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Left: Murray cod about to be released back into the river
Middle: Dubious character
Right: Campsite in the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park
Wemen to Rudd's Road Boat ramp
Camping in the bush
"The kookaburras didn't go off this morning. I slept in!" This is how Dave greeted me as I crawled out of my tent on the last morning of our trip. We relied on the laughing kookaburras' alarm at 6 am each morning. Our wonderful campsite was on a river beach in the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park. We had the sandbar to ourselves, although at Easter and Christmas it is chockablock with tents and vehicles. I'll remember the camp for the moonlight on the river, the solitude, the bird life and the excellent meals provided by Christine and cooked by Dave on the campfire.
The river bank here is lined by small river red gum seedlings and saplings. Then a band of older taller red gums extends a further 50 metres or more from the river. Every now and then there will be a huge red gum tree, possibly more than 150 years old, in this band.
Further away from the river this lush vegetation changes to gnarled mallee trees and bushes, including small saltbushes. The dry red sandy soil is sometimes covered by a ‘crust’ of lichens and algae. There is a lot of bare ground. Any leaf litter decomposes slowly in the dry conditions. This Mallee country extends as far as the eye can see, in the flat landscape.
Early explorers and settlers feared this dry country. There are no hills or tall trees for landmarks. It was easy to get badly lost, and very thirsty in the heat. It is hard to believe that this harsh dry land is so close to the biggest river in Australia.
The mallee trees grow to a height of 2 to 9 metres. They look as if they could grow in a blast furnace. Aboriginal people know how to obtain water from the trees. One way is to dig a trench around the base of a certain type of tree, locating the roots which radiate just under the surface of the soil. The roots of the tree are cut into pieces up to a metre long and leant against the tree. The water draining from these pieces is collected.
Miraculously, when water is added to this land, it produces magnificent citrus fruits, grapes and other produce. The oranges Dave bought from a roadside stall were the largest, sweetest and juiciest I have tasted. A large carrrot growing and processing business is based in Wemen.
Wemen, our starting point, is at the bottom of a long 'U' in the River Murray, known as the Ninety Mile Bend. Wemen is 1,066 river kms from the river mouth and 75 Kilometres south-east of Mildura. The river flows south west from Euston and Robinvale to reach Wemen, then does a U turn to flow north west from Wemen to Mildura.
I selected this section of the river, downstream of Wemen, for this trip with Dave in mind. The Hattah-Kulkyne National Park is ideally suited to Dave's bush camping expertise. It is a difficult river section for me to do on my own, given its remoteness from main roads, towns and supplies. The trip worked out well, with the second of our two camps, on a sandy river beach, being judged by Dave as our best ever.
On arrival I was relieved to find there is a boat ramp in Wemen. There is also a general store that provided supplies and useful advice. It took the usual hour or so to load up the board with water bottles, sunburn cream, emergency food and clothing, charts, snake bite kit and other equipment. Then with a storm pending, and Dave in his new 4WD, the trip started. We had already set up a campsite downriver, and had used it the previous night.
The storm reached me on the river, almost flipping the board. I was worried because the board was heavily laden with water bottles and gear, making it very hard to right. I pulled over to an uncomfortable spiky rocky outcrop, waiting for the tempest to subside. This eventually happened, and after 'parking' more than half my water bottles on the bank for improved buoyancy and later collection, the board took me to a sandy beach just downstream of our camp.
We 'stashed' the board and retired to the campsite for the night. Stashing the loaded board involves hiding it in bushes at the end of the day. This saves the time of unloading it and putting it on the roof racks for transport back to camp each evening.
We were innocently relaxing around the campfire when we heard a dull roar in the distance. It sounded like a jet aircraft taking off. Initially I thought that was what it was, until I remembered we were a long way from any airport. Gradually the noise grew, and came closer and closer. We didn't know what it was until the gale force wind hit us, stripping leaves off trees and scattering branches and our camp!
In spite of winds that were stronger than required, and bad snags and rocky reefs showing on the chart, the second day on the river was successful and interesting. I passed the exit of the Chalka Creek. The Chalka Creek leaves the Murray at 1047 kms from the river mouth, then twists and turns through the lakes system of the two adjoining parks, before rejoining the river at about 994 kms from the mouth. The water flow of the creek is supplemented by pumping water from the river into the creek, to ensure an environmental water flow for the important wetlands of the Hattah Lakes. This maintains deeper water for waterbird breeding and a potential breeding habitat for fish. Birds in the area include grey teal, black ducks, Australian shell ducks, musk ducks, freckle ducks, black tailed native hens, Australasian coots, white faced herons and spoonbills.
I passed the Tongar Downs homestead on the NSW bank, near Ki Bend, and came to several good beaches. You may be wondering about my frequent mentions of sandy river beaches, or sandbars as they are called by the locals. They are wonderful - I can bring the board in and step off onto the sand. This is luxury compared to many parts of the river where steep clay banks make landing and unloading the board difficult, particularly when the clay is wet, gluggy and slippery.
