The Cyclist

When I bought a fancy new bike recently, I was keen to recycle my old bike. I discovered WeCycle – a non-profit run by volunteers that restores old bikes and gives them to refugees and asylum seekers. They also sell bikes at minimal cost to people who could not otherwise afford them. 

One of the project’s founders, Gayle Potts, kindly shared the story of WeCycle, her love of cycling and some of the unexpected things that have come from the project. 

Bike riding has always been a part of my life. I grew up in a small farming community on the South Island of New Zealand. We had a long driveway and biking, mostly as a means of transport, was something we did as kids from a very young age. I was the second youngest of six, so I usually got hand-me-down bikes.

In my 40s, I was introduced to the wonderful world of cycling. I was gifted a Cannondale Road Bike and joined a group of women going out on early morning rides. I discovered the joy of being in the cycling community and riding being more than just transport.

From road cycling I grew a big network of friends who cycle. In my later 40s, I got into mountain biking and discovered a whole other world of excitement and the joy of feeling like you’re 15 years old on the bike again. From that came gravel biking [riding on dirt tracks]. I much prefer being off main roads and out in nature.

Nature is my happy place. It lifts my spirit and gives me a great sense of wellbeing. I’ve cycle toured in New Zealand and Queensland and spent two months cycling up the coast of Western Australia. I’ve just completed the 900-kilometre Mawson Trail in South Australia with three other women. I have very adventurous friends. As soon as we finish doing one trip, we’re planning the next one. 

I am interested in the environment and try to do the right things at home, but I was feeling there was more I could do. I wasn’t active in the community. I completed the Community Leaders in Sustainability Program run by the City of Darebin in 2015 as I wanted to make a difference. I met Craig Jackson on the course.

Craig and I gelled. We both grew up with bikes and felt every child should have the opportunity to own and ride a bike. Craig’s father was involved with a bicycle rehoming program in Geelong with his local church, so Craig had a grasp of how this project could work and how we could rehome bikes with refugees and asylum seekers.

The two of us teamed up and created WeCycle. We put a call out in the local newsletter saying we wanted bicycles for rehoming. Straightaway people started flooding us with offers. At one stage, Craig had about 20 bikes in his single car garage, and I had bikes in my backyard. Getting bikes was not a problem. 

After six months, the project was bigger than the two of us could manage. The council found us a building ideally located at Batman Park in Northcote. We put a sign up on the St Georges Road bike path inviting people to come and fix bikes. From there we got a regular stream of volunteers.

It’s surprising how many people in the community have bike fixing skills and other people who have no bike skills but want to learn. We team up someone who is experienced with somebody less experienced, and they work together so you have sharing of skills. Some people drop into the bike shed looking for a part, or just wanting a flat tyre repaired. We show them how to fix it, so it’s empowering people.

We don’t choose who gets a bike. Case workers email us with the name of a client, and we try to match up a suitable bicycle along with a helmet, lock and lights. At the moment, we’re trying to catch up with a backlog of about 70 referrals.

We want to know the bikes are making a difference to peoples’ lives. One of the highlights is delivering a bike to each member of a family and being invited in to share a cup of tea and hear the story of their journey to Australia.  The people we give bikes to tell us they’re using them to go to the shops, to their English classes or to visit the library. Children can ride a bike to school. A bike provides affordable transport. 

I love that from this project has come great friendships. I value greatly the people I’ve met through the project. At the bike shed, we share lunch and have a coffee machine but it’s very full-on, so we sit down after sessions and spend time together. 

We are networking with other bike organisations and now WeCycle is part of this greater community that’s fixing and recycling bikes. I feel this sense of pride in the team and what we have created. WeCycle is not me anymore, it’s bigger than me and has become its own entity. It has grown to become something enduring. 

Interested in volunteering, donating a bike or learning how to fix your bike? Community-based bike organisations in Melbourne include: WeCycleBack2BikesBikes For Humanity, and Footscray Bike Shed.

© Matilda Bowra 2021

The Propagator

Self portrait of Naomie Sunner in her newly planted garden.

