MacRod:   Windsurfing on the Murray
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Bob and Sue, quilling.
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Left: Lock 11, Mildura, with Paddle Steamer Melbourne
Middle: Mildura. Photo: Paul Mensch, Mildura Weekly. Not for commercial use.
Right: Steam boat

Trip Report

Bottle Bend to Wentworth
November 2014

Captain Charles Sturt, with seven other men, rowed a 25 foot whaleboat down this section of the Murray River in 1830. The aim of the expedition was to solve the riddle of Australia's inland rivers. The Murrumbidgee, Macquarie, Lachlan, Murray, Ovens and Goulburn Rivers all flow in a westerly direction, towards the centre of inland Australia. Did these rivers flow to an inland sea, or empty into the ocean at the coast?

As I floated down the river towards Wentworth I tried to imagine what it would have been like for Sturt and his men. They didn't have river charts, shops or boat repairers. However they wisely befriended Aboriginal people along the way and learnt a lot from them. For example when Sturt was travelling along the Murrumbidgee River an old Aboriginal man communicated to them that there was another large river flowing to the southward of west to which the Murrumbidgee was 'as a creek', and that they would reach it in four days. Just as predicted, it was not long before the Murrumbidgee spat the little boat and its crew into a much larger river, which Sturt named the Murray.

Similarly, further down the Murray, Sturt learnt from the First Australians that the river would soon turn south and reach the sea. This it did, in modern day South Australia. Most famously Sturt's friendship with Aboriginal people saved the expedition and lives of his men. This event, which I'll describe later, took place at the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers, the downstream end of this leg of the windsurfing project.

Mildura, in north-western Victoria, was our base for this trip. Mildura became Australia's first irrigation area when Alfred Deakin enticed the Chaffey Brothers to move from California. They brought with them the techniques they had developed in America to water arid land. As a result of irrigation the Mildura region has become Australia's major producer of dried vine fruit. Table grapes, almonds, pistachios and citrus fruits are also grown in the area. Alfred Deakin went on to become the leader of the movement for Australian federation, and a three-time Prime Minister of Australia.

My trip started with a warm reunion with Bob and Sue, the Yorke Peninsular land crew. We drove to Wentworth, looking for ins and outs along the way. Ins and outs are vehicle access points along the river where the land crew and I can meet up and get the windsurfer board into or out of the river. The opposite of ins and outs is cliffs, high river banks, reed beds, billabongs and of course no vehicle access to the river. Although the ins and outs were well spaced in this part of the river, we found enough for the start and end of each day, allowing us to cover the distance between Mildura and Wentworth in 'bite size' chunks.

My 'shake down' cruise was exciting. I started just upstream of the Chaffey Bridge and continued around the river loop that partly circumscribes the town of Mildura. As I passed a young man sitting near the bridge I tried my usual joke. "Is this the way to the Murray Mouth?". This is supposed to be funny because I'm so far from the Mouth, and moving so slowly. It usually gets a laugh. On this occasion it fell flat. "I don't know." was the answer.

Undaunted I pressed on, past the Mildura wharf and the rolling lawns of the town's riverbank. I timed my run to go through Lock 11 with the Paddle Steamer Melbourne, which runs twice daily river trips for tourists. Unlike many other paddle boats, the Melbourne, launched in 1912, still has her original steam engine. It was quite a thrill to share the lock with such a stately craft.

In another feat of lucky timing, I arrived at the white sands of Mildura's Apex Beach in time for lunch. Apex Beach is a lovely spot, with large river red gums, a sandbar, a canoe club and Australia's only inland Lifesaving Club. Later in the day the shake down cruise ended successfully at Johnston's Bend.

I am very interested in the history associated with the river. On the next day, after leaving from Johnston's boat ramp, I saw an historic mud-walled pumphouse, with a steam powered pump to lift water out of the river. Then I passed four large piles in the water, most likely of river red gum timber, and probably an old paddle steamer wharf. Then I spotted an immaculate old ute, parked on the bank near a houseboat. Curious, I drifted over to the houseboat and its owner, who was doing some maintenance work on the boat. He proudly told me that the ute is a 1934 Ford. Only 158 of them were built, in Geelong. Australia's first ute, he told me. He has had the ute on the road for 37 years. Later, still excited by these historical findings, I spotted an old wooden sign on the bank. Expecting another remnant from the past, I was disappointed when I got close enough to read it. It read 'Rubbish Depot'.

