The Balcombe Estuary Reserve is located in Mount Martha. A popular tourist destination on the Mornington Peninsula, Mount Martha is just 6okm from Melbourne’s CBD, and home to a 3.5 km Eco Walk along the Balcombe Creek and estuary lagoon. Winding its way from the Nepean Hwy, the creek passes through a variety of vegetation types before discharging into Port Phillip Bay. Rich in Wetland birds, indigenous flora, reptiles and mammals, I thought it well worth a visit on a nice sunny day…
I chose an unusually warm day in early Winter. Keen to have a change from my usual forest walk, and much needing to absorb the suns’ rays after a 2 week spell of cold, wet and windy weather, I ventured to Mount Martha and parked in the Mirang Ave car-park. The start of the Eco-Walk is on the sun-drenched shoreline of the estuary. Steam is still rising from the water as the chill overnight air is slowly being purged from it surface. Two Little Pied Cormorants perch on their posts with wings outstretched; heating up their feathers in much the same way that I am trying to warm up my down-vest in the warmth of the morning sun.
A Royal Spoonbill stands poised in the shallows. Its long flat beak allows it to feed in muddy wetlands where other species of water birds find it unsuitable. They swing their beak from side to side through the water, and if food is sensed a hair-trigger mechanism slams the beak shut.
An Eastern Great Egret stands almost motionless nearby. Its large, dagger-like beak is ready to strike unsuspecting prey, such as frogs or fish.
A group of Black Cormorants balance on a log that protrudes slightly above the rising waterline, looking like they are ready to set sail.
I am standing less than 100 metres from the mouth of the estuary. To my left is Port Phillip Bay, and to my right Balcombe Creek. This area is rich in aquatic birdlife with White-Faced Heron, Dusky Moorhens, Coots, Ibis, Ducks and other waterfowl frequent the area in addition to those that I managed to photograph without scaring off.
I head along the walk which is flanked on either side by attractive native garden beds. These are maintained by the Balcombe Estuary Reserves Group (BERG), formed in 1997 to preserve and restore the bushland of this ‘largest unspoilt waterway entering the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay.’ The reserve itself encompasses 44 hectares of natural bushland along the creek from Nepean Hwy to the Mount Martha foreshore, and it is mainly thanks to BERG that the reserve looks the way it does today.
The area has had a checked past. The traditional owners, the Boon wurrung, called the creek Tji’tjin’garook – the voice of frogs – and they often camped here. The area was known to have abundant wildlife, with emus, koalas, wallabies and kangaroos in great numbers throughout the area. Native vegetation such as Bower Spinach, Common Weed, Native Raspberry, Coast Beard-Heath and Rounded Noon Flower provided food for these people, and Rushes, sedges and grasses were used to make baskets. Black Wattle and Austral Bracken Fern were used to provide medicine.
In 1840 came the arrival of white man. Captain James Reid settled in the area and took the name “Tichingarook” as the name for his landholding. But in 1846, Alexander Balcombe took over and renamed the place “The Briars”, after his birthplace on the island of St Helena. The Briars historic park is reached from the end of the boardwalk, just off Nepean Hwy, and includes the original homestead of Alexander Balcombe, now owned by the National Trust.
In the mid-1850’s a land survey opened up the area to increasing settlement. This survey defined the boundaries of large landholders, including the Balcombe’s. At that time there were apparently fewer than 1,300 people living on the entire Mornington Peninsula, and the Balcombe estuary was put under crown land ownership.
With more people beginning to settle in the area, sadly much of the bushland began to disappear. Eucalypts, casuarinas and banksias were felled for firewood, or cleared away for grazing. Rabbits took over and stripped most of the vegetation, leaving the land degraded and unsuitable even for sheep grazing.
During the Second World War much of the area became army territory. Balcombe Camp was established close to the creek. The 4th Army Division’s role was to defend Port Phillip and the Mornington Peninsula, and Mt. Martha provided a central location for both defence and training. Unconfirmed reports suggest up to 30,000 men were located in the area in the area apparently turning the creek into an open sewer for quite some time.
After the war the Army Apprentice School was established in 1947 at the Balcombe Camp and remained until 1982.
From about 1944 the area was utilised for public camping. Complete with picnic tables and fireplaces, it was frequented by Melbournians keen to soak up the tranquillity of the area, and holiday houses also began to pop up in the vicinity of the creek. Camping was eventually banned in 1984, and then in 1987 the local Council agreed to a proposal to establish the reserve. The Rotary Club did much work to establish the infrastructure that we see here today, including the boardwalk, jetty paths and picnic tables, before handing to the newly formed BERG, in 1997.
I leave the estuary and head along the timber boardwalk. I am keen to see how the area looks today, given that time, and a lot of effort have gone into restoring the ecological balance of this fragile ecosystem. Underneath me is a saltmarsh that depends on intermittent exposure to salt water when the creek is open to the sea; and gradual inundation by fresh creek water when the creek mouth is closed. Saltmarsh species include succulents, grasses, herbs, shrubs and sedges that play a vital role in the estuarine ecosystem, and supports a large number of waterbirds.
