Sunday, 9 February 2014

Beach café, campers, cockies and forest kingfishers.

Our camp last night, protected from the evening sun and not far to pull the boats. It was easier to pull up the boats than unload them. We sit on the boats when we eat, so they are our communal area as well.
Last nights camp in the Cottadidda State Forest was beautiful and secluded. We set up our tent in the shade of some young saplings and across a kangaroo track. In the middle of the night its owner came bouncing along it and must have got a rude shock. We heard the kangaroo pull up and stamp his feet. The kind of stamping that rabbits also do to warn others that something is amiss.

Morning light in the grasses at our campsite in Cottadidda Forest. I took these photos to try and catch the gentleness of the mornings. Everything seems slower, kangaroos who haven't drunk their fill in the evening come down to sait their thirst. They will not visit the river again until the mid to late afternoon, or later if people are around.

Between Yarrawonga and Tocumwal a good bush track runs along the river connecting the magnificent beaches every few kilometres along this stretch. This makes them great places to camp. There are also opportunities on the NSW side where there is state forest, less people know about these places and those that do are keen to keep them a secret. We met Andrew, who had been coming to the same spot in the same week for 18 years. His kids have grown up and now bring their friends. They fish or watch the river roll past for most of the day, and in the afternoon, once it has cooled off a bit, do a few ski runs.

Early morning reflections.

This is the domain of the sandy beaches. Almost every one is postcard pretty. I think it might be because most of the banks are made of sand. They erode easily and are deposited on the following corners.

Despite the snags there are lots of speed boats. We snuck past most during the long sleep the morning after, the fishing time and during the midday shelter from the heat. They graced us with their waves for about 3 hours in the afternoon though, which was enough to almost turn Ruth into a nervous wreck. I did my best to guide her along safe passages.

We aim to get off early again tomorrow and sneak past the flotillas whilst they are still in their beds. We covered round 66 km today. Tomorrow should bring us into the Barmah Millewa forest, with its low banks and comparative isolation. 

River landscape approaching Cobram.

We wonder if the big flocks of cockatoos which we saw today  will continue into that forest. I remember huge flocks of cockatoos as kids on the Murray at Echuca. They used to fly ahead screeching and repeat the process bend for bend, before eventually wheeling back to their original location. In recent years, the cockatoos have been replaced by long billed corellas around Echuca (and I found by short billed corellas  for most of the Murray downstream). I don't know why this happened, but I was pleased to see them at home in their hundreds on this stretch of the river. Some of the cockies were proud and brave, staying on their snag until we were quite close. When they eventually did fly off to their mates, they would raise their crests as if to say, "did you see that! I wasn't scared. I have just come over here to check that you are all ok." They are such characters. Do you think Leunig's 'Mr. Curly' might be modelled on a cocky?

This magnificent tree was on an old corner of the river - now a quiet billabong full of birdlife. 
Sheep grazing on the edge of the river. The frequent snags show two things: that the river is shallow and that it changes its beds regularly. On the outside of banks sometimes whole rows of trees were in the water. This was often the deepest and fastest water, but at good water levels (summer irrigation period) best avoided. I couldn't resist weaving through the snags for this mob of sheep however.
Beach sand covered with kangaroo and wallaby tracks. The way they hop leaves different footprints: wallabies tend to hop on the tips of their feet, whereas the prints of grey kangaroos are much longer. Here, two greys are moving on all fours, or in the case of one, on all fives - it is using its tail to push off the ground as it moves its rear legs forward. 
The beach where we pulled in for a morning break.

The Julie Fay: built by Bill Dunn's son Danny.

It was very comfortably set up inside and had herb gardens, air conditioning and, of course a BBQ.
At this beach camp, we came across a father towing his son along the beach with a mini-bike. The son was doing his best to ride a boogie board. A moment later the kid yelled "look at me dad, look at me!" He had managed to stand up.
A small commercial paddle steamer near Cobram. The hull and rails are stainless steel. 

Coming into Cobram and the long anticipated coffee at Thompson's Beach Cafe.
Coffee at Thompson Beach in Cobram is one of those luxuries rare at this end of the river - and not to be missed if you get the opportunity.
Tocumwal's foreshore has just been redeveloped. This wharf area was a popular place for locals to swim. Just downstream there is a new boat ramp and bank protection. This could be a good place to pull in if you need supplies, as it is on the same side and not far from Tocumwal's shopping precinct.

Tocumwal bridge with a light breeze tickling the surface of the water.

