Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Murray river Paddle 2016 Day 18 Barham - Benjaroop

Barham - Benjaroop 55km
I am camped opposite checkpoint alpha on day 5 of the Murray Marathon. Usually it is a nice little beach, but today it is in the form of its alter ego - a wetland. All around the bush is buzzing. The air is rich with the sounds of insects, frogs and calling birds. In the afternoon, as the mosquitoes get bolder, swallows swoop low over the water, picking up mosquitoes and other tasty morsels. They certainly are welcome to their weight in mossies every day and all the hollow trees I can muster to breed freely. I was going to camp at Alpha for nostalgia’s sake, but rain water has filled the wheel ruts in the tracks on the other side of the levee and grass was over a metre high. So, I paddled across the other side of the river and am camped on a nice broad levee bank. So long as the farmer doesn’t want to drive his ute along here, or a herd of cattle decide this is the way they want to travel, then I’m set. There is a huge old boiler discarded behind the levee. My guess is that it was used to drive irrigation pumps, before the advent of the small and more efficient combustion engine which has taken its place. In the riparian fringe of flooded red gums honeyeaters bounce off the water’s surface and then settle on a branch to complete their toilet. A fish came in and snapped at something before disappearing. Cockatoos are trying to dominate the evening chorus. It seems chaotic tonight. Perhaps that is because I’m on the edge between forest and agricultural land - or perhaps it really is the cockatoo’s fault.
Today’s paddle began in the forest. More correctly, it began in a forest town. The dominant sound in Barham is of the Arbuthnot Sawmills. The whine of the saw blade and the growling of the busy front end loader that rushes around feeding it. The saw mill is the last operating red gum saw mill on the Murray. There is more demand than they can fill. The mill cuts timber from the ecological thinning projects under trial in some of the river red gum forests. Should the removal of crowded saplings and trees be successful in promoting the regeneration of the forest, as is hoped, then they might soon more timber available. Our red gum national parks are dominated by one age group, reflecting the last timber harvest. Forestry workers have the tools and the experience to be able to reinstate that diversity. It is a change from what used to be done, but it is the road to sustainable local industry. Hopefully this cooperation between parks and industry will spread and we will see more local sawmills reopen along the Murray.
Out of the buzz and under the bridge. With one and a half metres clearance I made it easily. Larger boats need to give 48 hours notice for the central span to be raised. It wasn’t necessary for me. Once past the waterfront houses with their barbie boats, canoes and tarzan swings I was in the forest again. Unlike upstream of Barham, the water soon reached the top of the natural levees and was slowly spilling into the forest. There were the usual runners, but it was spilling everywhere. It was easy to imagine how these levees grew. With such thick grass growth, the water would slow and drop its sediment before continuing. It was 40 kilometres between Barham and Murrabit, most of it forest, and most of it under water. it was not as threatening as the Barmah Forest however, I could have stood up on the flooded banks had I wanted to. About 10 kilometres before Murrabit I heard tractors working the fields, I also saw the first pump irrigating crops. No shortage of water this year. Last time I paddled here it was low river. Today i could see the old farm houses with their beautiful rose gardens. I could paddle right up to the huge old shearing shed before Gonn Crossing and I almost could have paddled into the front yard of the house where day 5 of the marathon starts. Like so many other farmers, they had a tinny tied as close to the house as possible. In this case it was the garden gate.
I called into the Murrabit launching ramp for a break - first time out of the boat in 5 hours! It was good to stretch the legs. I was also curious to see how this would be for the start of day 5 in the marathon. All was good. Inadvertently I pulled up next to sign explaining navigation hazards on the Murray. It looked like I was one of them. Pulling into shore gave me a chance to look beyond the reeds, rushes and sedges along the waters edge. In the backwaters, water ribbon were growing after years of dormancy. Amazing how plants like these survive the many dry years.
After forest being the dominant form of bank vegetation for my first 700km I was enjoying the agricultural flavour. I had a look at the old pump houses, some of them clearly built to house steam engines, and tried to imagine what it would have been like in those times. I saw a settlers hut, falling apart now, but somehow survived the ravage of the years with its tin chimney. I passed by the site of the old Gonn crossing. In the distance you can see a wattle and daub building, now a ruin. Proud stations on either side of the river may have determined the punt’s location. Stations and farm houses often have all sorts of old interesting things lying around - but one of them had what looked like an old DC3 passenger airplane and a sizeable chunk of the fuselage of a world war two transport plane, shrapnel holes and all. It looks like both projects were a bit ambitious.
As usual, once out of town, the river was quiet. It is a work day, perhaps things will change as I approach Swan Hill, tomorrow’s destination. The river has dropped here, but only just. I wonder what it will be like at Swan Hill.

