Sunday, 26 October 2014

Lowbidgee Day 8: arriving at the confluence between the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers.

Murrumbidgee: Hay - Murray River (near Boundary Bend) Day 8: arriving at the Murray River. 44km.


Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
My camp was at the 48.7km mark (52km by GPS) on this map. I got away early and soon passed Canally Station (which, like Pevensey Station, has a paddle steamer named after it).
Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
The river twists and turns in this lower section. Sturt, exasperated, complained that the river followed every point of the compass at some stages (around the 50 and 80 km mark on these maps).

It had been a cold night, but I kept warm in my sleeping bag by pulling the hood down over my head until it resembled a frog. Out of the slit between the hood and the body of the sleeping bag I could breath and catch a glimpse of light. I feel claustrophobic when all the drawstrings are pulled tight, fearing that I could not get out in a hurry, or that the strings will get wrapped around my neck and strangle me, but with this arrangement the hood kept me warm without the feeling of being trapped. Other than the normal twists and turns associated with sleeping on the ground, I slept well. So well, that I slept through the first alarm that went off in the morning and it was only by chance that I awoke 20 minutes later at 5:50am to find the birds in full chorus and the light strong enough to make out everything without a torch. I packed methodically and efficiently, so that in 20 minutes, all of my gear was beside the boat, ready for stowing away.


Morning light on my camp near Canally station.



I made breakfast, dressed in my paddling gear (which had dried overnight), secured the solar panel and the clips to my battery behind my seat in the cockpit. The log beside my boat meant that I could get in without muddy feet, which was nice. I pushed off and than poked around till I found a way out between the saplings, eating breakfast gradually as I eased into padding. The morning was the coldest yet, only 3 degrees, so I was well rugged up, with a heavy neoprene spray deck, gortex jacket and beanie. I used a cut up stubby holder to stop water running down my sleeves and into my top. They worked surprisingly well.


The PS Canally: named after Canally Station and now under restoration in Morgan S.A. was known as the 'greyhound of the river' ,however not without controversy, as this report on a race between it and the PS Alexander Arbuthnot in 1913 shows.
3/9/1913 - Riverina Recorder Steamer Rivalry - The Barham 'Bridge' says that much rivalry exists between the connections of the Arbuthnot and the Canally as to which is the fastest boat and in a speed trial recently the owners of the latter claimed that their vessel was superior in this direction. The engineer of the Arbuthnot could not develop the speed which he knew his boat to be possessed of, and on examination of the smoke box it was discovered that some individual (presumably a rival) had dropped a brick down the funnel. The draught from the furnaces being considerably interfered with in consequence. Given a fair trial the crew of the Arbuthnot reckon they can beat anything on the river. (Source: Friends of the Canally).
The river is always changing...

in the morning, the sunlight almost invites you to discover each bend...

On the water there was a steady current of between one and one and a half kilometres an hour, seemingly faster in some places and slower in others. Reception was good throughout the day, as I moved out from the Murrumbidgee floodplain and into the Murray Darling Basin depression. The difference between paddling down the Murray and the Lower Murrumbidgee is that in the later you are paddling through an established ephemeral wetland. When the ‘bidgee floods (which naturally happens with the snow melt in September and October) it runs into parallel overflow channels which run for hundreds of kilometres – some for as far upstream as Narrandera. These then feed into smaller channels and lake systems. Some of these are used again today to maintain the natural landscape and environment in a healthy condition, which is why there are so many sea eagles here: their hunting is not confined to the river channel, but includes the lakes and wetlands around it. As I neared the Murray the last of these re-entered the river and the landscape became drier. The air smelt different, drier and the species of birds changed, there were more cockatoos, corellas and galahs and there were less eagles, kangaroos and emus. With every paddle stroke I was nearing the Murray – all my senses told me so.

which may open up into great straights...

or a tangle of snags...
The map was less convincing. The river twists and turns the whole way from Hay to the Murray River, but in the last section of the Lower ‘bidgee it seems to put in a special effort, as if it was saying ‘please let me do my own thing a little longer’. There are two points a little before and after Marnie Station, where the ‘bidgee has straights of a kilometre at every point of the compass, first East, then North, then West, then South. It left Sturt exasperated during his exploration of the river, “…(the river) in its tortuous course, swept round to every point of the compass with the greatest irregularity.”


Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
Detail showing how the river seems not to be able to make up its mind which direction it wants to flow in...
Link to video footage of a re enactment of Sturt's Journey.


A plan by Sir John Monash proposing the possibility of irrigation and wetland coexistence.(Yanga Station Display).
Fisherman's shack.

Around Manie Station the snags were particularly bad. About 75 km downstream from Balranald a tree trunk with a diameter of almost a meter, completely blocks the river. I found a gap big enough to let my sea kayak through at the top end of the snag, however at lower water levels this would not have been an option and a portage would have been unavoidable. I avoided portages, because they meant unloading and reloading the boat (probably in the mud). In the next ten kilometers so may tree blocked the river, that I lost count. Most were small enough that I could push through the smaller twiggy branches, duck underneath, or slide over with a run up. On one, however, my run up was not fast enough and I spent some moments with both ends of the boat in the air, like a balance scale. I managed to continue by pushing down onto the snag, lifting my boat in the process. It was impossible to paddle off, or to pull my self over. Those few moments where I was stuck, with my tail rudder slowly catching the current and threatening to turn my boat sideways, seemed much longer than they actually were. My heart beat loudly, adrenalin pushed already tired arms and an exhausted body to go harder than ever seeking a release, which eventually came. The escape feeling must be similar to that in a hunted animal. It takes some minutes to calm down again and labored breathing to blow off all the accumulated carbon dioxide. I wondered how Sturt managed such problems in his whale-boat. Indeed, even in the higher river that he had (“We were carried at a fearful rate down its gloomy and contracted banks.”) he will have had issues with large snags and blockages of debris.



A large tree completely blocking the Murrumbidgee. I was able to slip around in a metre sized gap on te left hand side.

Here, an impressive clay reef stubbornly refuses to be eroded on the outside of a bend in the Murrumbidgee.

I passed five stations today, of which Canally was the first and the prettiest. It was a well maintained, white painted wooden weatherboard building with verandahs on all sides. In front of the house and to one side stood a windmill and a water tank on a tower, providing water pressure for the house. The tower was overgrown with a flowering vine, which gave a sweet scent to the air and would have provided a home to small birds, as well as keeping the tank water cooler in summer. It was from this homestead that I could hear the children’s voices last night. It struck me that those kids would have a good childhood; the place looked cared for and they were surrounded not only by fertile land, but the most beautiful natural environment. Waldara could not be seen easily from the water, only water tanks and farm machinery gave way its presence. Tarana was a well kept large traditional looking station, with large sheds, at least the equal of Yanga Station (now preserved in as part of a National Park further upstream); the only difference was that this one was cared for and still in use.

Succession is a problem on farms (ABC report), many things have to be right for the younger generations to be able to take over from the older. Some manage it: in Yanga Station, one of the signs spoke of a station that had been in the one family for well over a hundred years. In these days of increasing foreign and corporate ownership, it must be a worry of many land-owners that the past and the environment they have cared for will be looked after just as well by the people who follow in their footsteps.



Nearing the junction.

Just before Manie Station, there was a new and narrow cutting, but the water was so shallow here and the possibility of being wedged against the snags at its outlet into the main stream made me decide to be cautious and not take that short cut. There was a fair drop in the river here, I could tell from the difference in water level between the top of the cutting and the bottom. I calculated that in the 400 km I had paddled that the river had dropped around 20m, that is 5cm a kilometer. In the kilometer that this cutting would have saved I noticed about a 20 to 30 cm drop, which means that the river must be pooling behind clay reefs in many other places. The kilometer past Manie station was full of snags and the fast current through here made paddling it like doing a slalom course. It could not be taken slowly. It had to be done at full power to have maximum steerage and the speed to go over small horizontal branches. I did get through. Manie station is set well back from the river. I was able to see tanks, but little else. A later look at Google Earth, confirmed its location, well back from the bank.

