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On the map, it looks like just another outlying suburb of Melbourne, 23 kilometres north-east of the centre. But there is – still – an Eltham identity.
For decades it attracted artists and dreamers, who painted or built remarkable anachronisms like Monsalvat, a medieval lord’s country house. It’s Australia’s centre of mudbrick building. And while eastern suburb types pride themselves on their leafiness, Eltham goes well beyond leafy into outright bushy.
Yes, there’s a hippy tinge – for years, the free-spirited headed to Laughing Waters Drive to bathe in the Yarra unclad.
It was, in short, an excellent place to grow up and spend your teenage years.
Every year, some renegade would nick a long fire hose from Eltham High and tie it to a high branch of a river red gum leaning out over the Yarra. Then you’d gather your mates on a hot summer’s day and practise doing mickey flips, tumbling backwards into the muddy water.
I remember once an old man came down to interrogate us as to whether we were the youths lighting fires on the riverbank below his property. He waved his walking stick around, and then, to make his point, he pulled out a thin rapier-like sword from his stick.
There were expert players of the Gatorade saxophone, and everyone had a Zippo lighter. One irate neighbour discovered he could no longer water his rockery as too much of his garden hose had been snipped off to make bongs.
You could get a couple of old inner tubes from a local mechanic – truck tubes were best – inflate them and take them to Warrandyte. If the river was high, you could float through Pound Bend tunnel, bumping your arse on the rocks, and then, the long, slow float back to Eltham. Often we would speed it up by crossing wide loops on foot and jumping back in for the small rapids. Once, a tiger snake swam past us.
When I left home and moved to the inner suburbs for uni and obligatory 20-something activities, I thought I’d finished with Eltham. What was exciting as a teen now seemed deathly quiet.
But I couldn’t escape it. In my mid-20s, I worked on the local paper. It was my first job in journalism, which I secured by claiming I had secret local knowledge. This was mostly untrue. Here, I met my first real-life NIMBYs, fell asleep during council meetings and nearly got punched in the face by a prominent local arts identity.
Doug Hendrie (holding rope) with friends at the Yarra in Eltham.
Council debates often featured disputes between greenies and developers. It seemed the environmentally minded had real sway. The trees had guardians. When you cross the river from Templestowe, you know full well you have arrived. But in 2009, the fires came. I was nearby in Kangaroo Ground, helping a friend’s dad prepare. If the wind hadn’t changed, we would have been in its path – and Eltham, too, could have burned.
And then I noticed people from school began returning. It was like a nature documentary. Attenborough intoning: “At this point in its life cycle, Homo sapiens returns to the site of its younger years to acquire land, nest, produce its own offspring and seek help from its parents.”
This migratory urge didn’t hit me. But Eltham kept calling. A 10-year high school reunion, where all the bullshit of high school had vanished and left behind smiling strangers with shared history. My kids clamoured for a turn on the Eltham miniature railway, and so we would line up for a ride on a tiny train, driven by smiling, burly blokes who squeeze themselves into a miniature locomotive and get chugging.
What I like about Eltham is how resistant it is to change. Box Hill as I knew it is no more. Now it’s a second CBD. Apartments and offices march down St Kilda Road. There’s a godawful thicket of roads and dense towers behind Crown I avoid at all costs.
Leaping into the Yarra was a childhood pastime.
But Eltham has somehow opted out. To see the sheer power of the hippy gentry, examine a map of Melbourne’s freeway network. The Ring Road begins in Altona and ends abruptly at Greensborough. If you were to draw a neat loop, it would go right through Eltham and link up at EastLink. But this would mean political war. Tree lovers and Green Wedge protectors would be outraged. So instead, the government will give the Ring Road a weird dogleg tunnel. And Eltham gets to live its best life at maximum leafiness.
I’m not making it up. Take Fitzsimmons Lane from Templestowe, turn right onto Main Road and watch as the lanes narrow from three to two to one. You go through Eltham single file. And the trains still have to take turns on the single track in and out. Duplication efforts foundered on the discovery of a population of the endangered Eltham copper butterfly in exactly that spot. Peak Eltham, where even unique fauna get involved in slowing progress.
Melbourne’s five million live in a city ballooning in seemingly all directions. But not Eltham.
Beyond it lies Kangaroo Ground and Kinglake, hobby farms and horse people for miles. Somehow, Eltham abides, a stopper redirecting the flow of migrants and millennials to the endless western plains or the deep south-east.
Doug Hendrie is a freelance writer.
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