An Adventurer of European descent once said, ‘If you wake up in the morning and it doesn’t hurt, you sure know you’re dead.’
I suppose I should, therefore, be very glad to report that yes, I am alive. So alive, in fact, that my body is currently suggesting that I’m much older than my meagre thirty years. I’ve been on the move for two months now, meandering my way from the Australian Alps to my current location, a, easterly directed stone’s throw to the border. I am in South Australia, and the closing straight is nearing. Mentally, I’m on the game, but some physical wear and tear is knocking, pushing the door ajar, stepping inside, settling down for a cup of tea and a Danish. But scrub this, thou shalt not be a whingeing Pom. Suffice it to say, I have a couple of swollen fingers on each hand that struggle to function for the first half hour of each day (and then miraculously become useful again) and a general weariness that requests a good rest and doesn’t take kindly to mornings without the Snooze Button.
Unfortunately for the old bod, it is squeaky bum time on this expedition. This doesn’t mean all hell is breaking loose in my stressed bowels, it merely suggests that there is no room for error. Seventeen days to go, 38km to paddle each day on average. Any illness, injury or unforeseen hiccup would make completing this shindig on time very, very tricky.
Predictably, as soon as I completed my last blog entitled ‘Here Comes the Sun’ the rain clouds opened. We’re talking the looming type, the ones that begin as an ill-face grey blanket across the sky and become moodier as the day goes on, like a Grandparent with bad arthritis. An inch of rainfall in ten minutes combined with a fierce headwind and a turbulent, wide Murray does occasionally have you dreaming of more passive things, and although I wasn’t to have my dreams granted there were distractions from the pesky climate. As Nala and I glided past the spot where the 1000km sign should have been I started to scour out a sandbar with ‘LUNCH’ written on it. At 998km (with sign included) there was an enormous sandbar covered in people wearing purple. A school trip, maybe? I thought, but as I neared it became clear that I was slightly off the mark, or was I? ‘You better get over there and have a beer,’ said a well-built man with a fishing rod.
I did as I was told. Two more purple men, both boasting black baseball caps with the words ‘Punt Trip’ emblazoned, came over to meet me. Ten minutes later I was an honorary guest to the 20th annual get together for a group of adults who once went to school together. They were well prepared and well lubricated. There were marquees. There were tents and swags scattered. There was a golf course on the sandbar. A grizzly old chap named Pud wandered over to me with one hand behind his back, ‘turn the camera on,’ he demanded. From thereon in, Pud was nicknamed Hollywood, such was his affection for the camera. The camera was turned on, and I was invited to suck dry a simple can of beer, through a hole at its bottom end.
Now, the thought did cross my mind that there are kids watching this expedition, but I had been challenged and a simple beer never hurt anyone, moderation is always the name of the game and besides, I’d done 40km before noon and was due a break. I put the beer down to much cheering, and received a special black cap for my troubles. The fun continued on through the day. A few of the lads went out fishing on a tinny and I bade farewell. ‘You’re not staying?’ one of them asked.
‘Nah, guys, I’ll be out of here by five.’
‘Well, if your kayak’s still here when we get back we’ll know you changed your mind.’
My kayak was still there. And my tent was up. It’s not often you get to spend an afternoon with twenty men dressed in purple, and their version of golf had me enthralled. Basically someone tee’d off from a rectangular patch of grass (fake, but impressive for the effort) and another person had to catch the ball. The further away the ball was caught (if it was caught) the more cheering went on, and of course there was an element of competition - a yellow cricket bat was lying at the previous longest drive-catch record point. I set about trying to beat it, did so despite some ever so lame catching attempts by my man in the field, and the evening continued. The lads were great company, Hollywood became even more enamoured with my video camera, a sizeable T-Bone was laid before me at dinner time and a whip-round added $230 to the journey’s AV Foundation charity fundraising (www.justgiving.com/greatbigpaddle), which rounded off proceedings just nicely.
