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Left: The new tent - first night
Middle: Regeneration of red gums
Right: The end of this trip at Tooleybuc
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Swan Hill to Tooleybuc
This was the most ambitious trip so far. With no land crew available, I planned to cover 90 kilometres of the river on my own. That meant carrying at least nine days of provisions. I also had to allow for days stuck on the river bank if conditions were unsuitable for travel.
I selected an easy part of the river. Between Swan Hill and Tooleybuc there are several small towns, and the river approaches the Murray Valley Highway occasionally - offering opportunities to bail out if that became necessary. These safety features weren't in place for Major Mitchell in 1838. He camped amongst the black swans on a sandhill that he named Swan Hill.
I stayed in a cabin near the river the night before departure. This was very convenient for sorting out the gear and loading the board. Everything has to be stashed so as to lower the centre of gravity. Even then the board and trailing barrels were perilously unstable as I pushed off. As I continued down the river I drank water from the bottles on board, in an effort to improve the stability of the rig. Then I wondered if I was doing the right thing. If water transfers from a bottle on the board into me is that raising or lowering the centre of gravity?
I had just settled into my stride, enjoying the tranquility of the river, when I rounded a bend to come upon a large gleaming metal building - the abattoir. I hadn't escaped civilisation yet!
Then the rain started. Light at first but persistent. Only a few kilometres further down the river I decided to stop for the night. It wasn't easy to find a good camp site on the muddy, slippery bank. I wasn't far from peppermint trees and a house. I hovered outside the garden fence dripping wet, hoping someone would appear and allow me to camp in their dry shed. Or even better allow me to spend the night in a derelict caravan nearby. No luck. I selected a site about 200 metres downstream, free of overhanging red gums, as they drop their branches.
I put the new tent up in the rain. Reluctantly I have retired my old tent. I had used it for six years and had become quite attached to it. It performed well in dry weather. I only got wet when it rained. Overall I think it was a reasonable investment. ($5 at a garage sale!) However on my previous trip it ripped from one end to the other, hence the new tent.
The next morning I woke up dry! I proudly photographed the amazing new tent, packed and pushed off. The target for today was Beveridge Island. The Beveridge brothers were the first white settlers in the district in 1845. Peter Beveridge and his older brother Andrew drove 1,000 cattle into the area, and established Tyntynder station, 16 kilometres downstream from Swan Hill. Another brother, George, joined them with flocks of sheep and in 1846 they took up Piangil, about 24 kilometres downstream from Tyntynder. They now had around eight hundred and fifty square kilometres of land. Unfortunately Andrew was speared to death in an argument with Aboriginal people over the ownership of sheep. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, Peter became very interested in Aboriginal culture, and wrote many articles on their culture, customs and myths. Beveridge Island is now privately leased, with a private punt for access.
I carry a small radio. I bought it because it is a shower radio. I assumed it would be waterproof. When I got it home the first point on the instruction sheet was 'Do not use near water'! Nevertheless I wrap it in plastic and hang it from my life jacket. It is very useful for weather forecasts. On this day the forecast was bleak. Recent rain had already caused flooding. More rain and strong winds were forecast.
I reached Beveridge Island. This would have been a reasonable day's travel, but I decided to push on. I took the left fork and passed the island on its southern side, then looked for a suitable place to stop. Once again it wasn't easy to find a good campsite. I settled on a riverside reserve that was also home to two horses. They watched with great interest as I set up the tent. They were clearly on edge - was it safe to come closer or should they retreat? In the early hours of the morning they got bolder. I woke up to hear them snorting aggressively at the tent, one on each side! I imagined a horse's hoof in the middle of my back, or a horse stumbling over me as it tangled with the tent. I thumped on the sides of the tent and they cantered off into the night.
My departure next morning was delayed by strong winds and continual rain. I left just before midday, after admiring and avoiding a large fat centipede under the tent. Downstream from the Speewa punt I was interested in a large danger sign on the bank. What was the danger? The fine print on the sign was very small - I paddled closer and closer to the sign. When I was well and truly in the danger zone I could read 'Danger - Submerged pipes inlet'. I pulled my feet out of the water and snuck away. I had a rest on the bank near Tyntyndyer - the original Beveridge brothers' homestead, which is now a museum.
