Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2014

Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River (2005), by Kristin Otto

YarraThis intriguing book is one that’s been sitting on the TBR for so long that I’d forgotten I had it until I went fossicking for Robyn Annear‘s Bearbrass as a reference for some school stuff I was doing.  I bought it long ago when I was a volunteer for the New International Bookshop  – the nearest I ever came to having a job in the book trade.

I can’t remember how I came to hear about the NIB, but because its mission was ‘progressive’ i.e. flogging tomes on socialism, sad little pamphlets on anarchism and a lot of unsaleable secondhand university Pinko politics and economics text books, it was a bookshop so unprofitable that it could only run to one paid employee and everything else was done by volunteers.  I was in one of my have-to-get-out-of-teaching phases and I thought it was a good weekend opportunity to learn a new career in retail.  The bookshop operated out of the Heritage-listed Trades Hall Building, was congenially across the road from some very nice Carlton eateries, and rewarded its volunteers with a 10% discount on purchases.  In addition to these charms, I agreed with one aspect of their philosophy.  I thought then, and I still do, that even if I think anarchists et al are barmy,  a sophisticated city like Melbourne ought to have a bookshop offering alternative political points-of-view.   I’ve often wondered since if my stint at the NIB has generated an ASIO file…

Since they also sold a selection of new release mainstream titles in an effort to subsidise the less profitable stuff, I spent a small fortune on books, keeping the NIB afloat some weekends when my purchases were the only sale of the day.  But I failed miserably at retail: I never mastered credit card transactions, tangled up the price sticker machine, and tried to steer people to the kind of books I like.  (Fatal mistake!)  However the committee collective which had oversight of operations was tolerant of these mistakes (or else desperate for staff)  – until they introduced the coffee machine.  (This was the era when bookshops thought they could lure customers with coffee and sofas for book browsing à la Borders).  Making dreadfully bad cappucino was very dispiriting so I decided it was time to bid the NIB farewell… and I think they were relieved.  Melbourne’s reputation for great coffee was at risk!

One of the treasures I bought from the NIB was Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River.  (It’s still got its little yellow $32.95 sticker on the back!) It really is remiss of me not to have read it sooner because it’s such a delightful quirky book – and it (briefly) made me want to pack up a rucksack and go exploring along my city’s fascinating river banks. (I have actually done a bit of hiking around Dight’s Falls; have boated along the river as far as an 18-foot runabout will go; and The Spouse and I used to stroll along the river when we were courting because the backyard of his Hawthorn flat was the banks of the Yarra.  But *sigh* all that was before I wrecked my ankle).

Kristin Otto has pieced together a fascinating armchair ramble along this much-maligned river of ours.  First of all, she explains why it’s brown in a nicely patriotic way:  it’s because Australian rivers are notable for their muddiness turbidity i.e. they are silt-filled. The colours of the Yarra are the colours of our country, literally, being suspended earth from the upstream and middle-stream banks.   She tells the geological story, and the story of Batman’s infamous so-called treaty with the local Aborigines, and the shameful story of how when the river suffered one of its numerous diversions, the unmarked grave of Barak was lost forever.

And then she goes on to tell the extraordinary story of how it has been re-routed so many times and in so many places to meet the needs of the city that it bears almost no resemblance to its original meander at all.   As Robyn Annear also explains in Bearbrass, (a funny, clever, totally absorbing book about early Melbourne that should be in every walker’s backpack), diversion of the river’s natural flow and the annihilation of its billabongs began very soon after early settlement because flooding was so severe.   (And still is sometimes.  See here for an iconic photo of the 1972 flood).  The irony is that after a century or more of moving it and mucking about with it, Melbourne has finally realised that it’s better to live with it and is now busy restoring the old waterways and wetlands so that we will have a more natural and better-behaved river after all.

Then there’s the story of our bridges.  The beautiful ones, the ones that fell down, all the odd little ones that you forget about until there you are and they’re just irresistible – you have to walk over them even if you had no intention of going that way.  (My favourite of these is Kane’s Bridge at Studley Park).

And the social history is fascinating.  Commerce and industry dominated it at first, and then we got smart and started building gorgeous riverbank houses on it, and nice places like Southbank and the Fairfield Boat House.  (You haven’t lived if you haven’t idly rowed a skiff there on a balmy summer’s day and finished up with Devonshire tea in the tea rooms).

This is a terrific book.  Melburnians, of course, will love it but it’s an entertaining book no matter where you  belong.

(Well, maybe not Sydney).

Author: Kristin Otto
Title: Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920885786
Source: Personal library, purchased from the New International Bookshop (which is still going, still staffed by volunteers!)


Fishpond had a second-hand one the day I looked: Yarra and Text still have copies direct.
Or you could try Brotherhood Books or your library.


  1. Capital, by Kristin Otto is also about Melbourne when it was the capital of Australia. It too reveals fascinating information. Several years ago at my local library she visited and talked about this book. I have also read Yarra by her and loved it, and like you I can’t believe how the Yarra was redirected. Both books worth having on the bookshelf.


  2. Thanks Lisa, I’ll have to add this to my own TBR pile. I can also thoroughly recommend The Comfort of Water by Maya Ward, a thoughtful and thought-provoking description of the author’s attempt to walk along the length of the Yarra, from the sea to its source. Large chunks of my life have been lived in proximity to the Yarra, and I’ve often walked on along the banks, but I didn’t realise how little I knew.


  3. Thanks Elizabeth and Meg, I’ve added both of these to my wishlist at GoodReads so that I don’t Roget about them.


  4. […] you remember another book that I’ve reviewed, Yarra, a Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River by Kristin Otto, you will know that the water features of Melbourne have changed considerably since […]


  5. […] could go on because the allusion to Melbourne’s river reminds me of Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River, by Kristin Otto – but that would make seven degrees, which would be a departure from the #6Degrees […]


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