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Morgans Beach to Picnic Point
Tumultuous weather dominated this scenic river trip through the largest river red gum forest in the world.
The Barmah-Millewa forest is located on the floodplains of both the Murray and Edward rivers between Tocumwal and Euchuca. At the downstream end of the forest the narrow Barmah Choke holds up the floodwaters so that they back up and fan out over the plains, inundating and irrigating the forest. All that can be seen from the river in any direction is river red gum after river red gum. It's a monoculture forest.
My trip coincided with historic changes to the management of these spectacular river red gum forests. On November 26, 2009 the Victorian government passed legislation to create a national park incorporating the former Barmah State Forest and Park. The changes include provision for co-management by the Traditional Owners. This is the first time a Victorian national park has been created in partnership with traditional owners.
Shortly after my trip, Nathan Rees, as one of his final acts as Premier of NSW, announced the creation of a large new national park along the NSW side of the Murray River. One of the aims is to protect much of NSW's remaining river red gum forests from logging. This national park is the area I travelled through. At the time of writing the NSW cabinet has not yet approved the ex-Premier's proposal.
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I mentioned the tumultuous weather. The first catastrophic fire danger day ever for NSW was declared as I drove towards Morgans Beach, the starting point of this river trip. The fire warning heralded a week of wildly variable weather. My progress on the river was affected by a strong current (good), snags (bad), damaging winds (dangerous), rain (wet) and extreme heat.
On the way to the river I drove through forty degree heat, and rain. At the same time! I was thinking 'I am about to paddle through the largest river red gum forest in the world. Is this wise when there is a very high fire danger? What would I do if a bushfire was approaching? Is the river wide enough to be a fire break? What if the wind is so strong that I am blown onto the fire shore?' By the time I reached Morgans Beach I had developed a number of scenarios and survival strategies. This all proved to be academic because when I arrived the fierce hot wind was so strong there was no way I could control the board on the water. Having left my car with Jim at the Murray River Hideaway Caravan Park I stood on the small beach wondering how many hours or days it may be before conditions became suitable for riding the board.
As the sun set that day I was still on the same beach. No sign of an improvement in the weather. No river kilometres traversed. The board and I remained dry, all ready to go, on the bank of the river. Having made no progress I couldn't bring myself to unpack all the camping gear, which had been so carefully packed at home. I strung the tent fly between two trees and slept (fitfully and briefly!) on the dirt, with just a thin poncho as a barrier between me and the bull ant holes. To help me sleep I pondered the age old question 'Do koalas have different accents in different parts of Australia?' The koalas sounded a little different here - they had more emphasis on the expiration part of the grunt than those I had heard higher up the river.
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The advantage of sleeping on the dirt under a furiously flapping tent fly is that there is no risk of oversleeping! I got a very early start. The wind had calmed down and the camping gear was still all packed ready to go.
Light rain started to fall almost as soon as I got on the water. This was only a minor inconvenience as I expect to get wet, and the gear is mainly in waterproof containers. I made good progress, with a relatively uneventful, if damp, day. I camped at Tongalong Beach. It was a Saturday night. I wasn't sure how much sleep I would get. At one end of the beach there was a marquee with a group of young men and several cars. They lit a huge fire and settled in for a big night. As it turned out they were very considerate and I slept well.
It rained heavily during the night. I heard later that some areas nearby had the highest November daily rainfall for forty years. I was very proud of my $10 tent - it hardly leaked at all!
I mentioned earlier that my gear is largely protected from the rain. This is true, once it has been packed. My dilemma that morning was that my bedding, in particular, would get soggy if I packed in the rain. So I stayed in the tent waiting for the rain to stop. There were several short breaks in the rain, each one temporarily appearing to be the end of the deluge. Several times I began to pack but had to retreat into the tent as the rain restarted. When the rain stopped (yet again) at about 10 am, I wondered if the rain had stopped this time for good. A single kookaburra started laughing. This was the first bird call of the day. The birds had been silent all the morning. The rain didn't start again. That first kookaburra call announced the last of the rain for the morning. It seemed the kookaburra knew something I didn't.
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As I left Tongalong Beach a small group of campers assembled at the water's edge to farewell me. Little did I realise these would be the last people I would see for 2 days.
I hardly jotted down a note during this day. I was thoroughly occupied by the struggle I was having on the river. Strong gusts of wind kept me on my toes, as I tried to avoid snags in the fast flowing current.
During the afternoon the weather deteriorated. A huge arch of black cloud stretched across the sky in my path. I tried to ignore it as I wanted to press on - I was making very little progress after a late start.