As I reached the end of Speewa island I saw three black swans sedately swimming in the river. This serene scene was shattered by the five pm weather forecast - more rain and damaging winds! The forecast was accompanied by a special plea for people not to enter forests. The next ten kilometres of my trip was through the Nyah State Forest, so I would be held up. I pulled into the bank and started the usual search for a campsite close to the river, that wouldn't flood, without overhanging red gum branches and reasonably level. I was keen to ask for permission to camp from a nearby house but once again from the perimeter fence I couldn't see any sign of life. I moved further downstream and set up camp.
The severe weather hit during the night. I was woken up at 4.30 am by the noise of the wind - it sounded like a jet engine starting up. I had no doubt that if I went outside the tent I would not be able to stand in the wind, especially as the Murray mud was wet and slippery. The new tent shivered and shook, but resisted the barrage. Luckily I had tied the board to the bank securely, with a bow line, a stern line and a rope around its middle. (Note the nautical terminology!) Fortunately I had some water and food inside the tent. All I could do was lie in the tent and read my book - Barack Obama's 'The Audacity of Hope'.
I only left the tent a couple of times during the day. The outside walls were spattered with mud. The mud was really gluggy. It was impossible to remove all the mud from my feet before re-entering the tent. I developed the technique of lying on my front, with my feet in the air, until the mud dried. Then I could peel the mud off and throw it outside. There was no chance of progress on the river. Frustratingly I was only half a day's travel short of the little town of Nyah. Had I been there I could have weathered the storm indoors over several cappuccinos!
The next day large areas of Victoria and New South Wales were flooded, including the nearby towns of Nathalia and Numurkah. However weather conditions had eased in my area - I packed in the mud and resumed my trip on the river. I didn't see the Jo Takasuka monument - it must be a little way from the river. Jo immigrated from Japan in 1905. He is credited with producing the first commercial rice crop in Australia.
As I approached Nyah I got a little confused in my navigation. I use two different types of charts. Both are incredibly useful. They have a different focus. The River Murray Charts are styled on paddle steamer charts and have been developed by Barry and Maureen Wright. They are very detailed, showing, for example, windmills, pumps, houses, snags, and even willow and pepper trees. With the help of the charts I usually know where I am on the river. This is handy for safety purposes. If I had to call for help I could give my location, and I know how far I am from access to assistance. Occasionally I get 'lost'. The river has several kinks just upstream of Nyah. I knew roughly where I was, but not exactly. The situation was further complicated by an unexpected eddy in the river on the last bend, which caught the board at 90 degrees and almost flipped it over.
On the fringe of Nyah I saw something that looked like a boat ramp - my planned landing point in Nyah. It didn't seem to be in the right place, but then I had temporarily lost faith in my navigation. I decided to pass it and pull in further downstream. It was only when I walked along the bank downstream I found the real boat ramp, as marked on the chart. I walked around, initially looking for a campsite, then in to the shops for food and supplies. I heard beautiful singing coming from one building. I was told later it must have been from the Fijian Church in town. The Figians come to Australia to work in the orchards and vineyards.
Nyah was like an oasis. Hot food and cold drink! No cans of tuna needed today! Then I floated further downstream and found a wonderful campsite in the Nyah State Forest. An older couple, R and H (not their real names) walked past and said hello. I've written more about them below.
When I left the idyllic campsite at Gallows Bend I had no foreboding that this would be a day of near disaster. The sun was shining, the river level was rising about half a metre each day following the record breaking rains, and the amount of water flowing down the river had increased five fold, from 4,000 Ml/day to 20,000 Ml/day. The current was fast and furious. It is easy to underestimate the power of fast flowing water, as I discovered later in the day.
I reached Pick's Point and amused myself by thinking about how places get their names. I didn't want to dwell on Gallows Bend. Pick's Point gave more scope for my imagination. I expect a man called Mr Pick said 'If I were to pick a Point to purchase then Pick's Point would be the Point I'd pick.' Hence the name. There is plenty of time to think on the river!
I was looking forward to reaching Wood Wood. The Wood Wood general store promised to be the second oasis in two days. Unfortunately it was shut until further notice. No nutritional treats available in Wood Wood, although a woman selling wonderful vegetables that she had grown herself sold me a can of soft drink to boost my energy level. Wood Wood, like other small towns in the area, looked very neat and well kept. Wood Wood used to be called Wort Wort. No one knows how the change happened. I suspect an over active spell checker made the change and no-one noticed!