The building of the bridge has apparently destroyed some of the saltmarsh. Sediment from land clearing and road-works in the area have built up in the estuary and have also led to further demise of the saltmarsh. It’s important that this ecosystem continues to survive, as it is an important spawning ground for fish, and provides shelter and food for the juveniles.
Swamp paperbarks tower dominantly alongside the boardwalk. Their unusual bark colouration almost glows in the morning sunlight as it streams through the trees. These trees provide a safe-haven for Ringtail Possums who build their nests from shredded bark and grasses high up in the canopy.
Among the Paperbarks a variety of small birds, such as the Eastern Yellow Robin, the White-Browed Scrub-Wren, Brown Thornbill, Grey Fantail and Silvereye can be seen among the foliage.
Pest plants have unfortunately managed to invade the area. This occurred mostly after it was disturbed so much by the early settlers, and Coast Tea-Tree has moved in to the grassy and heathy woodlands which were once dominated by Manna Gum, and occasionally Banksia and She-oaks. BERG continue today to remove Coast Tea-Tree to encourage the regeneration of site-specific indigenous flora to restore the balance of this ecosystem. Other pest plants include Sweet Pittosporum, Boneseed, Mirror Bush, Bridal Creeper and Myrtle-leaf Milkwort, which all compete with the native plants for light and space.
The boardwalk is popular with locals and tourists alike. On a sunny day joggers and walkers, and people walking their dogs (allowed on a lead) enjoy the peace and tranquillity that this eco-walk offers. With a few seats scattered here and there on platforms over the creeks’ edge, it’s not uncommon to see people fishing for Bream in the waters of Balcombe Creek (permissible with a license).
The seats provide a good opportunity to sit and enjoy the quietness along the creek-line. Birdlife is abundant in the area, with sixty woodland birds having been identified here, including Flycatchers, Pardalotes, Wrens, Grey Shrike-Thrush, Finches, Mistletoebirds, Fantails, Thornbills, Lorikeets, Frogmouths, Goshawks, Laughing Kookaburras and Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos.
Reptiles can be seen in the understory if you’re lucky. These include Common Scalyfoot, Tree Dragon, Southern Water Skink, Delicate Skink, Garden Skink, Weasel Skink, Eastern Three-lined Skink, Blotched Blue-Tongued Lizard, Lowland Copperhead snake and the Tiger snake.
The Black Wallaby has returned after not been seen in the area for ten years. Echidna, Sugar Gliders, Micro Bats, Brushtail and Ringtail Possums, Swamp Rats and an occasional Koala can also be found in the reserve. Unfortunately, Quolls, Antechinus, Bandicoots, Feathertail Gliders, Kangaroos and Water Rats once found here, are now gone; the price paid for the massive changes bought about to the area after the arrival of white-man.
The reserve is rich in native flora, despite the changes that have altered some of the plant communities. Understory plants include; Common Lagenifera, Scented Sundew, Wattles, Correas and Hibbertias. Native orchids can also be found, including Greenhoods, Sun Orchids, Gnat Orchids and Hyacinth Orchids.
Swamp Paperbark is the dominant species near the creek-line. Swamp Crassula, Creeping Brookweed, Shiny Swamp-mat, Australian Salt-grass and Beaded Glasswort filling in the understory. The reserve also contains a number of regionally significant species considered rare or threatened; Cherry Ballart, Chaffy Saw-sedge, Grassland Cranesbill, Knobby Club-sedge and Coarse Twine-rush.
There are interpretive signs all along the walk. These provide visitors with lots of information about the history of the reserve, as well as detailed descriptions of its flora and fauna. There are even wooden posts with scannable QR barcodes that presumably link you to more information on the topic, if you happen to have your mobile on you. I’m not one of those people who bother with those thingies; preferring instead to actually read what’s on the sign in front of me. But perhaps the whole idea is to try to engage a different profile of people visiting the area, in which case it can only be a good thing.
I’ve found the boardwalk to be well worth a visit. Despite the fact that its nestled beside Mt. Martha village on one side, and scattered houses on the other, you cant see either once you’re on the boardwalk. There is lots to learn about the place if you wish, but alternatively you can just use the reserve to enjoy some peace and quiet and hope to see some wildlife while you’re there. If you pick a sunny day, and bring your camera, you’re bound to end up with a few good shots of water birds lurking in the estuary or up in the muddy creek waters; that’s if they don’t fly away before you’re close enough!
Where: Mount Martha on the Mornington Peninsula. Park in the Mirang Ave car-park.
Distance: 3.5km from the estuary to the Briars Historic Park (more walking tracks in the historic park as well).
Time: Allow a minimum of 30 minutes each way, and longer for lingering.