After a good day on the river another wonderful beach at Retail Cutting presented itself. The river used to flow through an eight kilometre loop here, until Retail Cutting developed as a short cut. This is the new course of the river and reduces the river distance for me to travel by about seven kilometres. Those who have based their donations on the distance to be travelled by the board may wish to apply for a small refund! After an interesting conversation with Brian and Allison who were camping on the beach at Retail Cutting, we left the board in their care overnight.
Up early to break camp and load everything into the vehicles, we then drove back to Retail Cutting to start the day on the river. After another chat to Brian and Allison, and asking them and Sam the dog to keep an eye on my car for the day, I floated off. Once again I found myself in remote beautiful bushland with the Ki State forest on my right and the Murray-Kulkyne Park on my left. As usual Dave found tracks through the bush to make regular contact with me during the day. Conditions on the river were a little difficult so a break for lunch with Dave on a sandbar at Deep Bend was a welcome rest. As with most of the trip I was travelling in a mainly northerly direction, almost reaching Sexton's Bend by the end of the day. The youth camp in the area has been famous for its river activities like canoeing, and the flying fox taking budding daredevils right across the river! When we were there the camp was closed, presumably waiting for the next holiday season.
Leaving the board hidden in the trees for the night, we drove off along bush tracks looking for our next campsite. The tracks became too rough and steep for my 2 wheel drive vehicle, so we abandoned it and continued our search in Dave's 4WD. There are few landmarks and only occasional signs in this area. One fork in the track looks as promising, or should I say as unpromising, as the other. However when we found our way to the river we were delighted to find a wonderful uninhabited sandy beach at Billabong Bend. We selected that spot as our home for the next few nights.
In further driving to check out the river we saw an unusual bird display. A bird on the red sand had its wings open and raised in a dance that involved, according to Dave who got the best view, wiggling its hips. From the passenger seat I got a brief view of the dancing bird and a quick look at the distinctive head of another, presumably related. The head I saw had a bright red eyebrow.
As usual there were very few people around in this bush environment. Luckily, when we were uncertain of which direction to drive to get back to my car, we came across Murray and Nat, in a caravan at another perfect riverside location. Nat and Murray gave us helpful directions, and as bird observers were interested in the birds we had seen.
Dave then demonstrated his advanced bush navigational skills by finding my car. We drove to Billabong Bend and set up camp. The campsite had a backdrop of river red gums, a sandy beach, and the river on our doorstep. Over an excellent meal we admired the moonlight on the river. Dave re-enacted the bird dance (including the wiggling hips) and we called it a night. I agree with Dave that this was the best river campsite we have had in the four river trips the Albert Park Land Crew and I have done together.
This was another interesting day, on another peaceful stretch of the river. It was a little tricky for Dave initially as the Kulkyne Station is private property and access to the river is blocked. In typical fashion Dave found a way to get to the river immediately upstream and downstream of the station to meet me. I passed through Station Bend, noticed a caravan at Horseshoe Billabong, and reached Bretts, also known as Mt Dispersion. The latter name for the location was given by Major Thomas Mitchell on 27 May 1836 when he forcefully dispersed a group of Aboriginal people he considered hostile. The incident was later the subject of an official enquiry. This was Mitchell's third expedition exploring the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Murray and Darling Rivers.
Conveniently I reached our campsite for lunch with Dave, after another chat with Nat and Murray upstream. Fortified by the food I pushed on for another five kms on the river to the boat ramp near the re-entry of Chalka Creek, 994 kms from the river mouth.
As it was a weekend we were expecting to see more people on the river, and so it turned out. As we were launching the board a vehicle arrived to use the boat ramp. Embracing this rare contact with the outside world, we had a good chat to Alan and his friends, before leaving. Alan was about to retire after a distinguished career as previous editor and senior writer for the Mildura Weekly. This regional newspaper generously publicised the Windsurfing project and the Aboriginal health cause, when I was in the area twelve months earlier. Dave got a laugh from the newspaper man when he told him "You can't always believe what you read in the paper!".
After about five kilomtres of river travel I found Dave at Mansell's slipway in amongst moored paddle boats under repair. A large rusting barge sat in the shallow water just off the bank. In June 2011 the Paddle Boat Impulse left from here to travel around 133 kms upstream to rescue the PS Cannally (built in 1907) from a site near Bumbang Island and to tow it back to Berri. The Mansell Colignan orchard and packing shed provided oranges and mandarins for the trip. Robert and Julie Mansell helped set up the Impulse for the trip, and contributed in other ways towards the success of the venture. Later, in 2013, Ken Mansell restored the Impulse, after it sank in 2012. In November 2013 the rescued Canally suddenly and surprisingly sank at her Morgan Wharf mooring. This was at least the third time she had headed for the bottom. When I saw the Canally in Morgan on a subsequent river trip she was being re-floated.