Then something happened that had never happened before! A strong squall caught me and flipped the board right over. Upside down. This is rare even when sailing, but I was only sitting on the board at the time! Right from the start of the trip I had noticed that the board was 'tippy'. I was carrying a lot of drinking water which raised the centre of gravity. This first ever capsize (in 600 kms) emphasised the point, but it still caught me by surprise.
I found myself floating down the river, holding onto the board, wondering what to do next. There was no-one around. I tried to right the board - it wouldn't budge. I tried kicking to guide the board towards the bank of the river. The board and the barrels took no notice - they were in the grip of the strong current and weren't going to move from the centre of the river. Leaving the board and swimming to shore was an option but would be breaking the first safety rule - always stick with the board. Besides, all my drinking water was on the board and I was some way from civilisation. I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that the foam containers on board would be taking in water. In desperation I had another go at righting the board. This time one rail (edge) of the board dug into the current and the board flipped upright again. I clambered on board, dripping but relieved.
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The following day the steep bank at the campsite made loading the board and launching the barrels tricky. Within minutes of leaving the barrels rearranged themselves, lowering the leaky tops into the water. Water was getting in and soaking the bedding. I looked out for a spot to land to correct the situation. There are very few beaches in this part of the river. The sandy river bed has been replaced by extremely slippery clay. Luckily I came to a bush boat ramp and pulled in. I rejigged the barrels and the foam that supports them. It wasn't easy as walking in the water was very hazardous. At one point my feet skated from under me and I had a spectacular fall. Luckily there was no-one around to laugh.
After floating through the magnificent forest for 10 kms, a white post on the bank caught my eye. It is amazing how something man-made 'stands out' after hours of travelling through native forest. The white post was a road marker on a bush track. I stopped at this sign of civilisation for morning tea. Another small can of tuna! Unfortunately the bread was soggy from the capsize the previous day. Twisting the top of a plastic bag is no barrier to river water!
I made good progress down the river, but the increasing wind gusts caused some anxiety after yesterday's capsize. I found a good camping spot - a check point for the Murray River marathon - the five day event from Yarrawonga to Swan Hill. Once again the extremely slippery bottom of the river made walking in the water hazardous, and with the strong current a fall could result in being swept away. I stayed close to shore. After four nights on the side of the river I was ready for a proper wash and some hot food. Picnic Point beckoned, only 12 kms down river.
I was woken up next morning by a multitude of birds in full voice. The magnificent but deafening dawn chorus greeted the first sunny morning of the trip. After packing up I took off. After an hour or so I floated past two occupied campsites. The first people I had seen in two days. I even saw two or three boats as I approached Picnic Point. The Caravan Park has a spectacular position right on the river. I tied the board to a tree and trudged into the office. The people there could not have been more helpful. Amongst other things they offered me a ride into town (Mathoura, 13 kms) to kick start my hitchhike back to the Murray River Hideaway Caravan Park to retrieve the car.
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I regularly hitchhike back to my vehicle at the end of a river trip. I'm amazed how helpful people are. In this case I hitchhiked 116 kms in three and a half hours. Some of the roads were major, but others were dirt roads with little traffic. Seven drivers picked me up, and every one of them took me further than they were going, to help me.
I had hoped to continue on the river beyond Picnic Point but the current downstream gets very fast in an isolated section of the river known as the Narrows, between Moira Lake and Barmah Lake. The area is also known for snags so I thought it may be wise to rearrange the luggage storage on the board to make it more stable before tackling the Narrows. I'm also trying to work out a way of not having to tow the barrels through this section, to make the board more nimble in avoiding snags. This part of the river has amazing bird life and scenery so I'm looking forward to travelling through the area, and only a little apprehensive!
Premier of Victoria's website, accessed 3 December 2009, http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/component/content/article/8882.html
Parks Victoria website, accessed 3 December 2009, http://www.parkweb.vic.gov.au/1park_display.cfm?park=43
Sydney Morning Herald 4 December 2009, http://www.smh.com.au/environment/new-national-park-gives-murrays-river-red-gums-lastminute-reprieve-20091203-k8v7.html
Parliament of NSW, Questions without Notice, 4 December 2009, River Red Gum Forests Protection, http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/Prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LA20090903018
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Morgans Beach (1853 kms from Murray Mouth) to Picnic Point (1790 kms from Murray Mouth)
Dates 20 November - 24 November 2009
Distance, time: 66 Kms, 4 days, 5 nights camping on the banks of the river
River height: High: Approx. 2.16 metres at Tocumwal
River flow: Over 9 000 ML/day
River temperature: Refreshing - around 24 degrees C
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