The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage

Selected by the State Library as one of six books to represent Victoria for the National Year of Reading 2012.

‘In these darkening times, we can sense the stories we most need: stories of our country and the power that it holds. Very few books deal with such things. This is one.’
Nicolas Rothwell

‘The Yarra has found in Maya Ward the ideal witness … She has written not just an account of a river walk, but a sacred geography of a river.’
Mark Tredinnick

‘A story of historical , cultural and environmental significance, told in shimmering prose.’
David Tacey

This is the joyful yet heartbreaking true story of four friends who walk a 21- day pilgrimage from the sea to the source of Melbourne’s Yarra River. There is no path for most of the way, but offers of campsites and boats, and free access to private lands, illustrates the generosity shown to pilgrims even in modern times. Maya Ward’s lyrical exploration of her river as it winds through the city and the wild is a revelation, a testament to the fact that the greatest of worlds are often at our doorstep. Its author understands the power of the natural world to transform lives, and writes about the connection between a river and the self with humility, humour, and a clear-headed wisdom.

The telling of her own journey and that of her fellow walkers is seamlessly woven together with ecological and cultural history, the revelation of the pilgrim’s path and the unknowable depth of Aboriginal myth. Through trekking this Wurundjeri Songline, this ancient, ever-renewing river, she discovers rich possibilities of belonging, and shares how a river can nourish the passion and resilience required to transform our world.

For more information,

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage

  1. Review

    Book Review: The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage by Maya Ward, Transit Lounge Yarraville Australia, 2011; ISBN 9780 9808 4621 8 (Paperback); 335 pp.

    This edifying book describes the author’s River Pilgrimage with a few friends along Melbourne’s Yarra River from the sea at its mouth to its source in the mountains in Victoria, Australia. She adopts the pilgrim mode, which she sees as being “open and receptive to each moment” of such a walk. She therefore experiences her Pilgrimage as “an interweaving of the personal and the political, the inner and the outer landscapes”. Her passing as a pilgrim through such sacred river geography has “meant walking mindfully, with sincerity, clarity and commitment” (p.37). As she sees it, a Pilgrimage becomes more than a search for meaning. It is also a “quest for healing” (p.251).

    Four levels of narrative.

    Many levels of the river’s rich story need to be recalled and retold. It is also clear that such a pilgrimage could be duplicated along most of our World’s other rivers, which flow from their inland source and along their winding river-course to the sea. However, a pilgrimage depicted in such a localised book as this one also has a world-wide application and a universal appeal in relation to the path which is followed and the attitudes which are required.

    Maya Ward expresses her Grand “River Pilgrimage” Narrative through at least four levels of sacred and secular stories, which she interweaves into her Pilgrimage account. [1] There are her insights into the very ancient geological and prehuman history of the Yarra River going back many millions of years but she also brings this up to date by quoting the words of the Mayor of the City of Yarra that “everybody lives in a catchment and we all live in this one” (p.66).

    [2] She respectfully presents aspects of the history, culture and stories of Melbourne’s Indigenous Peoples. This period spans thousands of years and it relates to the origin and importance of their Birrarung River for their food and rituals, after the river valley was cut into the earth by their ancestor Barwool (p.37).

    In relation to recent centuries, [3] the impact of both the immigration of mainly Europeans in the 1800s and their subsequent settlement and private occupation of the land provides a third level. The land sales and private ownership of former land used by the Indigenous Peoples for rituals, hunting and fishing resulted in boundary fences and “Private Property” signs. These quickly brought to a sad end the former indigenous pattern of hunting, gathering and performing their ancestry-respecting and nature-preserving rituals.

    [4] The author’s more optimistic fourth level of story relates to depth-ecology and Maya leaves her readers in no doubt about “the fundamental inter-connection between everything”. In fact, the elements arising from the Big Bang are “the same elements which cycle through our bodies now” (p. 213). Her advice is that when we save an ancient forest from destruction, a wild river from becoming a concrete drain and the ocean from becoming choked with further human-created pollution, ‘we save ourselves” (p. 214). This deep-ecology therefore requires an attitude of wonder and gratitude towards the world’s natural realities but also an attitude of concern about our imposed “western” human culture and its possible detrimental impact on the wider environment.


    Although much of the information in this thought-provoking book is local, its important insights and issues are clearly global. A few highlights from its various levels of narrative will clearly illustrate this.

    The geological formations are traced back to sedimentary rock, which was formed in the Silurian period about 400 million years ago (p.84). The author recalls that during this vast period of time, the oldest of things in Nature each had their stories and displayed “unfathomable generosity”. She recalls the flowing of the rivers, the daily and annual cycles of the light-giving and life-maintaining sun and the ever-turning world and she concludes that “they are of the deepest, truest comfort there is” (p.316). Maya also stresses an analogy between the lotus flower and open-souled humans. Although a lotus begins and has its roots in the mud, it rises through and above the water to the brilliant sunlight, where “it blooms into perfect purity and beauty. Humans can in turn allow their minds which are operating within their physical bodies, to likewise unfold “to perfect joy and wisdom” (p.248).