The day remained calm and sunny. The wind was indecisive. By that I mean that it swept around all points of the compass. I passed many moored houseboats, at the Ranfurly moorings. The houseboat called 'Anger Management' looked particularly peaceful, but so did all the others. The day's trip ended at the Red Gum Track boat ramp, where I was met by the land crew.

The next day I was faced with a temptation. Our charts and forward scouting revealed a small cutting, joining two bends of the river and eliminating a 9 kilometre loop of the river proper. In discussion with the land crew, we decided not to take the short cut. For two reasons - ethically we should follow the path of the real river, and also because the short cut would bypass Dareton, which is the home of the Coomealla Aboriginal Health Corporation. As the focus of this project is Aboriginal health it would be a pity to miss it.

A big day on the river took me past Halfway Rocks, at the halfway point between Mildura and Wentworth. Captain Charles Sturt had a problem here in 1830, when his whaleboat's keel struck a rock and remained fixed in position in the rapid current. In a risky move two of his men took a rope to a protruding rock upstream, and the boat was eased into stiller water and safety. In my case I had a higher water level due to Lock 10 downstream, I floated through the passage blissfully unaware of the olden-day dangers.

I stopped for lunch at the northern end of the Cowanna Billabong. I took some time to consider the wisdom of pressing on, as the wind was increasing to almost 'unmanageable' (meteorological term). After an hour or so of waiting on the bank for the wind to settle down, I pushed on in a northerly direction. I had no choice really, given that the river went north. I passed the tempting short cut and all the way up Cowanna Bend to Dareton. As I approached Dareton I stopped to speak to a fisherman in a tinnie. I wasn't sure how to pronounce Dareton, so I asked him "How do you pronounce the next town?". He answered "Coomealla"! To be fair that is the name on the bank, which is the locality, with the still un-pronounceable Dareton being the township. In spite of the confusion between locality and town, the land crew found me and took me back to base.

The weather the next day was unsuitable for river travel, so we did some reconnoitering up river from Mildura. We checked out the river tracks to see if they gave us access to the river. We found the Psyche Bend irrigation pump (originally a steam engine) and the sandy beach amongst the river red gums at Bottle Bend. We found some tracks that gave us good access to the river, and others that stopped in sand, or a deep boggy gulch.

Resuming the trip from Dareton I passed the brilliant Coomealla golf course, and onwards past the Laza Way moorings. I photographed a small steam powered boat called 'Li'l Toot'. Then the river and I passed the 'exit' end of the very short cut I had ignored. At this point Charles Sturt recorded in his diary, "we found, after pulling several miles, that we were within a stone's throw of a part of the stream we had already sailed down." That was also my experience 184 years later.

I saw some cliffs approaching on the left, so I pulled into a shady flat area on the bank where a billabong joined the river, for lunch and to gather strength for the run past the cliffs. As I completed the day's trip by reaching the boat ramp just downstream from the Abbotsford Bridge, I thought back over the day. There had been more boats moving on the river than usual. I hypothesised that being a Friday hire houseboats were being moved from moorings to wharfs to pick up customers. I also thought about the birds I had seen in recent days. Pelicans, black swans, wood ducks, pacific black ducks, darters, egrets, herons, galahs, red rumped parrots, shags, whistling kites, crows, sulphur crested cockatoos, and medium sized brown twerps. (Twerps is the word I use when I don't know the species.)

The following day was really exciting. I started early, from the Abbotsford boat ramp. Although it was calm, threatening clouds gathered to the north and west of me. The little radio I carry for weather forecasts was warning of damaging winds in the Riverland area. But hey, that's 150 kilometres away! I kept an eye on the weather, but still managed to photograph a pair of red rumped parrots, drinking from the river only a few metres from me. That's one of the benefits of not having a motor to scare them.