Have you ever walked past a rundown park or an abandoned stretch of creek and thought ‘Someone should do something about that,’ and then brushed the thought aside and kept walking? Luckily not everyone avoids acting on such thoughts.

Writing a story about Westgate Park recently, I met Naomie Sunner and learnt how she inspired the transformation of a neglected wasteland into a thriving inner-city park. 

I grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne in Blackburn North. My mum and dad were both librarians, so we had lots of books. Mum’s parents are Hungarian and my grandparents on the other side were Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant. All of my grandparents were gardeners. They talked about back home which wasn’t a country I had ever visited. We were here now and what was that? I felt confused and wondered, ‘What is our identity in Australia?’

When I was 21, I needed a life changing experience, so I walked for seven days from the mouth of the Yarra to just past Warrandyte. We all need a time to consolidate and review who we are. I was doing my third year of photography at the Victorian College of the Arts and had to do a project. I’d just read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks and was very inspired by that. It was a very intense experience; I realised the only thing I was scared of on the walk is people.

I wanted to start at the mouth of the Yarra, so I got a taxi at 5am to Westgate Park. I was under the Westgate Bridge and thought, ‘What is this place?’ There was very little vegetation, just weird hills and a big expanse amongst an industrial landscape. It was really interesting to me that this is a big touchstone in history but it’s a neglected wasteland.

I kept going back to the park and wanted to do something. I helped Friends Groups and volunteered with the St Kilda Indigenous Nursery because I knew nothing about local plants.  After organising some plantings with Parks Victoria, I started a Friends Group because I thought you can’t just plant a little bit and walk off, this park is massive.

 All I had was sheer determination. I was really naïve. There were occasional successes, but it would always pitter out. I was unemployed and got put on the Work for the Dole program. The supervisor didn’t rock up for three hours and then I didn’t get asked to do anything. I thought, ‘I could run a better program, I’ve got something to do that’s real work people can feel proud of.’ So, at 22, I started supervising a Work for the Dole program at Westgate park. I met some really incredible people through that and developed a lot of skills.

Growing the Friends Group was slow. I did wonder a number of times if I could keep going. It took me two years to really have the start of a proper group and it only gathered momentum when other people got involved. I think what’s really important is how many people have had something to do with that park and put their energy, passion and thoughtfulness into it. That is a really important and precious thing.

When I left the Friends Group eight years ago after 13 years, the park looked very different. There were a lot of birds, diverse vegetation, insects, fungi and a lot more people enjoying it. Today it’s very different still because those older plantings are still growing and there are lots and lots of water birds in the southern wetland which is lovely.

This is the land that I live in and I want to feel part of it. Being the granddaughter of migrants, indigenous plants are really important to me. I feel there’s a lot in Australia that gets dismissed by my grandparents and many other people, the ecologies and the people, as being lesser than the things from the countries we came from. I now work as a Propagation and Volunteer Co-Ordinator at the Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op.

There’s something magic in sowing a seed and watching it germinate. All the fascinating textures and colors and parts they play in the ecosystem. If you ever get a hand lenses and look at plants closely, they are just gorgeous. They are the basis for all life. Without plants, none of us would be alive.

People ask me why I’m a good gardener and I say because two out of every three plants I plant die. Not everything is going to work, it’s a learning process. Just take baby steps, do what you can and what you feel comfortable with, and don’t be disheartened by anything that’s failed because it’s an opportunity to learn and try again.

There are so many things you just learn as you live. I think I learnt in a non-traditional way. That’s why I’m at Melbourne Uni now doing a Masters of Environment to fill in the gaps. I’m ready for another challenge in a year or two. I don’t know what the future holds, but I think that challenge and I are going to seek each other out and meet halfway.

