Paddling the Murray …the view from the rear

By TOM COX

We set out early one Saturday morning at the end of April, Stephan Meyn, John Friedman and I. Stephan and John are both kayakers with 10+ year’s experience. I’m a newbie, a grade 1 who joined the club 6 months ago. When Stephan posted the trip on the club web site, I thought ‘That sounds like fun’ and ‘If not now, when?’ I have done a fair bit of bush-walking and cycle-touring. I had done one overnight trip in my kayak, from Berowra Waters Ferry to Marramarra National Park and back. The furthest I had paddled was about 20km in a morning, so paddling 30 or 40km a day sounded doable; demanding perhaps, but doable.

We drove 800km on the Saturday, arriving at a caravan park in Moama after dark. The next morning we were up early. Stephan assembled his folding kayak in an hour and a quarter. We took our kayaks down the river embankment to a nearby pontoon, and loaded them there. Then Stephan and I drove the 90km to Barham, left a car there, and drove the other one back to Moama. By 1pm we were ready to slide our heavily laden kayaks off the pontoon and into the water.

There is plenty of water and the river is glorious. People tell us that three weeks ago the river was three metres higher, and spectacular. We quickly pass Echuca wharf. In the 1870s and 1880s Echuca was the second biggest port in Australia, until the construction of roads and rail brought more efficient ways of transporting people and goods. Today there are paddle boats aplenty, taking tourists on trips up and down the river. Paddle boats, houseboats and holiday cabins line the banks; the boats on the water and the cabins at the top of the embankments. The current gives us a nudge along. Occasionally the wind presses against us. Cabins give way to homes on bigger blocks.

Eventually there are fewer buildings, fewer houseboats, and the odd skier. About 3pm we pull up to an embankment where it looks like we might be able to make camp. As it happens the campsite is right next to a moored three level houseboat mega-mansion. The person who is looking after the boat is dwarfed by it. She has her four wheel drive and jet ski parked next to the campsite. If we face upriver we don’t have to look at the boat. The landscape is glorious in the late afternoon sun. We pitch our tents, collect firewood, and start a fire. We make our dinners. And we sit and talk around the fire for hours. There is something fundamental and primeval in sitting on the ground around a fire, with the overarching sky above, vast and awash with stars. We are aware that people have been doing this for millennia.

The weather was pretty kind to us. Some days we had maxima in the low twenties; some days it was 15 or 16 degrees. The evenings got cold, getting down as low as 2.5 degrees. Good sleeping bags, and in my case a hot water bottle, helped. Paddling down the river was comfortable most of the time, with our expended energy warming us. As soon as we stopped paddling, we were cold. When we stopped for morning tea or lunch, we would throw on a jacket, or light a campfire and squat around it warming ourselves. In the evenings we would start a fire as soon as we landed, changing out of wet gear and pitching tents before we lost the light. And in the mornings when we rose, we would rekindle the fire. When we wake there is a miasma on the water, shafts of morning sunlight pushing through it as it dances across the surface. The magpies warble and the kookaburras laugh to wake us. All around there are red gums, and sometimes box gums.

On the second day, thinking my set up is not quite right, I adjust my pedals closer to me. Somehow I manage to bring my right pedal two stops forward. Suddenly getting full extension of my right leg is really hard work. What has happened? Is my right leg longer than my left? Eventually I work it out, and adjust the pedal back, but not before I have worn a big nasty bruise on my right buttock. The next evening, I get my first aid kit out, and John patches me up. John and Stephan are technological titans, so morning and evening, the tablet computers come out and emails are sent, weather reports checked, and tweets tweeted. A photo is taken, and by next morning my bruised buttock has gone viral.

At just about every club paddle I go to, someone will sidle up alongside me and say, ‘Do you mind if I give you some advice on your forward stroke?’ Rae Duffy had emailed me a list of things to remember when practising my forward stroke. I had them laminated and sat them on the deck in front of me. John periodically paddled up beside me and gave me welcome advice. So I ended up with my forward stroke mantras:
Posture
Relax wrists, shoulders
Cross the horizon
Entry by toes/ spear the fish!
Straight arms/ extend your arm
Exit by hip
Leg drive
Rotation at hips

As I paddled along I worked my way through the mantras over and over, trying to string them together into a relaxed flowing and efficient stroke. I was in my Mirage 580. John was paddling a heavier 580 than me, carried an extra 10kg or so of water, plus copious supplies of out-of-date jars of fruit and muesli bars. Stephan paddled his Feathercraft folding kayak, an inherently slower kayak. Both of them powered on effortlessly, looking as though they could go on forever. They would regularly look back to check on me, and every couple of bends would wait until I caught up.

I can see that with a comfortable forward stroke, paddling down a river could become quite meditative. It’s a journey, and the journey is the thing. Paddling moves back and forth. It’s a series of practices. I push along at a slow rate. One day John comments to me that with the rhythm of the stroke he found himself falling asleep as he paddled.

