Friday, 28 March 2014

Monday: 19/11

Torrumbarry - Lock 26 - Bush campsite 20 km below weir.
River markers: 1668 to1608 km to the sea.
Distance travelled today: 60 km
Total distance travelled: 104 km.

Kingfisher. You have no idea how hard it is to take a photo of one of these without a zoom lens!

On this day journey I saw massive changes in the Murray River. My camp was 46 kilometres downstream from Echuca. The banks were still high and there was farmland on the NSW side of the river. As I came closer to Torrumbarry Weir, the river banks seemed to get lower and lower -really it was the river that was rising, held up by the weir, number 26 of 13 with locks allowing boat traffic to pass through (14 to 25 were never built). The bush became lusher and billabongs more frequent. Cockatoos seemed to be in heaven here. Although not the numbers I remember from my childhood, those that I did see almost seemed to be playing. Whether it was how they came down to the water to drink, often hiding behind logs and then lifting the heads and raising their crest to take another look at this big red boat going past, suddenly unsure, or pulling bits of wood off soft rotting logs on the forest floor, curious as to what they might find. In the last kilometers before the weir, where the river bends are so convoluted that it is possible to see the river coming back on itself only a stones throw away, the banks are almost at water level.

The downside to all this beauty is that for the last 30 kilometres before the weir the current is as good as dead. It is hard paddling. You know that if you stop, well you stop. No free kilometers from the river here and if there is a head wind, you’ll go backwards. To take the focus off the current I skirted the tall reeds lining the sides of the river. These were pretty, full of unseen little birds and something I was not used to coming from Echuca.

Just above Torrumbarry Weir there is a strange collection of old buses and vans... 70's again?

You can hear the weir before you see it. Approaching it in my kayak I had the feeling that I was coming up to a waterfall - which is exactly what it is - only a man made one. Generally, boats and sane people don't go over water falls. I had to tell myself to keep calm and approach the lock. The lock was designed to allow safe passage for river boats whatever the level of the river and although built at the dying end of the river trade there had been dreams of a river transport network to rival road and rail as still exists in Europe and the USA. 
The lock master Alan Williams, opened the gates just wide enough for my boat to squeeze through. I ducked to fit under the walkway (which is raised for larger vessels) and positioned myself in the middle where he assured me that I would experience the least suction from the 'plughole' at the other end and best ride out the waves that form when the water gets low. The plughole was an apt description. The whole thing is gravity fed, there are no pumps involved. Water is allowed in from above the weir to bring the water level up and drained through gates in the wall at the bottom end to lower it. You don't want to be too close either. I felt part of history, part of someone's dream of Australia that never was - and very small in that big lock. It was a privilege and an experience I can really recommend.

As I passed through the swirling water of the lower gates I was in the real Murray again. It was deeper and narrower than at Echuca and in contrast to upstream of the weir, the river banks were bare and caked in dry mud from the recent high rivers. The constant high river level upstream of Torrumbarry allow vegetation to colonise the banks, right down to the waters edge. Here the banks were eight metres tall, steep and barren. It took some getting used to. The river also seemed to take a while to settle, to work out where it's current should flow and to drop the mud picked up from the base of the weir and form beaches again.

Going through the lock at Torrumbarry is a bumpy ride. I felt pretty small in a kayak. The weir master said to keep away from the other end because that is where the plug hole is. "Don't want you sucked in there". Turns out he was not kidding.

This trench of river runs between the Barham Perricoota Koondrook forests. It is a natural and cultural icon, much loved and contested by people of many different interests and one of the most isolated stretches of the river in its whole course. It's many snags and clay bars make it unsuitable for the water skiing so popular above the weir, but God's gift to fishermen. Sitting on the high bank where I pitched my tent I have never seen so many fish swimming through the water, checking out areas where the water swells and behind logs for anything tasty. The banks may be barren, but the water is full of life... and clear.

The river downstream of Torrumbarry Weir until Murrabit is deep forest, the Holmes Glenn of river red gum forests.

Day 2 camp.

More about Torrumbarry Weir

Instead of opening the rivers up to round the year river trade, the weir enabled the development of land along the Victorian side to intensive farming through a system a delivery channels. These channels linked previous river courses, existing streams and billabongs, building a network that could deliver water on demand to 1000's and 1000's of farms. They effectively created an inland delta. People found that with more water, they could farm intensively. Dairy farms became popular and the area attracted new settlers. Small towns found that with roads and water, they did not need to be linked to the river, nor depend on its ebbs and flows and grew. Torrumbarry, Cohuna, Leitchville, and Kerang developed into proud communities.


'Part of £5,000,000 Scheme.'