I noticed that both the current and wind were getting stronger. Not only that - the high volume of flood water in the river was causing eddies and swirls. The chart warned of 'bad snags'. I guess the 'good snags' must be further down the river. Normally the two barrels containing my camping gear follow obediently behind the board. Occasionally though, in turbulent conditions, they take a different track. That's what almost caused a disaster. I rounded a bend, neatly avoiding a large fallen tree with many limbs in the water. The board and I swept past the snag, but then the board and I came to a sudden jarring halt. My immediate thought was 'It's happened.' The barrels had taken a wider path around the bend and had passed the snag on the opposite side. The rope from board to barrels was firmly caught on the snag. The force of the rushing water on the board threatened to tip it over, and the force of the water on the barrels made it impossible to release them. I had anticipated that this could happen, so I attached the barrels with a quick release knot within my reach on the board.
Delicately maintaining my balance on the board, I considered my options. If I did something that caused the board to catch more water on an angle to the current it could tip over. If that happened I would not be able to right it and would have to abandon the board, my drinking water, provisions and camping gear. End of trip!
The easiest option would be to undo the quick release knot. If the rope flowed freely through its guiding loops under the board, the board would be freed. However the rope and barrels could remain snagged, meaning I would lose the barrels. I have no reverse gear - I couldn't paddle back against the current to retrieve them. Given the multiple branches of the snag, that would be a hazardous option anyway. If the barrels did work free, then I would probably still lose them - it would be difficult to catch a barrel then hold it with one hand whilst trying to get the board and barrel to the bank with the other.
The snag had a projecting branch behind me and to my right. I pulled as hard as I could on the rope, but evenly so as not to upset the board. I slowly moved back, against the current, getting closer to the barrels and the branch. I was now level with the branch, but it remained out of reach to my right. By slightly tilting the board I could get closer to the branch but not close enough. Then I would lose my grip on the rope and rocket back to the starting point. This happened several times. On about the fifth attempt I managed to grab the branch and hang on without tipping the board in the fast current. My foot found another branch under water - this gave me the stability I needed. I could now edge back and eventually reached the barrels. I then untied the rope, corralled the loose barrels against the board, freed the rope from the snag and retied the barrels. Letting go of the snag was an act of faith - I hoped the rope wouldn't catch again. All was well. The board and barrels resumed their normal relationship and floated away from the snag. I was off again down the river!
That was enough excitement for one day! I found a campsite, grateful that I still had my new tent to put up. The campsite wasn't brilliant - the river had very steep banks. Loading the board next morning would be slow and slippery.
Soon after leaving the next day I reached Murphy's Island. The current split left and right, reducing its speed from 'fast' to 'sedate'. I took the right fork, and enjoyed a serene section of river. I could admire the scenery and the wildlife. I'm still not sure of the name of the small birds that flit close to the water at high speed. There were about a hundred of them. I'm not sure how they avoid each other - I didn't see any collisions. Several flew over the board, but they fly so fast I still can't give a good description.
My reward for the day was the third promised oasis - Piangle. Pronounced Triangle with a P. Piangle nearly duplicated the disappointment of Wood Wood. The Piangle Corner Cafe, advertising cappuccinos and other treats, was firmly closed. However a one kilometre walk west took me to the township of Piangle, where I could select from an excellent variety of take away food with coffee and a paper. Conditions on the river were not suitable for travel, so I had a long leisurely lunch.
An advertisement for a club in Tooleybuc reminded me of the real goal for the day. I was within eight kilometres of the end of this trip, at Tooleybuc. Better get going! The Tooleybuc Bridge came into sight - like the finishing line. I passed under it without incident, unlike the paddle steamer 'Pevensey' in 1974. She successfully passed under the bridge heading upstream, then got swept back into the bridge by the current. Knowing how powerful the current and wind can be I expect it wasn't the first incident of its type. I continued past the shops and paddled furiously to get into the boat ramp. Tooleybuc was originally known as 'Tooley Buc', I think Buc means commune or community.