Visit Westgate Biodiversity: Bili Nursery & Landcare and Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-op to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2020


Carolyn Ingvarson is a climate activist

Carolyn Ingvarson in her kitchen with her microscope                 Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I feel so frustrated that politicians don’t take the science of climate change seriously that I joined a local Climate Action Group called Lighter Footprints. Their Convenor is Carolyn Ingvarson, a 75-year-old woman who eschewed a relaxing retirement to spend the last 13 years cultivating change in her local community and at all levels of government.

My journey began with my mother who was a scientist and zoologist. I got my first glimpse of the world through my mum’s microscope and saw things that were mind blowing. The sense of belonging to this wonderful earth came to me through her. She taught me to look at things and appreciate and love them. My brother, Peter Newman, is also a strong influence. He is the director of a sustainability institute and has a really powerful view of the world that is full of hope. I am the eldest of five and I love my siblings more than most people I know.

I loved being a biology teacher. It was such a gift to be able to talk about what is around you and open kids’ eyes to what they were seeing and science. I miss it to this day. I have a microscope in my kitchen, just like my mum did. The grandkids say, what’s this Grandma? And I’ll say let’s have a closer look at that. An amazing thing that comes out of biology is you understand how all the things link together. You knock one bit out and the whole lot tumbles.

I finished working as a biology teacher in the mid 80s and then worked in the public service for 20 years. I was offered a job with the Office of the Director General as the Coordinator for the Elimination of Sexism in schools as a secondment. When it finished, instead of going back into the school, I went into the public service. I didn’t realise I was making a dramatic career shift. I ended up being a public servant in state government and that taught me a huge amount about how to work with disparate groups, much of which I use in the work I do now.

I retired at 60 and started a new life. I embraced the opportunity to do something different and did the professional writing and editing course at RMIT. When I was invited to see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient truth in 2006, I thought I do not want to see this, it is going to be political bullshit. But I watched the film and afterwards, a group of us had a cup of coffee together. We bumped into a friend of mine who said you are doing a writing course, write me a piece about Al Gore to put in the local news. This was the first time I felt this was something I didn’t want to write about, but when I sat down to do it, the words came.

I was terrified by the film and thought there must be other people who feel like this and don’t know what to do either. In the article, I said maybe if you feel like I do, and you think together we might be able to do something we can’t do on our own, call me. I got 12 phone calls. I said come and have a drink and we got together and had some champagne and celebrated the fact that within two hours we had formed this group called Lighter Footprints.

It’s grown over time, but most of the original group are still there 13 years later. We initially met as a small group in my house and talked about how we could lighten our own footprints. Then we went into a local guide hall where we invited experts to come and chat with us. We started to understand this impact was impinged by bigger issues, so we decided we’d get individual speakers to come on a regular basis and as we did that, numbers picked up. You wouldn’t believe the range of topics we have covered. From permaculture to lobbying, electricity, energy, batteries, psychology and how to deal with deniers. Now, we often can’t fit everyone in the hall and when we invite high-profile speakers, we hire the local town hall and we fill it.

For 13 years we’ve been a voice and while our group is only small, its influence is quite strong. Part of the reason we punch above our weight is we are dogged and persistent in talking to people at two levels. One is friends and neighbours and the other is politicians at local, state and federal levels. And not only do we talk, we write letters. Writing letters has become a thing we do, and we get hundreds of letters into papers each year. It gives people a sense of belonging and it’s a way of eliciting change that’s really hard to measure because it’s a mood thing. The Herald Sun used to never publish stuff we write, and now it does all the time.

Recently, there’s been a change in mood. Now climate has become such a big issue politically, we are probably standing at a point of this becoming a common interest instead of a peripheral issue. We want people to realise this is really important to you, not just the greenies on the side. It’s impacting on you, the way you work, the way you live, what’s going to be here for your families. I hope we can raise the profile of climate change so people understand how important it is to get strong action as the basis on which we elect our representatives. If it were possible to think my time with Lighter Footprints has made a difference to how we can address climate change, I’ll feel like my life has been worth it.

Visit Lighter Footprints for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2019

Meneka Premkumar is living her values

Meneka and her daughter Indira at The Common Good Store                                  Photo by Robin Bowra

When Meneka Premkumar and her husband John Currey opened an organic grocery store around the corner from my house five years ago, it was met with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. I remember a neighbour saying to me, “That store won’t last.”

