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Left: Gunbower wetlands
Middle: The high tech 'Bogged Note'
Right: Can we drive through here?
Torrumbarry to Barham, minus a bit
'I thought I heard a car!' This is how Dave greeted me as I crawled out of my tent early on the third morning. We had chosen a wonderful isolated campsite at Bonneman Bend on the Murray River. Dave had set up a well organised bush camp, with a campfire, and all the outdoor gear needed to enjoy our forest setting. Christine's magnificent meals had arrived with Dave, who is a skilled camp cook in his own right. This team approach laid the basis for another successful trip on the river.
Gunbower Forest is a huge area (20,000 hectares) of river wetlands, red gum plains and woodland along the Murray River, 235 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. It is protected by the international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands. This forest was to be our home for nine days of the Windsurfing on the Murray trip.
I started the trip by carrying the board around the Torumbarry Weir. The board has to progress to the Murray mouth purely as a result of my efforts and the renewable power of wind and current. So I had to carry it on my own. This 300 metres or so portage around the weir linked the end of the previous trip to the first splash of this new trip.
The start of the trip around the weir was almost its end as well. As I walked alongside the river, I looked down to see that my foot was about ten centimetres from the tip of the tail of a very large snake! I had almost trodden on it. The snake was coiled and rampant, with its raised head, all ready to strike, level with my knee! Inexplicably though, it was set to strike in exactly the wrong direction - away from me. I think it must have been dyslexic. I scampered away, unharmed.
Gunbower Forest has the most spectacular mud. Slippery like ice when you tread on it and sticky like glue when you tread in it. I keep thinking that there must be a commercial use for the mud, as a lubricant and adhesive! When the river floods the muddy tracks in the forest become boggy, slippery and impassable.
We rapidly developed a daily routine. Dave would get up, start the fire and make a cup of tea. After a quick breakfast, we would tidy up the camp and head off to the day's starting point on the river. After confirming the planned meeting points during the the day, I would set out on the board. Dave would drive off into the bush and get bogged. I shouldn't imply he got bogged every day. He didn't. On the other days he drove off into the bush and got lost.
Seriously though, searching for passable tracks to river access points, so we could meet up, was a major focus of Dave's time. The Hume Dam was almost full (99% at 20/10/2012) and the Torrumbarry Weir was at its capacity. There was enough water in the Murray Darling Basin river system to allow deliberate water releases to flood the wetlands, without adversely affecting river users. The controlled environmental flooding in the Gunbower Forest revives frog communities, increases bird breeding, germinates the seeds of trees and reeds, restores native animal numbers and fosters fish families. We were in favour of this, of course. We just wondered if it could have happened a week later!
Dave's rugged 4WD vehicle was thoroughly tested. It powered through sand, water and mud. Sometimes it would reluctantly succumb to the conditions. On one notable occasion I returned to the campsite at the end of the day to find a cardboard note from Dave. It started 'Bogged'. By the time I found Dave he had been trying to free the vehicle for over three hours. The wheels were so deeply entrenched that the differential was also stuck in the mud. As we pondered the situation from every angle a 4WD ute miraculously appeared on a nearby track. We rushed to flag it down. The ex-farmer, now weed sprayer, towed our vehicle out, and gave us a detailed run down on which parts of the forest were impassable. The Murray Marathon, one of the longest canoe races in the world, excludes this section of the river so that the land crew vehicles don't get bogged in the forest. We took a different approach. We included this section of the river, and our land crew vehicle got bogged regularly.
In spite of the logistical problems we made good progress on the river. The Lockmaster at Torrumbarry Weir couldn't have been more helpful. He allowed us to depart from the boat ramp just below the weir, so off I went, through Baldwin Bend and Toorangabby Cutting to meet Dave for lunch on the riverbank. After lunch I passed Masters' Hut - a historic landmark. According to legend, in 1860 Frederick Masters left Echuca in a rowing boat, heading for Swan Hill. He didn't get to Swan Hill - he decided to set up camp at today's Masters Landing site to avoid an 'undesirable fellow' who was following him. He built the hut out of bark from local Grey-box trees and caught and sold river fish for a living. Frederick married and raised 12 children with his wife, Emma Offord. He died in the hut in 1905.
The banks are very steep in this part of the river. After considering a few difficult landing points at the end of the day, Dave found a creek inlet which was ideal. Then back to the campsite for a good meal! This was a 'normal' day. There weren't many normal days - things happened!
The next day I passed though Kate Malone Bend (any relation to Pat Malone?) and Mopoke Bend. We could hear the mopokes at night. They are the smallest and most abundant of the Australian owls. The mopoke has many alternative names, many of which are onomatopoeic - they sound like the bird's two-pitched call. Examples include boobook, morepork and ruru. They are nocturnal raptors (birds of prey) but on a dull day they may also hunt crepuscularly (at twilight). Their soft leading edge wing feathers allow them to dive on prey silently. Stealth flyers! The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, until I pulled into the campsite to find the handwritten cardboard 'Bogged' note described above. Dave had wisely shunned SMS, email, twitter, Facebook and all other modern forms of communication due to the poor reception in the area!
It is good to have things to think about on the river. The bend called 'Halfway Bend' got me thinking the following day. Half way to where? From where? At 1,596 kilometres to the Murray Mouth it is more than half the entire length of the river, so I imagine it is halfway from one important river port to another. Work continued on this until I stopped for the day at Broken River Bend. Later, back in Sydney, I worked out that Halfway Bend is roughy halfway between Swan Hill and Echuca.
