Let's Go For A Walk Up Melon Hill
This legend is inscribed on a simple park bench at the top of one of the most significant landmarks in the Perth Coastal Region, Melon Hill, Swanbourne. It is significant for a number of reasons. The hill is historically important. It has also become a cultural necessity for the many people who use it, not just for recreation but their walking and running health. The whole precinct of Melon Hill is an example of what good governance and heroic volunteers have achieved over a long period of time: its preservation.
This hill is beautiful. It is the jewel in the crown of Allen Park. Its aspect on all sides is world class. A natural feature like this is worthy of the greatest care and preservation that society can give. It is a priceless heritage, something that should never be compromised by whatever is done around it. Rooftops should not intrude, backyards must never come near it. The soil profile of its flanks is critical for the health of trees and shrubs. Disturbance of the surroundings should be strictly kept to a minimum if not embargoed, so that this eminence, this splendid feature of the original coast with its broad flanks, folds, views in all directions and restored native flora can remain a treasure to present and future generations, as long as Western Australia lives.
Melon Hill is a massive Pleistocene/Quaternary dune formation, a classic example of the Spearwood Dune system. The views from it encompass Fremantle, Garden Island and beaches to the South, Scarborough Beach to the North, the skyline of the city to the East and beyond that the Darling Scarp. But the great view from here is the uninterrupted sweep from such an elevated position down to the glory of the Indian Ocean to the West, and a very clear Rottnest Island. You see more Indian Ocean from this vantage point than from any other natural feature along the metropolitan coast.
It's not surprising that the history of Melon Hill includes a wartime role as a key observation post for the network of guns which were the main defence of Fremantle and in effect Western Australia during WWII. Two heavy guns, the Swanbourne battery, were down in the valley immediately to the north, safely out of sight. It was observation for gunnery over a wide area and for many guns that was practiced here — the operation on Melon Hill was to direct fire from a pillbox that once crowned the hill and Signallers from the remarkable AWAS, would likely have filled that role.
This was co-ordinated with other gun emplacements that completed a formidable defensive network: the Leighton Battery, the Harbour guns on the two moles, those at South Fremantle and Point Peron and the 9-inch guns on Rottnest and Garden Islands. These installations spanned an area of more than 300 square kilometres, enabling triangulated fire over a much wider area and any seaborn assault would have been at their mercy. With these precautions it is not surprising that no attempt was made to attack Fremantle, although it had a vital strategic role throughout the war.
So Melon Hill played a part in the defence of the West and for that reason alone is worth preserving, and preserving in its entirety. In this era it is peaceful observation, the natural enjoyment of the community and passersby that is paramount, just as the special character of the hill served its military role in the past.
Leaving aside the mystery of just how it got the curious name, Melon Hill has a further claim to fame. There is a reasonable argument that it is the inland height to which Wilhelm Vlamingh walked after landing in 1696. He was the first Dutch navigator to come ashore in the Perth region. This hill would have made the early maritime visitor's hike well worthwhile.
It certainly had the height and being somewhat inland, the advantages to attract him, for his first breathless looks at what lay further East, between here and the blue Darling Range on the horizon.
Botanically and for its tuneful birdlife the hill is a significant refuge. Blue and Fairy Wrens are now re-colonising. There are mighty trees on the flanks of the Hill, Tuarts of the kind that were once prolific here, along with Cottesloe Mallee and Rottnest Pines. In a sense they are the great guardians by example, of the hill. You could call them nature's fortresses and bastions. They have lived through it all. They depend on the moist sands deep in the hill and out on the flanks, sand that must not be excavated or built on because it is a water collecting and storage system. Some of those trees were there when Vlamingh recorded his observations. They were there when garrison troops climbed up and down between the post and their barracks, now an army base.
Post-WWII the story of the hill is equally interesting. The military pillbox was a passing phase; it fell to ruin and was demolished. The hill flanks suffered erosion, became a wild playground and were eventually almost stripped of understory vegetation around these very trees. To this day, you can see an ancient Pine still living on one sub-crest of the hill. Half of its root system is exposed by erosion, a sign of that former neglect and a marker for the ongoing restoration needs.
This is a classic coastal hill of sand, a 'mother dune', stable only when covered with growth. It is precious and vulnerable, but Tuarts do remarkably well on it. With roots in the deep water table, they survived as part of a miracle of regeneration, when the Friends of Allen Park restored native plant cover on the hill. It is astounding to look at old photographs from the 70s and 80s, comparing them to the healthy bushland today.
It would be fitting for the Defence Establishment to now enshrine as permanent the preservation of the hill that its careful stewardship has so far guaranteed. To abandon those principles, to surrender this beautiful feature to an expediency of present-day budgeting and housing development would be to lose sight of the future. It would be a derogation of duty, a degradation and compromise that is unthinkable.
The Army helped Melon Hill to be what it is. It also built the 100-step log-trail, one of the challenging kind. You could say of this stair-case: that's the spirit, ever upward. Many enjoy it, perhaps more the coming down. It sure makes a fitness test of the Eastern ascent of the hill, which has altogether four pathways of approach, one for each compass point. The Nedlands Council played its part in the development of a great resource in Allen Park. Army, Council and the Volunteer Friends of the Park, a fertile partnership, led to the installation of a network of walks that open the hill area to a non-invasive use. To stroll along these paths over and around the hill is a delight, and an important recreation for those who live in the district, not least for their dogs.
Along with Mr Allen himself, one of those stalwarts was Kathleen Dixon. Her name is on the bench. She was one of the preservers of the hill and gave us an example of which we must never lose sight: heritage like this is to be valued, kept unspoilt, at all costs. If we ask what it is inspired her, it's probably what you see when you take that ‘walk up Melon Hill.’ It's the view from her bench, uninterrupted to the sea, and just like her, the many who visit the park today find it a treasure for all time. If she's up there now, watching over it all, she’ll asking: will we and the Army do the right thing by Melon Hill?
By Peter Bibby