Sunday, 5 October 2014

Lowbidgee Day 3: Maude towards Redbank.

Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008

I woke up fairly early and walk into town for a last look around. Maude is a tiny place. Its three places of note are the weir, the shop and the pub. I took a few more photographs, used its very clean toilets and began to pack up camp and portage my gear. Maude,with its two streets, has been a first place getter in category A of the 'tidy towns' competition. They know their stuff. The toilets in Maude are a sight for sore eyes. Not only do they mean that you don't have to dig a hole and squat, but they are the cleanest public toilets I have ever seen. The nicely painted walls were unblemished by marks or graffiti. There was a full and working soap dispenser and the porcelain was clean. I felt some satisfaction at having discovered a new national treasure, worthy of inclusion in the best guide books. A sign on the wall pointed to the pride the locals had in their facility. "The shire of Hay maintains these facilities. Last cleaned on 12/9/09. That is just over four years ago. I think the locals must do it. I hope so.

8:03am Portage going well. All food back in the boat. About to pack up the tent and carry it over.
8:45 Last portage of gear coming up and then on my way.

According to the drunk old man who was wet from falling in the river and helped pull my boat, the section from here to Balranald is the prettiest. He has been all along the Murray, Edwards, Murrumbidgee and Darling Rivers. It didn't stop him from hitting snags though, you should of heard his late night torkle home. I think he may have gotten stuck on some. You could hear the swearing, clunking and revving of his motor for kilometres. He had to be rescued by his friends, and even they hit a few snags. Best not to have too fine a boat on the Murrumbidgee.

Maude weir was built in 1940 by the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Authority to compensate landholders from the lack of natural floods after Burrinjuck Dam (built in 1928) by sending water down the Nimmie-Caira Creek system. Proposals to use the water in the Murrumbidgee more effectively began with the frustrations that paddle steamer operators experienced in getting suppliers to and trade from landholders. Stations on the Murrumbidgee could only be accessed in high river following the snow melt, a period usually no more than three months. Luckily, this time also coincided with the wool clip, however, it meant that stations and towns along the Murrumbidgee did not have an effective transport system for 9 months of the year. A system of locks and weirs were proposed early in the twentieth century to allow access all year round and provide flooding of the low country, whilst also making it possible to develop more land using irrigation. Landholders were suspicious as they depended on the floods to replenish soil moisture levels and initially fought against regulation. Maude weir was one of the last to be built on the Murrumbidgee. Of the 9 initially proposed, only 4 were built, of which the primary purpose of the two at Hay and Balranald weirs was to provide water to those towns. As a result, much of the floodplain lost its natural pattern of watering. A series of droughts ending in 2011, as well as growing pressures to use the water in the Murray Darling Basin more effectively and for fairer distribution of this resource led to the Murray Darling Basin Plan. This plan described how water would be shared between the states, between towns and farmers, and between people and the environment. Because water is such a valuable resource in Australia, its use is often contentious. In the upper parts of the Murray Darling Basin catchments, people find it hard to understand why they should not use all of the water that is flowing past their door. At the bottom end, this is a lot more obvious.
Source: Murrumbidgee Valley Environmental Water
"The Lowbidgee floodplain is the largest area of floodplain wetland remaining in the Murrumbidgee Valley. Located between Maude and Balranald, the floodplain covers an area of over 2,000 square kilometres. It includes the second largest red gum forest in Australia (along the river downstream of Redbank Weir) and significant black box, lignum and reed-bed communities. The wetlands support large numbers of waterbirds, many of which breed in the extensive lignum swamps, and provide habitat for many threatened species.
The aquatic and terrestrial environments of the Murrumbidgee catchment provide habitat for a large number of significant species and ecological communities that are listed under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. 
Southern bell frog, Lowbidgee. Photo: Sasha Healy, OEH. (Source)
Eighty threatened animal species are found within the Murrumbidgee catchment, 20 of which are considered endangered. This includes eight species of frogs, seven bats, 43 birds, eight reptiles and eight marsupials. Many of these species are reliant on the riverine forests, woodlands and wetland habitats associated with the Murrumbidgee River. There are 54 threatened plant species, of which 29 are considered endangered.
There are five endangered ecological communities. Most extensive in the Murrumbidgee is the inland grey box woodlands that occur on the riverine plains, and the box-gum woodlands (comprising a mix of white box, yellow box and Blakely's red gum) that occur on the lower slopes and plains. Due to their location on fertile soils, both of these woodland communities have been extensively cleared. Remnants tend to be fragmented or isolated, and a full range of flora and fauna species is rare.