Another bit of excitement today was seeing forest kingfishers for the very first time... And then seeing more and more, this is part of the southern most top of their range. They do not occur much west of this location. They are a beautiful emerald green, with a buff chest. According to the field guide I have, they mostly eat lizards and insects, however the ones Ruth and I saw were all near the river. I wouldn't put it past them if they did a spot of fishing... At least for the sake of their name.

Other avian treats were provided by rainbow bee eaters, soaring open winged as they searched for insects in the riding air near the banks. Families  of sacred kingfishers hunting together - something I have never seen the orange breasted azure kingfishers do. They seem to prefer to work alone. A snow white egret resting on a snag near a lush bed of reeds in a flooded billabong. A stretch of river with hundreds of brown kites - the trees were full of them. We wondered if the fishermen could ever catch enough carp to feed them and if not, where did they get their food from? 

We have also just begun to come across our first cormorants, since the Hume Dam their niche seems to have been filled by egrets. Perhaps the water is deep enough now.

On the downstream edge of Private Beach 1.

The wind is quite blowy tonight, however we are well away from trees. Our campsite even has drop toilets. It is some kind of time share arrangement, however there has been no sign of anyone. It could just be empty because the Christmas holidays are nearing their end, or because the weekend has passed, however it looks like an idea which may well have had its time too. 

On the map they are marked as private beach 1 and 2, but from the river no sign was visible. We used expeditionary privilege. Almost as time honoured a tradition as camping near automated sprinkler systems ;).

Links for more info and other blogs:

Yarrawonga to Cottadidda Forest Camp. Beaches, snags and memories.

On our way again. Glad to be back on the water.

After today's paddle from Yarrawonga, I have heightened respect for all those kids on school relay teams who have paddled the stretch. The legs on the Marathon are long and full of snags; some stretches are windy and open and despite the many campers, you get the feeling if isolation. Junior school TK2 relay teams, including kids as young as 13 have completed this stretch. Start to Alpha is just under 30km: it was a gutsy effort for those kids to negotiate all of those snags, to not be disheartened on the long straights and yet another bend when they thought they were almost there.

St. Joseph's Murray Marathon Team 2006

In contrast to most other sports, they were on their own on the river. There was no-one to help them. It is difficult enough as an adult, where life experience builds resilience. So, respect to any kid who has completed long legs like these on the Marathon. You have earner your stripes.

Lunch break in the shade of a beautiful gum tree.

Quiet beaches.

The river always changes. Downstream from Yarrawonga, the banks are becoming taller. Most of the way we have been surrounded by forest, at times with the original tussock grass (Poa) understory, which must have been similar to what Sturt saw when he first travelled down the Murray in 1830. These tussock grasses will withstand grazing by cattle, but not intensive grazing as is common on most properties today. This was the type of countryside that Mitchell saw on his 1836 expedition through NSW (crossing the Murray near Swan Hill). He called it Australia Felix - the fortunate country. There has been a recent trend back to these drought tolerant, highly nutritious grasses, however their height in summer worries many farmers, as they fear that they heighten the bushfire risk of areas.

Families enjoying the river. Most kids wore life jackets - a change from when I was a kid growing up on the river.
Sunbaking after a cool dip - but with a little more sun protection than we did when we were kids.
I remember lying on the hot concrete and baking till we were covered in sweat, then jumping in the pool and doing it again.

Several European trees survive on the beaches.
This one spent welcome shade to a family enjoying their summer holidays.

A more obvious feature is the beautiful beaches. On almost every corner, beaches reach into the middle of the river. They are made if coarse white sand. A smattering of larger rocks and pebbles can also be found - evidence of times of faster stream flow. Roads follow the Victorian bank, allowing campers access. We saw family after family. Some had pool areas made from safety fences wrapped around star spikes, others placed gazebos in the water and tied giant floating thongs so that they would sway back and forth in the shade. Almost all kids had life jackets on, which was good to see - river beaches are dangerous places. Some if the older campers looked more or less permanent, as though they had elected a transient lifestyle instead of a nursing home, hybrid fishermen gypsies. Some felt patriotic about their camping, with Australian flags marking their claim to that patch of beach.

We paddled by, waving, gesturing hello's to find what the next bend would bring, until finally we found our own little piece of paradise on the downstream side of a beach in the Cottadidda State Forest and called in for the night.

Links to more information about this area:

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Beginning again.

Tomorrow we continue our paddle from the Hume to Echuca once more, after stopping to return home on news of the death of our beautiful little dog, Chloe. Because time is short, we will leave out the section from Corowa to Yarrawonga and do this another time. 