In this area, stations tend to be built on areas of red soil, as the pioneers learnt that these areas tend not to be flooded. Weimby, the last station before the Murray was no exception, again, the house cannot be clearly seen, but you will know that you are there when you see the rusty old remains of an old corrugated iron water tank which has been rolled to the river’s edge, along with a collection of other rubbish. It used to be common practice for farmers to dump their old vehicles off the river bank and watch them rust away. It must have been a period of detachment form the environment, when motorization, the lure and power of the combustion engine, made people feel that they did not need the environment, only enough machinery to bend it to their will. Thank God, those days have passed and rubbish dumping on this kind of scale is a rarity now.



Just before the junction I came across three old wooden boats with single cylinder engines. The three gentlemen owner-builders had come together from different corners of Victoria for an outing from Boundary bend and had pulled up for lunch a kilometre up the Murrumbidgee. As I passed them they had just lit a fire for lunch and invited me to join them, however with only a kilometre to go and the knowledge that Ruth was waiting for me, I was in no mood for a long break. It is only possible to travel about 4 to 5 kilometres up the Murrumbidgee in a boat like these before the passage is completely blocked by snags, however even this short foray awakes nostalgia. Enter into the Murrumbidgee and you step into the past, a time when white Australia was young, naive and hopeful, when the whistle of a paddlesteamer meant civilisation and the chance of prosperity, success depended on ingenuity, luck, and the whims of a river fed by storms and snow 1000 km away.
My camp by Canally Station was the end of the pure Lower Murrumbidgee Seasonal Wetland; bits of it reappear now and again, but farmland, with its sheep, goats and cattle are much more prominent. There is a change in the birdlife too. I saw no more of the sea eagles that have been so much a feature of this trip on this day and fewer pelicans. Corellas, cockatoos and galahs became more common, the crowns of the trees bright with their audacious character. The air smelt different too, it was a dry air, that told of drying soil and warned of the approaching summer. It was as though the river had been a playground and here were the realities of life. The ‘bidgee, with all its cheeky character and life was about to enter a river of a whole other scale. The teen was about to meet its parent. The junction was near.



Not that I was keen to end the paddle, but after 8 days and 400km it was great to reach the Murray.


The confluence of the Murrumbidgee and the Murray Rivers. Fishermen seemed to be having quite a bit of luck where the current swirls as the two rivers meet.
It happens suddenly. One last bend to the right, shorter than expected and the grey waters of the ‘bidgee join the green waters of the Murray. Swirls show where their currents meet in an unavoidable embrace. On the opposite bank I see my girl. Ruth has driven, as she always does, hours to meet me. I break into a sprint. A feeling a happiness, relief, satisfaction and privilege run through me. I feel privileged to have paddled the lower ‘bidgee. Not many people seem to have done it in the last few decades. It is the forgotten river, and all the more special for being so. The snags that make it so difficult, also protect it and provide home to so many animals above and below the water. Increasing my pace till my arms ache, I build my speed both as expression of my feelings, to show that I am well and to launch up on the bank on the Victorian side of the Murray. My boat makes a crunching sound as it slides up, over the sand. I release the spray deck and stagger to an upright position, walk to my girl and we hug. The lower ‘bidgee has been a challenge, but worth every kilometer.


Hanging up gear to dry before loading my boat for the trip home to Echuca.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lowbidgee Day 7: Balranald towards the Murray River.

Murrumbidgee: Hay - Boundary Bend: Day 7: Balranald 52 km towards the Murray River (93 km).

Balranald Caravan Park

Map source: Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
On this day I paddled from the Balranald Caravan Park to close to Canally Station. About 10km into the paddle I came across Yanga Station National Park and pulled out for a look around, before continuing onto the Balranald weir, where a portage was required. 

Map source: Mike Bremers: Murrumbidgee Canoe Trip 1995-2008
After portaging, I continued on another 35 km, almost to Canally Station where I set up camp for the night - leaving just over 40 km for the last day. 

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


After a windy afternoon and evening where the tent filled with dust, I got up at 5:30 begrudgingly into an unseasonably cold 3 degrees celsius. On these trips you develop routines so that you do not forget anything. Everything has its place and a time to be packed. Clothes are one of those things. I was quite happy that I had had a chance to wash my paddling clothes in the caravan park, but when it came to my shorts, they were missing. I thought about paddling without them, but considered what that might look like at the portage at Balranald Weir and decided to look near the washing lines again. In the strong winds all of my underpants were scattered and I think I would have looked like a kid at the annual Easter Egg Hunt, running round to pick them up - but i had missed my shorts. Putting on my wildlife hero cap, I looked in trees, gardens, around buildings and finally found them on the edge of a storm water drainage channel. I now had all my pants. A good omen for the day if ever there was one.