Five years on, The Common Good is an integral part of the local community. I love the fact I can wander in, pick something up, and Meneka will be able to tell me where it comes from and who makes or grows it. I also like the way the store and everything in it invites you to consider the impact of our consumption choices.

 Over a pot of tea, Meneka explained how her passion for ethical living turned from an interest into a way of life.

My journey – personally and professionally – is the intersection of the ethics in food, consumption, lifestyle and living. I don’t believe there are these perfect silos in our lives. I think it just becomes how you live and the conviction of what you believe in, more than a business idea or a passion.

It started when I was about 21 and I had my first experience with a naturopath.I used to suffer from eczema on my hands and had seen lots of GPs and tried different treatments. I thought, I’ll give the naturopath a go. She gave me a whole host of different creams and it stopped. I thought, there’s some validity in that. That experience started me on alternative medicine and from there, that’s where the interest in food began.

That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the correlation between food and health. With an inquiring mind, I started thinking, where am I getting my food? What’s in it? What is organic? I realised that making better food choices is about ethics and the willingness to understand how has your food got there? Who was hurt or not hurt in getting this food in front of me? That translates to the clothes I’m wearing, the car I’m driving, where I bank and my superannuation. But it’s not overnight, it’s a journey to arrive there.

When John and I decided to put our ethics where our mouth is, we had already started breaking up with supermarkets. We were procuring most of our food from farmers markets, independent stores or IGAs.  We lived in Richmond at the time and didn’t have any independent stores in our community, so I had to drive to other suburbs to shop. One day, I was driving to Fairfield, and Indira, who was only eight months old, was having a crying fit in the back. I was stressed, and I remember thinking, why can’t I walk to a shop and get what I need? It was a light bulb moment. I thought, I’m going to look into seeing why there’s no organic grocery store in my own community.

Our business and the nature of it is an extension of us, which is why it’s in our own community. It’s the least amount of money I have earned, but the most fulfilled we’ve been. It’s been a slow burn. There’s a generation of people who are used to supermarkets, these hyper maniac places with bright lights where there’s isles and isles of things, and you are made to believe it’s really cheap and you need more of the same thing because ten is cheaper. I think they influence people very negatively, and changing that trajectory is really challenging.

 When I opened my store, the people who first came in and really supported me were the university kids who lived across the road. My parents’ generation romanticised supermarkets, but people who are in their late teens, early 20s, don’t have those positive and romantic notions about supermarkets. There’s a lot that can be improved in young people who are 18 to 25, but what you can’t fault them on is their level of empathy and awareness, and that makes them different and far more mobilised to change things.

 I’ve learned having a business model isn’t enough. I think the authenticity of our store is why its lasted.  While 80% of what we sell can be got elsewhere, what you won’t get is the transparency of what I’m doing with the money you are giving me to buy those products, the back story and the genuine sense of community, because it’s my own neighbourhood.

One of the motivations of the store has been to inspire other people to open identical stores in their own communities. John and I would like to open another store, but we don’t want to franchise it or own many. I have always said to others, if this is something you want to do, come and talk to us and we will open whatever doors we can. I hope what the business says, more than anything else, is that it’s possible to replicate this and inject a sense of community into your own neighbourhood.

 To learn more, visit or Instragram thecommongoodstore.

© Matilda Bowra 2018

Jo Murray is connecting her community


Jo Murray welcoming people to the Surf Coast Repair Cafe                        photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Jo through my old friend Sue Guinness. Jo and Sue got together about 20 years ago and since then, I’ve followed their personal journeys with interest.  Both left jobs in Melbourne, embarked on a sea-change and are very active in their local community at Fairhaven on Victoria’s Surf Coast.

