Visit any Melbourne park and it is immediately obvious that patches of public space mean different things to different people. One’s shade tree is another’s hub for playing chasey; and not everyone sees lawn as an invitation to throw a Frisbee or boot a footy. So we’re lucky that Melbourne has parks aplenty suited to diverse wants and needs, a factor, no doubt, in Victoria’s capital being voted the world’s most liveable city by The Economist seven years in a row.
Charles La Trobe, the first superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, and subsequently first lieutenant-governor of the colony of Victoria, set aside expanses of land around the young city of Melbourne for open space, parkland and gardens. While formal sportsgrounds, hospitals, rail lines and houses have since reclaimed much of that land, and the city’s continuing sprawl and infrastructure projects threaten more, the capital of the once number-plate boasting “garden state” is still dotted with green. An Aboriginal camping ground before European colonisation and the largest open space in the inner-city, Royal Park is a remnant of La Trobe’s vision.
The Macquarie dictionary defines a park as: “an area of land within a town, often with recreation and other facilities, which is set aside for public use.” But how do you define “use”? Melbourne has wonderful parks in which to do all manner of things – or nothing at all.
The corner of Warrigal and South roads, Moorabbin, doesn’t scream “bird watching paradise” but Karkarook Park is filled with surprises. A 40-hectare oasis in a desert of industry, it centres on a lake open to kayaks and small single-hulled sailboats and its wetlands filter bay-bound stormwater.
The lake was once a sand mine – Karkarook is an aboriginal word meaning “sandy place” – but feathered and human fishers now compete companionably for rainbow trout and red fin.
Intensive revegetation has attracted birdlife and purple swamphens, white-plumed honeyeaters and superb fairy wrens are among the 110-plus species recorded in the park. You can watch them from a waterfront hide, just off the 6km of walking tracks, but birds also paddle around boardwalk uprights and waddle past picnickers on the manicured lawns.
In the Wurundjeri dreaming, Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle created Darebin Creek and its surrounding bush as a place for people to find joy and be at peace, and that’s the ultimate aim of the Spiritual Healing Trail in Darebin Parklands (also known as Rockbeare Park).
Gifted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community as a gesture of reconciliation, the trail takes a 1.4km walk through the park, along the creek and onto Mt Puffalo’s rocky crown. A brochure and signs guide you through the five stages: Gathering, Purifying, Contemplation, Possibilities and Ready to Go.
Take time out to slow down and get in touch with yourself, with others and with the land.
Let’s Get Physical
It’s exhausting just ticking off the get-fit options in Princes Park, which reaches 1.5km along Royal Parade north of the city.
At its heart is the historic home of the Carlton Football Club, now the Blues’ administrative centre and training ground and home ground for Carlton’s AFLW games. Carlton Cricket Club and Princes Park Carlton Bowls Club have also been based here since the late 19th century and Princes Hill Tennis Club since 1919.
Pedestrian and cycling tracks circle and crisscross the park, with distance posts and an assortment of torture equipment (sorry, exercise stations) around the 3.17km circumnavigation. The shared use Capital City Trail runs through Princes Park on its 30km loop around Melbourne.
Then again, you could just kick a ball – round or oval – on a playing field or join the dog walkers.
Canine Cloud Nine
If you were a dog, your ears would twitch and tail wag on leaping from the car at Burns Reserve, adjoining Altona Coastal Park. Dogs on leads are welcome in the reserve proper, which protects 70 hectares of intertidal and salt marsh between Kororoit Creek and Port Phillip Bay, while the beach fronting the reserve is a leash-free playground for four-legged friends.
And friends they are, with big and small canine regulars carousing on the sandy flats and chasing each other into foaming shallows as their humans chat.
The park enjoys uninterrupted views of Port Phillip Bay and the Melbourne CBD and is prettiest at dusk, when the setting sun silhouettes pelicans flying in for the night.
Messing about in Boats
With apologies to Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, there is nowhere – absolutely nowhere – half so much worth going to mess about in boats as Albert Park.
Spectacularly situated with Melbourne’s CDB as backdrop, the lake is prettiest early morning, when you may see hot air balloons drifting over the office towers, their burners flaming brightly in pastel light.
Paddle boats, kayaks and sailing dinghies can be hired at the northern end of the lake along Aquatic Drive. Here too you can enjoy an introduction to sailing and, should the bug bite, take lessons. And while you are on the water, landlubbers can stroll 5km around the lake, which is one of Melbourne’s prettiest short walks.
You can get almost anything in and around the Oakleigh shops, including an insight into the suburb’s history at the Pioneer Cemetery in Warrawee Park.
Surveyed in 1853, the township of Oakleigh was one of the first places in colonial Victoria (with Coburg, Geelong and Ballarat) to establish a public cemetery reserve. Surviving headstones and columns, some encircled with rusty iron lace, rest beneath shady trees between a car park, children’s playground, sports oval and Warrigal Road.
Seven year-old Christina Couper was the first person buried here, in November 1860, and the last burial took place 99 years later. Among those interred between times were German migrant Charles Ferdinand Edward Zorn, whose sauces and pickles won international awards, and James Black Ronald, who was elected to the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901.
Freesias carpet the cemetery in spring.
Escape to the Country
Mt Waverley is a proudly leafy suburb, its houses and unnaturally tidy gardens thread with ribbons of replanted, revegetated native bush. But Valley Reserve is different.
This 15-hectare park, just off Waverley Road, protects some of Melbourne’s last surviving patches of original bushland, mostly dry sclerophyll forest with lusher riparian communities along Scotchmans Creek. It is home to flying foxes, tortoises, yabbies, more than forty bird species and five varieties of frog, which perform a syncopated soundtrack.
And the wildflowers! Vivid blue sun orchids bloom on hot summer days. Pretty white milkmaids and chocolate lilies prefer the spring. Then there are the enamel-red running postman and other flashy pea flowers.
Strolling through Valley Reserve is like stepping through a door into the countryside usually found only well beyond Melbourne’s fringes.