Saturday, 1 February 2014

Albury - Howlong. Tree branch camp.

We took off in the morning cool. Early morning is peaceful, the water is smooth and the sun, still low in the sky, casts a warm light which causes the yellows of the cliffs to shine golden and gives a freshness to the gum leaves that you would not imagine if you were only to observe them in the middle of the day.

Detail of a corner where benched had been hewn from old red gums for campers to use just before the 2170 marker. I have never seen such massive forest furniture.  The morning light was also quite inviting, providing near perfect reflections.

Today we paddled just over 50km, finding a beautiful grassy spot a few kilometres downstream from Howlong. There were less cattle than yesterday, but we did first hear and then see a herd of cows moving through the forest. They were obviously using sound as a way to keep together. Lead cattle bellowed to the slower ones, encouraging these to catch up and the later letting the first ones know that they were coming. Occasionally it is hard to hear things on the water, there were times when each of us thought the other had said something, only to be told in a most unimpressed way that that was a cow bellowing!

The bush was beautiful today, it reminded me of paddling through the Narrows (upstream of the Barmah Lakes), with its low banks. Now that this section of river is high, it is as though you can see right through the bush. The trees look lush and healthy, they light up as the sun shines through their leaves. It is quiet, there are very few people on the river, only the occasional fisherman. As we neared Howlong there were a few speed boats, but not the highly styled Malibu's of Echuca and downriver. These are old fashioned, with V8 engines, or smoky outboards, and, because there are so few, they are super cool. The river banks are healthy, there is little sign of erosion, other than that caused by the high river. Everywhere reeds grow, the banks are secured by goynes and stones. Willows still grow, but do not dominate. One feels they have a purpose.  Ruth remarked that it was so nice to see the animals owning the shore.

The river banks, whilst usually low for the first 100km downstream from the Hume Dam are beginning to show a bit of height. These clay banks although, at times similar in colour to those at the lower end of the Murray River, are much softer and do not seem to stop the river from meandering its way through the landscape. Occasionally, lines of pebbles can be seen crisis crossing through the strata, evidence that the river had been there before. The town of Howlong was on top of one of these cliffs.


We pulled in at the public boat ramp at Howlong. It was surrounded by at reserve which people treated as impromptu swimming areas. People just rocked up with deck chairs and eskies, and stayed the afternoon. There are big shady trees. A couple with their two big Great Dane like dogs, sat in the cool shade of these, every now and then entering the water with their dogs to cool off. The place to be in town for young people was the Howlong Central Cafe, where we ordered a refreshing smoothie and milkshake. After that, they too moved to the park by the river; some swam, others sat on picnic tables in the shade of trees with their eskies and played music. The town was similarly laid back. Homes were neat and tidy, rather than audacious.

Howlong Hair.
Howlong has a population of around 2,500, and according to its community website, 'The Grape Vine', the population is growing -due to the affordability of housing compared to the surrounding towns of Rutherglen, Corowa and Albury, its proximity to wineries and the "niceties of country living." Some of those niceties are of the wriggly kind; the biggest advertisement in the Grape Vine in April 2014 was for the services of the local snake catcher; another was for tennis. I wonder if the two are connected?

Howlong's name derives from 'oolong', meaning 'a haunt of brolgas'... although other references say that it derives from a word indicating 'the beginning of the plains'. Since Brolgas are plains birds, this is not as contradictory as it might first appear.

Howlong is located at the junction of the Murray River and Black Swan Anabrach. It is high above the river, the low ground between the two river sections is regularly flooded.

Major Thomas Mitchell in his exploration of the area, camped at the site of the future township on the 17th October 1836 and then crossed the river slightly downstream on the following day. Several years later, in 1838, John Conway Bourke delivering the first overland mail from Sydney to Melbourne chose this place to cross the Murray also. The town was established in 1854. 

1861 Post Office (now a B&B): ref: By Mattinbgn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
One of the surprising finds in Howlong are the 'Black Dragon Gardens'. Based on the scholar gardens of Suzhou and inspired by artists, writers and poets from that time and place, the owners seek to enjoy a symbolic natural world in their own private space. The gardens are open to the public on weekends. More info at

Howlong features in Australian band Spiderbait's album, Grand Slam.

Yesterday we met a man who used to train in K1's between Albury and Howlong. They used to use the backwaters to create a loop. It is no wonder that the Mitta Mitta canoe club had such strong paddlers (they regularly had members of their club who represented Australia). He told me of a short cut which they sometimes took on the way to Howlong, that would cut about an hour off the journey. Later, I believe we found it. There is an anabranch which runs parallel to the river for 30 or 40 km. little inlets and creeks poured off the main river all along today's journey, eagerly seeking the quicker way to the sea. Paddling down the river, you had to be careful not to be sucked into one. As the paddler told us that they were full of snags and that they were sometimes so narrow that once you were in you could not turn around. It wasn't worth the risk.

The river continues to meander through the landscape, changing its bed, it seems, on a whim. Because of this, and the hills limiting its movement on either side, the landscape is full of billabongs. This is the favorite environment for the river red gums. They love the river, moist soil and can handle being underwater longer than most native trees. In these photos I admired, and tried to guess the age of the old gum with the wide base. How old do you think it might be?
Cicada shells, depending on the species in Australia, they can spend up to 5 years underground, before they emerge from the ground and take on their adult winged form. Adults live between two weeks and 3 months, seeking out mates. The males are the loud ones: females click in response.

The riverine landscape is constantly changing, leaving billabongs, marshes and undulating landscape as the river moves across its floodplain and back over long periods of time.

Stopping for a break by one of the many inlet 'creeks' which serve as shortcuts for the river when water levels are high.

A few kilometres after Howlong we found our camp site, a beautifully green, shady and cared for area. Perhaps we had lucked on a private piece of land where campers were welcome, or perhaps this is one of the new Murray River National Parks. Either way we were grateful. We arrived with enough time to have two swims to cool off, which we hope will make all the difference with sleeping tonight.

Beautiful grassy camp, just downstream from Howlong. Tied the pool noodles to an overhanging tree branch and cooled down after our paddle in the afternoon.
Plenty of fresh veges.
Looking forward to dinner. Carbonara pasta base, garlic, onions, capsicum, tomatoes, squeeze of lime and tuna.

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