Feuding Down the Murray With a Mutinous Bunch [42]

by Michael Culhane

I should have known better – the signs were there the first night, even before we had gotten onto the water.

At the 9:00 pm pre-paddle briefing half the paddlers had failed to show – intimidated perhaps by the ‘hard men’, or was it something of a more malevolent nature?

The rest of us were warned of the snakes, mosquitoes, snags, long days and that we would be “deemed to have left the trip if we failed to turn up in camp that night”.

I should also have realised the personal nature of the attacks made on my stove choice (MSR) that evening by Norm Sanders – it was a warning shot across the bow for what was to come. Below, I have reproduced my diary of the trip.

Day 1

5:30 am we roll out of bed to Dave Winkworth’s calls. Any semblance of group cohesiveness was already dissipating; kayakers jostling in the dark to load their boats on the limited shore led to several boats being ‘launched’ onto the river while their owners were back at the campsite gathering the last of their gear. Robyn and I left in darkness in the double Pittarak, abandoning the last of our gear to the marauding hordes.

We paddle 50 km today, mostly alone, trying to stay ahead of the ‘hard men’ at the back and their ruthless criticism of paddling style, boat choice, paddle feather, stove, etc. These hard men seem to need to be hard all of the time – I’m only hard when I have to be hard, the rest of the time I’m soft.

Once at camp we surveyed a tent site but on returning with our gear found Norm had annexed the spot. Naively believing this to be an honest mistake we set up in a nearby patch.

Cooked dinner over an escalating chorus of complaints from Norm’s tent about the noise – we could barely hear the sweet whisper of the stove over his constant whining. It became obvious why Norm pinched our tent site when we had to move our tent because the puddle forming in the rain was progressing through the vestibule and making its way towards the door.

I contemplate naming the Pittarak double ‘The Mothership’, not because it is a provider to smaller boats, but rather because it is a big, heavy mother.

Went to sleep accompanied by Norm’s complaints about ‘rustling’ in our tent.

Day 2

Offer Norm some hot water for his morning tea as a sort of peace offering. He accepts it, but looks at it as though it was heated in a chamber pot (actually there was this time when I was trapped in the tent during a blizzard… but that’s another story).

An uneventful day’s paddle. Norm camps further away tonight, offering us some chance of getting a decent sleep without the accompanying litany of complaints.

Dave Winkworth breaks it to us softly that he and Arunas can’t keep up the gruelling pace and may be taking a rest day. The rest of the group seem unconcerned at the thought of being free of the hard men.

Plans are hatched for more relaxed touring, rafting up the boats into some sort of multi-hulled ginpalace. Desperate last-minute dashes are made to Tocumwal to pick up drinks and finger food for the next day’s floating cocktail bar.

Day 3

Neither Dave nor Arunas can be raised from their tents in the morning and they are left behind, deemed to have left the trip.

Paddling was somewhat more relaxed today, with only 40 km to be completed and without the hard men behind us driving us like sheep through a dip.

The mutiny had succeeded, but even amongst this mutinous bunch divisions were forming. There were those who wanted to push on for another kilometre or so and those who wanted to stop at the designated camp. The group ended up split, with group spread estimated to be around 41 km (a new Club record).

Rain threatens this afternoon, so we erect the ‘Tarp-Mahal’. The rain gods look down on our erection and are so impressed that they hold off.

Day 4

At morning tea, Ed cunningly distracts Graeme and Ann from packing away their expensive camera and drybag by leaving his 10 cent disposable plastic spoon on the ground nearby – Ed’s evil ruse is a success, as Graeme reminds Ed not to leave his spoon behind but fails to see the camera hidden behind it.

The missing camera is discovered later (much later) and Ed, Graeme and Anne decide to paddle upstream to collect it. Norm, who had previously been paddling with these three, quickly changes his alliances and paddles off downstream at a hard-man pace shouting over his shoulder “the ties that bind the pod only work downstream” as if this was some kind of immutable rule of nature. By now I was forming a picture of this Norman Sanders – a rat-cunning, ruthless and malevolent man.

Around 1 pm Dave Winkworth cruises by, having caught the group up. Apparently, he and Arunas set off the previous morning after everybody had left and had been drifting with the current for a day and a half – hardly a stroke had been put in by either of them. On being asked “Where is Arunas?”, Dave casts an eye upriver and says, “Oh, he was there last time I looked – yesterday morning!”

Another 40 km day put us at a camp on the bank of a bend in the river, reached by negotiating numerous snags in a fast-flowing section of the river. We reached camp at about 3 pm, but Ed, Graeme and Ann paddled in at 8 pm in the last lick of light after collecting the camera.

Across the river from our discrete camp was Redneck Central, cunningly disguised as a peaceful fisherman’s camp. Over at Redneck Central they played both types of music – country AND western. Around 7 pm they started up with Shania Twain at a moderate volume on their PA system and finishing with the volume wound up all the way when the rain started at about 3 am.

I fall asleep wishing I could call the boat ‘The Cone of Silence’.

Day 5

Norm advises the campers-from-hell of the findings of his overnight anthropological study of them. We keep our distance and they seem largely unperturbed.

Today we took on the section called ‘The Narrows’ – a fast flowing section with many snags. Ann took a dunking when her bow caught on a snag and the boat swung around sideways. The Pittarak took on several large tree stumps barely submerged mid-river and came out the better from the incident. Nothing was going to stop 200+ kg of boat, paddlers and gear!

The feud escalates today – Norm, paddling behind us (some suggested he was chasing us) rammed the stern of the Pittarak with his boat. I only just resisted the temptation to retaliate by deploying the rudder firmly (which was in the up position) and delivering the bow of his boat a severing blow. He is incorrigible!

Later, paddling behind us again, he advises us in an innocent tone that our rudder blade is bent, that the rudder pintle seems to be crooked and offers us some gratuitous advice on mending it. Apart from this, we put away an uneventful 36 km.

The group divides again before anybody could realise it, with one lot camping in town to sample the fleshpots of Barmah, while the rest had a wilderness experience.

I contemplate naming the boat ‘The Voyager’ after that infamous Australian peacetime incident where the HMAS Melbourne rammed the HMAS Voyager – although in that case the Voyager came off worse. Perhaps it should be ‘The Melbourne’…

Day 6

While paddling along quietly I look around and find the Pittarak hemmed in from behind by aggressive boat builders – Norm and Mark Windsor in their wooden boats and Gordon in his TLC. Fearful for our boat we try to outpaddle them but to no avail – they followed us closely, surfing the wake of the Pittarak. Only by keeping a steady hand on the rudder-lowering cable did I hold off their attack.

Maybe I’ll call the boat ‘Chopper’.

The events surrounding the evening’s trip dinner remain a mystery to me – that unholy coincidence of an American, a minibus, the bridge and that damned shamrock. I only hope the photos are withheld until all personal effects have been returned to their owners and the ladies involved have been identified by their distinguishing body-piercing and tattoos…