By Michael Parer (unedited)
The River Murray flows 900 miles from Albury to Mildura, & then 500 to the sea. This first stage was our track in a ten foot flat-bottomed fishing boat for 21 days in 1953.
What lay ahead of us as we pushed off from Albury was doubtful. The envious eyes & freely given advice gave us no certainty whosoever. Anything from ten days to three months was suggested, the waters of the Barmah forest were infested with snakes, some stretches were just full of snags and so on the admonitions continued.
Undaunted we set sail about 11:00 on Tuesday morning, a perfect summer day with a slight breeze. During our whole trip the temperature soared over the century map every day, so it can be imagined, that we, sailing in an open boat, were thankful for the little breeze stirred by our movement. The sun was effective until about 6:30pm and the haze of evening began to fall about half an hour later, so we pulled in to one of the many sand bars around 5.30pm and began to pitch our camp.
The very first night we were smiled on by fortune. As was to become our custom, once we left the boat, we baited our lines and threw them in. The eggs and toast, damper and coffee finished we lying by the fire puffing our pipes; there was no moon, and no sound from any animal or bird. Suddenly a great splash brought us to our feet and down to the waters edge. Kevin picked up the line and began playing an 18 pound Murray River cod fish. After a considerable battle he landed it and dragged it well up onto the bank. It was a gummy fierce looking monster, ready to defend its freedom against all comers, but man had once again proved himself the master. We tethered him and put our ‘Bardwire Bill’ back in the water for the evening. He was too large for us to eat and too small to tow us along so we decided to sell him at the next township.
Early next day we came to an old German fisherman who showed us how to preserve the fish by wrapping it in dry reeds and then with a wet bag. He also told us it was 30 river miles to our first town – Howlong. According to our map this town should have been 32 river miles from Albury and we were certain we had come more than two miles in our first day. The fisherman gathered we were not very pleased with his news so he suggested a short cut along a swift, narrow and saggy creek. This was only 7 miles to the town so we choose this.
There were plenty of rabbits by the bank and we soon had our tea caught, but the river demanded our full attention so we cut the motor and were carried with the current. At one stage we were caught in a swift swirl with a snag directly in front, I went forward to try to break the jar, but when we hit I was flung overboard while the boat was carried on out of control. I was about 15 yards from the shore, and dared not try to swim in the current so I clung to the snag and waited until Kev got the boat to the shore and returned with a line. In the confusion we lost our oars, but this was the only loss.
That evening we pulled into Howlong, very thankful to be there at last. During tea we did a little mathematics: 32 river miles in 2 days, 900 miles in X days. We saw it was a long time so clambered into our mosquito proof hammocks for an early night. We were up and away early next morning and made good speed along a wide stretch of the river which had few bends. We called into a travelling apery where a couple of browned, unshaven Aussie bushmen with a good humoured drawl showed us their hives, how they robbed them and finally extracted the honey. They wanted to give us enough honey to last 55 days, but we accepted a large jar which added a pleasant addition to our diet.
We were amazed when we pulled into Corowra that afternoon, so decided to spend the rest of the day fishing and shooting. The best we could do was a couple of rabbits which we cooked, Aboriginal fashion by placing them in a hole under the fire, wrapping them in leaves, then putting the fire back on top. Unfortunately they were overcooked, still we learnt for the next time.
Kev went to bed about 10pm, while I went for a stroll into the town. I went over several paddocks along a track then past several homes until I turned into the main street. It was dimly lit, with old fashioned hotels spreading there verandahs over the dusty footpaths. Looking down the slight hill I could almost see that intangible quality which gives many of our towns that ‘outback atmosphere’. Soon a few dim notes of a mouth organ reached me, which grew in volume as I strolled down the road and I saw the enjoyment of a party in a small shop. This mouth organ seemed to give a living soul to these shadowed buildings, and I thought that if ever I were to make a Western film, I would return to Corowra. Several hours later I clambered into a very welcome bed, only to be awakened by my fresh and invigorated companion what seemed only a few moments later.
For the next part of the journey the going began to become more difficult as the water was banking up from the Yarrawonga Weir. We had to pick our route and stick to the deep channel avoiding the snags and fallen trees which littered the sides. At one stage we entered a billabong and were at a loss to know which way to proceed, there was a house nearby so we sought directions from the people. On our way back to the boat we picked up on the bank an unopened bottle of champagne, the people at the homestead refused to claim it so we were left with it to christen our boat.