All packed, I said goodbye to one of the other campers who had gotten up for some early morning photography and set off at 7:15 drifting, just to get a feel for the boat. A group of ducklings entered the river from the caravan park and swam to the other side of the river. I watched them pass and then, gingerly took my first paddle strokes. Everything ached. My gortex jacket, though working fantastically with cut up stubby holders to stop water running down my sleeves at the top of the paddle stroke, restricted my movement. It took some time to get things right. The paddle to Balranald Weir was uneventful. I gradually warmed up, but felt the tiredness of the previous six days of 8 hours of paddling every day.

Ten kilometres downstream of Balranald is Yanga Station. http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/yanga-national-park/yanga-homestead/historic-site There is a good clay landing area just downstream of the station, which you can run up on (which I did), or just ease up to in a civilised manner. Tree roots make getting out and in easier. The station is well worth a visit. A working station until relatively recently, it is now part of the Yanga National Park as part of the cultural heritage of the area. All of the original buildings are there, most in original (now run down) condition. There are several houses, shearers quarters, washrooms (etc) and a very large shearing shed. The place is designed for self guided tours and walking around, it is impossible not to imagine what it would have been like back then. Camping sites with toilets are a few hundred metres away and there are many information boards around.



Yanga Station: former working farm, now national park.


There is a huge woolshed...

...with interactive displays, pens, presses and runs, worn by time... 



One story was of when the first bale of wool was taken from Poon Boon Station on the Wakool by the paddle steamer Lady Augusta and the barge Eureka. All in all they took 441 bales of wool in that first experimental voyage. The ladies of the station helped roll the first wool bale down the plank and onto the Lady Augusta. The bale was then hoisted up the masthead of the barge Eureka, a sailor sitting upon it, and on his giving the signal, a gun was fired, which was succeeded by "three cheers for the first shipment of wool on the Murray".



Large information boards tell the history of settlement and the environment...

Reading through these, it becomes clear that the floodplains are unique...

...they are the true Riverina, seasonal wetlands and rich pastures over summer...

...able to sustain stock through the long hot summers because the spring floods soaked the soil...

"swarms with snakes"... many people still believe it does... with marshes and frogs in abundance, there is both habitat and food...


Early farmers showed remarkable foresight and understanding of the land they managed...

...they recognised that rather than being a threat, flood were essential to the survival of their new way of life...

Flood runners angle down from the perched riverbanks into the forest, like short creeks that run from the river onto the plains...

The story of how the first bale of wool was collected by paddle steamers on the Murray darling Basin.. Boom times were to follow...

There was also great information on the ecology of the floodplain and the history of water management schemes (and their planning) including what the first settlers thought, plans for eight locks and weirs to Hay and schemes to allow both irrigation and maintenance of the floodplains (by John Monash) as early as 1915 (before he was a general). Early pastoralists realised that plants can access water on land that has been flooded during drought. They argued that flooding was essential for their livelihood. They also maintained that forested areas should be kept, not just for red gum harvesting, bit as a refuge in drought, when all other feed was gone. Eventually, 4, not 8 weirs were built. Many areas now receive flooding, however some of the creeks which bring water into the forest where blocked in places like Narrandera. With not groundwater recharge possible in those areas, the forest systems that were there are dying. In the areas which do, the ecosystems are thriving, and towns like Balranald are poised to make the most of it.


The Murrumbidgee floodplain between Hay, Balranald and oxley forms a mid system ecological storage that promotes biodiversity and has a history of complementary land use and environmental management.

Including agroforestry and protected land on farms...

The broad shelled turtle has a shell the size of a dinner plate...

...whereas the short necked turtle is much smaller... both are threatened by foxes digging up their nests...

The Southern Bell Frog is the symbol of Balranald and has been adopted by the town, with frog sculptures throughout the town...

The soils in this environment have developed with regular flooding...

cracking deeply, filling with water and mulch during flooding, and then slowly releasing their stored water in drier times...

those areas which are not provided with environmental water for flooding are suffering, they are degraded landscapes...

