Sunday, January 3, 2016

Along The Murray River: Yarrawonga to Echuca

On the last day of 2013, Doug and I launched our sea kayaks into the muddy fast flowing waters of the Murrumbidgee River and, over 3.5 days, paddled 130 km down the Murrumbidgee River from Gundagai to Wagga Wagga. It was an iconic Australian summer trip, paddling through the empty, dry grasslands, searing hot in the dead heat of the day, but alive with kangaroos and birds morning and night. The river was fast flowing and it was easy to paddle 10 km/hour. We camped in the grasslands above the river or on sandy river-side beaches, paddling in the morning, and resting under huge river gums in the afternoon when the sun was merciless.

I had always wanted to do another one of these river trips. The days are easy, almost routine, you pack the kayak, push out into the river, paddle downstream, swim when it gets too hot, pull off in the afternoon on to a river beach to set up camp. The metronomic regularity of each day makes it easy to settle into a contemplative state.

Murray River sunset

The Murray River is the third longest navigable river in the world, and runs from the Great Dividing Range in Victoria, through NSW to flow into the Southern Ocean at Goolwa in South Australia. Many people have paddled the entire length of the river, a journey measured in weeks rather than days. Our plan was to paddle 275 km from Yarrawonga to Echuca. Bus transport is easy between these two towns and almost all the land on either side of the river is protected in some kind of park or reserve.

Based on other people's notes and our own experience on the Murrumbidgee River, we thought we would average 8 to 10 km/hour which would make covering 40 to 50 km along the river each day quite reasonable. Accordingly we planned for seven days on the river, but secretly, we both thought we would reach Echuca in six days. We soon, however, calculated our average speed at only about 6 km/hour, so some days in the kayak felt quite long. Our goal each day was to paddle 40 km. Most days we reached or exceeded that distance, but two days, we found good camps at 36 km, and, as we had paddled over 40 km on several days, our last day into Echuca was only 24 km.

We quickly got into the habit of taking a break every two hours. Or, I should say, I got into that habit. Doug travels faster than me and he would jump out of the boat quite frequently when he got a distance ahead. I, however, limited myself to my allotted bum breaks. The truth is, after about two hours in my kayak anywhere, I am getting twitchy to get out, and, had I got out and rested my aching butt every time I really wanted to, my average speed would have been far slower than 6 km/hour. 


Typical encampment

There are camps everywhere, but, if you want to avoid bogan ghetto camps, it pays to choose wisely. Our tactic was to locate areas on the map around our required km marker that had some prospect of a sandy beach (sweeping bend), no road access shown on the map (although inevitably there was), and, if possible near private land which we hoped might restrict access somewhat. In the end, we were lucky or had good judgement (perhaps a combination of both) as we had camps by ourselves every night even Saturday night. We also always had a nearby back-up camp should bogans arrive and, finally, we did not put the tent up until about 8.00 pm. The river was very busy on Saturday, and even busier on Sunday when we paddled through Cobram, but was much quieter through the week. Near Cobram, the jet boats with skiers/boarders were appalling as, they not only drive up and down the same 200 metre section of river at full speed, but feel compelled to blast boy band music at full volume as well.

Traffic and camps are heaviest near the river side towns and at beaches, but there are vehicle camps along the entire river. Many of these, particularly those in premier locations (close to town - beer and pies, with sandy beaches) are ghettos of junker caravans, old buses, and tattered tents. These are obviously left set up for much, if not all of the year. When occupied, they represent your worst nightmare. People have brought all manner of supplies with them including, but not limited to, electric lights hanging in trees, couches, lounge chairs, jetties, personal moorings, wheelie bins. Of course, there are the usual toilet and shower tents, annexes, gazeboes, dining settings, barbeques. On the water front are $70K jet boats, jet skis, innumerable tinnies, and, very, very occasionally (we saw perhaps five on the entire river) plastic kayaks. The crowds thin considerably once you pass Ulupna Island and paddle through the Barmah forests, and do not increase again until you approach Ecucha where house-boats crowd the river banks for kilometres.

