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Blanchetown to Swan Reach and beyond - February 2008
"Frightening!" That is how Bob and Sue Warren, who resumed their role as SA land crew, described the first day of the South Australian section of the Murray. "We've lost him on the first day!"
It started well - there was a light wind as I left the Blanchetown Riverside Caravan Park in the morning of February 23rd 2008. I paddled from the sandy beach with confidence. Everything changed abruptly as I rounded the first bend. A strong headwind developed. Before long I was making very little progress with waves breaking over the nose of the board and smashing into the bow box. After about 2 kms I pulled into the bank for a rest. I still had 5 kms to go to reach the first meeting point with Bob and Sue.
As I was considering the options I was approached by Josy who with her husband Graham owns a nearby shack. She offered me a cup of coffee and introduced me to her parents Joe and Daphne, son Sam and Sam's friend Drew. After this welcome respite I rejoined the fray and eventually approached the first meeting point, Castles Landing. In the distance I saw a couple sitting comfortably on the bank, but as I got closer I realised they were not Bob and Sue. Bob and Sue could not reach the landing as the track down to the river was on private property and blocked by padlocked gates. By the time they had solved the problem by finding and paying a fee to the landowner I'd left on advice that there was another landing a kilometre or so down the river. I didn't find this landing.
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The wind was now gale force on the South Australian coast, and very strong on the river. I wasn't confident that I could reach meeting point 2 - another 7 kms - due to the headwind. I let the land crew know this with a text message. Bob and Sue then spent a worrying time trying to find another (closer) meeting point on the river. They found high cliffs and padlocked gates. This section of the river appears to be very short of river reserves for the enjoyment of the public.
I pushed on to meeting point 2 as we could not find any closer alternative, passing an old steam boiler on the bank, a wagon wheel suspended in a tree and a huge sandbar near Portee Landing which at the time was preventing the paddle boat Murray Princess from reaching Blanchetown. Bob and Sue had to negotiate with a representative of the landowner to get to the river at the meeting point 2. This man from Freeling was very helpful and met me up river in his tinny to see if I needed help. He pointed out the landing point in the distance where the cliff subsides, and watched to ensure I reached it.
I covered 14 kms against the wind this day - normally that amount of effort would have covered double the distance.
The next day we were a little more strategic - we checked out river access points in the car before launching. Once again the opportunities for the public to get to the river bank were restricted by private property and padlocks. However a helpful grader driver guided us to a landing near the pumping station about 9 kms upstream from Swan Reach. Coincidentally the pipeline provides water to Yorketown where Bob and Sue come from. The headwind was not as strong as the previous day and a relatively uneventful trip down the river to Swan Reach followed.
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After 2 days only the middle section of the Blanchetown to Swan Reach remained to be covered. Given the difficulties of carrying the board and all the equipment over a padlocked gate and carrying it down a steep track to the river at meeting point 2, it was decided to use the landing near the pumping station again, and paddle 5 kms up the river, then back down again to cover this remaining middle section. At the end of the 5 kms upstream leg I landed to check that the spot was in fact meeting point 2. I climbed up the steep track and at the top of the cliff was greeted by a magnificent view of the blue shimmering river winding its way upstream. It looked like rivers I had seen in Europe. After a few photographs I was on the way back down the river.
Back at the pumping station landing we made a few repairs to the board and retired back to base - Swan Reach Caravan Park. Bob and Sue had used the time productively to reconnoitre the access points down the river and find a shop that sold devonshire teas.
The next day was notable for the first sailing leg of the venture so far. In the upper reaches of the river paddling was the only choice as the river is narrow with a fast current. Part of the purpose of this SA trip was to experiment with the use and carriage of the sail. Swan Reach has a sandy river beach which provided the opportunity to try sailing. I took off with the sail up and waited for the wind. I made some progress but in the light airs soon had to resort to paddling.
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The furled sail can be carried on the board ready for use when the wind and river conditions are suitable, but unfortunately if the wind gets too strong for windsurfing the furled sail projecting over the nose of the board catches the wind and makes the board unsteerable. In the absence of an accompanying boat to carry the sail, or regular close road access to the river so the sail can be ditched and retrieved later, the only option for trips longer than say half an hour or so, is to paddle without taking the sail. I'm working on solutions to this problem so the sail can be carried to allow a choice of sailing or paddling depending on the conditions.
The trip to Old Big Bend landing was very scenic - passing Punyelroo and some sizable cliffs. The Murray Expedition (a 3 story cruise boat) and the Murray Princess (a 3 story paddle-wheeler) both slid past dwarfing my water level craft.
