It’s the second day of our canoe trip down the Murray River, which meanders along the border between Victoria and New South Wales in southern Australia. Out of breath and dehydrated, we’re waiting for the bagpipe music to kick in.
For the last twenty minutes we have been trying to make time by powering along to some kind of deep trance beating out of Lewis’s tinny phone speakers. When bagpipe music comes on we can take a break, but the trance keeps getting deeper and deeper.
Admittedly this isn’t how you should be enjoying the wild charms of the Aussie outback. The music is blocking out the screeching of the cockatoos nesting on the bank. But we’ve underestimated the length of the task. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Murray’s 1,500 miles between its spring in the Australian Alps and its mouth at Lake Alexandrina make it Australia’s longest river. We weren’t feeling up to acquainting ourselves with every nook and corner in the three days we had. Instead we we decided to focus on a 90 kilometre stretch from the Barmah Forest down to the town of Echuca.
At one point in the 19th Century this stretch of river was a hive of activity. Echuca sprung up in the middle of that century, founded by an enterprising ex-convict and soon emerged as the largest inland port in the country. Now the only other traffic we would meet were people blasting up and down the muddy waters on speed boats with wakeboards in toe. Mercifully though, speed limits restricted the people the straight-talking canoe hire man called “the dick’eads” to short stretches of the river around two or three campsites we would pass on the way down.
We arrived at a campsite at Picnic Point late on Saturday afternoon where we set up an ample tent, with room for the two of us plus Rosie, Seumas and Archie, on the river’s north bank.
The boys tested the current by chucking in their boogie boards. After they were swept away in seconds, we decided we’d be able to put our feet up at the start of the trip.
Soon after, we were met by Jenny, Tim and their baby Dylan. Jenny was a childhood friend of Neil’s who now lives in northern Victoria. Combining our forces we put together a cracking barbecue as we swapped memories about or sadly departed friend. It was news to us that he was a keen ornithologist when he was a wee man. But by the sounds of it he was the same great value at the age of nine that he was at 29.
The next morning Tim took us out for a spin in his “tinnie” (fishing boat) using the biggest fishing tackle we’d ever seen. Whatever was lurking in the muddy depths of the Murray was clearly worth catching. Unfortunately we’d have to leave that to more competent anglers than ourselves. After two hours we came home empty handed. But Tim made the generous offer to take us on a hunt for yabbies (freshwater lobster) on our next venture north.
It was midday before everything had been packed and we had our canoe into the water. The river was heaving with life. Egrets, white and black, swooped above us. Cockatoos bickered in the thick forest behind the banks. Pairs of galahs perched on branches overhead. The the cicada’s chirruping rose in waves and echoed off the leaves.
We paddled lazily, taking it all in. Before we knew it, it was lunch time. Picking a spot on the bank next to the lair of a three-inch Orb Spider (luckily one of the less deadly arachnids that call the riverside home) we munched through our cheddar sandwiches while discussing the sad fate of the real Crocodile Dundee.
Soon we were on our way again. Seemingly before we knew it, we had rounded a bend to the shrieks of two young boys jumping around in the water. Rosie and the kids could barely believe it was us – we had gotten the day’s canoeing done in a little under three hours. That was a bit too easy.
But it meant that we had the rest of the day to wallow in the slow, warm waters oozing out of Barmah Lake. The beauty of this spot is hard to describe. The lake is wide, but at this time of year barely rises above your knees. It is bordered by reeds of a sun-beaten hue that tell you you are a long, long way from Scotland. You can spend hours in this water without getting cold and just sit there as geese fly in formation above and egrets swerve away when they spot you below.
The boys hopped onto the canoe in the late afternoon to go fishing – again sadly to no avail. But, no worries, we still had plenty of meat to thrown on the barbie, and a couple of tins of Irn Bru to wash it down. In a bizarre twist of fate that that showed that someone up there wanted this trip to happen, right next to the camping shop in Echuca we had stumbled upon one of the few shops in Australia that sells the world’s finest soft drink.
We all fell into bed early, but not after appreciating one of the most beautiful star-filled skies you will ever see, plus the quirk of seeing Orion doing a handstand.
At ten o’clock on the second day we pushed off from the bank earlier than the previous day, but a whole lot cockier too. We only filled one flask of water, despite the weather report predicting temperatures of 38 degrees.
After half an hour of pottering casually down stream we came across a rope swing and thought we might as well stop and have a go. After twenty minutes of failing to figure out how not to crash arse-first into the water we gave up and went on our way again.
Later a stiff breeze blew up onto our nose and we realised we had barely made a dent in the 40km we had to get through that day. Hence the trance music. We had decided that as long as dance music was blasting out of Lewis’ idiosyncratic playlist we would power down as hard as we could. When it offered up a pipe tune we would take a rest.
The pipe music never did end up coming. But the poor battery power of the modern phone saved us in the end and we went back to paddling to the soundtrack of grumpy cockatoos.
Shortly after five we arrived with a whimper at our destination, a winery nestled up on the river bank. Despite the owner offering us an array of his most inimitable vintages, we begged for a couple of cans of coke and a bottle of water.
That night we crashed exhausted into our tent. But the day’s efforts weren’t over yet. Just as we lay down we heard a strong wind rumbling down the river like a huge wave. Apparently one of the biggest dangers of this region isn’t snakes or spiders, but branches falling from river red gum trees on hot days and squashing unsuspecting campers. We were camped directly under one with a hefty arm stretching over us, and the sound of the wind blowing little bits of bark onto the tent roof was making it hard to doze off. Repitching a few metres away was a process complicated by the fact we had to do this without waking the boys, who were sleeping inside. But we managed to drag the tent to the new spot while only briefly waking Archie, who was convinced the movement was his older brother tickling him.
We wouldn’t be caught out on the third day. We set off early and cruised into Echuca dead on time at 3pm, soon after the town’s beautiful old paddle steamer had chugged passed us.
Lewis has plans to do another trip down the river when the boys get a bit older. And if he follows through on his other plan to lay down a cool $2 million he doesn’t have on a riverside winery, the adventure will be right on the doorstep.
Useful planning information:
- Canoe hire at Echuca Boat & Canoe Hire
- Camping in Barmah Forest at Picnic Point Caravan Park
- Camping down river is free anywhere along Victoria bank, but there are some organised state park campsites as well (also free and with long drop toilets.)
- The River Murray Charts book is really useful for providing charts, plus historical background and information on birds and fish.