The landscape on this section of the Murray varies subtly from moment to moment and day to day. The river winds and winds back on itself. The banks are steep and muddy; sometimes steeper, sometimes less steep; sometimes very muddy, sometimes a bit dryer. The first couple of days the Murray River Red Gums are big and gnarled, and their roots hang out of the river banks, and every so often there is one fallen in the river, creating snags and a reef for the fish of the river. In the middle couple of days there are sometimes willows lining the banks. And as we go further down river the Murray River Red Gums are smaller and gnarled, and their roots hang out of the river banks, and every so often there is one fallen in the river, creating snags and a reef for the fish of the river.

I’m glad I have my forward stroke to work on. I think otherwise paddling this section of the river might be like vipassana meditation. One day, as we are stopped on the side of the river, squatting around a warming fire, having our lunch, we are passed by three kayakers. Two of them are in a double, and they fly on down the river. The third one, a woman in her sixties, sees us, turns back, paddles over and stops for a chat. They are from Melbourne. They are paddling the whole river, from source to sea, taking 40 days and averaging 55km a day. Remarkable, but perhaps not a quiet meditation.

On the third day we pull out the stops and keep paddling until we reach Torrumbarry Weir. The weir is at full capacity at the moment. Rain is forecast for the coming night. There is a caravan park at the weir, the one settlement we encounter along the river. We book in to a flash cabin, eat a great dinner, and sleep warm all night. In the morning we go through the lock. We paddle through the gates on the upriver side, sit in our kayaks as the water level drops 6 metres, and paddle out the gates on the downriver side into the fast flow running from the base of the weir.

Torrumbarry Weir marks our halfway point. The second half of the trip passes through state forests. On the NSW side are Perricoota Forest and Koondrook Forest. On the Victorian side is Gunbower Island. Apart from the occasional campsite there is little sign of human activity.

As I paddle along I keep getting pain in the lower back. I find myself having to stretch out over the back deck every fifteen minutes or so to shake things up, so that I can keep paddling. On the fourth day, it’s particularly hard going, and I feel my energy flagging. I’m going slower and slower. Stephan and John see that I’m struggling, and find a place for us to pitch camp for the night. I’m cold and tired. John gets the fire going. We get our tents up, and make dinner. John and Stephan discuss contingency plans. They start thinking about what we will do if I don’t have the energy to keep going for the next two days. We are passing through state forests on both sides of the river. The first signs of habitation won’t come until just before Barham, some 70 km away.

It’s about 6pm. It’s dark. We are making our dinners. I have cooked myself some pasta and pesto. I like to use a sharp knife when I cook. I have brought a cutting board too, but this time I don’t use it. I take the block of parmesan and try to cut a slice into my bowl of pasta. The knife skips off the parmesan, and instead I put a fillet of finger in the pasta. Blood pumps. I grab my finger and hold it tight. Out come the first aid kits. Stephan wraps the wound in an absorptive dressing, and binds it up with duct tape. I’m enrolled in Bruce McNaughton’s coming first aid courses. I wish I had done them already. Somehow I sleep that night.

The next day, I adjust my pedals out one stop, and then another. The back pain eases off a bit. I have my energy back. We paddle 38km. The following night my finger is throbbing. I don’t realise that I should elevate it. I lie awake most of the night. The next day we paddle the final 29km to Barham, pull into the caravan park, unload the kayaks, and carry gear and kayaks up to our cabin. The kayaks are smeared with mud inside and out. We start cleaning them. I drop from a half-squat and my knee lands on my injured finger, eliciting a cry of anguish. I was planning to find a doctor once we got to Barham. Now seems like a good time. Stephan drives me to Barham’s hospital, which is about a kilometre from the caravan park. We are welcomed in by the nurses, and they start working on me straight away. They take off the duct tape dressing and with compression try to stop the flow of blood. That doesn’t work, so they call the doctor. He comes from his home, anaesthetises my finger, gets me to wash the wound, and then inserts a stitch through the nail. The nurse dresses the wound, and off we go. I’m feeling a little in shock, but it passes. We pick up John and have a decent meal in a pub in town.

The next morning, Stephan folds up his kayak. We load all our gear into the car, and drive back to Echuca. Echuca is a town that is forging a tourist trade based on the river and the town’s historical roots. There are cafes, heritage buildings, wine vendors, tour operators, bakeries, restaurants and boutiques. We have coffee and walk around the town. Then we pick up the other car in Moama, and start the 800km drive back to Sydney.

We have travelled 190km over six days. I have made some improvement in my forward stroke. I’ll keep working on it (and yes, I still welcome advice!) I will get advice on my cockpit setup, and somewhere in the mix will get rid of the back pain.

My favourite times on the trip were when we were sitting around the fire in the evening. Sometimes we would talk, sometimes sit in silence, enjoying the stillness of the night. I had the fortune to be travelling with John and Stephan, who looked after me well, kept encouraging me when I was struggling, and waited for me on the bends. On top of that, they are intelligent people with stories to tell, so discussions ranged far and wide across all sorts of interesting topics. What a delight!

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