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Newport Lakes: from a big quarry hole to revegetated oasis

Newport Lakes operated as a bluestone quarry from the 1860s to 1968.[1]

In Melbourne’s early history, bluestone was used in buildings and laneways. Later, bluestone – known as ‘crushed rock’ or ‘blue metal’ – was used for roads. However, what you may not know is that ships returning to England could not return empty or without ballast because they were unstable in the rough seas. Bluestone, and probably bluestone from Newport Lakes, was shipped back as ballast and used in buildings back in England.

By the 1960s, many of the local Newport residents were unhappy about the noise and dust being created by the quarry. Following a wave of community concern, Williamstown Council agreed to assist with the closure of the quarrying operations. By the 1970s, Council decided to fill the very big quarry holes by turning the quarry into a rubbish tip, as was common practise in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

Mary Burbidge, a local resident who grew up on the edge of the quarry, was not happy that all the quarry holes would become a rubbish tip. Mary helped build a second wave of community support for limiting the ‘filling all the quarry holes with rubbish’ and creating an alternative vision for the lakes. Mary Burbidge was elected to Williamstown City Council and continued to lead the strong wave of community support which resulted in Council committing to the creation of Newport ‘twin lakes’.

The western section of the Reserve, known as Pavey’s Hole, and the northern mound were still used as a tip and eventually filled and capped.

Plans, however, for the wider Lakes precinct were not really well developed by Council. Much of the credit for what we see and experience at Newport Lakes must go to the enterprising Dutchman, Maarten Hulzebosch. Maarten was Parks and Garden foreman for Williamstown Council, based at Newport Lakes. As an immigrant, Maarten had develop a love and appreciation of Australian native flora. He also developed the vision for a revegetated Newport Lakes, way beyond Council’s resources or limited vision.

Maarten didn’t have a Council budget to buy plants, to buy mulch, or to spray herbicide to kill weeds, but he created a way forward.

On the weekends, Maarten would go to the You Yangs and collect seeds from the local species[2] – the wattles, eucalypts, and she-oaks. He arranged for Council Nursery staff to propagate the seeds in the nursery. Maarten and the other Parks staff would just plant the indigenous tube stock around the lakes, to create an upper storey of indigenous plants – the first pioneer plants. Maarten and staff just simply went out and planted – like crazy and then they let nature do its thing. Maarten knew that after the first generation of pioneering plants, such as the Wattles, got established, these Wattles would provide shelter for the slower growing and longer lived eucalypts and she-oaks.

Without a budget for weed control or mulch, Maarten knew he could not fight the weeds in the first place. So following the establishment of a tree canopy, nature would assist the team in the battle against weed species. The tree canopy would naturally block out sunlight and the maturing trees compete for water and nutrients. With weeds becoming more manageable, they could then start to focus on mulching and middle and understorey planting such as Bursaria, Kangaroo Apple, and Kangaroo and Wallaby grasses.

In the area that was to become the Arboretum, again there was no money to buy soil. So Maarten just went about creating soil. He arranged for truck-loads of ‘tree-pruning’ mulch, then considered a waste product, to be dropped off onto the clay capping soil. Over the years, each mulch layer has broken down into a rich humus which has provided nutrients for the Arboretum to get established.

Maarten Hulzebosch’s plan, inspired by Mary Burbidge’s Lakes vision, has worked. A lot of what you see at Newport Lakes today is the result of the vision and determination of Maarten Huzlebosch, an immigrant, who loved the native landscape more than most. Thank you Maarten and Mary.

In the 1990s, the newly amalgamated Hobsons Bay Council sought to rationalise resources around Newport Lakes Reserve. With limited understanding of community sentiment about Newport Lakes, Council had another go at ‘selling off’ some of the Reserves perimeter land that could be using for housing. In an internal restructure, Council made Maarten’s Newport Lakes role redundant.

A third wave of community concern and support for stopping the ‘sell-off’ of land yet again saved Newport Lakes from an alternative fate.

If you have been to Newport Lakes (off Mason St, in Newport) you will know that the 33 hectare Reserve hosts a range of walking paths and viewing platforms – a place where you are hidden from the city, a peaceful oasis – where you can become completely lost in the Australian bush.

Through a series of natural wetlands, local dirty stormwater is filtered and cleaned of pollutants and fills the lakes.

As a result of all the extensive revegetation work, there are over 200 plant species and 85 birds have been recorded in the Reserve. Fish, turtles, and frogs have reclaimed the wetlands and lakes areas. A diverse range of predatory birds, waterbirds, finches, and wrens flock to this urban haven. Whilst the problematic foxes and rabbits remain, there are many reptiles, including tiger snakes, micro-bats, and marsupial mice in this diverse landscape.

So as we reflect on biblical themes of redemption and restoration, what can we learn from the Newport Lakes story?

The land and the landscape always change over time, and sometimes quite radically – especially when we humans intervene.

1. Nature will always find a natural balance.

Nature is inherently regenerative, always wanting to find balance – to restore a natural balance. These forces are strong and sometimes all ‘we humans’ need to do is just get out of the way – to let nature do its own restorative thing! The land and vegetation will recover and adapt over time.

2. The natural landscape is essential to our well-being.

The re-establishment of the natural landscape, the Australian bush, is so beautiful and so, so ever soothing for our soul(s). We know that for sure, and have been reminded of it again recently during the long 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, during which time Newport Lakes played a critical role in our mental health and physical well-being.

3. God’s handiwork is both redemptive and restorative.

Newport Lakes reminds us that both God and nature are restorative. God’s handiwork is both redemptive and restorative – for all of us, for all humans, for all species, for all of nature. God and nature call us back to the centre of life, God’s gift of life. Sometimes all we need to do is simply stop, to listen and to learn from both nature and God.

4. We need to get our hands dirty in God’s restorative work.

At other times, God calls us to get involved and get our hands dirty, in fact very dirty. Without the support of the community, without the three waves of community concern and activism, there would be no Newport Lakes and less ‘oasis’ and less soothing of the soul.

5. God uses all kinds of people over time and culture.

God uses all kinds of people, from different backgrounds, to restore and redeem creation. It was Dutchman, who immigrated to Australia, who appreciated the Australian bush landscape (more than most Australians) and who worked so hard for create the revegetated oasis that many of us are privileged to call our extended backyard home.

6. There is much more to be done.

Sadly, we live in a world which is on the cusp of the sixth mass extinction. All over Europe, the Americas, and parts of Australia people are calling for the rewilding of the natural landscape – calling for rewilding of the forest, woodlands, and grasslands. They are calling for the reintroduction the bison, beavers, big cats, and Tasmanian Devils. Unfortunately, it is already too late for some species. A question we should be asking, however, is: ‘How could we rewild Newport Lakes?’ What might that look like?

Newport Lakes is a wonderful story of restoration and redemption. We have seen and experienced God’s restorative nature at work in the land, the vegetation, and the people. But I will leave you two questions to consider.

How does God want us to be involved in the redemption of creation? How does God want us to be part of the recreation of nature in our own backyard?

Written by Gavin Mountjoy

[1] Some photos are available on the Quarry and revegetation works are available on the Friends of Newport Lakes website.

[2] Local plants have adapted to their local environment over thousands of years, for example the local soils, weather, and micro-climates. Best practise revegetation is to collect seed from the closest remnant source, to preserve the local gene pool.

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