The new wharf at Barham Koondrook. Due to be opened Nov 2016.
Rural landscape
Rural landscape

Row of old trees along the river bank.

A ruin at the site of the former Murrabit River Crossing.

This camp although inundated was still occupied by its owner.
Some farmers have rescued kilometer signs from fallen trees and placed them on their sheds.
Approaching Barham Bridge.

Passing under Barham Bridge

I know that farmers have a name for collecting things, but I was surprised to see a DC3 and a war plane wreck in the forest.
Shearing Shed

Shearing shed, pump and tinny.

Murrabit bridge. 1.5m clearance.

Water ribbon colonizing backwaters behind the levees.

Navigational hazards... had I become one?

Old pump house.

Every farmer needs their tinny.
Old tree with hollow base.

Cattle grazing in the forest.

River landscape.
Flooded forest on river's edge

Rushes thriving on the natural levees between Murrabit and Barham.

Wild roses.
Quiet time

Levee bank at checkpoint alpha, day 5 Murray marathon.
Dry land was hard to find today. A levee will have to do.

Levee banks are the only high spots in places. This was wide enough to camp on comfortably.

Ready made washing line.

Boiler near my campsite on the levee.
Massive boilers which were used to drive irrigation pumps before the internal combustion engine.

Sunset from my tent on top of the levee between Murrabit and Swan Hill.

Murray River Paddle 2016 Day 17 Gunbower Perricootta Koondrook Forest to Barham

Gunbower Perricoota Koondrook Forest - Barham 73 km
My campsite at Stanton Break, about 30km into the Gunbower Perricootta Koondrook Forest.
The Murray is full of surprises. This is a distributary (a stream which leaves a river, spreading the flow over the floodplain) next to my camp. It kept my area mossie free and provided beautiful, fresh, easy to access, flowing water for cooking and cleaning. The only thing I had to watch out for was that on launching I would not get washed into the forest instead of heading down the river. 
Up with the sparrows and ready to go. Mornings are beautiful on the river.
I got up early this morning, not long after I heard a big roo bound through my camp. It was impossible for it to do this quietly, as it had to hop through the little streams that surrounded my tent first. The morning chorus was wonderful, as it has been every day in the forest, however, today the bird call continued the whole day with none of the usual pauses. Perhaps it has something to do with the floods and the abundance of food this has brought.
The Gunbower Perricoota Koondrook Forest (GPK) is quite different to its cousin, the Barmah Millewa Forest. Although both are river red gum forests adapted to flooding, the Barmah choke restricts water flow, turning the area into one huge lake. I was worried about the townships of Barham and Koondrook having the same effect. It is over 100km from Torrumbarry weir to Barham. 100km without landfall is too much. Without advice and encouragement from locals I would have called this section off. There are natural levees which run throughout the forest, making it possible to get out almost anywhere and plenty of camping opportunities. I'm glad I paddled this section. Not only will my study of the condition of river red gums be complete for the length of the river, but it was really beautiful.
The reason why the river is so much higher than the forest is not just due to the levees. When Australia had an inland sea, this was where the Murray entered it, building its own delta, much like the Coorong is today. Trapped within its levees the river continues to run along high ground, with anabranches like the Gunbower Creek and Thule Creek feeding the lower parts of the forest before returning to the river lower down. Fascinating.
Near Burkes Bridge, Gunbower-Perricootta-Koondrook Forest 

