Firetail Finches Forever in my Garden?

2000 Maria Brandl

The current exercise in planning the future development of the foreshore around Mallacoota has prompted me to think once again about the special qualities of this little town where we all live. In the face of regular plans to "upgrade" or "develop" it, many of us find ourselves repeating the same statements that all seem to say "We don't want Mallacoota to change".

By this we do not mean that no change should occur, but that something important to all of us should not be changed. We need to be more explicit for successive councils and developers do not seem to hear us.

What is this Mallacoota we do not want to change? It is unique but how? Is it not possible both to improve some facilities and retain the elements or the "core qualities" of the Mallacoota town- land- and culture-scapes?

What are these core qualities? Can we identify them so that town planners can work around them? or with them to enhance our Mallacoota?

Unique identity of Mallacoota

The primary value of Mallacoota as a place - be it natural, cultural or environmental - is that it is unique. I am not so much talking of the separate elements that make it up - "its characters" and "institutions"

or specific flora, fauna and individual structures, some of which can be found elsewhere. The primary value lies in the particular combination of features, the landscape and cultural "scape" (culturescape) that

belongs to Mallacoota. It is not just a "town" that is the focus here, but rather an identity integral to the "Mallacoota community". We are what is around us; we are what we absorb.

This "Mallacoota-ness" (its land-and cultural-scape) is why residents and visitors are attracted to the place. Any plan for its future, as a whole or any part such as the foreshore, should begin with that touchstone, for to begin anywhere else will result in a place that looks like anywhere else. Bateman's Bay and Merimbula are two examples known to me where much of the original character of the locality has been removed forever by hastily-planned development which has not identified the core identity to be retained. Rather emphasis has been given to "improvements" directed to making those towns more like an anonymous/undefined "modern" urban or suburban locality.

Visitors occupy Mallacoota predominantly for two months out of twelve. It is not unnatural that permanent residents feel an "ownership" of the town since they use it for the remaining ten. Nor is it surprising that many residents feel a resistance to any attempts to change places like the foreshore forever for people who use it only one-fifth of the time and people indeed who come to it because it is the way it is and not like other towns nearer Sydney or Melbourne. Visitors make that long journey because Mallacoota is "different".

Here are some of the things I think make Mallacoota "different". I am writing this in the hope that others can add to this list.

1. Mallacoota was unplanned. While this informality has resulted in some anomalies and anachronisms, on the whole it is a strength of its identity and not a characteristic to be eliminated. The almost "higgledy-piggledy" nature of its roads and the distribution of its facilities is part of its charm. Such informality characterises older towns in Europe and recalls the "old" Mallacoota", which had something elementally

"Australian" about it even as late as 1970. Its old tracks and original land grants provide the "skeleton" or "bones" around which grew the Mallacoota shape as we know it. More, the story of its past is encoded in the shape we know today. This is vital for a town that has an old and proud history of many layers of human activity. A community needs cultural depth too.

For example, the gravel road to Develing's Inlet grew out of a foot track. It begins near Develing's windmill which still stands at the site of the old caravan park. The road and the mill are visual "clues" to

that part of Mallacoota's past.

In a similar way lanes in the older area of town are relics of the past. Some of these have sadly been absorbed by recent developments but it is pleasing to note the plans afoot by the Friends of Mallacoota to map out a town walk through the remaining lanes, like the one precious to school students that gives them safe and quick access to the shops.

Take any of Mallacoota's living treasures - Leone Pheeney or Ruby and "Kitch" Allen or a host of others - and place them in front of an older building or a "relic" like a pear tree in what is to the visitor an

"empty" paddock and you will trigger a flood of rich and articulate reminiscences that are part of the cultural depth of Mallacoota. If such visual clues or "relics" are demolished or removed, the community loses more than a building or a tree or a lane.

2. The way Mallacoota grew means that much original vegetation remains in clumps or precincts, interspersed with housing development. It is one of Mallacoota's joys to walk from the town through bushland to one's home near Bastion Point or Karbeethong Hill or Betka Road or Terra Nova

Drive. It is not a negligible advantage that the interspersing of bushland with settlement encourages the healthy activity of walking as well as providing "corridors" that bring wild life to the door of every resident.

The vegetation that characterises Mallacoota has another value too - it gives a "look" to the landscape that is peculiarly local. Not only the Mallacoota Gum of course, but I refer to the wind-shaped Melaleuca amaryllis and ericifolia that are being thinned around the town and give identity to Bastion Point and the Betka River picnic area in particular. I remember a time in 1960s when stands of it shaped what is now the

Foreshore Caravan Park in the town.

Remaining tracts of forest between inhabited areas of Mallacoota also take in some foreshore areas. It should be a priority to identify and protect these areas especially from degradation or removal of vegetation as this illegal activity has increased in recent years in order to "improve" views.

3. The way Mallacoota grew has also resulted in many of its natural and cultural joys being "hidden" from the casual visitor but much loved by the Mallacoota resident. This is no selfish exclusion of others but a respect for the area and the way that one must come to know it. Much is revealed in this landscape only by walking and after a long, sustained acquaintance. These are good things. They make stakeholders of all

Mallacoota residents and encourage visitors to return to uncover/discover remaining layers of living in Mallacoota.

A prime example of this is the entrance to the town shopping area. To the approaching car-borne visitor in need of food the shops are tantalisingly visible over an enigmatic "roundabout" that the visitor must navigate, sometimes several times before being successful in reaching the goal. That roundabout is a reminder to the visitor that there is more to Mallacoota than it seems. It is an irreplaceable "sculpture" of the maze of meaning that Mallacoota has to reveal.

Our "hidden" places should be retained with the greatest of care to conserve their character. They are our sacred sites. The foreshore abounds in them. The "view" from Mortimer's Paddock over the mouth is one;

Develing's Gulch and Inlet are others as is Coull's Inlet. The shelter shed on Captain Stevenson's Point is another - it has a long history associated with locals and especially with writers in the area.

4. Mallacoota numbers among its residents many willing hands to help with "improvements" as evidenced by the recent activities to upgrade the parking area in the main street or in the past to build steps at Bastion Point or on the town walk. Among such people are those with special expertise in art, architecture, ecology, track construction, gardening and so on. A judicious and non-exploitative approach by the East Gippsland Shire Council could ensure this expertise and goodwill is harnessed for any future plans.

Well, I have started to spell out what we mean by "Mallacoota" when we ask planners not to change it. What more can be added?

2000 Maria Brandl

For other works of Dr. M.M. Brandl click here