Unloading the board had a different feel - I wouldn't be reloading it for some months! I would have liked to stay in the Tooleybuc Caravan park, but it was too far to carry all my camping gear. So it was another bush camp, near the boat ramp. I walked, then sprinted to the shops for a feed. I increased speed when I noticed Lucky Phil's was closing for the night! Luckily Lucky Phil delayed locking up to prepare some food for me. I went back to the tent tired but happy - 90 kilometres without a land crew!
The next morning my attention turned to hitch hiking back to Swan Hill to collect the car. A farmer gave me a ride from Tooleybuc to Piangle corner. A short ride but a useful one as I was now on the main road - the Murray Valley Highway. I was surprised that it was almost two hours before I got my next ride. Cars were travelling at speed at that part of the highway and it was inconvenient for them to stop. Many large trucks also went past, but again it wasn't an ideal place for them to stop.
I considered walking in to the Piangle service station, where drivers stop for fuel and food. I also checked the bus timetable on a post. Eventually a vehicle driven by a Tongan woman stopped. It was interesting to talk to her about the Pacific Islanders' role in picking fruit and grapes, as casual labour. She said there were only three Tongan families living in the area, but that Robinvale, about 100 road kilometres downstream, is home to many Tongans and other Pacific Islanders. She dropped me at a roadhouse in Nyah, where I was told that a bus was coming through in 30 minutes. It would take me the 26 kilometres to Swan Hill for $1.80! I jumped at the deal!
The car had been well looked after at the Riverside Caravan Park. From there it was mainly a matter of weaving my way home through the Murrumbidgee River floods. I saw a lot of water and people filling sandbags. I was saddened to hear of flood damage in areas that I had become familiar with in my river ventures. For example I have watched a Melbourne Cup in a pub in Nathalia. I have started river trips from Broken Creek and Barmah. In an area that makes excellent pasties, Numurkah stands out. I once stopped to make a phone call in Urana to report a stray bull on the highway. I regularly drive through Wagga Wagga, Narrandera, Lockhart and Jerilderie. I hope the flood damage is minimal.
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The people I met on the river
I hardly saw anyone, let alone met anyone. Some days I saw a vehicle move in the distance. That was it for the day. Other days I saw no signs of living people, at all. In the week on the river I only saw four boats move, if we exclude the first hour in Swan Hill. Almost all the time I had the river to myself - there was no-one around.
However the few people I met were very interesting. Take R and H, for example. Living in a motorhome, with no fixed address. The 73 and 78 year olds were interested in my project. Particularly H, who was a seasoned sailor, with four around the world trips in a ten metre yacht under his belt. That's a smaller boat than Jessica Watson's 'Pink Lady'. I was very keen to talk to H about his experiences. Unfortunately when he came looking for me next morning I was asleep in my tent. When I went looking for him later he was elsewhere. I had an interesting chat to R, who has had several careers of 14 years each, including psychotherapist.
As I was breaking camp early one morning a woman walking her two dogs came up to say hello. I learnt a lot about the area from her. She works on an organic farm, growing carrots, table grapes and olives. Most of the farms in the area grow stone fruits or wine grapes, but some crops of wheat, barley and canola are sown. She explained that Nyah is a quiet retirement town. That seemed to be true of the other towns nearby as well.
One evening I was sitting on a bench looking out over the river. A man came out of nowhere and quietly sat alongside me. It turned out he was living in a tent in the bush on the edge of town. I had seen his tent as I floated past on the river, but it was well hidden from the land. He wasn't interested in paying rent he said, hence the bush camp. He grew up in the area, and had worked in the vineyards, on boats and cutting sleepers from red gums. He told me of his plans to go digging for opals to fund the houseboat he was building. We talked about the river - he had an intimate knowledge of the downstream section - useful information for me for a future trip. We didn't exchange names. He didn't offer an explanation of his current circumstances. I didn't ask. He seemed intelligent. As dusk approached he went off to cook his tea.
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Off River highlights
A pleasant surprise on the way home was the Yanga National Park. I saw the signpost just out of Balranald and on an impulse drove in. I'm glad I did! Yanga was a very large pastoral, cropping and irrigation property of approximately 76,000 hectares with 160 kilometres of Murrumbidgee River frontage. The homestead was built around 1870 from local pine trees, using drop log construction. It's on a headland overlooking the huge Yanga Lake (1,200 hectares). There was a store, mail service, butchery, staff quarters, office, and cook's cottage. The stockmen used huts when working away from the homestead, and there are plans to create walking trails that link these huts. A small museum and old film clips give some idea of early life on the property.
