I was very excited to discover that Melbourne has a pink lake, close to the West Gate bridge, where the Yarra bends to meet the sea. I set out to find it, walking by the river, weaving through the Southbank crowds of Sunday afternoon strollers, past the buskers and their audiences, past restaurant tables and queues for gelato, and stalls selling sponsor-branded t-shirts and baseball caps for the upcoming Grand Prix, until the crowds gradually start to thin out.
After a while there is hardly anyone, just shiny high-rise apartment blocks looking across at the shiny high-rise blocks on the other side of the river. I pass some open space, occupied by seagulls and by a large family picknicking around a barbecue. There are hoardings advertising apartments that will be built here when enough buyers have signed up to their lifestyle promise. I keep going past a row of townhouses. It is hotter than they said it would be and I’m wishing I had worn lighter clothes. Despite the pristine landscaping and the plentiful seating in front of the townhouses, there is no one here at all, just a frustrated dog behind a high iron gate. On the other side of the river, is more empty land waiting to be developed, with the Melbourne Star big wheel, looking rather small in the distance.
At the end of the townhouses, the path detours around a building site. Nothing has been built here yet, just groundworks. Among the plant standing idle is a rig with a huge screw for drilling out the deep piles of a high rise. On the other side of the building site, the path returns to the river down the side of a yard scattered with shipping containers, and nautical-looking debris, guarded by a mangy ginger cat. There is a steamship here undergoing restoration that could be straight from a children’s picture book with its portholes and cream and black funnel. A faded sign calls for volunteers to help. Moored in the river alongside the yard are some beautiful old sailing craft.
A couple of men wearing hi-vis are fishing under the Bolte bridge. I pass some shopping trolleys pushed up against a concrete pillar, overflowing with assorted clothes, tools, and general rubbish. Tucked in among the trolleys, surrounded by a huge pile of silver-coated bottles, is a weathered-looking man, sitting on a mattress. Our eyes meet momentarily and he seems very startled to see me, so I move quickly past, further into the cool shade of the bridge listening to the traffic rumbling overhead.
The Bolte bridge is named after Sir Henry Bolte who was State Premier of Victoria from 1955 to 1972. Sir Henry Bolte built a lot of infrastructure during his long reign. The Bolte bridge, completed in the 1990s, links up three of his Melbourne freeways. As well as being keen on roads, Sir Henry was also keen on the death penalty. Notoriously he refused to commute the death sentence of Ronald Ryan, for the murder of a guard during a prison escape in 1965, even though the State Government had commuted every death sentence since 1951. Bolte ignored widespread protests and appeals, including pleas for mercy from members of Ryan’s jury, and campaigns in major Melbourne papers. Ryan was hanged at Pentridge Prison on 3 February 1967, the last person to be executed in Australia.
The river walk has come to an abrupt halt at the bridge, and so I turn inland and walk along a road that runs parallel to the river. On the river side of the road is the massive machinery of the port – huge hoppers, pipes and conveyor belts. There is a steady hum of machinery, but I can’t see much activity. On the other side of the road, I pass tidy industrial boxes with neatly manicured planting, distribution centres for drinking straws and pencils. The path is dappled with the welcome shade of eucalyptus trees.
Just past a little marina and a very long car park, I reach West Gate Park. According to an information board, this area was a mooring place for abandoned and derelict ships at the end of the 19th century and was known as ‘Siberia’ or ‘Rotten Row’.
There are more people fishing here, despite the strong stench of sewage from the river. Above me is the West Gate bridge, curving showily over the river. The bridge was one of Sir Henry Bolte’s freeway projects. It suddenly collapsed during construction in 1970, killing 35 workers and injuring many more. A Royal Commission inquiry found that the collapse, the worst industrial accident in Victoria’s history, was due to flaws in design and construction. The bridge was not completed until 1978, at what must have been a huge cost then of $200 million, not to mention the lives lost.
I follow a path alongside a barbed wire fence that snakes under the bridge. High above in the clear sky, five large white birds, perhaps storks, circle slowly like paragliders. The path takes me over a bank, through native trees and past rustic-looking sculptures dotted around. West Gate Park has been created on reclaimed industrial land, set aside after the bridge was built, and has been planted with native vegetation by volunteers. The industrial land was, in turn, reclaimed from the salt-water marshes around the Yarra.
The pink lake is somewhere in the park, but I’m starting to wonder if I have missed it, or perhaps it has evaporated. I’m feeling very hot, and a bit tired. And then I see it, and yes, it is pink. Not a particularly pretty pink, but certainly a vibrant one, the colour of a blueberry smoothie. It is pinker around the edges and there is a very bright scum in places. It does not look wholesome. But it does look weird. The water smells slightly sulphuric, and I’m reminded of Rotorua, another place of strangely-coloured water.
The lake is not always pink. In fact, it has only turned pink during the past three summers. The lake is salt-water, the pink colour caused by algae reacting with high levels of salinity and high temperatures. This is a rare but not unique phenomenon – there are other pink lakes in the world, including in Australia, but none, as far as I know, in the heart of a city.
There are quite a few people in the park. It seems to be a popular spot for cyclists and young Asian couples. I also notice a few lone middle-aged men loitering somewhat purposefully. There are even more people at the carpark on the other side of the lake. Some are sitting in their cars, looking out at the lake. A group of young people in baseball caps pose for photos in front of it. One raises both arms triumphantly above his head, as if the lake is his own achievement.
Little birds flit around the edges of the lake, but there are no birds on the water. There are plenty of birds on the park’s other lake, a freshwater lake that is a more normal-looking shade of murky green, but no one is interested in that one.
I wonder about the pinkness of the lake and what it would be like under the water, and whether if birds did swim on it, the water would dye their feathers pink. Neither of the lakes seems to have a name, other than ‘salt-water lake’ and ‘freshwater lake’. I wonder if the lakes have always been there, or whether they were created as part of the park, and why one is salty and one fresh, and why the pink lake has only recently started turning pink.
In a less urban setting, the pink lake might appear magical, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, where you might play underwater croquet with flamingos for mallets and sea urchins for balls. But here, with the bridge in the background and the roar of traffic, the lake feels more sullen, as if it has pulled a trick to show us what it can do. As if it wanted to be noticed by the traffic constantly passing above it, to make us come down from the bridge and pull up in the car park to have a look, even if we don’t bother to get out of our cars.