The wind became stronger and the clouds bigger, lower and greyer. Just before I reached Cowra Station on the south bank the storm hit. I was really lucky in that I was able to find a small inlet to shelter in as the heavy rain fell. I was also lucky that that this was a baby storm compared to the one that destroyed sheds, fences, vines and citrus crops later in the day.

I got more and more excited as I realised I was going to reach Wentworth that day. While every river town is important, Wentworth has a special place in Murray River history.

As I turned the bend into the Wentworth reach I saw the narrow spit of land that separates the Darling from the Murray, just prior to the junction of those two great rivers. When Captain Sturt's men rounded the same bend they were confronted by "a vast concourse" of Aboriginal men "painted and armed, as they generally are, prior to their engaging in deadly conflict." 1

Sturt's attempt to avoid the hostile crowd on the large sandbank was thwarted as the current carried his boat towards the seemingly inevitable conflict.1 Reluctantly accepting that conflict was inevitable, Sturt issued his men with arms, for the first time on the trip. He also gave instructions that would minimise the impact of the weapons, even though he was doubtful of the chances of repelling such a large number of opponents.

Sturt stood up in the boat, unsuccessfully signalling to the antagonists to desist. When he was uncomfortably close to a ferocious spear shaking man, he cocked his gun and levelled it. He was about to pull the trigger, knowing that the fatal effects of the discharge would most likely result in insurmountable retaliation. Then just as he was about to shoot, with his eye along the barrel, his crew shouted to stop him. A small group of Aboriginal men had appeared on the opposite bank of the river.

Sturt's diary describes what happened next: "Turning around, I observed four men at the top of their speed. The foremost of them, as soon as he got ahead of the boat, threw himself from a considerable height into the water. He struggled across the channel to the sand-bank, and in an incredibly short space of time stood in front of the [man] against whom my aim had been directed. Seizing him by the throat, he pushed him backwards, and forcing all who were in the water upon the bank, he trod its margin with a vehemence and an agitation that were exceedingly striking…I was overwhelmed with astonishment, and in truth stunned and confused; so singular, so unexpected, and so strikingly providential, had been our escape."1 The saviour was an Aboriginal man Sturt had befriended a few days earlier.

While the animated discussion on the sandbar continued, Sturt's boat drifted downstream, revealing a new and beautiful river entering from the north. Sturt created a diversion by pulling in to the right bank of this new river, amongst another group of Aboriginal people, whereupon their curiosity overtook anger. Sturt surmised, correctly, that this new river was the Darling. He had explored the upper reaches of the Darling in a previous expedition.

My entry into Wentworth was less eventful than Sturt's but very satisfying. Reaching the town was a significant milestone in the Windsurfing on the Murray project. As I arrived the land crew went ahead to negotiate with the Lock Master. Although it was late in the day they organised that if I rushed I could go through the lock today, which I did. This sets us up well for a future trip from Wentworth.

Wentworth is a very interesting town. It has long-standing ties to the surrounding agricultural area, and the river traffic of both the Murray and Darling Rivers. There are many historic attractions for tourists in the town. Riverboat Rod (Rodney Hobbs) displays the amazing models of riverboats he has built. Rod has a detailed knowledge of the history of the paddle steamers. His grandmother was the governess for Pearl and the other Collins children on the paddle steamer Alpha. Pearl Collins went on to become the first Australian female riverboat captain. Her story has been recorded in the book 'Riverboat Woman'.

On the drive back from Wentworth to Mildura, we stopped to take a photograph of the Coomealla Aboriginal Health Corporation. As we stood in front of the health centre, all of a sudden, a ferocious storm tore into the area. Rain, hail and a tree-bending gale rushed through the town, and onwards to North Gol Gol, flattening vines, citrus trees and sheds on the way. Many farmers lost their year's vine and citrus crops in minutes.

Now we turned our attention to the river upstream of Mildura.

My trip from Gol Gol down to Mildura was leisurely, on a warm sunny afternoon. The weekend river was alive with speed boats, skiers, jet skies, houseboats and assorted other craft, including paddle boats. An interesting trip.

