Murray River Odyssey [60]

Parts 3 and 4 of a mega-epic

By Noel Rodda

Back to part 2

The reader may find the following a little hard to believe, but here goes: This night sometime during the small hours was heard what sounded like somebody walking around on the dry leaf cover. Pitch black with dense cloud cover, you couldn’t see your hand if you held it in front of your face. I came out from my tent as quietly a possible, although the zipper sound was a give-away. Moving a few meters forward, I stopped to listen. There was a rustle not far away to my left.

In fact I had lost my orientation and couldn’t get a grip on where I was in relation to anything owing to the absolute blackness. There came the rustling shuffle noise again and I carefully moved toward it with adrenalin at the “fight or flight” level. Whatever or whoever was out there could surely hear my heart thumping. Suddenly I sensed rather than felt a presence directly in front of me and instinctively I lashed out with a straight left which, surprisingly connected with bone at head height and followed up with a forward lunge and a forearm jolt, which sank into soft hair. I remember the rank smell as we wrestled and rolled in the leaf mould and dead branches.

I don’t know who was more surprised, me, or the kangaroo as we rolled apart in the bright beam of two torches held by Mitch and Jim who had crashed out of their tents to see what the racket was about. The roo and I couldn’t get away from each other fast enough. I was lucky to have come out of the meeting with only some minor cuts and bruises. By headlight we boiled the billy and scoffed down a scalding black tea. And laughed. What else was there to do? Sleep was out of the question, so we had an early start after a breakfast by torchlight.

Late morning we cruised into the small village of Koondrook and checked out the magnificent furniture made from the River Red Gum timbers milled by the Arbuthnot sawmill. The salesman, looking at my face bruising and scratches, commented that I looked as if I had been through the sawmill. Well I reckoned that he wasn’t far wrong. Then a couple of km on to Barham where we had pasties and slices from the bakery and replenished the water supplies. Mitch managed to have his damaged sail repaired and we all made our phone calls home. Quite a few areas of the river didn’t allow for mobile connection.

We paddled on for another twelve km or so in a light rain to a reasonable camping site. We swam, washed and cleaned the grime from our sea kayaks, as everything gets grubby after a few days. Steak and fresh vegetables for dinner this evening as the rain eased off. The water is noticeably cooler now as we make our way further west. Today I had run up onto a gravel bar located just below the water surface. These bars are like rough concrete and are capable of penetrating the Kevlar of the unwary kayaker’s craft. Fortunately, like my ego, the kayak was only bruised.

Day 15 and we’re about halfway through our venture. It had rained fairly steadily all night and we were pretty soggy at breakfast. Jim was all for staying and seeing out the rain inside our tents, but Mitch and I outvoted him which in hindsight was the best decision. Everything was wet and would have only become more so. The showers came and went during the day and there were literally no camping spots worthwhile in that section of the river. Gunbower Island is basically a floodplain and is the largest inland island in the world. The Gunbower State Forest was on our left. We also saw several Sacred Kingfishers swooping to the water through the rain drizzle today.

They are a brilliant green and blue colour as against our northern species being the magnificent Azure Kingfisher. Also saw a Murray Cod jumping for insects and I estimate him to have been around five kg. So although the landscape is now fairly dull, the wildlife is entertaining. Campsites being difficult to find we paddled 69 soggy km this day.

The high banks were so slippery with mud that they were impossible to climb. We had a yarn with a lone fisherman in his tinnie and he suggested that we go on to a camp located in the bend of the river where the owner had two caravans with a massive awning and wooden steps cut into the bank. “Leave everything as you find it and you are welcome to stay”. This was terrific and we swept up, cleaned, and then hung everything out to dry, including our tents, which soon dried beneath the awning, in the breeze. There was even a makeshift toilet and tables. What luxury and justification for us not attempting to wait out the rain. The only item of dry clothing that Mitch had left was his pyjamas, but this was preferable to seeing him run around in the raw. Scary! We all had a good nights sleep and packing in the morning was a pretty laid back affair.

Came across the Mystic Park footballers having a bonding day on the river where the main activity was wrestling and rolling, sliding into the river from the steep bank and skylarking in general. They had several plastic canoes that they sat in and slid helter-skelter down the mud and into the water. We joined in the fun and soon looked like the Mud-men of Papua New Guinea. Back on the river we yarned with a Waterways Officer who was checking on fish catches. Mainly the catches of Cod were small and being returned to their watery environment.

