of the road are planted with asparagus and I can smell the rich scent of turned earth in the air. The soil here is alluvial with occasional instances of organic peat and black clay. It was once dominated by Swamp Paperbark and the generically named Swamp Scrub. While most of it is long gone, creeks still harbour thickets of Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), and drainage lines support instances of Spike-sedge (Eleocharis acuta), Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens) and Water Ribbons (Triglochin procera) that were once integral to the region’s unique ecosystem.
Clearing the scrub was a major undertaking. As early as the 1870s, individual settlers took to it with shovels and saws, cutting their own cross drains and channels that often flooded their neighbours’ land. Burning and dragging opened larger tracts, but stump-grubbing and trenching required hard, manual labour. In 1876, the Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp Drainage Committee began excavation of a main channel to direct water from Cardinia Creek to Westernport Bay at Moody’s Inlet. But it was the 1880s and ’90s that saw genuinely co-ordinated efforts. By 1889, more than five hundred men were working on the Bunyip and Main Drains and living with their families in a village settlement on the partly reclaimed land.
In his photographic investigation of the swamp, Jack Cameron glimpsed disturbing images of families living half-amphibious lives in huts thrown up from the very mud they dredged, navigating their way to work in small boats, and supplementing their wages with what they could coax from dank, flood-prone allotments. While the drainage scheme was officially complete in 1897, Italian engineer Carlo Catani continued to oversee the project until his retirement in 1917. He introduced the monstrous Lubecker from Germany, a steam-driven bucket dredge that propelled itself on its own tracks and shifted 60 cubic metres per day. As the soil dried, it shrank and compacted, subsiding into a vast depression. In dry years, it burned. Peat layers smouldered beneath the surface for months.
At Nar Nar Goon we swing left again, back into a cross-headwind that fans us into an echelon across the road, rolling turns up the outside. The sign says Main Street but it reverts to its true name once we reach the town perimeter. The Seven Mile Road runs in a straight line south, back to the Main Drain with a slight downhill gradient that keeps the pace up. Just south of Bald Hill Road, the Northern Boundary Drain passes beneath us then runs parallel to the road for half a kilometre or so, flanked by acacia and tea-tree. There’s a shift in the quality of the air, a slight smell of dampness, before it swings away towards the Five Mile and McDonald’s Drain and we continue on.
DESPITE NEW SUB-DIVISIONS and re-named streets, the original network of roads and drains persists, shaping our perception of the landscape in much the same way that an enclosure defines a place while denying access to it. I co-ordinated a mapping project in the region in the early 1990s. Conventional cartography provides entry of sorts to topography, but my ideas at the time coincided with Paul Carter’s notion of mapping ‘the qualitative world of shadows and footprints’: the less tangible experiences carried by landscape that give personal and social meaning to it, as he put it in The Road to Botany Bay (Faber and Faber, 1987).
A group of people, already connected to the region, each chose a specific point in the landscape that had significance for them: a particular stand of trees; the junction of two channels, the corner of a paddock where the land rose slightly towards the sun. Over a period of three months, they visited their chosen site multiple times. Their field notes recorded observations of the natural world (the weather, plant and animal life, moisture in the soil), but also reflections on the particular meaning and associations the places had for them.
For some, it was memory tied to that location: events that had stayed with them for whatever reason and had helped shape both the person they had become and the land they saw. For others, it was shared or borrowed memory passed down as part of family lore. In some instances, it was an imaginative association with another place, a projection of France or Holland triggered by the fall of light on a tract of open land or the scent of cut grass on the wind. Each location, then, became a contour point in a layered map of a vast emotional landscape that extended beyond the mere spatial confines of the swamp.
My place, of course, is not the same as your place, even if the GPS co-ordinates are identical. Constructing place requires both a willing blindness and rejection of what you see before you, and a projection of your own desires to claim it.
We’re strung out now, heading toward the southern perimeter of the swamp. Two properties are pumping water from their front paddocks. They sit below the level of the road and the water flows across the bitumen to the channel on its opposite side.