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Wednesday the 27th of February didn't go as planned. When Sue heard I was writing this she said "That sentence could be used for everyday so far!" and she was right. I'd really been looking forward to this day - the day I'd be travelling on the river through Big Bend - the majestic cliff lined section of the river that appears in all the tourist brochures.
Unfortunately the car refused to start so our departure from the camp ground was delayed until the land crew had diagnosed the problem, the caravan park owner Brian Way had lent us some diesel and the NRMA man had arrived and been paid. Only then did the car reluctantly struggle to life. We arrived at the starting point - Old Big Bend Landing - after midday - far too late to achieve the day's planned distance.
Nevertheless I had a magnificent trip through Big Bend, with a tail wind that allowed me to relax and admire the cliffs, the river wildlife and assorted houseboats. At one point I looked up to see the 3 story Murray Expedition cruise boat loom into view around a bend - an amazing sight against the background of towering yellow cliffs. Further down the river near Sunnydale I stopped for a rest on the bank. Contact with the land crew was now impossible by mobile phone (no reception) but luckily Bob had set me up with a small 2 way radio, which did the trick. The reception was as clear as a bell. The gist of what I learnt was that the land crew didn't have a clue where I was and that they had enjoyed another devonshire tea.
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As I was about to push off from the little beach when the huge Murray Princess went past again, on its way to its overnight stop at the 229 Km marker. The passengers are let out at this Sunnydale stop to frolic with the wombats. The headwind was getting stronger - with about 3 kms to go to the Greenway's Landing meeting point and the extensive high cliffs on the eastern side of the river this was a concern. I struggled against the wind, creeping along the western side of the river and could eventually see the mirror flashes from Bob indicating the landing site on the opposite side of the river.
The wind continued to increase and waves were breaking over the board. I wondered if the bow box was shipping water as the waves crashed against it. "You don't seem to be making any progress" crackled the 2 way radio helpfully. Indeed not. I pulled into the bank, tied a rope to the board and walked along the shore towing the board, using the paddle to poke the board to keep it away from the bank. My aim was to struggle along the river's edge in this manner until I was well downstream of the landing on the other side, then try to cross the river, knowing the the wind would blow me upstream. If the wind was too strong and I overshot the landing I had many kilometres of cliffs to bounce along!
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Even with a land crew I carry a survival kit on the board in case I am forced to spend a night out on the banks of the river. I got to the point where I thought this was a night I would need it. I could see the land crew and the car on the other side of the river but weeping willows were about to block my progress along the bank, making it difficult to reach a suitable spot to attempt a crossing. I was worried about my ability to hit the landing spot rather than the cliffs downwind as the waves and wind were still increasing.
Although it was late in the day I noticed a large houseboat rounding the bend and coming towards me. I mentally dismissed it as a source of assistance as it was so huge and apparently unmaneuverable. As I wistfully watched it glide past a woman on board yelled out "Would you like a hand?" At first they could not hear my reply ("Yes please") but before long they were skillfully steering the house boat into the shore to pick me up and tow the board. With some difficulty due to the strength of the wind the house boat got me across the river, with a cup of coffee! I would like to thank these benefactors, who asked to be known as the Tasmanians and 2 Canberrans. They saved me from a windy cold uncomfortable night amongst the river reeds. I really appreciated the warmth of the land crew caravan and the hot meal provided that night!
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Continuing strong southerly winds and the excitement of the previous day's rescue made us wary of venturing out on the river the next day. Eager to learn as much as possible about the forecast I asked a shop assistant "What do you think the weather will be like today?" "Much the same as tomorrow" was the puzzling reply.
We had a day off the river and drove out to a little town called Galga, which was fascinating. In its heyday Galga had a football team, a school, a store and post office, a church, full grain silos and a railway station. Julie Anthony, the singer, lived nearby and played netball for the town. These days the population is down to one family of 4 and one other man. The school building and the church are up for sale and the railway line has been ripped up, but the town retains a strong sense of history and character. "The Galga Story" is available from the excellent Swan Reach Museum.
Bob and Sue had other commitments so we reluctantly parted company at Swan Reach. I could not have wished for a better land crew. It was a fabulous week - full of surprises and excitement that could not have been scripted by the most imaginative of adventure tour operators.
Blanchetown (274 kms from Murray Mouth) to Greenways Landing (227 kms from Murray Mouth)
Dates: 23 - 28 Feb 2008
Distance, time: 47 Kms, 6 days
River height: Locals told us the river level was 2 metres below normal
River flow: Wind affected
River temperature: Perfect
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