Living by the sea has created opportunities for my environmentally conscious friends to be involved in conservation initiatives. Jo cultivates an enormous vegetable patch, is a member of the Community Garden and volunteers at the Tip Shop. With Sue’s support, she recently started a Repair Café.  I spoke with Jo about why she focuses on building awareness and practical initiatives in her community.

I love the outdoors. I was born in Launceston and spent the first nine years there and was lucky enough to have all of my grandparents in Launceston. We had, and still have, a block of land 18 miles out of Launceston that my grandparents bought.  It is a very tranquil, peaceful place on a river. We used to go there a lot on weekends. When we moved to Melbourne, I used to go there every Christmas and school holidays. I still go there to this day at least once or twice a year. I love the fact it’s a simple cottage and there’s not a lot to do; you just slow down, read and relax and spend time with family.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. People were choosing to be nurses and teachers, or lawyers and doctors. We were all really sporty and someone said, ‘I’m going to do Physical Education’ and I thought, That’s a good idea. I taught for eight years and always organised all the sporting events and teams. Then I started organising the interschool sports and camps and found what I really enjoyed was organising events. I decided to do a Graduate Diploma in Business at Deakin University in Sport Management. I studied for two years with the aim of leaving teaching and getting into the event management industry.

Through my work, I learnt the value of volunteers. My first job after teaching was with a national sporting organisation. Then I joined a sports management company that ran events and managed athletes. I ended up at the Grand Prix and was there for the first six formula one events. That’s where I learnt how sport depends so much on volunteers. If all the sporting events had to pay people do to all the jobs that needed to be done, they wouldn’t exist.

I have always had great role models. Dad always volunteered at golf and school fairs, my grandmother was very involved in her bowls club and my mum’s parents were founding members of the National Trust in Tasmania. At school, I coached and umpired hockey and continued this at club level for many years. I also joined committees at my tennis club. These days, my sport volunteering is focussed around golf and local events.

I think building community is really important. A couple of our Repair Café volunteers are new to the area and they see this as a way of meeting people. When you see someone down the street who has repaired something for you, that creates connections. That’s the whole reason I joined the Community Garden about six and a half years ago. From the minute they had a stand at the local market, I wanted to be involved. I didn’t want a plot, because we have a huge garden at home. I wanted to get involved because it is a great way of connecting people and building community.

 Movements like Repair Cafes and Community Gardens have relied on people seeing the ideas and saying, ‘Let’s start these up in our own community.’ We can’t go on filling up landfill and digging more resources out of the ground. I think the best way to change that thinking is to bring national projects like Community Gardens, Plastic Free July or Repair Cafes to a local level. With something like the plastic bag free moment, it’s not something the shire can say ‘We want to make the shire plastic bag free,’ the whole community has to get on board. It’s about people going out to the rest of the community and saying, ‘We’d like to do this, what do you think?’ and getting other people involved. It’s got to be from the grass roots.

The Repair Café is about sharing skills and empowering people. These days, people don’t know how to fix things. Our hedge trimmer broke down. It only cost $79 and it was three years old, so even if I could have found somewhere to have it repaired, it would not have been worth the expense. We ended up taking it to the Melbourne Repair Café (Inner West) in Yarraville where we met this lovely volunteer, James. He unscrewed the plastic casing, straightened the cord out and jiggled a couple of levers, plugged it into the power and it worked. He got me to put it back together again so next time it stops working, I’ll be confident to repair it myself.

It’s about leading by example and educating others. My next thing is to focus on advocating for sustainable actions, starting small via our Community Garden with about 100 members. If we can raise awareness on one action each month, just focus on one thing and get that working, then work on another and then another, hopefully we can bring about permanent changes. Once others see how easy it is, then hopefully they will start making some of the changes too.

Visit Surf Coast Repair Café for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

Katie Spearritt is challenging the status quo

Whether you are a middle-aged man branded as ‘male, pale and stale’ or a young woman pigeon holed as ‘too young and pretty,’ many of us have felt we’ve been put in a box at some stage in our lives.

I’ve experienced many instances where I felt judged or overlooked because of my age or gender. I found it infuriating, demoralising and downright depressing. As a mother of two daughters, I’m hoping with all my heart they will be valued for who they are and what they can contribute.