Still drizzling rain we cruised into the Swan Hill Caravan Park beach and booked an on-site van for two nights. Not as comfortable as our tents to sleep in, but we were dry. My two companions snored their way through the night. I don’t snore? This is a very good caravan park with green, green, public areas and the manager had offered to loan us his Ute to haul our gear up. Last time I was here was 1996 on completion of the Red Cross Murray Marathon in which we had come 2nd in our class. Now that was real pain! We ate at the Commercial Hotel for dinner and the next day was bright and sunny, but crisp after the rain.

This was a lay day and it started off with fried eggs and bacon. The radio told of flooding in Tamworth, which was hard to imagine.

Spent a quiet day of cleaning, washing and shopping for the next week. I had found another gravel ridge to bounce around on yesterday and discovered a few more dints in the vac-bagged Kevlar of my kayak hull. At lunch Mitch knocked up a meat curry and I did the rice. It must have been good because I couldn’t feel my tongue or throat after a plate full. I packed up some gear that I no longer needed and posted it off home the next morning, which meant more packing room and a lighter kayak. Cheeky possums roamed the park during the evening and families of white duck seem to keep the insects down.

Even with our late start we clocked up 60km this day and my gourmet dinner was boiled sprat spuds with melted butter and herbs cooked over an open fire. Fruit salad and hot-cross buns washed down with red wine and coffee. Perfect. This was day 18, 24th Feb.

Up before light again and had packed before realizing that my kayak had gone absent without leave. I had wedged it between tree roots just out of the water. This night, contrary to all other nights the river had risen and floated my kayak off its dry elevated pad. Jim took off in pursuit down river and found it caught up in some snags 4-5km away. Towing back upriver was a good morning exercise for him, but I ran down to intercept him carrying my paddle. I was very pleased to see it again as I had visions of it being broadsided at the Coorong Barrage. At morning tea we climbed up the bank to the store at Woodward for a Cornetto ice cream and a Carlton Draught to keep for the evening happy hour. We all felt the heat today, 33 degrees with no breeze. On past Tooleybuc and through the “Bitch & Pups” which are two islands with gravel bars crossing. However there was enough water depth to be well clear. After 53km we camped around the 1298 marker, sat naked in the river and had our happy hour. Plumrose hot-dogs heated in the can washed down with the Carlton Draught. Life is really good isn’t it?

The ants were pretty active at this camp, reckoned that they were here first and who could argue that? Flies had become a menace too, ever since entering into sheep country around Barmah.

Day 20, 26th February. We passed the broad water of the Murrumbidgee River today, with very little flow there. Temperature was still around 33 degrees, but I felt more energetic today. I wore a white top to reflect the heat as against yesterday when my black top absorbed the heat.

After 58km, this evening’s camp was at the same place that Major Mitchell camped 10th June 1836. Next morning we celebrated having paddled over 1000km at Boundary Bend with a choc-wedge.

The afternoon presented another hard grind into a head wind with no current as the water was backing up to the weir at Robin Vale. The heat and humidity was certainly energy sapping and to give an idea of our liquid consumption, we would pull in for the evening, have a mug of coffee, swim, erect tent, then three mugs of tea. We just can’t seem to down enough liquid. This night I also had soup and a glass of red. You would expect to be up all night to urinate, but not so, at least not until after breakfast.

Day 21, 27th February. Good beach to camp on tonight with not too many ants or flies. Two largely endowed rams, (male sheep) visited the beach though and showed keen interest in Mitch and Jim skinny-dipping. I picked up Mitch’s red towel and made like a bullfighter and “fair dinkum”, one of the rams put his head down and charged.

Well I deflected him with a sweep of my makeshift cape, managed to survive another charge, but the towel caught on his horns so I dropped it and jumped into the river where Bill and Reynard were cackling like a pair of old chooks.

The older ram just stood and I’m certain that he had a look of amazement on his face. Both rams then wandered off, having made their presence felt. The red towel ended up among the low scrub. The water temperature had upped a notch or two and was just right for our regular swims.