    Wurundjeri Aborigines

    Most of the world’s Indigenous Peoples are now “displaced persons” in the face of the loss of their traditional land with its stories, which once supplied not only their food in the form of plants and animals but also their sacred geography and contact with their ancestors and Dreaming. This had provided locations for their ceremonies and natural or constructed features for their Song-lines, which were mostly “narratives of the ancestors which mapped the land in song” (p.44). Before the barbed-wire fences were erected and locked gates installed, the pre-Melbourne Wurundjeri Aborigines moved freely within and beyond this river valley. Their culture included two moieties or kinship groups, the Wedge-tailed Eagle or Bunjil and the Crow or Waa (p.196). Plaques on buildings and introductory comments at meetings now readily acknowledge the prior occupation of land in the area of the Yarra (or Birrarung) River by this branch of Indigenous Peoples.

    Traditional stories continue to be told and some present names still convey features in former stories. William Barak was a leading man at the Coranderrk settlement located near Healsville for Aborigines and he related how his peoples’ ancestor Barwool cut into the earth to form the river. It was William who sent a letter to Queen Victoria in England “to seek justice in relation to the stolen land” (p.37). William received no reply.

    Bolin Bolin later called Bulleen was the billabong where various groups gathered for the eel migration in April (p.104). Yan Yan cut the path for the Plenty River and met Barwool at the junction of the two rivers. The building of the Yan Yean reservoir in the early 1900s led the author to comment that this reservoir was a bit cheeky, because it was given his name but “undid all of the hard work of Yan Yan” (p.110).

    The Coranderrk settlement became the new home of the Wurundjeri and other Aborigines for a few decades. The nearby Bushland Reserve along Badger Creek was their hunting territory and it still contains a “large remnant of dry sclerophyll forest” (p.222).

    This mission settlement was closed in 1924 and those remaining were “shipped off against their will to the Lake Tyers Mission in Gippsland” (p.196).

    European way of life

    Whereas the Aborigines conformed their way of life to the features of the land and to the cycles of the seasons, the European way of life promoted change and development. Hills were levelled, many trees were removed, land was cleared, fences and locked gates were erected and swamps were filled in with soil. Maya states that swamps were thought to emit noxious vapours called “miasma” and to be the cause of disease, although the real cause was mosquitoes or the polluted water. The Banyule Flats are now the biggest billabong in the urban region (p.108).

    Early visitors are recalled, such as Surveyor Charles Grimes, who in 1803 rowed up the Yarra River to survey the area then called “Neerim” (p.22) and who was able to reach the Yarra Falls (p.90). The Overlanders John Gardner, Joseph Hawdon and John Hepburn crossed the river in December 1836. In 1847, Unwin bought 3 square miles of land along the river from Bolin or Bulleen to Templestowe (p.105). Even typical scenery painted by the Heidelberg School of painters is observed (p.173).
    On the negative side, Maya sadly reports that the “whites spread diseases and despair, which reduced numbers of ‘first peoples’” ( p.105) and her Party of Pilgrims labelled an area of the river bank “Nappy-dump Bend” because of the discarded beer cans and soiled, disposable nappies which had been dumped there (p.275).

    The Sacred, Spiritual dimension

    The author’s involvement in a pilgrimage and in thinking through the implications of Deep Ecology also engages every reader in important global concerns and issues. Humans have clearly raped our finite Mother Earth but can we now restore her before she dies exhausted? Maya wants to restore the sacred to our lives by reforming our attitudes and by walking as pilgrims “mindfully, with sincerity, clarity and commitment” (p.37). She herself celebrates the equinoxes and solstices, thus aligning herself with the world’s changes and bringing awareness to the pendulum swing of the year (p.71). Some city people manage to lose track of the seasons and their changing.
    She visited the Cistercian Monastery at Tarrawarra and her discussions with a monk, who has developed a place-centred liturgy which is attuned to the cycles of the land, helped to confirm her Nature-spirituality (p.179) and her Deep Ecology, These both stress “the fundamental interconnection between everything” and the need for respect towards and for the restoration of Nature, if we wish to “save ourselves” (p.214). Thomas Berry, the Eco-Theologian, is also mentioned (p.270) and the Easter rituals relating to the lighting of a fire, greeting the rising sun and, in the northern hemisphere, anticipating increasing sunlight as Summer approaches are presented (p.271).

    The author’s concluding thoughts interconnect her four levels of stories, as she contemplates that the path of the river or the Pilgrim’s Path “has come from forever and goes on forever”. Her past “forever” is clearly millions or even billions of years and her future “forever” includes the hope that the human spiritual quest will live on. In short, a Pilgrimage in Maya’s view helps to “stress the importance of having less but being more” (p. 322). The western goal of “having” needs replacing with the fundamental, shared and cosmic “ground of being”.

    Maya’s Pilgrimage may have be conducted along her local River Yarra in Melbourne but her Pathway involving Deep Ecology and the Sacred in Nature is truly global and universal. She fully explores the importance to her life and spirituality of both the outer, material, concrete realities in Nature which constantly surround her and of the inner, mental, spiritual and conceptual realities within her mind and soul. Readers everywhere and with their own pilgrimage-rivers will be both edified and entertained by this particular pilgrimage-path, its thoughtful and spiritually-oriented contents and its ready application to other similar pilgrimage journeys.
    John Noack, March 2012.

    John Noack has been a Lutheran clergyman at Rainbow in Victoria (1969-1972), Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne (1973-1982) and a Secondary Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew (1982-1994). He is at present engaged in research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology at La Trobe University in Bundoora, Melbourne and in a study and resolution of the enigmas in the Gospel according to St. Mark.

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>