In the Millennium Paddle Blog they described the Balranald weir as a "P.O.P." Mike Bremers also found it the easiest of weirs out of the four below Hay, so I hoped to have a similar experience. I had looked up the weir on google maps and it looked as if there was an alternative to climbing the banks in front of the weir. The old river course was still there and had only been blocked in the middle (diverting the river through the weir). I paddled into this dead end and walked the route, but found it blocked by a dense copse of saplings (only visible as a green smudge on this iphone screen shot). I got back in my boat and paddled to the weir, getting out as close to the weir as possible and selecting the least steep bank. There was no landing, or flat area so there was a real danger of losing gear whilst unpacking the boat. Dragging a fully loaded boat up a bank is not fun. In these situations, paddling as a group would make such takes much easier, however I do think that for a river that is being promoted as a canoeist's river, they could modify the bank a little. A 300 metre 'walk' later there is a steep bank to slide the boat down to get to the river. I don't know if I recommend holding onto the boat and risk being pulled into the drink, or letting it go and possibly having to swim after it. The whole portage took me about an hour. I was glad it was my last one.


An aerial shot of Balranald weir. You can see the now blocked, original channel of the river. There is no easy option at his weir if you are alone. A large new cyclone fence mean a long walk around the weir infrastructure is necessary before relaunching. A potential short cut on the southern bank just before the weir is not an option as the whole bank downstream has been layered with sharp bluestone which would damage the boat. The long walk is unavoidable.


Block and tackles were traditionally used to lift heavy weights and are still in use on yachts and sailing boats. The more times the rope passes through the 'block' of pulleys, the greater the mechanical advantage (though some of the advantage is offset by friction). A lightweight block and tackle might be useful thing to help get up steep banks, or over snags on the Murrumbidgee. Strong light-weight gear is available in sailing shops. Graphic: Wikipedia. More information on how pulleys work.


After the weir the river became more snaggy again, but it was to get worse. About twenty kilometres downstream of the Balranald Weir, snags stretching all the way across the river are the norm. I rode over many logs, ducked under others and pushed through the small branches of some. If you don't have to worry about your boat getting scratched, its a lot of fun, but it will keep you on you toes. That 'bad' section is narrower than the rest of the river. I suspect that it is younger, that the river has moved its path there only in the lat few hundred years: it is yet to develop the wide high banks so typical of the rest of the river. For a canoeist, it is a bit like paddling down the narrows, but in a river that is half the width and with ten times as many snags.

Again, sea, wedge tailed and little eagles were frequent, however corellas and cockatoos have appeared as well. The environment becomes more Murray river like, the closer you get to it, it seems. What did surpass me was seeing a red kangaroo. i did not know that their range extended this far South. It was a small one, as they often are on the limits of their range.

I found camp after having paddled about 52 km, which I was extremely happy with, given the hassle I had with the portage and the time I spent at Yanga Homestead. It has a small beach to land on and an area safe from trees. Behind it are piles of timber, up to two metres high, washed through in high river (not the place to be then). There are sawn tree stumps, and on these I made by evening meal. From camp I can see the sunset over the plains. I am not far from Canally Station and although I cannot see it, I can hear some children's' voices in the distance. Around my camp are screeching cockatoos and once darkness falls, the sounds of kangaroos moving through the woody understory.


My camp for the night was a comfortable one. I even found a natural jetty to climb out on...

At the top of the bank were several large stumps, which served as tables...

View from camp was to the West, making use of the evening light...

...as the sun descends, quiet settles upon the Murrumbidgee River.

With clear skies, sunset was golden, the slight movement of the river appears mystic...

My bush kitchen...

There are not many photos today, as my micro SD card fell into a deep crack in one of those stumps. Try as I may, I could not retrieve it. I have decided that it can become a fossil and amuse some future generation… or not. At least i am saved the hassle of uploading. Mind you I thought that there were some pretty good pictures on that card from today. "Them's the breaks" as my old mate Sharky would say.

Tomorrow is the last day (43 km approximately). I hope to break out into the Murray in the early afternoon. Its been a great trip, well worth doing, just pack lightly, plan generously and come well prepared for weirs.