About 24 miles from Echuca by road, and between 40 and 50 miles following thedevious downstream course of the Murraythere is a U-shaped bend in the river that is a mile around but only an eighth of amile in width at the neck. Across thisnarrow neck a new channel is to be excavated

so that the river can be diverted and the Ü bend "cut out." Within thenew channel a lock and weir are to be constructed and they will be the most

easterly of the great chain of river works,that will make the Murrnv navigable for1,000 miles of its course. The turning of the

first sod in connection with the Victorian -New South Wales section of this undertakingon Saturday by Mr. Gloom, Common wealth Minister for Works and chairmanof the Murray River Commission, was madethe occasion of an interesting ceremonythat was joyfullv celebrated by residents,and marked a definite stage in the develop ment of a great project.

There are to be 26 locks and weirs onthe Murray and nine on the MurrumbidgeeThose on the Murray will be roughly 40miles apart. Primarily the locks and weirs are to secure a navigable river but theyare also an important step in the conservationof the waters that for so many years have been allowed to run to waste.

The Torrumbarry} Works will bank up sufficient water to give a depth of 6ft at Echuca. They will also make it possible to fill the Gunbower irrigation channel bygravitation, and so keep the Kow SwampReservoir supplied, and, in addition, willsave the pumping into that channel forCohuna. To lrngationists in Victoria and New South Wales however, the chief advantage

from the liver works which the Murray River Commission is constructingwill be conferred by the great reservoir at the junction of the Mitta Mitta. The workis to begin almost immediately.
The Argus 16 June 1919

Everything has a cost.

Irrigation and river regulation have provided much to the local area, but not without a cost.
  • The timing and extent of floods has changed - winter flows have been reduced and the summer flows increased.
  • The frequency, duration and extent of the floods has reduced, causing changed to the forests' system of natural channels.
  • Water quality has declined - increased salinity and nutrient levels are washed into the river from the catchment.
Murray Darling Basin and Goulburn Murray Water are working to remedy these serious problems by:
  • Restoring the natural forest channels.
  • Allowing controlled seasonal flooding of the red-gum forests.
  • Catchment management assistance to landholders.
  • Community education and involvement.
Source: Torrumbarry Weir Information Centre.

The old weir was built in 1923 at a place where the river looped. It was made of a red gum planks resting on a steel framed trellis, which could be pulled into the river, or back out of it for repair on a set of railway tracks set into concrete in the bed of the river. It is hard to see how such a structure could hold back the force of water backed up for 100 kilometres (all the way to the Goulburn junction 18 kilometres above Echuca) but it did. These wooden planks were moved by hand, using a long pole. The structure was freed from snags in the same way.

Frustrated with the amount of carp in the Murray, lockmaster Alan Williams invented a fish cage which only trapped that pest species. Now in its fifth version and on fish ladders at weirs along the Murray, the cage takes advantage of the tendency of carp to jump when they meet a barrier and of native fish to dive. The native fish find a passage out of the trap when they dive, whereas the carp find themselves in a big steel cage. When carp were at their worst, Alan was pulling out the cage three times a day, a tonne at a time. The carp were passed onto 'Charlie carp' for a new life as garden fertiliser. 

Since cod fingerlings have been released into Murray and snags left in to provide them with shelter, the numbers of carp have decreased dramatically. Alan says that he only has to empty the trap once a week when the carp numbers are climbing and has removed it totally for much of the year. As well as maintaining the weir and operating the lock, Alan and the other two weir masters manage the National Channel (which provides irrigation water for farms almost as far away as Swan Hill) and the regulators which allow water to flood into the forests, filling the wetlands and improving the health of the river red gum forests - still suffering following a decade of drought.

It is surprising the range of fish that Alan finds passing through the fish ladder at the weir: occasionally he even finds a rainbow trout - but only in the cooler months. He says that the murray cod numbers have not really dropped despite the black water event of 2011 when many large fish were seen floating down the river. he thinks that where it was possible for the fish to swim up tributaries like the Campaspe and Goulburn, then they were able to escape the low oxygen water and re-populate the river.

More from this expedition:

  • Google+  Murray River Paddle Echuca To The Sea Photo Album
  • Facebook Murray River Paddle
  • YouTube Murray River Paddle

More information about topics from this page:
  1. Wikipedia:  Torrumbarry
  2. Murray Darling Basin Authority: Managing Environmental FlowsConstruction of fishwaysRiver Murray Navigation BroshureGunbower Perricoota Koondrook ForestKoondrook Perricoota Flood Enhancement Project
  3. Discover the Murray: Murray River Locks, Weirs, Dams & Barrages
  4. Goulburn Murray Water: Torrumbarry Weir
  5. Barry and Maureen Wright's River Murray Charts
  6. Environment Victoria: The Living Murray , Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Storylines
  7. ABC Central Victoria: News and Community Events

    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 (