The Yarra at Warburton

Everywhere else in the state of Victoria, the land is dry. But on approach into Warburton, a dewy mist falls upon the landscape and green dominates. A steady patter of rain draws out the stinging scent of the eucalypt trees that surround the picturesque township.

Warburton is a small town 76 kilometres east of Melbourne set in a valley between beautiful eucalypt-clad hills. It is a favourite weekend or day trip for city slickers; and for good reason.

The town is about as old as Melbourne itself, born from a farming community brought here in the early days when explorer Robert Hoddle opened up the region in his quest to follow the Yarra River to its source.

One of the benches looking onto the Yarra River at Warburton
One of the benches looking onto the Yarra River at Warburton

The town grew out of a gold mining boom in the late 1800s, and prospered during a subsequent boom in timber felling. In 1901, a railway line was extended to Warburton; Queen Elizabeth II visited the town by train in 1954. But the town slowed its paced after the train line was closed in 1965 (hiking, cycling and horse riding enthusiasts now follow the track as part of the Lilydale to Warburton Rail Trail).

Today, Warburton flourishes on a thriving tourism industry. This is in part due to the beauty of the town; its buildings – and even the surrounding residences – hail from a bygone era of stylish weatherboards and galvanised iron verandahs.

The town, which is centred along the winding Warburton Highway, seems to cater to a bizarre mixed patronage of quaint English grandmas and youthful hippies, with half the stores selling bohemian clothes fresh out of Byron Bay and the other half antiques, new and used books, and heavily decorated tea sets. The remaining buildings host tasteful restaurants and cafés offering a range of meals and cakes to boost your energy after a hike in the surrounding hills.

Hikes are the second reason people visit Warburton. One of the more local walks begins in town itself, just behind the shopfronts where the Yarra River gurgles happily downstream. The Yarra River Walk can be a round six kilometre trip, criss-crossing the lush river over swinging bridges and along gravel riverside paths.

The Yarra River Walk starts from the carpark behind the Warburton shops

The Yarra River here seems just a distant cousin to its downstream climax. Where in Melbourne, the river cuts a dominant, imposing streak through the city, here in Warburton it is in total harmony with its surroundings of tree ferns, manna gums, and mountain ash.

Intermittent rain flecks the ground, yet animals and humans alike seem unperturbed. Magpies sing warbled tunes to each other. Children play on the rocks beside the river and a few people brave a swim. Adults in raincoats gather on the picnic tables and decks beside the river. Beyond the town, the track takes you through a series of Californian Redwoods planted in 1922, past the sadly forlorn, abandoned Sanitarium Health Food Company factory, and around Warburton’s football oval. It ends back in town, for a cake and coffee treat.

One of the swing bridges crossing the Yarra River.
One of the swing bridges crossing the Yarra River.

That Warburton is here at all is a continuing miracle. Its environment of dense understory and flammable eucalypts encourages bushfire. Yet somehow, the town has escaped disaster. Though the Black Friday bushfires on 13 January 1939 destroyed outlying homes and 6,000 square miles of surrounding forest, the town was unscathed. The Ash Wednesday fires of 16 February 1983 began in neighbouring Millgrove but skirted around Warburton, which was hosting 750 firemen at the time. And once more, though evacuation warnings were issued for the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, the town was unaffected.

While these escapes have proven the town’s luck, it seems only a matter of time before fire affects this gorgeous community. Which only makes it essential you visit it sooner rather than later.

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