The scenery is more or less the same for the entire distance. The slowly moving river, turning from green to brown as you move downstream. The river red gums, some massively large, others smaller but still stately. Sandy beaches on sweeping bends which get less frequent as you travel downstream. Dry leads now cracked with mud where the river once ran. Sulfur crested cockatoos screech from 4 am until about 9 am when they doze for the day, only issuing mild chirps, until they reawaken around 5.00 pm and screech until sunset. Their raucous cries sound like someone saying "I'm here, where are you?" Behind their background roar, you can just hear other birds. At night, the sounds of the bush are deafening. Boobook owls call with their distinctive "mo-poke" virtually non-stop. Kangaroos emerge and thump through the bush, male koalas growl like outsized chainsaws, cicadas thrum, fish jump, birds splash, and a hundred other animals crawl out of the bush and begin their nightly activities. 


Typical river paddling

We used Murray River Access Maps for this trip. You can buy them for about $8 each at local tourist information centres and they purport to show "river beaches, fishing, boating, camping, picnic areas." They are not perfectly accurate as many of the places shown without roads actually have road access. In fact, it is best to assume road access to the entire length of the river. They do, however, make it easy to keep track of where you are, and to find likely campsites. The maps mark the river kilometres starting from 0 at the river mouth at Goolya. Along the river itself, there are sporadic markers. Sometimes we would see six or seven in a day, sometimes only one or two.

Day One: Yarrawonga Weir to 1944 km

It is easy to launch from the boat ramp/small beach just below Yarrawonga weir. A group from a Victoria canoe club was hanging about on the small beach near the boat ramp as we were getting ready to go waiting until it was their turn to participate in a canoe/kayak race to Cobram. They had a long four person boat and one woman kept telling us how it would only take them two days to paddle from Yarrawonga to Ecucha instead of six or seven as we were doing. Another guy, who had paddled the entire Murray River was giving us tips on where to camp, buy pies, and stock up on water. Eventually, they set off, and we left soon after.

We quickly settled into a paddling routine, and plugged away steadily all day. As we paddled downstream, we began to get some idea of the extent of bush camping along the Murray, but, the full impact did not strike us until a day or two later when the camps emptied out after the weekend. By the time we had paddled 200 km, we thought nothing would surprise us, until we saw someone had brought in their own jetty!

The river banks were lined with fishermen and unhealthy looking people sitting, frequently one and the same. At one point, a group of wags began making what they thought were hysterically funny jokes about how far we were behind the other kayaks (the kayak racers). I can only imagine that all kayakers look the same to "sitters", just as all sitters sitting look the same to us.

As we approached the 40 km mark we began looking for a camp. We had previously located a small section of national park on the map that was surrounded by private land and we found a good beach campsite here. There was a vehicle track, even though none was shown on the map, but the area did not appear to get a lot of traffic. 

Kayak racers starting off from Yarrawonga

Day 2: 1944 to 1904 beach

Today we passed through Cobram and the river leading up to it was insanely busy with annoying jet boats blasting boy band music at full volume. We topped up our water supply and deposited garbage at Thompsons Beach downstream of the bridge. Once we passed Cobram, the river got noticeably quieter. We had lunch at a picnic bench at Scotts Beach (upstream of Cobram) although all the picnic benches were in the sun. The campers here seemed a little different, perhaps backpackers doing some fruit picking.

Once we got near our 40 km mark we began looking for a camp. It was often hard to know how far to push on as, if we passed a good camp and did not find one further on, we would have to paddle upstream against the current. We had a few likely locations picked out and ended up stopping at 1904 beach at 1904 km - duh. There was a road, of course, even though none was shown on the map. We had a good beach with sand and a shady spot to camp, although some blockhead had taken a dump right in the middle of the access track behind the beach. At this point we worked out what all the long metal bits we kept seeing on beaches were - the remnants of burned fold-up chairs which must, at some point, give out beneath the butts of particularly large bogans, which then get tossed onto the fire.