This section is particularly beautiful, with winding river channels and flooded billabongs. It is also where the Ovens River enters the Murray. The weir at Yarrawonga causes the river to bank up artificially high and providing both natural and human communities with a steady river level as far upstream as Corowa.

It surprised us how much expensive development there was on the NSW bank near Corowa. It reminded me of Gol Gol, near Mildura, where there are many elaborate waterfronts. The whole thing is reminiscent of the French Riviera. Corowa is not as developed, or opulent, but the steady water level provided by the weirs at both locations gives people the confidence to develop. For the natural environment it means that there are permanent wetlands.

Billabong wetland in a stand of remnant River Red Gum forest, lower Ovens River.

 another Youtube showing how meandering streams move and change.
The lower reaches of the Ovens River offer some of the best still water canoeing in the state among a maze of channels and wetlands. With care, power boats can explore the river for several kilometres upstream from Camerons Bend. Parks Victoria: Cameron's Bend

Lower Ovens River Environmental 
Flows Project 

Fishermen call it the Everglades of the Murray. Old river courses and flood plains of both the Murray and the Ovens rivers are full of life. I always wondered when driving along the Murray Valley Highway through Bundalong (a small town with a transient, or semi-permanent population of retired fishermen in caravans and holiday units) why people came: all the more so after a tornado almost destroyed the community last summer. Seeing the mosaic of habit in satellite photos I can understand. The attractions are rather on water than in the land - and I can't wait to spend a bit if time exploring there myself.

Bundalong was hit by a tornado in Mar 2013, which almost destroyed the town.

Lake Mulwala and the Yarrawonga Weir.

  • When full, Lake Mulwala holds 1/4 as much water as Sydney Harbour.
  • The primary role of Lake Mulwala is to store water for irrigation, its secondary role is flood mitigation.
  • The Mulwala Canal is 2,880 kilometres long and is the largest irrigation canal in the southern hemisphere.
  • A feature of Lake Mulwala is its dead gums. In 1937 the first suggestions were made concerning the clearing of the red gum forest, to create an open area in the lake. As the River Murray Commission refused to clear the trees, a group of local men took up axes and cross-cut saws, and in 1938 began the enormous task of felling the trees, at the cost of 10 shillings per acre. The River Murray Commission gave no financial assistance to the project, and were concerned that if the felled timber was not burnt or removed, it would prove a hazard to the weir.
  • Hydroelectric generation, fishing, swimming and boating has been hampered by the growth of an aquatic weed (Egeria densa) in the past. The most effective way to control the weed has been to lower the level of the lake to dry out the weed. Lake Mulwala.
  • Water storage levels and management documents. Murray Goulburn Water.

We will put in at the weir in Yarrawonga; the start of the Murray River Marathon. Over the years we have shared time, stories, memories and struggles in that race. For 40 years it was organised by Red Cross as a fundraiser for their world wide humanitarian deeds. Since 2009 the YMCA has used the event to fundraiser for local communities. Time has seen it develop from an adventure between mates to an international level competitive endurance event with strictly defined classes. Now it may be going back to its roots, with classes of ocean going boats challenging what racing boats should look like, schools and community groups entering relays and less formal rules for competition, encouraging completion rather than fastest times. In 2014 the event will be held for the first time in November, rather than between Christmas and New Year - a consequence of a tightening of state regulations and insurance conditions around times of high fire danger following the tragedies of a Black Saturday bush fires in the summer of 2009.  In what some consider a knee jerk reaction, insurance companies refused to cover events that were held in isolated bush areas on Code Red Days, or days of Extreme Fire Danger. YMCA, covering insurance organisations and responsible government bodies became even more wary following the disastrous Kimberly Ultramarathon in 2011 where competitors were overrun by bushfire. An inquiry damned the organisers and competitors sued for $10 million. It has not been easy for the YMCA to find another time slot: river closures are not popular with local tourism industries. We wish them every success. One thing is for sure, we will not be able to avoid thinking about the marathon, it's many characters and the fantastic memories it has left us, as we paddle the home stretch into Echuca.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Travelling home to bury Chloe.

Corowa is the birthplace of federation. The leaders of NSW and VIC, as well as the other colonies, met here because it was on the Murray and close to halfway between Sydney and Melb. It could well have become our capital. I wonder why it didn't.

Cover of ‘Official report of the Federation Conference held in the court-house, Corowa’, 1893. NAA: R216, 298

Corowa Main Street.

According to a taxi driver, the shops in the main street (Sanger St.) are empty because there are two supermarkets, Target and two big clubs. It is hard for the others to survive.

The expensive homes that Ruth and I saw are from people who live in Albury and Wangaratta - housing is cheaper here and they get to live on the river. According to the taxi driver, who picked me up at the camping spot and took me to the bus stop, it's less than 40 minutes to both places.

