I was awash in a flurry of the facts and figures, joys and anxieties that are an inescapable conclusion to the business of writing a book. Around midday I downed tools and headed out to Oakleigh, in middle Melbourne, to take the first car that I have ever owned for its first service – three months overdue.
I had to fill in two hours. Where to go? Traffic was roaring up and down a hugely busy road beside the service place. There were no shops to be seen. So spotting some trees behind a factory, I headed that way.
To my surprise I was soon strolling along a sunny grass-edged path. A sign told me that I was on the 16.5 km Scotchman’s Creek Trail. I’d never heard of it. I could turn left, or turn right. I chose left, which turned out to be the right option.
Pretty soon the traffic noise died away. Sun sparkled down through tall gum trees and onto Lomandra longifolia that was helping to retain steep banks. These must run down to the creek, I thought.
They did – except it wasn’t exactly a creek, but a bluestone-lined deep V-shaped channel of water disappearing into the distance. I kept walking, however, and soon the hand of man became less obvious. The channel disappeared and the water broadened right out, moving along more slowly. The creek looked like a creek. Ducks sailed across it. Fallen leaves twinkled on the sunlit surface.
My world opened up and I forgot all about the car. I spotted several different species of butterfly, flitting through the bushes and the grass. I heard birds calling. The water made music. Pedestrians and cyclists came smiling by. As well as eucalypts I noticed melaleucas, wattles, pretty little shrubs.
Then I came across a small sign, which told me that here was the home of a native marsupial, an ‘aquatic nocturnal rodent’. What was that? The Latin name was half-obliterated but back at the computer again, I’ve discovered it is Hydromys chrysogaster, or the yellow-bellied water rat. This weighs up to 1.3 kilograms, and one of only two amphibious Australian mammals, the other being the platypus.
It lives in burrows beside river and lake banks and likes to eat fish (and cane toads!) It has webbed hind legs and dark waterproof fur, a long white-tipped tail and, yes, an orange-yellow tummy. It’s largely nocturnal but can be spotted at sunset. Protective legislation had to be introduced when it was hunted for its fur in the 1930s. Its Aboriginal name is rakali. For much more, check out http://www.platypus.asn.au/the_australian_water_rat.html
Yes, Melbourne is a huge and increasingly crowded city. But it has some special places, with some fascinating stories.