Bottle Bend has a beautiful sandy camping spot. We made this our highest upstream point for the trip. After a longish drive on dirt roads we arrived there, unloaded the board and I took off down the river. I passed Mallee Cliffs and Bonnie Doon with a helpful tail wind, before entering a long south west reach into a head wind. At the end of this reach I came to spectacular red cliffs. These cliffs are mentioned in Sturt's Diary from his 1830 trip, and have given the name Red Cliffs to the nearby town. The Red Cliffs pumping station provides irrigation water to grapes and citrus trees in the area.

Red Cliffs is home to the massive Big Lizzie, a 45 tonne tractor, now a public exhibit in a park. The prime mover is 10 meters long, and 5.5 meters high! In 1920 Big Lizzie was used to clear 700 soldier settlement blocks for veterans of World War 1. Four heavy cables were attached to trees and stumps, for Big Lizzie to pull. The cables were repaired on the front platform of the tractor, which has a blacksmith's forge, anvil and toolbox.

After a lunch break at a boat ramp 909 kilometres from the river mouth, I pushed on in another beautiful section of the river. At one stage a houseboat approached. It seemed no matter which way I turned on the river, it turned to keep aiming at me. I wondered if I was about to experience a houseboat 'shirt front'. Eventually we avoided each other. To be fair I think the boat was turning regularly to maintain its position in the channel of the twisting river, which usually follows the outer edge of each bend.

The Psyche Bend Pumping station in this area of the river was installed in 1891 by the Chaffey Brothers as the foundation of the Mildura irrigation settlement. A large steam driven engine drove the pumps until 1959, when newer pumps took over. The water was pumped into the nearby Kings Billabong. The irrigation system has been called the life blood of the area, allowing grapes, citrus fruits and other produce to be grown.

The Psyche Bend area is popular with campers, who provided me with verbal encouragement, and helped me find the boat ramp at 902 kilometres from the river mouth.

This long day on the river set up for a manageable distance for the next day to complete this Sunraysia leg of the project. It was a good last day, with the usual wonderful river birds and trees on hand. I passed Trentham Estate winery, which thoughtfully has a mooring area for houseboats. The restaurant offers lunch from Tuesday to Sunday. That's a long lunch! I think I saw the 809 mile tree. 'Mile' trees were marked with an axe after the 1870 survey of the River Murray to indicate the number of river miles to Albury.

At Bruces Bend there are old river barges moored against the bank. I doubt if they have moved in years. There is also a fuel bowser standing incongruously on its own in the bare dirt of the bank. I continued on, into an increasing head wind. A woman I passed on the river told me that she had taken photos of a tiger snake that had swum across the river and tried to get onto her houseboat. Tiring, I was relieved to realise that the building I could see in the far distance was not the Gol Gol pub, my destination, which turned out to be much closer, luckily. As I pulled into the Gol Gol boat ramp, the end point of this part of the river trip, I spoke to a man cleaning a fish. I asked him what kind of fish it was. He helpfully explained that it was a golden perch, unless it was in South Australia where it is called a callop, or if it is higher up the river where it is known as a yellow belly.

So there it is - the description of the 90 kilometre Sunraysia trip. The following day was set aside for packing, and also for talking to the media, who were kind enough to show some interest in the project. This helps raise awareness of the charity project. That night the land crew and I celebrated with a victory dinner. The land crew are instrumental in the success of the project. As well as transporting me to and from the river, the crew provides nutritious meals to provide the energy I need on the water. This is very important. When I do a trip on my own I tend to run out of puff after four or five days. There is a limit to how far I can go on a diet of tinned tuna! I would also like to thank the people who gave me light plastic containers. I've used them to replace the heavy glass jars for sunburn cream, reducing the weight I carry. It made a difference.

Sources include:
1 Sturt's Diary: Two Expeditions into the Interior of South Australia during the years 1828, 1829, 1830, 1831: Charles Sturt. Pub. Smith Elders 1833.

Trip details
Bottle Bend (920 kilometres from the river mouth)
to Wentworth (831 kilometres from the river mouth)
90 kilometres total

Dates: 15 November 2014 to 28 November 2014

Water temperature: Warm

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Page created: 1 December 2014 Page published: 30 December 2014 Page updated: 20 June 2015