Fortunately, there are people like Dr Katie Spearritt working to create a better work environment for everyone.  For the last 25 years, Katie has been working in a collaborative, but quietly determined way to encourage us to look at the world through a different lens.

She started her quest for change in the 1990s when equal opportunity was regarded as a women’s issue. Katie, who is the CEO of consulting firm Diversity Partners, believes the drive for innovation and good decision making is now opening doors to exciting developments in diversity and inclusion.

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Katie Spearritt in her backyard                               Photo by Nish Paranavitana

Equity, fairness and the importance of education were such strong tenets when I was growing up. I’m the youngest of four children and my early years were spent in northern Queensland. We moved every couple of years until I was seven because my dad was a high school principal. We were based in Brisbane after that. Both my parents were teachers and held strong values about social justice and equity. Discussions around the dinner table were about what we were learning, politics and how to promote education so people could have opportunities to develop themselves.

History became my thing. I was fascinated by what we could learn from history to inform how we live now. During my Bachelor of Arts at Queensland University, I developed a love of English and History and particularly enjoyed tutorials with Ray Evans, a university lecturer teaching Indigenous studies, Australian history and the earliest courses on gender relations. Ray was an important influence in those early days. He was passionate about the lack of justice for Indigenous people and the fact women were not acknowledged in Australian history.  He supervised my honours thesis which was the first history about Queensland women from 1850 to 1900.

I had a big ah ha moment when I was 23. I got a job as a junior communications specialist with BHP (now BHP Billiton). It opened up the corporate world that had been something of a mystery to me. I worked at BHP for two years and as much as it was the iconic company, I was struck by the lack of diversity, although that was not a word I would have used. You would look up and there were no women. There were certain people who got ahead and certain people who didn’t. It seemed such a laid out path for Anglo men to get into leadership positions. You went to Newcastle Boys High and then the steel works.

I didn’t feel comfortable and was floundering with what am I going to do when I grow up? I stumbled across an article in Time magazine about the Affirmative Action Act and thought, “I don’t see this stuff, where’s this change happening?” I decided to go back to academia and do a PhD looking at the history of the Affirmative Action Act 10 years on. It included a historical review of equal employment efforts in Australia and internationally, as well as case studies with two companies – Hewlett Packard and BHP Petroleum. When I finished, Hewlett Packard asked me to work with them to apply some of the learnings.

Hewlett Packard opened my eyes to the fact that if you put people first, they underpin the profit and the business. I learnt so much about the values of a culture and how values can become part of a company’s DNA. It was a very embryonic but exciting period to be working in diversity. Eventually I left Hewlett Packard and broadened my experience with stints at Coles Myers and NAB before starting my own business.

The focus on different thinking approaches and innovation is creating a much more open mind set to have meaningful discussions about gender and cultural diversity, as well as other dimensions of diversity such as disability and sexual orientation. If you are not open to different thinking and different ways of approaching things, then you end up doing ‘same old same old’ and commercially that’s such a danger. There’s a lot of evidence when you have more gender-balanced and culturally diverse leadership teams, companies perform better. That’s because people are expecting different views because of their different backgrounds. Unconscious bias is very relevant in terms of decision making in companies. It’s about getting people to recognise there are biases, such as affinity biases, the preference to work with people like ourselves, confirmation bias, how we like to have our views confirmed, that reduce the quality of decisions.

There are all these ingrained assumptions in business where people take the status quo for granted. For example, I question the emphasis in some male-dominated industries where people regularly ‘network’ via dinners and drinks outside work hours.  But then people say to me, “That’s how we do business.” I think that’s how you did business when it was all blokes. If you put a woman into that team, or an employee who doesn’t drink, or a single parent, or an introverted person, how inclusive is it?

I’m a fan of bit by bit change where you start the ripple effect. I believe you need to start conversations, encourage people to see things in different ways and look at different ways of working. That ripples out to the point where it becomes more acceptable and easier to make a bigger change. I just chip away each day at practices that don’t seem inclusive and help people to see there’s another way. And that other way is usually much better for overall performance.

