Sunday, 19 October 2014

Lowbidgee Day 5: Redbank towards Balranald.

Maps showing this section of the Murrumbidgee River (from Mike Bremer)

There is a steep bank with a clay ledge at the base of it, just after the Redbank weir reserve fence and before a series of water height measurement poles. It is possible to slide your boat down this bank. This activity would be easier with two people.

Balranald is 17km before the weir. The first you see of the town is a new bridge and a boat ramp. From this boat ramp you can walk into town. Around the corner is a good camping ground with a bank which is good to pull up on. 
Ready to leave Redbank, now just a slide down the steep bank to the river.
The day began with a steep slide down the river bank to the Murrumbidgee. Because the ground has sharp edged limestone in it which may scratch the boat, I lay down branches to slide my boat across, keeping it a few centimetres above the ground. It seemed to work, however I needed to hold onto the boat tightly to make sure it did not slide down into the water and continue the rest of the journey without me. 

Once in the water, I had just long enough to take in the beautiful morning sunlight spilling over the weir wall, bathing everything in a golden light, before the current took me so close to a snag which stretched from one side of the river to the other that I had to paddle to avoid becoming tangled. After this, the river opened up and paddling was good.
A few kilometres downstream from Redbank weir is a high red bank, where the river cuts through a sandhill; aptly named 'red bank hill' it is a great spot for a photo. Unfortunately just at that spot my GoPro which has 3000 photos left decided that it was full. I suspect the batteries are low and should have charged it last night, but didn't as the indicator said that it still had a full charge. It's getting a bit old and temperamental it seems. I should have charged. So no photo of redbank hill in the morning light. I recommend being there at that time though, and have your camera ready.

On the first corner below Redbank Weir is a snag which completely blocks the river; there is enough room for a tinny or canoe to slip through though.

The first ten kilometres were through river red gum forest. There have been at least 8 trees which stretched from one side of the river to the other. With most I could find a way through by zig zagging between the fallen trees as they stretched first from one side, then the other. Once I had to punch through some smaller branches. It is a good thing that everything is tied on securely. I think I have been lucky with the water levels. Even though Mike Bremers managed to get through at much lower water, I doubt that would have been possible with some of these trees.

Wedge-tailed eagle: wikipedia

There have been lots of wildlife, I have sighted sea eagles eight times already this morning, as well as a wedge tailed eagle and a kangaroo which had come down and I drink. The welcome swallows, so long my companions on the Murray trips are back. They are like little friends.

In the next ten kilometres I saw four fishing huts, one of them had a family camped nearby. It was made a timber off cuts, literally a slab hut. The roof had long since fallen in. Nether the less, a piece of history. I enjoyed a short chat with them and they enquired as to how and where I was headed. The last one was Breer Hut. This is marked on the map, but although it looks in good condition, seems a bit abandoned. Next to the hut, right on the river bank is the remains of an older hut, which has been converted into a stockyard.

Breer Hut. The original hut seems to have been converted into a stockyard. The water was more of a brownish colour, rather than the green that it looks in this photograph.

I saw two sacred kingfishers, returned from their northerly migration to the rainforests of Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea to breed in there'd gum forests of the Murray Darling Basin.

Sacred Kingfisher: Photo: MDBA The sacred kingfisher breeds in the river red gum forests of Australia's inland rivers before returning to Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and the Western Pacific Islands. It is called 'sacred' because the Polynesians believed that it had power over the waves on the ocean (wikipedia). What a mighty effort for such a small bird!
In the still low sun of morning restless flycatchers and willy wagtails forage for insects in the leaf litter. An emu sees me and first ducks behind the trunk of a large gum, but is curious, takes a peak and the follows for a short while. Not sure what made it more curious, the colour of my boat (bright red) or the occupants attempt to make emu noises.

Willy Wagtail: Photo: Climate Watch
Restless Flycatcher: Photo: Birdlife Australia Although they look similar to willy wagtails, they have a small crest, no cross looking eye-brow and a blue sheen to the feathers on their backs.