Next morning the wind came in very early, blowing the sand about, strong enough to sting bare legs and arms. We packed and got on the water in record time, just after daybreak, so at least we were out of the sand storm. Another day of headwinds and with 59km under our belts, we glided thankfully into Robin Vale Caravan Park, just before the road bridge. We booked in for two nights and a welcome lay day tomorrow. Sleeping in was a luxury and for lunch Mitch cooked up a feed of chicken curry with onions, mango, and rice for us. All washed down with Murphy’s stout. It was a cold night with a SW wind rising, but we were snug in our tents.

Robin Vale is not a bad village and the police are regularly on patrol. We called the place Tongan-town owing to the large population of Tongan people. The hotels are full of Tongan people after work of fruit harvesting. Quite a lot live here permanently and the shops reflect Asian tastes. There used to be a large Aboriginal presence here, but we did not see one. We surmised that the large Tongan community had gradually displaced them.

Sleep was interrupted at various times last night by the party loving Tongans who were celebrating a wedding in a hall some few hundred meters away. It was very colourful with people dressed in traditional costume.

An event took place in the wee small hours of the night, which I will now try to relate. A Toyota van came into our section of the park and there ensued a pretty loud party, with three men and two women, all Tongans and all big people. Through my sleep-addled brain I thought I heard Mitch’s distinctive parade ground voice. On slipping out of my tent I was in time to see in the moonlight an incredible happening. There was Mitch in the raw, standing up to these three big Islanders.

Two of them were advancing to floor our Brave Bill, but the first to come within range was taken by surprise with a straight stiff fingered slice to the throat and down he went, pole-axed.

The second bloke hesitated long enough in his advance for Bill to take a steady stance and as the big fellow swung a roundhouse punch, Mitch gracefully swayed to the left and in the same motion kneed the fellow in the family jewels.

Down he went and there was not a movement from the other bloke or the two girls as Mitch thoughtfully rolled the two groaning figures off the embankment into the river. Well by the time Jim and I got on the scene it was pretty much all over with the last fellow helping his two big mates out of the water. The two girls had not budged from their seated position and the looks on their faces told us that they weren’t looking for trouble, especially from Brave Bill who was still in a calm rage, naked, and still keen on some action. A very scary sight if you can imagine it. They all piled into their van with us looking on and got out of this hellhole fast. We packed up and moved camp closer to the lock system, some km away, in the event that a revenge party arrived. Amazing how fast you can pack when you need to!

In the morning we arrived at the lock with time to spare and spent it taking photos and going over the events of the night. It feels weird going through the lock system with all that water just dropping away beneath you, then the huge hydraulically operated gates opening to an equalized water level.

There are a lot of pelicans around this area and we can paddle quite close to them. They tend to stand in line on the narrow bank and take off in formation perfectly timed one after another.

It was now Monday 4th March and day 25. Temperature was friendlier today and the wind had eased, but still quite crisp during the morning. Another month and we reckon it would be too cold for swimming in the river. I’m actually wearing socks to bed and using the sleeping bag now instead of just a sheet. Generally we were now heading in a southerly direction. Mitch was keen to put in good mileage today as I think he was anticipating the nearness to the finish of our little venture, which we have decided should be at Mildura, where Jan was waiting. (Well, he hoped).

During the morning Mitch upped the pace with strong stroking and led the push, but into the afternoon Jim and I pumped up the pace and forged ahead, detouring and generally mucking about. By days end we had clocked up 72km by the charts, but we think that on ground covered, it was more like 60km as we were able to take advantage of a short cut.

This day Mitch chose the campsite, even though he was tail end Charlie. He pulled into a likely spot to camp, whether we liked it or not. Jim and I just looked at each other and laughed. At last Mitch was tiring a little. We were at marker 1998.