I’m very hopeful about the future. I think diversity is becoming more mainstream and hope over time we will see much greater diversity and quite different voices in government, organisations, business and education. Once you see more diversity, I hope people will question, “Are the ways we did it last year still relevant? Have the ways we’ve done it in the past potentially excluded some people? Are there voices we have potentially not heard?”

Visit learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2016














Juliet Le Feuvre is a water warrior


Juliet relaxing in her backyard with her dog Tessa                                      Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Juliet Le Feuvre, Healthy Rivers Campaigner Manager for Environment Victoria, a few years ago and was stuck by her depth of knowledge and deep commitment to improving natural resource management. 

After initially meeting Juliet in the city, I was surprised to bump into her walking her dog in a local park. We discovered we live round the corner from each other and both like walking our dogs early in the morning. This created opportunities for unplanned, highly enjoyable chats which have kept me up-to-date with the happenings at Environment Victoria. But I’ve always wanted to know why she choose to dedicate nearly 30 years of her life to the environment movement? I was delighted when she agreed to share her story.

Nature is what feeds me and replenishes me. I have always loved nature and being outdoors, particularly near water. Water is the start of life, it’s really precious stuff, particularly somewhere like Australia which is a very dry place. I find the contrast between the dry landscapes and beautiful aquatic environments astonishing. I find it truly amazing we have wetlands at all.

The thing that struck me when I moved from Britain to Australia in my 30s was how much untouched bush there was. It was amazing to see you had areas that were not protected that could be protected. There were opportunities which were not available in Europe where there were hardly any wild places left. It was the late 80s and it was a very exciting time in the environment movement. The Hawke Government was doing a lot of world heritage work, there was a feeling conservation was possible. I’d never experienced that before.

My interest in Australian rivers was triggered by a camping trip when the youngest of my three children was two years old.  We went to Hattah Lakes up near Mildura for our first family camping holiday. Our campsite was on the lake shore in a beautiful spot under the red gums. The water in the lake kept rising. We had this row of sticks which we moved every day as the water came higher. The campground was gradually going under water and it was not raining, there was no flooding in Victoria and I wondered, “What’s going on here?” Eventually I realized the water was coming down from a flood event hundreds of kilometres away in NSW. This was a pretty unfamiliar type of river system. In Europe, rivers don’t work like that.

I never imagined I would build a career as a rivers campaigner in my 50s. I’ve had a pretty unconventional career path. After I studied zoology at Cambridge, I had all sorts of jobs from teaching to working on a farm and home decorating. When I arrived in Australia, I started volunteering for environment organisations. While I was volunteering at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), I got involved in the campaign to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. It was a full on period with blockade buses going up and people getting arrested. It was all new to me. I hung around as a volunteer at ACF, made myself indispensable and eventually they gave me a job.

The most difficult part of my current role is persuading people that just because a river has water in it, doesn’t mean it’s in good health. In Australia, without man-made intervention, our rivers would either be in flood or virtually dried up, there is not a lot of in between. What we’ve done with all the dams is make a lot of in between. People don’t understand, they think if it’s got water in it, it’s fine.  If it weren’t for the dams, the Murray River would be dry right now and there wouldn’t be anything the matter with that.

I find the crunch I’ve identified between climate change and population growth truly scary.  There is less water coming in to our rivers and more demand for water going out. You have two really strong pressures colliding and the jam in the sandwich is the natural environment. I am really concerned, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. If we are smart enough and we care enough and we put a bit more money into it, we can come up with the solutions.

Businesses are now facing community pressure to make positive change and this is creating opportunities. The traditional environment movement path is to jump up and down and say “You are damaging the environment,” until something changes, but that’s not necessarily going to happen. You need more elements in the mix so we are forging new and different partnerships to create change and build a level of support for the environment the politicians can’t ignore.

Visit Environment Victoria for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016