When I visited Deniliquin's Peppin Heritage Centre it had a fabulous temporary exhibition on bush building materials. The benefits and modern uses of traditional building materials such as corrugated iron, mud and timber were explained and illustrated.
The Peppin Heritage Centre is housed in the building originally used for the town's first public school. It is a regional museum and Visitor Information Centre. The museum is dedicated to the Peppin family who developed a Merino sheep ideal for the harsh conditions of inland Australia. The Peppin bloodline forms the foundation for more than 90% of the nation's sheep flock. The old school room has copies of the restrictions that applied to the private lives teachers - particularly single teachers. For example 'Men teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they attend church regularly.'; and 'Any teacher who smokes, uses liqour in any form, frequents pool or public halls or gets shaved in a barber's shop, will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.'
Deniliquin also has a ute on display, high up on a pole. This celebrate's Deniliquin's fame as the the home of the annual World Record Ute Muster.
Swan Hill has many attractions for the visitor, including the Pioneer Settlement, and a museum at the once secret World War II Catalina flying boat repair facility on Lake Boga. Lake Boga was ideal for flying boats - planes could land and take off in any wind direction on the circular lake, and it was far enough inland to avoid attacks from the sea. A Catalina has been reconstructed by the local Lions Club, and a short film explains the history of the facility. The original communications bunker can be visited.
I visited two spectacular museums in Temora. The Temora Aviation Museum houses Australian ex-military aircraft including two Spitfires, a Tiger Moth, a Vampire, a Canberra jet bomber, a Meteor and many others. They are maintained for flying, and twice a month two or three different aircraft are introduced to the crowd and flown. (Not by one of the crowd!) The museum has many brief videos of air crew from the Second World war recounting their experiences in the planes.
The Temora Rural Museum features old country living, agriculture and gold mining. I arrived the day before the annual open day. More than 20 restored tractors, some dating back to the early 1900s, were being prepared for the grand parade of classic tractors. Some needed a little coaxing to start, which is understandable given their age! Another area of the museum had a very impressive working display of vintage sound equipment. I was fortunate to get a personal demonstration. In one example, the music from an Edison inspired phonograph was picked up by a microphone and fed into an old radio transmitter. The signal produced was received and played by valve radios some distance away in the same room! The reel to reel tape player (Akai) was working and I heard dance music played from 78 rpm records. I think these were shellac (pre-vinyl) but I'll check. There was a crystal set, some very old TVs and other working examples of historical sound equipment.
The Temora Rural Museum open day is the second Saturday in March. As well as the tractor parade there are live exhibitions of cottage crafts, music, bush trades and vintage machinery. However a visit on any other day is also worthwhile, in my opinion. The wooden cottage Don Bradman spent his very early life in has been relocated to the museum, there is an impressive rock and mineral display, a flour mill, an old school room and much more.
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As with every trip a host of people help in the background. I mentioned the charts produced by Barry and Maureen Wright and the help from the Riverside Caravan Park. The Tooleybuc Caravan Park allowed me to have a hot shower even though I wasn't staying there - the first in a week! Lucky Phil's stayed open to feed me. The Guardian Newspaper in Swan Hill showed interest in my little venture and may publish an article on it. Several people helped me get back to my car.
River Murray Charts, Wright, M. A. wwww.rivermurraycharts.com.au
The Australian Dictionary of Biography, adb.anu.edu.au, accessed March 2012
Swan Hill (1,410 kms from Murray Mouth) to Tooleybuc (1,320 kms from Murray Mouth)
Dates 29 February - 8 March 2012
Distance, time: 90 Kms, 7 days, 8 nights camping
River height: Initially low (1 metre) at Swan Hill, but following record breaking rainfall the river rose about half a metre per day to 3.2 metres
River flow: Fast and swirly current following the heavy rain. It increased five fold, from 4,000 Ml/day to 20,000 Ml/day during the trip
River temperature: Initially 26 degrees (warm) but the temperature dropped noticeably as flood waters entered the river, to 22 degrees
Published 20 March 2012
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