Pictures of the purple people and associated events can be seen on gallery 40 on http://www.davecornthwaite.co.uk/thegreatbigpaddle/journeys/murray2009/pictures/40.days35-38.1042km-mildura/Day%2035%20-%2038%20~%201042km%20to%20Mildura/40.1042km-mildura.htm
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I write from South Australia, some 470km on from my encounter with the 20th annual punt trip. A week ago I was paddling out of Mildura with a belly stuffed with malice and a head to match. Something was up and I couldn’t put a finger on it. Fairly quickly in the early days of this journey I developed a mental pattern, which involved splicing each day up into small goals, usually in terms of kilometres, sometimes reaching a midway settlement or landmark. This particular morning was different. I was off key, strange after a three day lay off, the expedition’s longest break from the river. Maybe it was fatigue? Possibly a bug in last night’s food? Or, I pondered, could it be that for the umpteenth time this journey I’d just reached a place totally new to me yet almost immediately gathered together a small group of strangers who I’m sure I’ll stay friendly with until I’m as old as my body is telling me I’m feeling right now. So, if I’ve just met a great new bunch of friends, why feel so blue/grey? Because it’s happened again, I’ve met them, spent some quality time, then said goodbye and here I am on my way again, alone. It’s a strange unbalancing of emotions and self, something I was pretty sure I’d become adept at throughout my life, until now. I didn’t grow up with strong geographical roots so the sandbar at the 942km marker on the River Murray is as much a home to me as my parent’s house near Oxford, or my canal boat in Wiltshire, so why am I feeling dodgy outside Mildura?
I had only one answer, it was the Megafauna. Oddly enough, I was heading straight for them, for they reside in the Pioneer Museum at Wentworth, my target for the day. During the Mildura rest-up I’d been driven out to Wentworth by my new accomplices, Shane and Chris, who are responsible for www.murrayriver.com.au, a veritable masterclass of a website so thorough in its information that it might just leave better-funded portals a little ashamed. Shane, the Discover Murray mastermind, is a ball of passion and entrepreneurship, constantly forming ideas and fastening them to a bigger picture, which always involves promoting some aspect of the Murray. My Mildura break involved a wonderful trip on the PS Melbourne paddle steamer (http://www.murrayriver.com.au/paddleboats/ps-melbourne/) and a visit to the Perry Sand Hills, but it was a trip to Wentworth that threw up something unexpected.
‘You’ve got to see this, he says, screeching to a stop outside the Pioneer Museum just seconds after showing Chris and me the outside of the Wentworth Jail, a horror of former times. Inside the door was an exhibition that made my jaw hit the floor, which just happened to be covered with scepticism. I licked it up, shut my mouth and stared wide-eyed at several models of enormous creatures, all with discernible likeness to the animals that roam modern-day Australia. It was just, well…it was just that these things all had enormous teeth, and the man telling us about them, Bob his name was, took great delight in informing us that the actual ‘Megafauna’ were usually twice the size of these models, and had been present in the area just 16,000 years ago. Up there in a fake tree was a sort of possum, but with large incisors and claws. ‘It would jump out of a tree and by the time you knew it was coming your head would be gone,’ said Bob, happily. Near to the Possum was a seven foot beast stood on kangaroo legs but boasting the torso and forearms of a well built human. Its face was all alien, little slits for nostrils. ‘This one has no links to the kangaroo,’ said Bob, pointing at the kangaroo legs.
‘Really?’ I said, letting my tongue run away with me, ‘its hind quarters and tail look very kangaroo like…’
‘Well, the tail isn’t anything like a kangaroo’s,’ said Bob, ‘it’s much stumpier, a kangaroo has a long, slender tail.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life, not in books, movies, anything,’ I said, ‘are there skeletal remains of this thing?’
‘Right behind you,’ said Bob, instantly, pointing to a glass box containing a couple of three inch pieces of bone.
Discussing the sanctity of Man-Roo was clearly a no go, so we moved through the display, looking at a large wombat and emu-type bird, both believable, but then coming to a guinea pig the size of an elephant and finally, the centrepiece, a 15 foot goanna lizard, made to replicate an actual 31 foot beast found three hours north of here, in Tilpa. ‘That one had teeth so covered in bacteria if it bit you you’d die in minutes just from the dirt,’ said Bob.
‘I think someone’s missing the point here,’ I said, ‘if that thing bites you I don’t think the dirt on its teeth is going to matter much.’
Bob’s arguments were enthusiastic, but the lack of even a photograph of the apparent 31 foot skeleton found in Tilpa fuelled my doubt even more. I kept glancing at Chris, who was just as bemused as me, and Shane, who couldn’t stop laughing at my face. ‘I said you needed to see that,’ he said as we drove away. I kept looking behind, just in case something was following us.
Visit http://www.murrayriver.com.au/ for a feast of information about the Murray.
Please donate to our AV Foundation solar and water project, at http://www.justgiving.com/greatbigpaddle