Corowa doesn't have the tourism success of Rutherglen which is just down the road and only has a population of only 1800. However, the population is growing; currently 4000. There are six functioning pubs (and quite a few that have closed down). One is the Globe Hotel which was where the heads of states met to decide that Australia would become a federation. The Globe Hotel is currently for sale. Asking price 360,000.
The community seems an active one, the two rowing clubs 1, 2 (with sheds as big as those on the Yarra) train everyday on Lake Moodamere (where there have been regattas since 1860). Corowa has the Australian Billy Cart Championships, where kids race down the hill on the Main Street and there is a triathlon coming up. In the Main Street is a really good bakery and as I sat there getting a morning coffee while waiting for the Albury bus, tradies came in and ordered gourmet sandwiches, always a good sign of health in the community. So, despite the empty shops, things are happening in Corowa and perhaps the empty shops are an opportunity for something really creative to happen. The town just needs to get a strategy going like in Rutherglen where apparently something is happening every week, attracting the tourists. More shade in the Main Street would help. As the lady in the bakery said, "it is going to be a lovely day, nice and hot."

No more posts for now. Have had to postpone the rest if the trip. Just had word that our lovely dog Chloe died of a stroke last night and am on my way home on a Vline bus to pick up the car. This trip is to be continued. More photos and posts then. Thanks for following and sharing in our appreciation of the beauty of the river and the people that live along it.

Chloe in the front, Harry in the back. He sat by her side when it happened. 

Sometimes we need the quiet.

Watching the river change and spending time reflecting on Chloe's life with us while waiting for Peter to return with the car...

7am Sun kisses the trees. All quiet.

Noisy cicadas, chatty ducks, the first boat and neighbours still asleep. 
Ducks silently swimming in a row into the current, keeping their position and grazing off the surface.


The wind has picked up. Not sure what it would have done to us on the river, a bit of head wind, a bit if tail wind, I guess...I can hear cockatoos screeching in the trees across the river; however, only just... The cicadas dominate the morning chorus presently other than that all feels quiet as if nature knew that a hot day was coming... It's good to be still and to think of Chloe and thank her for her life that she so loyally and lovingly shared with us. I'm not sure we did her justice but she accepted us how we are graciously.

A gust of wind must have pushed a sleeping moth off its perch in the tree. It flew clumsily about the tree, bumping into leaves until it found a vertical branch where it could continue the interrupted sleep.

Cicadas have swapped to the other side and I can hear wrens twittering around our tent.soon the sun will hit the tent.

Ducks have disappeared. Leaves are falling off the trees - elegant in flight, twirling and turning like a ballerina; quite in contrast to their plump thud when they meet the water surface only to be carried downstream by the current. Yesterday, I saw a Christmas beetle holding on to a gum leave in the big water. I wanted to rescue him but went past too fast and also did not feel confident enough to pick him up with my paddle... Sorry.

Just had another swim and also cooled down the boats with a bucket of water. I have moved my mat about three times already, trying to stay in hen shade. Made me remember the bungle bungle afternoon in 1989 where I thought I had moved my towel in anticipation of shade to come. I was mistaken. I had the northern hemisphere in my head

I have had lunch. Same lunch as on paddling days except I have swapped my boat for a sleeping mat today. Coo koo s echoing on both sides of the river. Where do they get the energy in this heat to sing and the actions connected to the bird song? Peter will be on his way soon...

More speed boats, more heat but I feel safe and cool under my mighty gum. 
He has seen it all before.

Time for another float. I have the yellow floating noodle tied to a little flooded red gum. We are working well together.

All is quiet except for man made noises and cicadas, this time back from the Victorian shore.

Journey's are a risk. They take you away from support networks, often out of the reach of medical help and there are limited opportunities to repair gear. In addition, unexpected situations can arise, a cutting could have dangerous currents and snags, not apparent as you paddled into it. Fuel stoves can easily cause burns. Sparks from campfires can damage tents. You may become injured, or fall ill. Part of good planning is to minimise the risk of these things happening, or to be able to cope with them when they do. However, it is important to realise that whilst you can plan, you can't stop some things from happening. Life is a risky business. When you take on a journey with periods of isolation, as much as others are not there for you, you are not there for them. You must accept this. Ruth's family is in Europe, mine is in Australia. When someone close dies, one of us is always far from home. We do our best to support, to be there to help, but in the end it is your personal strength that gets you through and helps us to support others. Journey's like these build resilience and surrounded by so much beauty, they give us hope.