I went for a walk in the evening and discovered that the road to our camp was even signed "1904 beach" so it was a bit inexplicable that no-one was there. A few nearby camps were abandoned but some nearby campers also stayed over Sunday night. The usual nightly din and we used the fly again but the night was warmer than previous. 

 Beach camp

Day 3: 1904 beach to Thornley Beach

Today was much quieter on the river, few boats, no jet boats or jet skis and very peaceful paddling. It is easy to fall into a contemplative groove just paddling steadily down river. We had an early lunch at Tocumwal and met Bill Robinson, his granddaughter (age 10), family friend, Ben, and his daughter (age 6) as they were launching their boats. Bill has paddled the Murray River more times than anyone else and has also paddled across Bass Strait and undoubtedly had many other fine adventures. He is 70 years young and one of those people you could talk to for hours. He knows all about the Murray River, the history, the geography, the wildlife. A fascinating fellow who restored our faith in human kind. They were paddling to Barmah in three days in two double kayaks.

As usual, we had tea, got water, dropped off garbage and then continued down river until we had done our requisite 40 km. Again we picked a campsite near private land with no road marked and, again there was a road but no other campers. Unfortunately, there was another pile of human shit up behind the beach and the usual burned folding chairs, but we hung out down at the beach where things were less grubby. A very pleasant gentleman who lives nearby walked down (apparently he does so every day) and we chatted with him for a while. There were lots of koalas around this camp and it was a particularly noisy night. The temperature was definitely heating up so we didn't walk until a bit later on when it got cooler and we had a swim to cool off before bed. No need for the fly overnight.

Around 6.30 pm, just as an obnoxious jet skier was coming past repeatedly, Bill and family paddled past heading a further 6 km downstream. We waved hello as they went by. We passed 100 km on the river today which feels like a bit of a milestone as the days are longer than we had imagined. 


River beach

Day 4: Thornley Beach to The Gulf

A quiet and peaceful day with no towns, few people or camps. The river runs through Barmah forest and banks lined with river red gums. The water is getting muddier and there are no beaches along this stretch. At 1821 km, 4 km shy of our goal of 40 km, we reach The Gulf day use and camping area and pull into a boat ramp. This is one of the nicest spots we have seen along the river so far. It is a Parks Victoria site and so is relatively clean and not beaten up like the bush camps. There are bollards every where preventing vehicles from driving to the banks of the river so there is still some growing vegetation. A small camping area is situated back from the water and some bogans have left a pile of garbage, mostly empty beer cans, in a half burnt out campfire.

While we are mulling over stopping for the night a truck drives up and a bee-keeper gets out. We get to talking and it turns out he paddled the river with two friends on Melbourne Cup weekend when it was, I quote, "bank to bank bogans." He has come to check on, and ultimately move his bees which have been feeding on flowering river red gums but are now getting hungry. After night fall he moves the hives. We waffle for a while and then decide to stay. There is a small beach directly opposite and we figure we can escape to it should bogans arrive, but, with vehicle access to the water blocked by bollards, we feel pretty safe.

I go for a walk before dinner and find a series of bush camps along the river banks all of which are filthy with human excrement and toilet paper. It is quite confronting. When I get back, the bees are agitated and we have to move picnic tables to avoid them. Moving picnic tables at a couple of the campsites was quite common as we would initially pick a shady table then the sun would move and it would get blisteringly hot. The boat ramp provided handy swimming as the river and banks are now quite muddy. No bogans arrive and we have the place to ourselves all night.

Day 5: The Gulf to Barmah Lakes campground

The river is moving a bit faster but we are not. We continue plugging along at our 6 km/hour pace having breaks every two hours. As we finished a bit earlier yesterday I feel fresher today. The river is very quiet again and peaceful. Around lunch time, we arrive at Picnic Point where there is a caravan park and also a public park. Bill and family are here and we enjoy chatting with them over lunch. As soon as I mention the word "bogan" we all know we are members of the same tribe and Bill starts talking about the "fat young unhealthy looking men sitting along the river banks drinking." At one point, Ben says "he is exaggerating" but we all know that Bill is not. The girls are having a good time and Bill talks about how this is "not just a paddling trip, it is a communication of core values."