The need for scouting ahead increased as the trip progressed. Many tracks were underwater. Could Dave get into Bend 82, Bend 84 and Bend 86? There were several tracks in the area. Each needed to be checked until a clear track was found. Dave found enough access points for me to push on, which I did until we reached Nursery Bend No. 1. What we saw there confirmed what we had been told in Cohuna. The flooding along the river downstream from Nursery Bend 1 to Nursery Bend 2, Nursery Bend 3 and beyond made vehicle access impossible. Whilst I could have continued I considered to do so would be irresponsible. If I needed help it would have been very difficult for people to get to me. (You will have noticed that the imagination of the bend namers faltered at this part of the river.)
We moved camp to near Milverton Bend, and sought further information on what to do next. We also drove upstream from Barham to reconnoitre. Flooding in the area limited our options. I decided it would be convenient to cover the section of the river between the campsite and Barham the next day, which I did. The river through Koondrook and into Barham has some quaint old buildings on the banks. The timber mill is still operating, with a little shop nearby selling timber products, and the old railway station is still in place.
The intention then was to push on downstream from Barham, but Dave's diligent research confirmed that this area was also flooded. One of his sources of information was two guys camping alone in a large camping area. No one else around but the 'camp full' sign, hand written on a beer carton, was still in place! With nowhere else to go we decided to cover the last remaining accessible stretch of river between Torrumbarry and Barham the next day, and call it quits.
We drove to check what was ahead of us for the next day. It was at this point that Dave's 4WD vehicle performed the perfect perpendicular park/bog. This is where the vehicle waits for the deepest and muddiest part of a difficult water crossing, before allowing the rear wheels to catch up to the front wheels by sliding sideways. After some lateral movement the vehicle came to rest perpendicular to the direction of the track, in deep sticky mud. To his credit Dave quickly sized up the situation. He moved some very heavy logs from in front of the vehicle, while I watched and took photos. This created a new path. We drove out unscathed. I was in the 4WD when it all happened! It was quite scary. I thought I was going to get my shoes muddy.
I was still shaking as we drove further along the river track, to Graham's Hut, previously known as known Morris's Hut. This hut, on the Murray River, was originally built in 1943, using timber from the original Strachan farm house built at McMillans in the late 1800's. When Dr Graham moved to Cohuna, in northern Victoria, the hut was full of fishing and camping gear, used and owned by 4 fisherman mates, including Jack Morris. Jack organised the payment of the lease for the site - two shillings and sixpence a year. In the late 1960's Jack Morris was in ill heath and the only surviving member of the fishermen. He sold the hut to Dr Graham for 200 pounds, hence the name change from Morris's to Graham's hut. Dr Graham was a very active man. He was the GP on call for the Cohuna community for 48 years. He fought hard for rural medicine and was the founding President of the Rural Doctors Association of Victoria. He served on several Boards, and was a local Shire Councillor and President. His good work for medicine and the community was recognised when he was honoured as 'Regional Victorian of the Year', as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), and with a Centenary Medal. A remarkable man! He enjoyed spending time at the hut with his Labrador, 6 children and, later, his grandchildren. Dr Graham fought successfully to save and preserve the hut, in the face of Government policy in the early 1980's to remove riverside huts and dwellings to free up public access to the river.
Soon after leaving the boat ramp at 1,552 kilometres from the river mouth, for the last 17 kilometres of this trip, I heard the sound of a pump in the distance. It was a weed spray pump. I had a good chat to the operator and learnt more about the countryside. I learnt, for example, that the river road on the NSW side goes up to the '19 mile'. Another cryptic landmark, but no doubt well known to the locals. This was a very peaceful, isolated and remote part of the river. I didn't see a single boat moving, or anyone except the weed man. After one more night in camp, Dave and I went our separate ways, completing a very successful trip.
I received an upbeat email from Dave after he returned to Melbourne. He was elated. The insurance company had agreed to replace the damaged windscreen for nothing. The malfunctioning vehicle battery was being nursed back to health with some battery acid (considered essential in some quarters). The car fridge had been repaired cheaply after it 'flamed out' during my attempt to fix it. Another ill-defined and more expensive vehicle repair had been necessary, but only partly attributable to our bush bashing. His proudest achievement was the creation of a new mud mountain in St Kilda when he washed the 4WD. So all ended well!
Obituary for Dr Peter Graham, written by his daughter, Fiona Lloyd, and published at http://medicine150.mdhs.unimelb.edu.au/alumni/1950/obituaries/peter-warner-graham-mbbs-1951
Information kindly provided by Mrs Ann Graham, on the history of Graham's Hut
An information sheet on the hut, written by Dr Peter Graham and posted on Graham's Hut
Gunbower Forest Walks and Drives, Dept. of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria
The Murray River Guardian, 2011-2012
River Murray Charts, M. A. Wright
Torrumbarry (1,629 kilometres from the river mouth) to Barham (1,524 kilometres from the river mouth),
excluding a 22 kilometre section between 1574 and 1552 kilometres
82 kilometres total
Dates: 17 October 2012 to 25 October 2012
Water temperature: Cold initially (16 degrees C!) warmer later.
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