I was going to call this Secret Melbourne but of course it isn’t a secret to anyone who lives over the Westgate Bridge, only to those of us on the eastern side of Melbourne who rarely go out of our comfort zone. I am very ashamed to say that in all my years of living in this fine city, I have never been to Altona, much less wandered along its coastline. The same is not true for my husband, who regularly saddles up his bike and perambulates round the numerous bike paths that criss cross this city. An overcast Good Friday was the day to rectify my omission, as we walked along the Bay Trail from Williamstown beach to Altona and back – a flat as a tack but fascinating 18.5km all up.
In J.T. Gray Reserve we find a board telling us that this was the site of Melbourne’s first infectious diseases hospital, built in 1884 after an outbreak of smallpox hit the town. For some unexplained reason it was called the Cut Paw Paw Sanitorium. There is no sign now of the Sanitorium, or the adjacent small cemetery (or the cut paw paws for that matter). What a sad place it must have been.
Around the corner along Gray Reserve Road we find a cluster of small shacks at the entrance of Kororoit Creek, together with the Brunswick City Anglers Club and the Kororoit Creek Boat and Anglers Club. Despite the Clubhouses and the mailboxes outside each of the shacks, all of which are connected to electricity, there are almost no signs of life and a general air of neglect is about.
The Trail continues, with Kororoit Creek on the left and Mobil Oil Refinery tanks on the right. The birdlife takes no notice of us, or the factories and warehouses along the Trail. We spot swans, pelicans, ducks, spoonbill herons and many more, happily playing and feeding in the waterway.
Amongst the factories I spy an interesting looking sign and veer off the path to take a closer look. We discover Makers Zoo, and meet the lovely Jeremy, a Kiwi who does shop and café fitouts as well as crafting beautiful custom made furniture. He is busy working on a piece today but comes out for a chat. We joke that he could be putting his coffee machine to good use, serving the many people who use the Trail. The thought has crossed his mind.
Did you know that there used to be a racecourse here? The Williamstown Racecourse. Which explains why the road is called Racecourse Road! Built in the 1870s, it was hugely popular. Even Phar Lap raced there. But, not surprisingly, the track was prone to flooding and the fences had to have gates in them to release the water. After WWII the grandstand burnt down and that was the end of the Williamstown Racecourse.
Walking round the edge of the Coastal Park we come to dog heaven – the wide, dog friendly, sands of the PA Burns Reserve:
before stumbling into a human heaven – the Altona-Seaholme Boatowners Association’s clubhouse, cleverly disguised as a red brick toilet block in the car park near the Altona boat ramp. We get chatting to a member of 50 years, who is making the most of a brief spell of sunshine – imbibing on his longneck whilst admiring the million dollar views back over to the city. He graciously allows us to take a peek inside the clubhouse. A much loved Sanctuary to the local boat owners.
Altona is now in sight. We amble up the main street and find the Finnish Hall, a beautiful piece of Art Deco hidden away in Altona (apparently it was once the Red Robin Hosiery factory). Turns out that it is a Finnish Festival weekend, and the hall is open and full of happy Finns, eating Finnish food. A young lady kindly invites us in, explaining that this is an annual event for Finns living in Australia and people have come from all over for the festivities. This year it was Altona’s turn to play mine host to our Australian Finns.
It is time now to turn back and retrace our steps. Going back is never as much fun as you’ve seen the sights, and the feet are definitely beginning to tire. But, make it back we do, and reward ourselves with a drink and a toasted panini at The Kiosk next door to the Williamstown Life Saving Club.