Bill leaves first and then we pack up our lunch things and continue down the river. Past Picnic Point, the river gets quite narrow and travels faster between overhanging willows. It is never dangerous or difficult as any trees are easily avoided. We start looking for a camp as we are paddling through "The Narrows" which is a straight stretch of river between Moira and Barmah Lakes (not visible from the river) but the banks are steep and the forest thick. Finally, when we are feeling tired, we come out at Barmah Lakes campground, another Victoria Parks camp. Again, this is a nice clean camp, this time with toilet, day use area and boat ramp. It does not take long to decide to stay as it is 5.30 pm. We pull the boats up just by the mouth of Barmah Lakes and find a picnic bench in the shade. There are bollards again so the vegetation is not as destroyed as the bush camps but this is very dry country and little grows apart from river red gums. The ground is baked so hard I have to pound the tent pegs in with a large stick/small log.

Before dinner I wander around and finally end up at the Dharnya Centre (interpretive centre) which looks as if it is mainly for teaching. There are some old muster yards, and a couple of interpretive walks but I have to get back to make dinner as it is nearly dark. When the sun goes down the mosquitoes come out. Our first and only camp where the insects were really bad. We have a swim before getting in the tent but the water is very shallow and warm and you must wade out through mud for 10 metres to get wet. The bush is strangely quiet overnight although there are many kangaroos and some raptors.

We passed 200 km on the river today and, unlike 100 km, which felt like a big achievement, we just drift past 200 barely noticing.

Day 6: The Gulf to km 1736

The river widens again past Barmah Lakes, slows and becomes more domesticated as there are large stretches of private land intermittently along both banks. We find Bill and family still at camp about 3 km downstream where there is a large bush camp with easy access for kayaks. They are not leaving until 11 am as it is their last day and they need only paddle into Barmah. We pull over and have a good long chat and get some ideas for kayak modifications (half spray deck, Ridge Rest kayak seat). After we have chatted for a while, it is time for us to go and we paddle down river soon arriving at Barmah. We drop garbage and get a little more water even though we should have enough. It is very hot, however, and we need to drink a good amount.

Downstream from Barmah there is a lot of private land apart from a narrow strip along the Victorian side of the river. We do not want to camp to close to Ecucha as we figure it will get very busy, so begin looking for camps around 1738 km. We soon find a pretty good spot at 1736 km where there is a bit of sand to pull out on and good shade up in the trees. It is the usual bush camp with no road shown on the map but there is a road. It is too hot to do anything but hang out in the shade. Swimming off the beach requires some mud wading. When it gets a bit cooler I wander about on the tracks by many other bush camps.

Day 7: 1736 km to Victoria Park, Echuca

As we continue down river the camps quickly get busier so we made the right choice stopping relatively early yesterday. Most camps now have ghettos although not all are occupied, at least fully. There are a few waterski boats and jet skis roaring up and down so we have to paddle along the margins of the river and do not get full benefit from the current. It is too dangerous, however, to be out in the main channel. When we get near Echuca, the development increases, but, luckily, there are maximum speeds on the river and we pass out of the water ski zone. We start seeing house-boats moored along side the shore (including the Executive house boat) and, as we come right into Echuca there are a bunch of paddle steamers which, incredibly, appear to be still burning wood! Our final stretch up to Victoria Park where we find a good boat ramp to pull out at (other landing sites are all muddy) is past many paddle steamers and then about a kilometre of house-boats all lined up. One passes us towing a ski boat, the occupants are obviously determined to use the most amount of fossil fuels while expending the least amount of calories.

We pull in at Victoria Park into oppressive heat (about 38C) and while Doug goes to retrieve the car, I unpack all the gear. We have paddled 275 km and had not a single bogan camp, an achievement, of which we feel justifiably proud.

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