Take me to the river
The first time I hit Warburton, the heat shimmered and my shirt and jeans, better suited to a cooler season, stuck to my skin. The Yarra, not at all a mighty river this far from Melbourne, glittered in the sunshine. Peals of laughter reached my ears. Lo and behold, people were jumping on lilos to drift with the current before scrambling back to the riverbank to do it all again. I vowed to return with a swimsuit next visit.
So a trip to Warburton rolls around again but there’s a snag as cold, rainy weather is forecast. I brush aside that news, put a wetsuit in my bag and arrange for a lilo to be at Oscar’s on the Yarra (formerly Best Western Yarra Valley), a 22-room hotel just out of town with a glorious stretch of river frontage.
Dating from the 1920s, the place feels like a quaint guesthouse with its communal lounges, four fireplaces, billiard table, covetable art deco geometric mirrors, rambling grounds complete with three cows and guestrooms with direct outdoor access.
A Melbourne friend thinks I’m crazy to jump in the Yarra, given the temperature. “It was snowing on Mt Donna Buang last week,” she says as I march down to the riverbank encased in neoprene, edge around the arum lilies and dip a toe in the water.
Ouch, cold as snowmelt. By now, a small crowd has gathered so I can’t back out.
I inch into the water wearing flip-flops to protect my feet from rocks and launch on to the lilo, paddling as fast as a hungry duck that’s spied breadcrumbs. I cover only the distance of the hotel’s boundaries but it’s enough to tick that little adventure off my to-do list.
The Yarra Valley is home to another creature that floated down a river — and is lucky to still be alive.
As a juvenile, Yami the platypus was found in the Gippsland Lakes area in 2011 in a critical condition after drinking saltwater. She was nursed back to health at Healesville Sanctuary but couldn’t be returned to where she was found.
The little extrovert stars in the zoo’s platypus encounters, where she’s been known to clamber on to a visitor’s shoulder before swan-diving back into the water.
Senior platypus keeper Jessica Thomas, who’s completing a PhD on platypuses, says, “I’ve been hooked ever since I met my first one — they always challenge me.”
Thomas is not the only one enamoured by the egglaying, duck-billed mammals, which bamboozled Euro- peans in the late 18th century. “There’s one couple from Canberra who love our [Wade with the Platypus] experience and buy it for each other’s birthdays and anniversary so they come to do the encounter at least twice a year,” Thomas says.
I’m granted a behind-the-scenes peek. After clambering into waders, I pop into a training tank with Alooka the platypus. She zips around at speed and frolics among submerged tree fern trunks but doesn’t approach, even though I’m swishing a handful of worms through the water. Yami, in a neighbouring tank, hoovers up the treat, vibrating her rubbery bill against my palm.
Platypuses and people aren’t the only things to travel down rivers. Before construction of the Upper Yarra Reservoir, the river carried logs to far-off mills, something I discover after cycling from Warburton to Launching Place where trees bound for Melbourne mills were once dispatched into the water.
With e-bikes from Warburton’s Cog Bike Cafe, it’s easy to explore a little or a lot of the 38km Lilydale-Warburton Rail Trail (nicknamed the Warby Trail) that winds through the scenic valley.
I cycle past maremma sheepdogs zealously guarding free-range chickens (OK, OK — I’m going now) and leaning timber barns that look as if they could tip over in a light breeze. King parrots settle into eucalypt branches, a red-browed finch flits from a grevillea and I inhale forestscented air that’s as restorative as any quick dip in brisk waters.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Zoos Victoria.
Comfortable lounge at Oscar’s on the Yarra, above; an e-bike from Warburton’s Cog Bike Cafe, below