With Melbourne in lockdown and daily outings limited to one hour, a local sneaks onto a closed golf course to explore another world in her neighborhood.
Melbourne, Australia, in lockdown two. It’s the winter of 2020. There’s a curfew and a 5 kilometer limit. I had walked every inch of the neighborhood streets and parks trying to find something new, some new pattern, some new discovery.
I read a cryptic post on a local residents’ Facebook page. “Come and walk in the golf course. There is a hole in the fence.”
Of course…the golf course at the end of my street. A place I’d never been to and would never visit.
Prior to lockdown my experience of golf courses was limited to a drive by. I never played or had any desire to. But this was different—this was an adventure. “Look for the hole which has been cut in the cyclone fence to the left of the casuarina tree,” the Facebook instructions said.
I find the hole and step through. It feel that I am stepping into Narnia, brushing through the fur coats in the back of the wardrobe. The grass is lush, and greener on this side. Had I stepped into a different world?
At the beginning of the lockdown, the government decree was that golf courses were closed. Many courses opened their gates to the public. In my local area, it was more problematic. The land was owned by the council but leased to a private company who ran the golf course. I had a vague idea of all of this but wasn’t too concerned. The main thing was that there was somewhere else to walk.
Back to my Narnia in Northcote. For the first time in a long time, I am going somewhere different. I have no idea of the terrain or what awaits me. All I can see is a patch of green grass that goes on forever. I was later to discover that this was called a fairway. There are thickets of trees, a creek fringed with willows, and empty space. So, I do what any self-respecting adult would do who had been confined to the house for a few weeks. I put my phone in my pocket and roll down the hill. I realize halfway down that I’ve lost my momentum, and the hill is tough on my middle-aged bones. But I keep going and get to the bottom without any mishap beyond grass in my hair and all over my clothes. I look back up to the top, and someone there waves.
Ahead of me there is a lot to explore. I have no idea of the land size, but it feels big (I know now that it is 25 hectares and the golf course is 9 holes). For someone who has been using the footpaths and trails along the local creek, it feels like a godsend. For someone who has lived in the area for over twenty years and thought she knew every nook and cranny, it’s a thrill. I wander along the small, unnamed stream that leads down to Merri Creek. I look up at the willows and think of Harry Potter’s whomping willow. I even have an urge to climb a tree momentarily, but the effects of the roll down the hill are starting to be felt. I leave tree climbing to the experts who don’t have arthritis.
As I walk toward the creek, I think of the First Nations people who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Wiradjuri people, who were part of the Kulin nation. The wetlands and the waterway would have provided all they needed. As I reach the bank, I can see people on the walking path on the other side, and they nod sheepishly. A whiff of marijuana hits my nostrils, and I grin to myself. Nothing like a mid-afternoon smoke in the middle of a pandemic. More people follow the smokers. Families with prams. Teenagers bouncing footballs. Guys sipping on beers as they saunter along. There’s a desperation in their faces; they feel they must make the most of their one-hour walk. On my side, it’s just me standing in the midst of a huge patch of wildflowers. I remind myself that the clock is ticking and still a lot of ground to cover.
I move off from the creek and back in the direction that I came, but this time I stick to wide open country. It looks like an old airstrip. In the distance, there is a jagged, dead tree trunk. It stands out starkly on the green grass of the fairway. As I draw closer, I see that this was trunk of a once mighty eucalyptus tree. The tree is ringbarked and hollow and a shadow of its former shelf. I take heart when I see that there are several small branches with leaves growing out of the side of the tree. I stand back and try to work out the circumference of the trunk. How old was it? One or two hundred years? Once upon a time, the entire area had been covered by these eucalypts. I take heart that it is still there—the last old man red gum.
“It’s like an oasis in here, isn’t it?” says a man walking past. “Makes you forget that there is a pandemic going on out there.” He gestured toward the road half a kilometer away.
He was right. In the time I had been in there, I had lost myself in the thrill of exploration. I had got muddy feet under the enormous willows, grass in my hair from rolling down that small hill, and had indulged in a spot of tree worshipping. I had found a little bit of myself and learned a little bit more about my local area. I had met people I had never met before and seen things with a different eye.
As I wriggle through the hole in the fence back into the real world beyond the golf course, the traffic noise comes back, along with the realities of lock down life. But it’s comforting to know that my little bit of sanity was there for the taking, even if was for a short time. All I had to do was climb through the hole, and sit with my back against the old red gum tree down by the creek.
The hole in the fence remained open for the duration of Melbourne’s second lockdown. Once the lockdown finished, the hole was repaired, and golfers reclaimed the golf course. In subsequent lockdowns, the hole reappeared, along with pressure for the area to be shared between golfers and walkers. Facebook groups emerged, words were exchanged, and the battle for public space continues.