The stretch of the river downstream from Mansell's Bend has several rocky reefs which stretch almost across the river. There is a particularly tricky section around McGrath's Island. However my board has such a shallow draft it floated over the unseen obstacles in blissful ignorance. It also helped that extra water had been released upstream as an environmental flow, raising the river level.
At the end of the day we stashed the board at Buxtons Bend, where two campers kindly offered to keep an eye on it overnight. At the time there were 3 vehicles in the riverside camping area. We were told that at Easter time the small beach had been home to 54 vehicles!
As usual Dave was up early to get the campfire started, and the billy boiling. The cup of tea and wood-fired toast was always a good start to the day. Leaving from Buxton's Bend I passed the spot where two paddle steamers have been snagged. Red gum timber lasts a long time under water, remaining preserved. There is conjecture that the red gum snag that holed P.S. Bantam in 1872 may have been the same branch that snagged P.S. William Randell in 2001. In any event my board avoided the obstacle and swept into Big Tree Bend. This is the site of the biggest red gum in NSW, and probably the world. I didn't see it.
Things on the river were getting more difficult. Strong winds forced an extended break near Big Tree Bend. Then the wind died down long enough to get to Police Bend, where super strong winds ended the day's activities.
There are two landmarks at Police Bend: The 768 mile tree which is marked to indicate it is 768 miles from Albury, and a plaque nailed to a tree, marking the spot where a 48 year old man drowned, or in the words of the plaque, has 'gone fishin'. The Murray River is not only the longest river in Australia, it also has the most drownings - 68 in the 13 years to 30 June 2015. Rivers now account for more than a quarter of all drowning deaths in Australia. On the brighter side, shark attacks in the river are very rare!
We broke camp and packed the vehicles as quickly as we could. Dave had to get back to Melbourne, and we wanted to reach Rudd's Road boat ramp before he left. We drove to Police Bend, where we had stashed the board the evening before.
Assisted by a strong current and tail wind I had a quick trip down the river. We rested at another lovely sandy beach. I nearly came unstuck within 300 metres of this trip's finishing point. In a moment of inattention I didn't notice a substantial snag just below water level. The board mounted it, and pushed by the strong current, took on an ever-increasing tilt. Luckily before the flipping point was reached I wiggled the board free, and tensed for the huge clunk of the fin hitting. This didn't happen, so I was able to continue in the brilliant sunshine to complete our trip from Wemen to the Rudd's Road boat ramp, in seven days.
The fish in the river
The river is home to many types of fish. This provided a good source of food for the first Australians living along the river. Murray cod, redfin and yellow belly, also known as callop and golden perch, are popular catches. Carp are very unpopular, although in some overseas countries they are gobbled up with gusto. In some areas of the river the Murray cod are restricting the carp population, by preying on baby carp. This is considered a very good thing. Silver perch are rare. So far I haven't come across any banded grunters.
It is the people you meet
We were lucky to be traveling on the river out of holiday time. The beaches were usually uninhabited, and it was unusual to see a boat moving on the river. We met very few people. Those we met were interesting and without exception did what they could to help us.
At the end of the trip I read about Badger Bates in an interesting article in the Mildura Weekly written by the aforementioned Alan Erkhart. Badger was creating a tile mosaic on a large circular concrete seat on the river bank. Badger invited me to lay a tile or two. I had a go after some initial tuition. Badger diplomatically suggested that I leave the tricky parts for him. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with the Aboriginal artists. Badger heard that this windsurfing project is raising money for Aboriginal health. Unbeknown to me, as I focussed on laying the small tiles, he went around the group collecting money for a donation. Later I handed the money in to the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council. On the same day I learnt that the Windsurfing on the Murray project had reached its donation target of $22,240. We will keep going!
Land crews make the Murray trips more successful and enjoyable. They donate their time, company and resources to further the trip and the cause. The Albert Park Land Crew did a superb job, once again, on this trip. Dave, Camp Dog Kala and Christine (Chef in residence) combined to keep me well nourished, motivated, entertained and safe. The preparation for the trip in a beautiful, secluded valley on the Howqua River in the Australian Alps provided a bonus highlight!
I would also like to acknowedge my sisters, who stepped up their care of my elderly parents to cover for my absence, and Diane who kept things going at home while I was away.
Gippsland High Country Tours: 'Mallee woodland' photo.
Education Services Australian National Botanic Gardens. Clunies Ross Street, Acton ACT 2601 Ph (02) 6250 9547
River Murray Charts, Wright M. A.,
Royal Life Saving Society of Australia: Respect the River
The Mildura Weekly
Paddle Boat News - August 2011
Wemen (1066 kilometres from the river mouth) to
Rudd's Road Boat ramp (957 kilometres from the river mouth)
95 kilometres total, but nominally 109 kms as changes in the river's path reduced the distance
Dates: 20 October 2015 to 26 October 2015
Water temperature: Cool
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