We had set up our bush camp and started dinner time/happy hour noises when Jim decided to try fishing from his kayak for the first time. He had paddled toward the opposite bank just slowly trolling, with his fishing line tied to a cleat, when the kayak came to a dead stop. Nothing happened for about 30 seconds, and then all of a sudden the kayak started being hauled sideways and tipping. We watched from the bank and Mitch said, “What do you reckon mate, do you think he needs some help?” I replied, “Nah, he can handle it”, as we both headed for our kayaks. We caught up with Jim after about five minutes and Mitch clipped onto his stern and started to back-paddle. It was tough going so I clipped onto the stern of Mitch’s kayak and we made headway, back paddling towards our camp beach. Clearly there was something pretty powerful on the Desert Fox’s line and every now and again we caught sight of turbulence. The line would go slack every so often giving Jim a chance to haul in some line. Well, we reached the beach and shallow water and even with the three of us, still had our hands full when a bloke in a tinnie motored up and gave us a hand. Finally we landed this Murray Cod which would have gone at least 50lb, with two of us struggling to lift and hold it. Slippery devil. We were worn out and so was the poor old Cod. Mitch detached the hook as carefully as he could. We all kissed the Cod and gently released him into the shallows where he seemed to gather him or herself and with a graceful flick of the tail disappeared into deeper water. Wow, that was real excitement and was talked about for days to come.

Next day we pulled in to view what is regarded as the worlds largest River Red Gum. It is located 100 meters or so inland, 48 meters in height and a girth of 223cm. A big tree for sure.

Day 27. These bush camps are really good, quiet with no traffic noise, and generally clear and crisp, starry nights. We certainly sleep well. It may take some adjustment to get back to soft beds and civilization. Today we just kept paddling and used the sails occasionally. I borrowed Mitch’s sail and rigged it with mine for some fun. It was a bit dicey when the wind came up though. We called it the cutter rigged sailing kayak.

Camp this night was opposite the Mildura Ski Club in the bush adjacent to the river. There was great temptation to camp on the green of the Ski Club, but just as well we didn’t as the sprinklers came on around the time we started to prepare for dinner. This was just down stream from Gol-Gol near Charcoal Bend and only four km from lock 11 at Mildura, but we were too late to go through this afternoon.

Thursday March 7th. Day 28 and we took our time mooching along to the Mildura lock, taking some photos and going through at 1000hrs. We paddled into the River Beach Caravan Park and booked in. Mitch’s wife Jan was there to welcome us, having driven down from Toowoomba in the previous day and a half. We lined up at the ramp for photo shots and I think we felt a little sad to be at our agreed finish point. The afternoon was spent tidying up our gear and cleaning the kayaks. That evening we all went into town for a last meal together for this trip and had a slap up feed. Tall tales were all the go.

We had paddled 1,350 kilometers taking 28 days, and that included 4 rest days. We averaged 56 kilometers per paddling day and we are still friends.

Next morning I caught the bus back along the river to Cobram where I retrieved the Cruiser from Zane and Kerry, thanking them for their kindness, and drove for seven hours back to Mildura. Next morning Jim and I were on the road early for the nineteen-hour drive back to Coffs Harbour. We pulled in and camped overnight somewhere south of Armidale.

Some items that may be of interest to mini-adventurists, I will include here:

  • Clothing and footwear: We all had packed too much clothing. Our paddling gear was washed every afternoon and was dry within an hour or so, which meant that paddling gear could be minimized. One set of light clothes to look a bit respectable in, going into the towns on our days off. One pair of shorts. A tracksuit for sitting around in during the evening’s happy hour. Two sets of underwear and socks. Light, but sturdy walking shoes. Thongs, (Chinese gumboots), and paddling bootees of some description. These eliminated getting blisters and were good for climbing muddy banks. A favorite hat and Polaroid sunglasses.
  • Food and water: Water was carried in flexible, collapsible plastic containers, such as, wine casks and milk bottles. Red wine was not forgotten. At any given time we each carried eight to twelve litres of water and we had one water purifier between us, although this wasn’t required. I think that we all carried enough food to last a week. Items like, soft packs of tuna and salmon, various three-minute rice and noodles packs, pasta packs and spaghetti. Small tins of baked beans, canned peas, canned mixed vegetables, sardines, soups and stews. Supplies could be replenished every three or four days, so fresh food, vegetables and fruit was never too far away.

    Milk was either powdered or the small long-life packs used. A variety of cereals were an important feature. Yoghurt would keep for at least a couple of days, as inside the hatches it was cool, owing to the storage being below water level. Tea, coffee and sugar were kept handy along with a small thermos, which we would fill at breakfast time.