Murray hardyhead.
Several fish species that previously occurred in the Murrumbidgee River are listed as threatened under the NSW Fisheries Management Act 1994 (Table 3). Some of these have not been found in recent surveys and are thought to be locally extinct within the Murrumbidgee River (Murray hardyhead, river snail, olive perchlet, and southern pygmy perch). Breeding and restocking programs are in place for trout cod, purple-spotted gudgeon, silver perch and Murray cod within the Murrumbidgee River and its storages. 
The lower Murray River aquatic ecological community includes all natural creeks, rivers, and associated lagoons, billabongs and lakes of the regulated portions of the Murray River below Hume Weir, the Murrumbidgee River below Burrinjuck Dam, and the Tumut River below Blowering Dam. These lowland environments typically have meandering channels and wide floodplains, and provide a range of aquatic habitats including pools, riffles, billabongs, snags and aquatic plants. The ecological community includes all native fish and aquatic invertebrates within these river reaches, and includes 23 native fish species and over 400 recorded native invertebrate species." NSW Office of Water. Water Resources Overview and Management. Murrumbidgee Catchment. 2011

The last part of the portage involved sliding the boat down a steep, root covered bank. At the bottom of this bank are some star spikes, so you have to be careful. All up it took me over two hours to get around the weir and have my boat ready to paddle again. A land crew with a car and trailer would make this easier, as would phoning ahead and organising to have the gates unlocked, so that you don't have to slide your boat over a 2 m high fence and all of your gear under it as I did. Whilst it was helpful to have a plastic boat that bounced, having a key to open the gate would have been easier. Try contacting the NSW Office of water at Dubbo on 1300 662 077, or Alternatively, try the Maude Post Office Hotel (02) 6993 6112.

I finally got on my way at 9:45. About 5 km after Maude is the 17 000 acre sheep, cattle and organic cropping property, Moatfield station. An old original station building and two new looking smaller buildings are visible from the river, however, as usual, there is much more beyond the bank, including shearing sheds. The owners, the Nelson family, have been on the farm for generations. They offer on station accommodation using the "Farmstay' network and invite people to use their farm as a base to explore the area whilst getting to see and take part in some of the day to day activities of living in the country.

 A majestic sea eagle, not concerned about me at all as it circled in its thermal low over the river.

White bellied sea eagle

People who have paddled this stretch before me say that it becomes a series of pools separated by clay reefs, which the river then runs over. I can imagine there would have been times when there was not enough water to pump. A stark contrast to the high rivers following the snow melt before the river was regulated. Yesterday, I saw a clue to how powerful the Murrumbidgee can be. Snags were washed up on a tree on the outside of a bend way higher than any other I had seen. I think that the force of the water going around the bend pushed them up. The Upper Murray banks around bends. It can be a metre higher on the outside of a bend than on the inside. Imagine that scaled up to a river the size of the Murrumbidgee. I would not want to be anywhere near it then.

12.3 km downstream from Maude I photographed a derelict pump next to a gnarled old tree. Both symbolise to me what a tough land this can be to live in and the tenacity of our pioneers.

Lowbidgee beach: they are smaller and more selten than on the Murray.

In the sunshine, the fleece on sheep really does shine as white as snow.

12;17 : 20km, lunch break. Current today is varying between 1 and 2.5 km an hour. There are slow sections and the occasional shoot, where you experience a temporary burst of speed. So far the GPS is behaving itself. I bought a set of alkaline batteries at Maude, which although expensive, I considered fair trade for the fresh water from the rainwater tanks, which-had "just been filled up yesterday."

Today has been perfect paddling weather. The sun has been shining all day and for the most part, it has been wind still. The Murrumbidgee has been much prettier downstream of the weir (as the locals predicted). The areas of bank erosion from stock are limited and the dead zone between low water level and normal weir level does not exist. It seems a healthy river. In that respect, I am glad for every snag. Like the aeration arms at waste treatment plants, the ripples the current causes as it flows through them add oxygen to the water, creating ideal conditions for the natural food-chains to breakdown nutrients and stop things like algal blooms from happening.

The sheep seem to have it pretty good; access to water, shady gums and a peaceful life.

Sheep enjoying the afternoon shade.

The campers are also fewer than above the weir, though one group of dads and their sons is worth telling about. As I approached, two young boys came sliding down the bank, waving and giving the thumbs up sign. They wanted to know where I had come from and where I was headed. Hay, I replied. Where's that. Oh about a hundred km that way, I said, pointing upstream. And where are you headed? To the Murray. Gees, that's like for ever away!

In the background of this picture, a cable stretches across the river.