The banks were widening and the dead trees becoming more numerous. Late in the afternoon we began to look about for a campsite, but found it difficult to get to the bank. At one stage we ran out of petrol and as we were re-filling the tank heard a strange bird calling ‘Ahaa’ at intervals of about two seconds. We could not recognise it, then the fact that it was someone calling for help struck us. We replied and slowly picked our way through the trees until we came upon three fishermen standing waist deep in the water. Their motor had struck a snag and pulled the back out of their boat. With our 10 footer we could not toe them in so gave one a lift to the shore where their mate had a 16 footer and he went out to carry them in. It was fortunate for us as we found a way to the shore and a campsite, but it was most depressing to learn we had another 12 miles to Yarrawonga. On the map the weir was shown as a large blue stretch and we thought we would gain time along it, little did we expect to be lost there as we were the next day.
About mid-morning we ran out of petrol and while filling the tank drifted a little. Kev started the motor and been to go, but I insisted we should be travelling in the other direction. He doubted, but I said “that” tree was the one I had just sketched and furthermore the compass showed we should be going the other way. He gave in and around we went in a circle of about a mile back to where we disputed before. We chose ‘another’ channel but were soon conscious of having been there before, at this stage we would not see the bank so headed due south until we struck it and fortunately a house. The lady was most obliging and gave us the directions as well as lavishing on us milk, fruit and the like. She told us a few years ago a young chap in a canoe, who had also lost his way, called in. Then she pointed to the field on the hill where a tractor was ploughing, he is now my son-in-law. She had another daughter with her so we thought it time we moved on. The river was still obscure, but we managed to follow it until – this time we were at the point of exasperation – we arrived back at our old circular track. We stopped the motor and had lunch. After a time we heard another boat, we headed for this and when we reached it the fisherman had a great laugh at our expense. They gladly told us the way and pointed out the difficult passages ahead.
Eventually the trees began to thin out and the open lake lay before us. We entered Yarrawonga on the Saturday afternoon dodging the motor boats and water skiers.
We went to the town to see if we could get some supplies and petrol. A few shops, but no garages were open. However we began talking with a chap who had a mate, the proprietor of a garage. This mate offered to help and drove down to our boat, collected the drums, filled them and returned us to the lake. Seeing we were going to carry the boat around the weir, he went to the boat club and returned with a trailer which was backed into the water, then with the boat secured we drove 1/2 a mile downstream where it was refloated. His only comment when we expressed our thanks was, “If we don’t all help one another we had better sell out”. So our unfavourable opinion of the weir was tempered by the charity we were helped by.
It took longer than we thought to reach Cobram, even though the river was good. The town is about a mile off the river and is what I imagine as a real ‘back-of-Bourke’ settlement, with dusty dirt roads, wobbly fences and scattered homes. Contrasted with these are fresh irrigated orchards, new buildings and cool clean shops.
Up till now the growth of trees along the banks had been thick for about 100 yards before opening out to grazing paddocks or orchards. But from here and as we came nearer to Tocumwal and Barham the trees became thick.
At Tocumwal we decided to sleep in, and then went to the town to stock up as the next settlement was about 100 river miles ahead. Late in the afternoon we came to an old fisherman’s hut. He came out to greet us and was keen to learn of our trip so far as he had heard of us over the news. He said the river was very low and the fish were off the bite. When we told him of our 18 pound Cod, he replied with the infallible reply of all these men, “See that bend down there, well only 18 months ago I landed one, 87 pounds he weighed”.
We asked if there were many snakes about, He sounded almost disappointed as he turned. “Hardly any this year, only killed half a dozen this last week”. We then pushed off and left him to his solitude and few dozen Cocker Spaniel dogs.
Our first real glimpse of civilisation was a large station where we were told the race horse King David was born, at this stage we had come 70 miles from Tocumwal. We passed a few old disused timer mills, then suddenly the river narrowed and we entered what was the most beautiful stretch of the whole river, it was almost a botanical garden. The wildlife was abundant, also the country was low lying and gave rise to the Lake Country. The river was very swift so we cut the motor and were carried down the deep channel at a great rate.