  • Stoves: Reliable stoves were important, Jim had a Coleman multi fuel single burner, which required pumping air into, to pressurize. UL petrol was too dirty, causing generator problems, but white spirit proved to be the answer and available almost everywhere. This used around a litre or more per week. Mitch’s stove and mine were Camping Gaz brand and proved to be very efficient. Mitch’s had a smaller burner and tended to use less gas than mine, which had a large burner and an auto-ignition. I went through a large canister per week and the canisters weren’t available everywhere. A folding windbreak was needed in most places.
  • Sleeping gear: Summer sleeping bags were the go along with a liner sheet and a blow up pillow. I had a ThermaRest.
  • Tents: Mine was a Sierra Designs Light Year, CD and was ideal for the trip, as it weighs in at only 1.5kg, is weatherproof, has a removable fly with tub floor and packs small. The other two were larger being two person tents, Eureka brand. We used light groundsheets to keep the tents clean and I had some small sand pegs.
  • Kitchen gear: A one-metre square of stiff canvas was very handy, used as a ground table to keep dirt and sand out of food. I took along a cutting board, sharp knife, eating utensils, melamine plates and two saucepans, one to fit inside the other, mug, glass for wine and wooden spoon. A four-litre ice cream container was used for washing up and scourer for burnt saucepans along with washing concentrate. Included was a small folding chair with a back for me. (Comfort zone!)
  • Spares and repair kit: How could anyone be without a roll of grey tape? Also a small epoxy and glass repair kit was loaded, in case of a spearing from a snag. My kit included a Leatherman brand multi-tool, spare steering cables, cord, shackles and a lighter.

    I carried a spare break down paddle for the group and Bill had a set of golf buggy wheels, which were invaluable when needed.

  • Safety gear: I had the usual items, such as, PFD, diver’s knife, EPIRB, mobile phone, whistle, signal mirror, a set of flares, tow line and distress light attached to my PFD. We all had headlights.
  • First aid and the ability to use it: We all took along individual kits, which included any personal medications, sun protection cream and insect repellant. In addition Jim had a separate kit containing a snakebite pack, a sewing pack with straight and curved needles with fine gut and sutures, antiseptic, bandages, stretch bandages, whisky, strong painkillers and medications to treat stomach disorders. We all had completed first aid courses at some stage.
  • Bits and pieces: I had a waterproof camera, a radio, head torch, spare batteries, spare Gaz brand gas cylinders, wax matches, travel journal and spare plastic bags to take our rubbish out. One roll of toilet paper with small garden spade.

Some observations and impressions of the river and its health from an amateur point of view:

  • Old and dilapidated caravans go to the riverbanks to die.
  • Ditto for folding chairs, plastic drink bottles and bags.
  • Some forests of the mighty River Red Gum are dying or dead through lack of floodwater.
  • The vast volumes of water being taken from the river is slowly killing it and what water that is returned is loaded with salts, pesticides and all manner of chemicals.
  • Oxygen content of the water is low because of the lack of aeration, i.e. movement, which in its turn has a detrimental effect on fish and all organisms of the river.
  • According to some old-timers we spoke to, the fish numbers are gradually reducing, despite the release of Cod fingerlings.
  • In some lower areas of the Upper Murray, the dangerous plant, Water Hyacinth is spreading through the shallows and appears to be uncontrolled.
  • Signs on some beaches and banks indicating, PRIVATE PROPERTY-KEEP OUT, are offensive.

Note the sign on the tree; we did piss off after we had pissed.

Some of our more favorable observations include:

  • What a wonderful river this is.
  • The willows that grow so profusely are very picturesque, even though they are a declared weed.
  • Although the highway is never too far away, mostly traffic noise is not heard except when camping close to towns.
  • The clarity of the night sky is magnified by the absence of town lights.
  • River mist during the early dawn adding to the magic.
  • The vast bird life.

Epilogue:

Well this has fulfilled a long held ambition and as it was undertaken in the companionship of good friends who are very capable and adaptive, this was indeed a bonus. Getting back to a nitti-gritti mode of conveyance combined with an achievable goal is something that should be undertaken at every opportunity so that one’s life-span may be intersected by small adventures utilizing minimalist equipment. The escape from town and city lights and traffic cleanses the mind and soul as well as the lungs. We are all anticipating what our next venture may be.

Setting out and proof reading was patiently and kindly done by Elizabeth Rodda. Help with printing and some fine tuning by Alyson Egar is gratefully acknowledged.

If the reader discovers any inaccuracies, do me a favour and don’t tell anyone! Most of this so-called mini-adventure is true except where it is not!

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