Monday, 10 March 2014

Picnic Point, the Narrows, Barmah Lakes and a night of luxury.

Today was our biggest paddle so far. We left the Gulf, 30km upstream of Picnic Point after watching the sunrise and listening to the morning chorus - thankfully not just from the cockatoos. Our aim was to make it past Barmah, and, if all went well, make it to Morning Glory 11km downstream from Barmah. This would leave an easy last day and allow us a little bit of luxury in the form of a hot shower, to celebrate the end of the trip.  Overall we paddled 71km.

The morning began well. The sunrise was gentle. There was no sign of the smoke from the night before. the water was smooth as glass, making or some beautiful reflections. We managed to slide our boats from the meter high banks back into the water over some obliging horizontal tree roots and then climb down the same into our boats. The early morning light shone through the reeds and gum leaves, giving them a bright translucent glow. They seem so much fresher than in the heat of the day. I can't get enough of it. 

The beaches of yesterday are gone. We are now truly in the Barmah Millewa forest. Kingfishers are everywhere, both the white breasted sacred kingfisher and the orange breasted azure kingfisher. We love watching them bob their heads as they look for fish and fly low across the water. The bobbing helps them to locate their prey under the water. They have multiple focal points in their eyes and the action uses all of them. they seldom miss. The high numbers of kingfishers are a good sign for the health of the forest. Some parts still look sparse and hungry. It seems that after years of drought and decades of incorrect water regimes, they are taking a while to turn around. That the birds are there is a good sign. They show that despite the tattered, thin crowns in some areas, the forest is recovering.

Another sign is the number of breading pairs of brown falcons. I have never seen so many. They sit high up in the tips of the tallest trees and then swoop down on unsuspecting birds like swallows, tree martins and wrens. Whilst we love these birds, the falcons are true predators and have their place. They could not survive if there were not healthy numbers of their prey. So the kingfishers show that the river is healthy and the falcons show that the forest surrounding it is too.

With every kilometre closer to Picnic Point the banks become lower and lower. Eventually it looked as if that with a good run-up we would be able to beach ourselves onto the banks. It didn't quite get that far. In these areas we noticed a sign we had not seen before 'no wakeboats, or wakeboarding allowed'. I can imagine why. With such low banks the waves could easily breach the banks of the river. The river that runs through the lower end of this forest is a perched river. It builds its banks from the sediment it carries. If these are breached the forest can be flooded. The bottom line of the sign read 'protect our environment'. There are many places where wakeboats and wash create erosion on the Murray. Its colour changes from green to brown over the summer months in Echuca with the arrival of the speedboat traffic. I wonder if the precedent that this sign sets might be applied elsewhere soon. I hope so.

After Picnic Point with its everyman's villas by the water and many willows the banks were almost level with the water. On leaving the holiday location and paddling towards the lakes the banks gradually increased in height again. According to the Murray Darling Basin Commission, the Barmah Choke refers to the narrow section of river within the Barmah-Millewa Forest. They note that the choke plays an important role in the flooding of the forest, however with increasing demands and needs for water throughout the basin, new ways of managing the river and the choke are being considered:

 Barmah Choke Study 

One of the problems is that if the river is held at peak delivery of 8,500 ML per day downstream of Picnic Point, notch erosion leading to bank instability can occur. Also, if unseasonal rain falls within the basin, water that was expected to be used and is no longer needed can lead to unseasonal flooding within the forest.


Barmah National Park Notes  showing 'the cutting', broken creek and barmah creek.

I love paddling into the Lakes. You first notice them through the open expanses of blue sky that appear either side of the river. It is an amazing place; the forest and lakes on either side are actually a little lower than the river. It has built its bed through the lake. The vegetation spills into the river from either side and snags which have no longer been allowed to be removed from the river since 2001 (NSW) straddle the entire stream in places. There are more snags than I remember - even from recent marathons - making paddling tricky. It is not a place for the novice paddler.

Snags are a subject of debate by river users. The NSW Dept of Primary Industries has listed their removal of 'woody debris' as a key factor in habitat degradation. Their research found that snags provide refuge for small fish out of the current and from predators, they create currents which build holes in the river bed drought proofing small streams and improving habitat diversity of rivers like the Murray. They do not support the removal of snags for flood mitigation, but will allow their removal where they constitute a navigational hazard. For many years paddlesteamers have not been able to pass through the narrows. I know some captains who would like to. I wonder if and when their case will be heard.

The Grappler: built at Echuca. It had a crane capable of lifting 14 - 15 tons and was purpose built to remove snags from the river.

The river slows down between Barmah Lakes and Barmah. The kilometres seem long. Old gums, including the queen of the forest, an 800 year old red gum, line the banks with smaller trees and ring-barked skeletons further back. The large straight trees away from the bank were logged or killed to expand grazing land. The trees along the edge may have survived because of their wide and stumpy form did not make them suitable for logging. It is not pretty to paddle through, but it does tell a story. Not everything from the past was good or better than today.

In Barmah, the banks climb to 8 metres, showing where the river, blocked by the Cadell Tilt 70,000 years ago found its way South into an ancient bed of the Goulburn River, which it follows until it meets its old bed at the Wakool Junction downstream of Tooleybuc.

The massive junction with the Murray River, about 8 km south (downstream) from Barmah is an ancient course of the Goulburn River. Potentially older than the earthquakes which uplifted Cadell tilt itself 70,000 years ago. Its banks look very old. I think it was abandoned before the Broken Creek (the course the Goulburn River followed before it was defeated by the uplift of land caused the Cadell tilt) became the path of the Goulburn, so at least 100,000 years ago. My interpretation of the sequence of events is that when aborigines dug a path for flood water to drain when forced onto the sandhills of Madowla Park 8,000 years ago, they chose there spot because of the presence of this ancient (dry) river bed. When they did dig that channel, as legend says they did, they altered the course of the Murray, which blocked by Cadell Tilt and Lake Kanyapella Sandunes, had up until then flowed North through Deniliquin, instead of South through Echuca. In the following photos you can see the ancient tracks of the Goulburn. Trace these back far enough on Google Earth and you can see where they leave today's Goulburn River. The Murray would have followed the track if this ancient river (now known as Deep Creek) until it met with the Goulburn at the present junction 18km upstream from Echuca. It then followed the Path of the Goulburn till it reunites with the ancient Murray at the Wakool Junction: from this point in the ancient river bed is around 100m wide and is never the same again. Paddle boat captains knew this section of the Murray as the cutting. Despite their lack of scientific education, they came to understand a lot about the river, through years of observation.

There are many tales it has to tell from there on. This story ends here for now. For more about the lower river, see my blog from last year at MurrayRiverPaddleEchucaToTheSea (

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