Dr. Gary Presland, archaeologist and historian, found researching this topic particularly arduous because of the scarcity of information available, but as he was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD.) for his thesis he must have found it worth the effort.
When driving across Melbourne from west to east it is easy to see that the western areas are much flatter and much drier than the eastern side. On the western side the soils are thinner and poorer and there are fewer streams because there is less rain. The grassy plains west of Melbourne were what enticed John Batman and others to come from Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) with their sheep. These areas had been subject to frequent fires lit by the Aborigines to encourage root crops and thus had changed considerably over time.
Within one kilometre of the centre of Melbourne there are 5 completely different geological formations. These landscapes vary in age and thus have different underlying rocks and their soils favour different vegetation. Within the central business district, Batman's Hill at the western end was made of old basalt and here casuarinas flourished. Parliament Hill at the eastern end is a much older geological area and was covered by dense eucalypt forests.
In the centre of the city there was open woodland made up of river red gums and acacias.
The Yarra River itself was different from how it is now. At the mouth of the river it formed a combined estuary or delta with the Maribyrnong River. At low tide the estuary was hardly navigable. John Helder Wedge (surveyor to John Batman's party) described the river as a 'twisted, cantankerous river, choked with trunks and branches of trees,' perhaps referring to the white flowering paperbarks, which grew right up to the banks and in the water, making it difficult to pass in the smallest of coasters.
Mariners referred to the river estuary as Humbug Reach as it was such a nuisance to get boats out of the water and into another tributary, especially at low tide. Up until the time of the gold rush ships didn't come up into the settlement but stopped at Liardet's Pier, Port Melbourne.
Mary Gardiner, wife of stockman John Gardiner found the river in 1837 quite threatening. She found dense foliage alone the banks formed 'grotesque archways overhead' and reeds between the trees were 7 feet high making the landscape 'impenetrable to searching eyes.'
Only immigrants with money could afford to be taken to the settlement by boat. Others walked via a boggy track which later became City Road. This area south of the Yarra was low lying, sandy with mature vegetation but with brackiish water areas. Part of this area became Albert Park Lake and another area, Sandridge Lagoon, was drained and became a maladorous rubbish dump. In the early days this general area was grassy woodland with common reeds, coast manna gums, narrow leafed peppermint, messmate, black wattle and coast banksia.
Now the suburbs Port Melbourne, South Melbourne, Albert Park and Middle Park, this area has a high water table. Hamer Hall has pumps operating all the time to remove water from its basements.
North of the Yarra estuary was salt marsh with salt tolerant vegetation. Between Flagstaff Hill and the docklands area there was a shallow salt water lake which was described as being very blue and is seen in a painting done by Robert Hoddle.
Early maps of Melbourne show a ridge running from Strathmore, north of the city to Emerald Hill in the south. In between are Batman Hill, Flagstaff Hill and Hotham Hill. The land slopes down towards Elizabeth Street and then rises again to the east. In the valley formed is present day Elizabeth Street, but in the past a stream flowed there when there was rain. The stream started in the Melbourne General Cemetery area, ran through Melbourne University site, across Grattan Street, down Bouverie Street, flowing towards the Queen Victoria Market, down Elizabeth Street towards Flinders Street and then followed a course which was later the route of the Sandridge railway line.
The basalt ledge in the Yarra which helped divide salt water from fresh water was dynamited in the 1880s and the river has been straightened in several places to prevent flooding. Stony Creek on the west still flows into the Yarra at the Westgate Bridge, but the lower reaches of the yarra are unrecognisable. Sadly as Melbourne's population has increased and spread, most of the small creeks which used to run into the Yarra have gone underground into drains.
The shape of the landscape determined where Melbourne was situated. It could never have been on the Bay. It had to be up stream on the Yarra where there was fresh water, and it was unfortunate that the first explorer to go upstream, surveyor Charles Grimes in 1803 made rather sketchy notes. However using early maps, including those of mariner Captain Cox, snippets from diaries, paintings and drawings by Robert Hoddle, Robert Russell and others, Dr. Presland has matched these with the geology of the area to create a good picture.
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