The Murray River has always intrigued me. My family used to spend Easters on its banks when I was a kid, camping on a property owned by a distant relation. It was a sizeable property, completely undeveloped, just gums and scrubs growing out of hardened clay for perhaps 100 acres. My cousins and I would head away from the river, towards the back of the property, scratching ourselves on bushes, crumbling the cracked-china earth, until we reached a cliff line jutting up randomly, perhaps eroded by a prehistorical flood. We’d scramble up here, onto the flat land on the top, and walk around until the cliff line formed the Murray’s bank, just where the river turned. From up here, we’d look along the limestone cliffs, down at the eddying brown water, glinting in the rays of the reliably unobstructed sun.
These were some of the best days of my childhood. But inevitably, our Easter tradition didn’t last. We grew up. Some of the relatives I loved exploring with became too busy, or disinterested, to come along. Who wanted to head to this bushland, sans comforts and facilities, and with prickles and spiders? I too, in a bout of teenage angst, started to feel too cool to spend Easter with my family. Once, heading here at Easter was a given, then a maybe, then something we didn’t consider. The ongoing rumour that the property might change hands, once such a threat, stopped concerning us. I don’t know whether the property did eventually switch ownership. For all I know, it could now be subdivided, covered in shacks, the site of monumental booze ups on fake grass.
The one thing that has stayed around from those days is my love for the Murray. And, recently, I found myself longing to experience it again. With that longing came fear, because I’d hate to return and find it deprived of its magic. Part of me wanted to play it safe, to preserve my memories. I worried about the challenges faced by the river, such as the drought and the mass death of native fish. But my curiosity prevailed.
REDISCOVERING THE RIVER
We headed to the Echuca/Barmah National Park region in April, which took about three hours from Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs. We went via Cactus Country, an awesome sidenote for anyone with a fascination for plants. For $17.50, you can walk around Australia’s largest cactus collection, along a number of tracks segmented by particular themes, such as South American cacti, or monstrose or mutant cacti. The garden was downright artistic; it made me want to go to Mexico.
Next we drove about 40 or 50 minutes to Barmah National Park, on the Victorian side. Online resources had told us a few walking tracks started from the information centre, which in practice seems to refer to the Dharnya Centre, a building which was not open when we went. The longest of the walks, the 4km ‘Lakes Loop Track’, technically started here, from which point it tracked back along the road for a while to the free Barmah Lakes campground. We drove to the campground instead. The roads were unsealed and uneven in parts, but thus far manageable in 2WD. From the campground, we walked along the Murray-fed Barmah Lake, and in our short foray saw various birds, including a kingfisher, a spoonbill and a kookaburra. This place is so, so Aussie. Moving through here, you see hundreds of ol’ soldier gum trees, grey, brown and ochre in tone, with huge circumferences and genuine character. There mightn’t be heaps to do, unless you have a good book or a watercraft, but even so, this is the perfect setting to relax or take an aimless stroll.
At about 5pm we drove for 50 or so minutes to our no-facilities campsite at Christies Beach. Once you enter the reserve where the site is, the roads crisscross and lose definition, but follow your nose and you’ll come to the riverside. Some roads near the river itself have been chewed out by the spinning tyres of bogged 4WDs, but we found ourselves a lovely flat spot on the raised bank no troubles. From our tent, we had a stellar view of a bend in the river. We were basically at the top of a horseshoe, and could see the Murray bending away and running parallel on both sides of a gumtree-covered finger of land sticking out at us. We got down onto the beach, sat on some huge dead logs and dangled our feet in the water, watching the sunset over the left side of the bend, behind tall trees.
Come about 9:50pm, this being early April (still daylight savings), I hopped out the tent with the tripod and camera, and set up facing the bend in the river. Being a new moon, in an area with minimal light pollution, the stars were profuse, and some of the brighter ones even reflected in the flat water, as did the gums on the opposing bank. I set up on the tripod, exposing for around 20 to 30 seconds, with a wide-open aperture, but I limited ISO as much as I could to reduce image noise. Towards the end of my photo session, I even played around with my headlamp, illuminating the closer surfaces briefly to create some interesting images.
We woke up to cockatoos and a radical sunrise (though you cannot see the sun and the river in one glance; it rises behind you). Fog streamed off of the water. In parts, you could see the strands of steam, drifting with the flowing water and slowly rising; in others, the fog was so dense it created a white blanket.
After breakfast we headed to Echuca and hired a canoe. By this point it was 10am and the fog was gone, but the sun was out and the day at a perfect 25 or so degrees. We hired from Echuca Boat and Canoe Hire, $30 for two hours, and set out upstream. We paddled under a huge bridge with corellas hanging on its underside, past the historic Echuca wharf, and around bends into more anonymous land, before turning back. In April, we only passed about four speed boats (mind that this is one of the more populated areas), and maybe 10 or so moving houseboats or paddler cruises. These numbers would be somewhat higher in summer.
During this foray, I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of paddling the entire 2000km length of the Murray, camping of a night at places like we’d camped the night just gone.
A FLAME REKINDLED
I’m thrilled I pushed through whatever doubts I had and ventured up to the Murray. It turns out the love I felt for it on the basis of my childhood memories was completely justified.
Quintessentially Australian, perfectly natural, and full of opportunities for extended waterborne adventure, this is a region I’ll definitely be heading to more often – perhaps to the Mildura region next.