Just after my last break, 20km from Maude, I passed Nap Nap Station. It is one of the most elaborate stations I have seen on the river. The older homestead is classic in style, but there was also a newer brick building that looked as if it was a renovated storehouse. It had twin peaked roofs, each with a circular window. Near the older building stood a windmill and next to that, a large water tank made of redgum sleepers, raised up off the ground on sturdy legs. The whole structure looked old, solid and in remarkably good condition. Behind the original house was a tall sequoia dendron, the Californian redwood. These among with palm trees were signals to the paddle-steamer captains that they were approaching a station. It must also have symbolised worldliness and western culture amongst the isolation of the bush. Crews would have enjoyed the hospitality of the station staff - for as long as they were allowed, until they had to be off again, and the people on the station would have enjoyed news of the outside world and perhaps even a recent newspaper from Melbourne or Adelaide. Quite to Sydney's consternation, settlers along the Murrumbidgee considered themselves more Victorian than NSW. Though, this is hardly surprising, given that that is where their markets were and where their goods had to be ordered from. The loss of trade (300,000 bales of wool I one year alone) is why NSW built railways to every river community between 1880 and 1895. These railways signalled the end of the boom period of the riverboats, though some continued on even up until 1950 as logging steamers and into the 1970s as passenger boats. The revival of interest in the boats keeps our history alive. It is just s pity that the weirs stop them from coming up the Murrumbidgee.

After the group of dad's and their sons, I haven't seen any people. I followed a group of eight pelicans for what must have been ten kilometres, always taking off and landing - but no people. It was only later, when I received an SMS from my wife, Ruth, that I realised where everyone was and what they were doing. It was the day of the AFL (Australian Rules Football) Grand Final. Almost everyone watches it. Whilst we lived in Germany we did so religiously too. It is a big part of mainstream Australian culture, uniting religious and ethnic divides. For some, the footy team you belong to is a big part of their identity, and champions are like gods. I hurried to make camp, to tune in the the last of the game.

Nap Nap Station has a large water tank made of redgum sleepers, raised up off the ground on sturdy legs. The whole structure looked old, solid and in remarkably good condition.
Nap Nap Station

As I approached 43.7 km on Mike Bremer's map (about 46km on my GPS) I kept an eye out for the place where Sturt launched the whale boat which he rowed down the Murrumbidgee, into the Murray, to the ocean and back. He was on a quest to find out where the westward flowing rivers went. Sturt became frustrated walking across the Hay plains and decided that it might be a good idea to build a boat.

One of his team, a carpenter, constructed the boat from pieces they had carried with them from Sydney. The whale boat was 9 metres long. A second boat for supplies, was also built. Sturt launched his boat between 10 and 20 miles upstream of the Lachlan junction. Earlier paddlers have identified a tree which is meant to be the place he launched his boat. Assuming that river geography has not changed that much, it would have been at a place where there was a gentle gradient in, like a beach. I photographed all of the beaches in the area, promising to share these with Mike Bremers, who, hopefully, will be able the tree he stood under as his new boat entered the river.

Fisherman's shacks.
Link to video footage of re enactment of Sturt's Journey.

Possible site where Sturt launched his whale boat to begin his journey down the Murrumbidgee, into the Murray River and then into the sea. He had carried the whale boat in pieces from Sydney and had been following the Murrumbidgee using bullock drays and horses since Gundagai.
I think he would have picked a gently sloping bank with a beach, so I photographed each of the beaches between 10 and 16 km upstream of the Lachlan Junction. Sturt himself was not specific about the distance, so it could have been any of these, or others, further upstream.

I found a camp on a high bank above a clay ledge, just after where Mike Bremer's map says 44.7. My GPS reads 48km. The top of the bank is clear of dangerous trees and it is only a short walk up to where I have placed my tent. With my clothes hanging in a tree to dry and dinner on the boil, I am soon ready to enter my tent and rest. On journey's like these I find my tent like a cocoon, warm and dry, mossy proof and dust free enough to allow me to tend to my gadgets.

Evening chorus is strong and varied tonight. There is a bird which has a high pitched reverberating call which does not stop. It must be able to call breathing in as well as out. Murray rosellas, galahs, honey eaters, friar birds and wattle birds join in. There is a wood pigeon booming his call through the trees, and now gradually kookaburras are starting up, a whole bunch as usual, drowning out the poor wood pigeon. Beforehand there was a bird across the river whose call was continuos high pitched- maybe a triller. The wood pigeon has stamina. He's not giving up.

I paddled 48km today. Not bad given the late start (9:45am). The portage around Maude weir took a lot of time. If you are planning to do this trip it would be well worth your while to talk to a local first about some easier options than the ones I took. I spent just over 6.5 hours on the water, averaging around 8.5km an hour, but in some sections was as slow as 7km/hr and other as fast as 10.5km/hour. The current flowed between 1 and 2 km/hr. With an early start, I hope to make Redbank with enough time to portage tomorrow.

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