11:30 and I've already done 31km. Benefits of an early start. The river is quietening down as the day warms up. The trees are still full of bird call though: kookaburras, tree creepers and a bird with a call similar to a whip bird. On the river, the snags continue, but beaches are also starting to appear.

Snags frequently cross from one side of the river to the other.

Kangaroos, keep an nervous eye on what is happening down on the river.
Did you know that cormorants regurgitate their fish if they are too heavy to take off? To get it out their long neck, they shake their head violently until the fish flies out. I've seen black corms taunts do it twice now. The first time I thought it was trying to catch a fish that was just too big. It took a second time to work out what is actually going on. I saw a pelican do it yesterday too. They both can swallow surprisingly big fish - but can't fly with them.

Great Cormorant: found throughout the world. They regurgitate their fish not only to feed their young, but also to distract predators, or to allow them to escape them. I was amazed by the size of the fish they were able to swallow - sometimes as large as the bird itself.

Between the last paragraph and now I have spent my time improving my turtle spotting skills. They are elusive little fellas. After witnessing many splashes I had to conclude that the turtles were faster than I was: considering the relative sizes of the turtle to human brain and you can understand that this led to some degree of frustration. To become a turtle hunter I had to think like one. What would they naturally be afraid of? What would eat them? In a world Undisturbed by humans (the conditions they evolved in), threats could come from the sky. If I were a sea eagle, turtle would be like rump steak. So as a turtle I would have to always be watching the sky and the water in case they came in a low attack. The turtles were spotting me from 50m away, so I had to look further ahead than that and drift in. I also found that they prefer logs with a dark colour like themselves, that lie at a low angle to the water. I started to have success, eventually even being able to photograph one little fella. To be fair, I am no Harry Butler or Steve Erwin: the turtles are everywhere. I saw three on one log. Sometimes there just aren't enough logs.

The Murray Short Necked Turtle (Emydura macquarii).
Its shell is the size of dinner plate and does not have a snake like, or long neck.
Identification guide.

For the last 30km I haven't seen any Pelicans. The river has been very windy and I have noticed them struggle with short runways. One bird, in an effort to make good an escape resorted to flying through the bush. It looked like it was about to crash at any moment. What I have seen is more sacred kingfishers, some quite loud and ferocious in their alarm at having a threat near their nest. I also saw my first peregrine falcon flying powerfully through the trees.

Fsihermen's shack.

Old steam engine that used to drive the irrigation pumps. 

This bridge was not marked on the map and has a gate at each end, making it look provate. I think that it is made using army technology.

Hope to make ten more km today which will make a short run in to Balranald tomorrow. Camped at 62 km mark (Glen Avon Regulator), just off a fisherman's track (which I hope will keep the shooters in the distance away - they never like to shoot near where they know people to be). The banks are grey clay. I found an improvised boat ramp and ran my boat as far as I could up onto this before climbing out for a well earned break. Surprisingly, I had two bars reception. This would make it more likely that I would be able to update my blog, the photos from the day and let Ruth know that I was ok. I ate next to my boat to save carting all my food and cooking equipment to the top of the bank, where I had found a place safe from the many trees that lined the bank in this location. Dinner went down very well, and as the sun set for the evening, I retired to my tent to lie flat, rest and move out of reach of the mosquitoes that usually come out as night approaches. 

One of the unexpected highlights today was finding the paddle steamer turning (or passing) bays on some of the narrow stretches of the river. One, near Redbank, was particularly well preserved with no signs of silting or erosion. Almost worth a pilgrimage Peter Garfield? I have never heard of these before, but have no better explanation. They are not the beginnings of channels, or beginnings of the construction of regulators (as they are too big and in the wrong spots: not where the wetlands are) and they happen to be near stations where the river is narrow. I can just imagine in the old days how the steamers would have sounded their whistles regularly to let other boats that they were coming. If I remember the rules of the river correctly, the boat travelling downstream has right of way, because it is more difficult (or impossible) for them to stop. The paddle steamer coming upstream would have had to wait in a wide section. Sometimes these are many kilometres apart up here, so there would have been a lot of steam being blown. It would have sounded magnificent. What a loss when they were replaced by trains!

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