In 1859, William Lyall, a Scotsman from Aberdeenshire, took over Yallock Station on the damp southern fringes of the swamp and began work on his grand, gabled homestead, Harewood. He also took out a twenty-one-year improvement lease on Tobin Yallock swamp. Harewood became something of a social centre for the region. Its dining room commanded views across Westernport Bay. Its stately columns doubled as drainage pipes for an underground cistern.
Improving a landscape implies an idyll to work towards, obviously something different to what one sees. As a successful stockbreeder and founding member of Victoria’s Acclimatisation Society, Lyall’s improvements included the introduction of exotic species to the swamp. He released pheasants and partridges for hunting parties visiting from Melbourne. Hares and deer claimed the drier grasslands. Yellow gorse (Ulex europeaus L.) spread from his hedges to infest the waterways.
While it’s easy to assume the biodiversity of the swamp has shrunk considerably since white settlement, many of the original wetland species of flora and fauna still persist, although confined to the drains and creek lines. Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Broom (Genista spp.) and Gorse obviously coexist and require constant control. But the Water Ribbons, Spike-sedge and reed beds (Phragmites australis) that were integral to the aquatic mosaic of the inner swamp that supplied fish, bird and animal life to the Bunerong people are still there.
Likewise, there are still instances of Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardierei) and Coast Tussock Grass (Poa poiformis) that once populated the wet grassland adjacent to the swamp, despite the predominance now of Paspalum, Kikuyu and Canary Grass introduced for grazing. It should be remembered that much of the scrub and timber clearing that accompanied the draining of the swamp restored the landscape to a closer approximation of the thinly timbered, open grassland that existed before the demise of the Aboriginal fire regime. In 1827, explorer Samuel Wright reported extensive grassland that ‘appeared like beautiful Meadows in England, very thin of Timber, grass excellent’.
Introduced and remnant vegetation both continue to support significant regional bird species like the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Nankeen Night Heron, Long-billed Corella and Brown Goshawk. The Masked Lapwing, which I still know as a Plover, is also prevalent. But they also support more visible local species, like the Magpie and Magpie Lark and exotic introductions such as the Goldfinch and Common Mynah. Like the European Rabbit, these have flourished with agricultural development. The ring-tailed possum has adapted successfully (some would say too successfully) to introduced tree habitats, while remnant swamp scrub supports the endangered Southern Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus obesulus).
The nocturnal bandicoot is only one of the rarely observed but significant species to haunt this deceptively elusive landscape. The drains and channels are also home to the vulnerable Growling Grass Frog (Litoria raniformis), a ground-dwelling tree frog that favours sluggish streams and slow moving backwaters. The Dwarf Galaxias (Galaxiella pusilla), a tiny, transparent fish with clear fins and black stripes floats like a spectral presence through the same waters and goes to ground in summer, lying dormant in disused yabbie holes. Lewin’s Rail (Rallus pectoralis) is a secretive, flightless bird that conceals a cup-shaped nest of grass close to the edge of the channels. It is cousin to the ghost species Lewin’s Water Rail (Rallus pectoralis clelandi) once reported as extinct.
WE ARE IN a place removed, pedaling relentlessly into the wind with the landscape closing indifferently behind us as we pass.
The capacity for cyclists to disappear into the landscape is well known. A bike draws little attention to itself. Eighty per cent of the space it occupies, after all, is comprised of emptiness. In wartime, French bike couriers were known to cross enemy lines time and again without challenge, almost as though they could not be seen. There comes a point also, in a long ride, where the rhythm and movement and the pleasant muscularity of the endeavour results in a dissociative shift that removes you from time and place, even as you travel through them. Jean-Paul Sartre, an avid cyclist, wrote of the particular pleasure in his 1943 essay, Being and Nothingness (Gallimard, 1943). ‘Each trip,’ he wrote, ‘disintegrated into a thousand appropriative behaviour patterns, each one of which refers to others.’