Late in the afternoon we came to Barmah. The people seemed to be mostly aborigines and the store sold everything from fish hooks to sorts coats, wheelbarrows and they were displayed in a way that one had to clamber over the goods to be served. Several miles out of the town we passed a tribe on ‘Walkabout’ with the picker ninnies brining up the rear rejoicing in their lack of clothing.
We came upon many deserted houses and wrecks of paddle steamers and as we came closer to Echuca the wildlife began to thin out and the settlement increase. About 7 road miles from Echuca, the Golbourn entered but added little to the size or volume of the Murray. A few hours later we saw great logs loaded on paddle steamers by the wharves which were once a thriving port. We examined a steamer the ‘Melbourne’ with its 8 cabins, huge engine and steering wheel almost 6 feet in diameter. It was the first seaworthy paddle steamer we had met.
Koondrook 60 miles ahead, the river had become snaggy, but the engine was running extremely well. We were not getting much breeze from the boat, and Kev was as brown as a nigger while I covered myself with suntan. My diary says, “The only thing in the sky is a wedge-tailed eagle – that sun is mighty hot”.
We were approaching the Torrumbarry Weir so the current began to slow up. In the afternoon dark muddy brown and purplish clouds began to blow over. Soon we were in the middle of a downpour, our first rain. A fisherman’s hut was nearby so we made for it. A lady with two children was inside and she was very kind to us. She put the kettle on and after talking for an hour or so the rain passed by, we moved on leaving them and their hut which had been their home for 19 years.
Torrumbarry Weir soon came into view. The caretaker was most obliging, and as the river was too low for the lock to be used he helped us carry the boat around. He showed us over the Weir, which is similar to the one at Mildura as it can be taken out. At one side dozens of fish and tabbies could be seen escaping, but unfortunately fishing is prohibited within a quarter of a mile of the spillway.
That day we landed a 5lb cod, this with a couple of duck, a box of apples and apricots, and damper provided us with a royal meal, indeed we were so ambitious that evening that we made some jam to review our fast diminishing supply of honey.
Next morning we arrived at Koondrook and Barham before the towns had awoken, so after our usual inspection we pushed on. The twisted gums by the river bank once again gave way to open grazing country. All that day the thermometer was well over the century, but towards evening dark clouds filled the sky, and at 7.00pm the storm broke. We called into a Station and were kindly offered the use of the shearer’s hut. After tea we sat on the verandah talking for a few hours as photos of the river and stories of its heyday as a waterway were produced and told. The hospitality shown to us here was typical of that which has given the Australian bushman the reputation for fellowship and generosity he now has.
Swan Hill was our next port of call, and my most dominant memory is that I thought we were never going to reach it. At this stage we began to completely disbelieve our river map, to give up trying to estimate distances from road mileages, and expect to arrive at our objective only when it hovered into view.
In many of the country towns the homes are littered with odds and scraps of engines, empty bottles and so on, which to a person from the city used to a stamp sized back yard give the appearance of being untidy. But country people are lucky to have such open space to scatter their unwanted objects.
We saw some Tamorisk trees which are natural to the banks of the river Jordan in Palestine, but have been introduced here. After passing the quaint settlement of Wood Wood the snags in the river became more frequent and caused our first and only trouble to the motor. We managed to paddle a few miles until we came to the first signs of settlement. We met the boss, who was more like a jackaroo – a real solid worker who was cutting out his cattle. Short, stubby, unshaven and with a long drawl he showed us with pride his pedigree cattle, then we got to work on the motor, which needed its propeller adjusted.
The river again became shallow and at one stage we had to detour around a billabong to avoid a rapid. This was as we passed the homestead “Good-Night”. Legend has it that in the early part of last century as a paddle steamer was passing this spot one evening one of the crew heard a voice from the bush call “Goodnight”, but all efforts to find person were futile.
A couple of hours later we came to the Walcool Junction. This river meanders back a tremendous distance, and is made use of by rice plantations. There were quite a number of fishermen about and seemed to be having quite a deal of success.
