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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The Big Tumbleweed

The Docklands and the Broken Wheel

By Robyn Annear 
Cover: April 2012April 2012Short read
 

In the closing scene of Planet of the Apes, there’s that moment of awful realisation for Charlton Heston’s shipwrecked astronaut: “Oh my God … I’m back. I’m home!” Rounding a lonely headland he has come upon the Statue of Liberty, sunk to her armpits in sand, blasted torch still held aloft in her cold, dead hand. Chuck falls to his knees and flays the ghosts of his bombed-out planet. “You maniacs! … God damn you all to Hell!”

For most of us, imagining future ruins – the traces that’ll remain when our civilisation is kaput: Sydney Harbour Bridge listing on its pylons, that kind of thing – is the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters. But in Melbourne’s Docklands, the future is now. In fact, a commuter becalmed in the Spencer Street railyards can’t help but call to mind the jibe attributed to the actress Ava Gardner, that Melbourne is the perfect place to make a movie about the end of the world.

The Docklands is where, over the past dozen years, Melbourne’s CBD has been stretched westward, beyond the old barrier of the railyards on to ground reclaimed in the nineteenth century from swamplands and the bay. Docklands Stadium, convenient to the city and railway station, was one of Docklands’ first features and is its one decided success, regularly hosting football of all codes, besides other pep and pageantry. As for the rest of the Docklands, it’s the usual new-city melange of ambition and ideology; in other words, what comes of playing god with real estate. Apartment and office blocks are trimmed with promenades, marinas, restaurant strips and shopping malls, and with parenthetic open space, planned and groomed to the grassblade.

People live and work in the Docklands in their thousands – tens of thousands, probably. But you’d never know it. Loads swaying from cranes account for most discernible movements. Getting people onto the streets has proved a challenge. The route of the free City Circle tram was extended into the Docklands in 2003 and further still, in 2009, to the new Harbour Town consumer hub – with little effect other than to prolong the tram ride by 20 minutes and recast the City Circle as an elongated ‘Q’. Enticements such as street markets and festivals have struggled to draw crowds; nor have ‘funky’ namings like St Mangos Lane so far germinated any of the brio that characterises Melbourne’s real laneways. Sterile is the word most often used to describe the Docklands’ street-life, with windswept a close second. Tumbleweed territory, that’s what it is.

Which brings us to the centrepiece of the zombiescape: the ready-made ruin of the Southern Star Observation Wheel. For more than five years now, Melburnians have watched the big wheel wax and wane and wax again, like a lumbering Meccano moon. First came the huge supporting legs, followed by the gradual construction of the wheel itself, until its tubular steel skeleton spanned 110 metres. Originally meant to start spinning in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, it finally opened for business in December 2008, with its backers forecasting that 1.5 million people per year – that’s 30,000 per week – would pay a high price for distant glimpses of Geelong and the Dandenongs, and nearer views of Melbourne’s industrial west, the glass walls and rooftops of the city, and the semi-wasteland of the Docklands itself. The further hope was that, after their ride, they’d stick around to shop and dine, and people those empty streets. On top of its carrying capacity of 420 passengers, the Southern Star bore a heavy weight of expectation.

Perhaps that’s why it broke. After just five weeks’ operation, the steel structure was found to have cracked and buckled and the wheel was halted indefinitely. That summer’s heatwave was blamed at first for the defects, but investigations determined that the fault lay in the wheel’s design. For a year, the Southern Star stood motionless. Then the wheel was dismantled, spoke by spoke, and eventually – very eventually – rebuilding began, this time to a different design. The wheel had reached its gibbous phase when, one day last spring, it seemed to grow impatient with the slow pace of progress. Tearing loose from its restraints, it began to rotate, scattering cranes and workers. High winds were blamed; construction was again at a standstill.

When last I looked, there were still four bites out of the big wheel’s rim, such as could easily pass for the ravages of antiquity or Godzilla. Seen from a distance through drizzle, the wheel has a ruinous, spectral quality.

 

Nothing besides remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

 

Proximity does little to dispel the impression of gothic decrepitude. The wind is a belter, all right. Standing near the foot of the big wheel, you hear it creaking and straining at its tethers. The missing rim sections lie on vacant land some distance away. Gigantic, they are. In fact, somehow the size of the fragments – like the trunkless legs of Shelley’s Ozymandias – impresses more than does that of the wheel itself, hemmed in as it is by thickset buildings. Shopping trolleys cluster along the Southern Star’s perimeter fence, like myrmidons seeking the mothership. Their actual mothership, the big-box bulk of Costco, squats hard by. Its food hall overlooks the wheel, and the sight of diners tucking into the famous $2.49 Costco hotdog is all there is to counteract the dead-enough-for-the-undead streetscene here at the boondocks end of the Docklands.

About the author Robyn Annear
Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker's Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.