It’s tempting to think of the old swamp as flat. It’s not. By the time we pass the Old Drouin Road, we’ve climbed close to fifty metres since crossing the Main Drain. The gradient averages 1 to 2 per cent to create what cyclists know as a faux plat, or false flat. Your legs reveal what your eyes conceal. Water might find its level, but even before the drainage and reclamation projects, the contours of the swamp were anything but consistent.
To the north and east, the land rises gradually to the foothills of the Dandenongs and the Bass Hills. To the south, it slides away to the tidal mudflats of Westernport. But I know that at the fifty kilometre mark of the race, after we’ve swung left through Longwarry with the wind behind us and are heading back through Garfield toward Tynong, there are two rises that stronger riders will use to their advantage. They’re not hills as such, but ridges that kick the road up to a pinch.
Early surveyors reported the presence of sandy rises elevated above the level of the peat beds. Pastoralists used them for stock access to the centre of the swamp. It’s likely that the Bunerong people also used them to source fish and waterbirds from the abundant but otherwise inaccessible inner swamp. The rises are Aeolian dunes, wind-formed lunettes formed before the last ice age when the region was a dry, semi-arid landscape. Other rises are alluvial: remnant levees and bed deposits from the broad alluvial fan of the Bunyip River.
Flatness in a landscape is not so much an illusion as a willing disregard for what lies before you. The swamp maintained an average surface slope of 1.3 metres per kilometre. Even in the early days, it could never have held a single body of standing water. Rather, it was a series of lake-like cells or contiguous bogs, each draining through reed mass and channels like a natural filtration system.
The road continues to rise all the way to Longwarry. The gap to the lead car closes painfully and slowly, and by the time we get the tail wind, my legs are burning. There’s still work to be done before the rises. We pass by the edge of Bunyip and can see the group of five front-markers ahead. We take them on the first rise and don’t look back. The second pinch, on the far side of Garfield, is longer and steeper. There’s still twelve kilometres of racing on the other side of it.
There are five of us, working together to joint advantage. But it’s only a matter of time before things change. I hold close to the wheel in front of me. Each of us tries to gauge how the other feels: what’s left in the legs; how badly they want it. There’s a rattle of gears before the rise and the move is on. A gap opens in front of me and I strain to close it. The road slants upward and it’s all I can do to hold the same distance, hoping nobody comes around me. At the top of the rise, I’m still in touch and there are three of us now, heads down, flying toward the homeward stretch.
Low cloud has moved in from the east and a smattering of rain quickly turns to showers. The road throws it back at us from the wheels and we breathe it in. It’s like an elemental shift. Water streams from my nose and chin. As we make the last turn toward the finish line, back to the heart of the swamp, we’re still clear of the scratch group, but we know they’re coming. The lead car is a blurred presence before us, like the shade ofDante’s Virgil, guiding us in.
THE CORE OF the inner swamp was a different world. Geologically, the soil beneath us is not soil at all but organic peat deposited over thousands of years. Beyond the reach even of the alluvial rises, few trees would have grown here. Permanently inundated reeds and rushes laid down a deep fibrous mat that resisted erosion and rose to as much as three metres before subsiding after the swamp was drained. Once a hidden but abundant source of fish and waterfowl, it is now amongst the richest agricultural land in the country.
With three kilometres to go, we are still together, but riding alone. For all our collaborative endeavour, we each know that we are riding for ourselves now. I can feel the weight of the road in my legs: each hill, each turn into the wind, each effort to close a gap. It will still be there tomorrow, like a residual memory of the place we’ve travelled through.
The finish line is two hundred metres past the place we started. It’s an arbitrary point in the landscape that closes the circle and brings us home. Before it, the road is still charged with possibility. Beyond it is scenery. I remember once standing at dusk in a lowish dune watching rafts of Short-tailed Shearwaters circling in to roost. The Shearwater is a seagoing bird that negotiates a thirty thousand kilometre journey from the Arctic Region to go to ground in the same burrow amongst the tussock grass it left the year before. Once concealed below ground, the bird calls for its mate who circles silently in the darkening sky listening for its point of entry to a familiar but foreign shore.