We had now reached the Mallee – my first visit to it and it certainly lived up to its descriptions. One home we called into was owned by a pommy, a recent migrant, he was a very lively chap, but a more uninspiring property I have yet to come across – all we saw were a few cattle grazing on a vast bluebush plain. He told us the Murrimbidgee was just around the bend, it was as well he told us as we as probably would not have recognised this small, though apparently rather deep entrance as the ‘Bidgee’. I can certainly understand why Sturt wrote of the Murray as a wide and noble river, I found it hard to realise this almost insignificant opening was the outlet to the ‘Bidgee’ I had known so well at Jugion.
From now onward the river broadened and snags became less and less, so we were not surprised when the Mallee town of Boundary Bend came into view with its store, hotel and half dozen homes. A dusty road led far off into the Never-Never boarded by stunted growth scattered among the sand plains, indeed this scene has become synonymous with the Mallee for myself. A Say’s butcher van pulled up and we indulged in the luxury of two pounds of sausages. Even the most enjoyable food from the bush could not stop us looking forward to tea that evening.
As we rounded the Northern tip before we swung south for our final run to Mildura, we called into a large homestead made last century from mud bricks. Such buildings as these were of great interest to us and we were most thankful when we were shown over it. The structure was still solid and it was a contrast to see beside the old fashioned material and modern kitchen appliances. We were pressed to stay, but with great regret had to decline the tempting invitation to share the delicious meal being prepared over the wooden stove, as we had to push on to Euston to catch the Post Office.
Late that afternoon we arrived at the Robinvale pumping station. The water has really made this area and even from a casual glance the difference irrigation has made can be seen as on one side of the road are flourishing vineyards and on the other are open stretches of salt bush plains. The town is a dry dusty place, but the shops are tidy and fresh. We met a hobo whom we began talking with for a while, he begged us to give him a lift to Mildura where he hoped to get work, but this was impossible and we had to leave this badly clothed, unshaven chap without work or a roof over his head.
The Euston Weir came into view that evening and the caretaker saved us any bother of carrying the boat around the lock by hitching the crane to the boat – hoisting both the boat and ourselves through the air to the other side of the Weir – probably the first time the boat has flown.
Thursday morning came and we were both beginning to get very weary. We spent most of the morning on the bank doing some fishing and sketching, after 20 days on the river in the open sun our energy seemed to be almost completely gone, but this rest did both of us the world of good. One of our regular customs was to cut the motor every hour or so and dive overboard for a dip.
At dinner time we pushed off and called into the first home we passed to get a billy of tea. The boss was lying in the sun, he had rheumatic fever and a neighbour was in to give him a helping hand. Dressed as we were in old dirty clothes he invited us into his lounge and put the kettle on for us. He gave the impression of being well educated and having a great love of nature, on his property were pet emus, kangaroos, goannas and so on. Along this stretch of the river we came upon a number of emus bathing in the river, besides seeing a goanna and several kangaroos and a turtle. During our whole trip we only came across one snake, which was both unexpected and disappointing as we had been told tales of thousands of snakes which abound on these river banks. It was disappointing as we hoped to supplement our diet with a few.
As we came chugging down the river we noticed a group of people on the bank, we pulled over and found that their car and caravan was bogged, after giving them a hand to get out of this they pointed out a group of three large heavily laden mulberry trees growing in the middle of an open paddock, which may have been the site of a squatters shack a century or so ago. I must confess I have an inordinate affection, so much so that when we left those trees I could not possibly have taken another mulberry. The memory of those trees remains not only vivid in my memory but also very distinctly on the clothes I was wearing at the time.
That afternoon we landed an 8 pound cod and as we pulled into shore for the evening I wrote in my diary “All going well, our last stretch ahead of us – 35 river miles”. We were up at 5.00am the next morning and away at 6.00am, a record. More and more people came out to greet us as we headed down stream for the Sunrasia had told of our position in the morning paper.
Regretfully we began to realise our journeys end was close and at 2.30pm we passed under the Mildura bridge. In many ways it was good to have arrived at our goal, though the past twenty-two days had given us some of our greatest experiences and memories. The freedom of the bush life, the companionship of Kev, the meals from the bush, the meeting of the outback Australians, the beauty of the river itself all combined to make our journey a tremendous joy and success, and a trip that we will be grateful for and think back over with great relish and enjoyment.