For most of the day I saw no-one. It's a quiet stretch - another thing to recommend it. However, about 20km out from Barham I came across a four wheel drive. My first thought was that it had been abandoned. I've seen a few abandoned vehicles and vans, when people didn't manage to get them out in time, or were surprised by the rising water. However this one was not deserted. I called out its resident, asking whether he had taken the river road (it follows high ground). He let me know that he had been there 'for some time' after having become 'inundated'. He didn't want help, or me to let anyone know he was ok, so I left him to his fishing. At least he would not lack for water. I hope he had plenty of repellent.
In the Murray Marathon (aka Massive Murray Paddle) the section from Murrabit to Swan Hill is famous for swirls and whirlpools that can turn a boat. This section is just the same, the current swells and whirlpools have to be seen to be believed. I am not sure what causes them, but they are on almost every corner.
The forest is clearly worked. Most trees are tall and straight (encouraged that way because they are more valuable as saw logs). Old trees were rare. In a natural forest these will be scattered throughout and particular along old water courses. In worked forests they tend to be along the banks, however here they have been removed for some reason.
Another surprise was how big an effect the millennium drought has had. In higher areas, trees are still recovering. It might still take another 10 years before the forest reaches full health again - assuming it has access to water in that time.
As I near Barham, farms began to appear, then fishing shacks, then houses. Going off the number of picnic tables, bush furniture and Tarzan swings, the people who live here really love their river.
I pulled into Barham Lakes Caravan Park because it had units right down at the water’s edge (and it was the first one I came to). Park manager Helen said "The forest protects the town, it always floods the forest first. You know, the river is actually higher than it was in 2011".
Tomorrow I make for Morton Lane, a high spot near Benjeroop, halfway between here and Swan Hill.
I paddled past a big floating log today. I hope I've gone far enough that it does not pass me while I sleep. The river never stops.
Calm reflection.

Park hut.

Brad's Bend.

Bush carpentry.

Paterson's curse? The bees love it.

Ring barking. One reason why there aren't many old trees on the banks along this stretch of the river.

Wildflowers along the river bank.

River landscape.

Forestry often provide firewood. Kind.

Loo with a view. It has also been used for target practise - hopefully not at the same time.


Fishing shack. Weekend glimpse of paradise.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Murray River Paddle 2016 Day 16 Gunbower Perricoota Koondrook Forest

Day 16: 1595 km Stanton Break, GPK Forest 31st Oct 2016

Torrumbarry Headworks - Stanton Break - Gunbower Forest 53km

It was a relief to have a relatively calm day after yesterday’s strong winds. I took a more relaxed approach to the day knowing that i did not have to battle headwinds and cruised along at an average of just over 8 km/hr, which is not bad given that I stop paddling to photograph every 250m.

About 10 km in I came across the collection of buses and old vans that exist at Norris Bend. Whether these are still used, I don’t know. I stopped to photograph one old bus whose front axles seemed to be slowly settling into the mud, when I received a message that the lock master from Torrumbarry Weir, would only be available before 11am and after 3pm today. Still 11km away, I had to race, I upped my average speed to just over 10 km/hr but was hitting speeds of up to 12.5km/hr. Not bad for a fully madden boat, especially when I still had to take my photos. Alan Williams, the Lockmaster, was pleasantly surprised when I made it. He opened the gates just enough to let me through, I snuck under the walkway which is raised for larger boats and chatted whilst he closed the first gate and opened the second. Last time I went through this lock, the difference in levels was around 5m. Today there was no difference, however going through the lock saves 2 hours of packing and portaging.

Alan Williams informed me of a small houseboat that had run out of fuel about 6km down from the weir. He was just thinking of conning someone in the caravan park to motoring down to them with a jerry can when Alan Whelan, the fella travelling the length of the Murray in a small yellow tinny called up requesting passage. He volunteered to bring them fuel when he came through at 3pm. Alan and i have passed each other a number of times, beginning in Barmah forest, not far from Tocumwal and last time a few days ago, leaving Echuca. I didn’t expect him to pass me today, but having heard from the stranded couple, and how it could be difficult to get fuel in Barham on Melbourne Cup Day, Alan decided to put in some big kilometres. He travelled all the way to Barham - around 110 km away. Too far for me. I had hoped that he would be my backup through the forest, but once he passed me later in the day this was to be the last time I was to see him on the river. Alan began his trip at Bringenbrong Bridge. The most challenging thing he found was negotiating the rapids at Jingellic. He enjoys the bush camping. One of his prize accessories is a big steel drum, which he uses to heat up water for a shower. Safe trip to the mouth Alan. Keep an eye out for him in his yellow tinny.