To watch a single Shearwater move silently above you is to remove oneself from the surrounding clamour and enter the still point of individual disintegration that Sartre wrote of. You are neither present nor absent, but a small part of something beyond your comprehension. As I approach the line, there is a point where movement approximates stillness and for a moment, I am not so much passing through the landscape as riding into it.
But the moment cannot last. The scratch riders have gathered all before them and there is a terrible beauty about the sound of their approach, at speed across the rain-soaked road. They are upon us in an instant, a writhing, sinuous line shrouded in water, driving toward the line with a momentum that catches us up, draws us out of our saddles to join it. Timing and pace are everything. I click through the gears and hold my line between the riders and the soft edge of the road until a gap eventually opens, and I slot in, holding tight to the wheel in front of me.
There are no half measures. I am part of it now, moving relentlessly forward at a pace determined by others. I am aware of jostling ahead of me, and a late attack splintering from the far side. The bank of the Main Drain is a blur beside me, and then it’s over. We cross the line and the group disintegrates. We are individual riders pedalling slowly through soft rain. The paddocks are wet beside me. The ditches are full. Everywhere about me is the sound of water.
NO TWO RACES are ever the same. No two ventures into the swamp deliver the same result. The rain falls in sheets across the windscreen as I turn back onto the South Gippsland Highway, out of the closed landscape that still withholds its secrets. Toward the bridges, the sky is a grey expanse above a sodden stretch of land that again touches something in me. Seen through the filter of the tinted, rain-washed windscreen, it might be the salt marsh landscape of East Anglia claimed by the German poet WG Sebald in The Rings of Saturn (Harville, 1995).
For Sebald, the marshland was a landscape of exile, offering erasure rather than comfort. It was a land that belonged to post-memory. And I realise now that what attracts me here might well be absence. The place I seek is already lost. Yet, it is still potentially there, in its creek beds and remnant stands of vegetation and in those fleeting vistas where it seems still to linger at the very edge of the tangible world. Crossing the first of the bridges, I glance right and wait only half expectantly for the gap, knowing it will close like a shutter as quickly as it opens.
Bachelard, Gaston 1958, The Poetics of space, Orion Press, New York.
Carter, Paul 1987, The road to Botany Bay: an essay in spatial history, Faber and Faber, London.
Davison, Liam 1993, Soundings, UQP, St Lucia.
Gunson, N and Key, L.M. 1968, The good country: Cranbourne shire. Cheshire,Melbourne.
Hilton, T 2004, One more kilometre and we’re in the showers, Harper, London.
Roads, Vic 2005, Healesville – Koo Wee Rup Road flora and fauna issues, Report, project 05-02, Ecology Australia, Fairfield.
Sartre, Jean-Paul 1943, Being and nothingness: A phenomenological essay on ontology, Gallimard, Paris.
Sebald, W.G. 1995, The rings of Saturn. Harvill. London.
Yugovich J and Mitchell S. 2005, Vegetation mapping of the Koo Wee Rup Swamp and adjacent grasslands, Biosis Research Report to Cardinia Shire.
About the author
Liam Davison (1957–2014) has published four novels, two collections of short fiction and a book of essays and creative non-fiction. He received the National Book...
More from this edition
Memoir'CAN I MAKE it?' a scary thought crosses my mind as the plane climbs away from Sydney into the night's sky. 'Your dad is...
EssayAT THE END of World War II, with the city of Tokyo a smoking ruin, Hiroshima and Nagasaki pulverised, and food shortages so acute...
MemoirMAY 2012: I'm sitting at rehearsal of the Nothing prepared me for this show at La Mama Theatre and mentally I'm listing the occupations of some...