Motivated by the story of Alan’s hot water drum, I boiled up a trangia kettle of water and used this to create a hot towel, like they serve on airplanes. It was actually really nice and probably good for the skin to be rid of all that sunscreen and repellent for a while.

I also stopped and chatted with the stranded couple in the houseboat. With the strong winds potentially pushing their boat into the trees and the strong current in the high river to work against, they had underestimated the amount of fuel their twin outboards would use and had pulled to the side once one began to splutter. The good news for me was that they informed me that there were banks all the way to Barham which meant that I would be able to find a camping spot - something I had been really quite concerned about after my experience in the Barmah Forest. 

The river is approximately 30cm higher than the surrounding forest. At Stanton Break, where I am camped for the night, a break in the levee allows water through to the forest. Bizarrely, it uses the roads, running along the graded earth gutters either side like small streams. An unexpected benefit of camping amongst so much running water is that there mosquitoes don’t like it. I hardly had a mosquito in camp until I took a walk through some grass and bought about 100 back with me. I won’t be doing that again.

It was nice to get in camp early enough to dry my clothes, refill my bottles with filtered water, cook dinner and make a start on charging devices for the next day. Come evening, I like to be in my tent. After a long day’s paddling, it is good to lie down, and under the protection of good flywire I don’t need to worry about being bitten.

Tomorrow I hope to get off early enough to have a crack at reaching Barham-Koondrook. If the banks remain, this is not essential, but better safe than sorry. Any recommendations on camping grounds in Barham-Koondrook?

Safety gear for a a big leg through flooded forest all the way to Barham - at this stage still an unknown.
At the front of my cockpit you can see my GPS mount and iPhone for panoramic shots. My main camera, a waterproof Nikon AW1 is tucked in behind my life jacket, and a smaller Nikon Coolpix AW130 pocket camera for videos and when weather conditions become too rough for the larger camera is tucked into a pocket on the life jacket. An EPIRB is in the final pocket, in case of emergency. 

 8:51 a.m. At 1648km, just after the National Channel offtake. I can see some shelducks there. All River Red gum forest, 20 kilometres from Torrumbarry Weir. Much lighter conditions than yesterday. Expecting a sunny and cool day, with a light breeze.
At Norris Bend, about 10km upstream from Torrumbarry Weir is a collection of old buses people have set up as holiday homes. These had pretty wet feet at the moment, but otherwise seemed ok.

Entering lock 26 at Torrumbarry Weir, the most upstream of all the locks on the Murray, an attempt to make the Murray a year-round navigable waterway to rival those of Europe and North America. To this day all boats (big and small) have right of passage, so long as levels are safe.

Alan Williams, Lockmaster Torrumbarry Weir. The locks and weirs are run by catchment management authorities. Lockmasters record the names of all boats that pass through, maintain equipment and gardens, as well as adjusting the flow of water along the irrigation channels which flow from their weir pools irrigating farms in the region.
Master's Landing, Gunbower.

Old Cohuna Headworks Channel.

Master's Landing, Gunbower. This used to be the site of one of the wharfs which serviced the early Gunbower settlers. The reconstructed building and holding yards are a tribute to them.

The Cohuna Headworks, a little further downstream, were the site of one of the earliest irrigation works in the area. Long before Torrumbarry Weir was built in the 1920's local farmers used steam engines to pump water from the river and run it via channels to their farms. The sites where these pumps stood were called headworks. Rusting old remains of steam engines all along the river are clues to the presence of similar schemes. 

Leaves form beautiful patterns on the surface of the old Headworks Channel.

Alan Whelan in his yellow tinny. He eventually even skippered it across Lake Alexandrina.

With the river right to the top of the bank, high levels provide the chance to look into the bush on either side. After rain, wildflowers bloom making it all rather pretty at times.

My camp on the natural river levees that in times of flood like this, holds the river higher than its surrounding countryside. Where the river has broken through like this, it flows quickly into the low ground. Unlike the Barmah Millewa Forest, the river upstream of Barham, never covered its levees. Water that left the river to the North flowed into the Wakool System. Water flowing to the South eventually entered above Barham.