Here comes the sun
As summer draws in the air warms and the weary paddler is required to zone out, lower head, and go. A lack of water or food doesn’t linger shyly, a frequent burst of ten minutes or so and then I’ll stop to look around, take a sip of water. Then the same again, and again. Although it’s everywhere, the effects of heat sneak up on you. Hydration is the name of the game, and there’s no denying the power of a scoop of Nutella when the old energy levels need a boost. Although the Murray isn’t a technical challenge, it does require a certain amount of positive thinking – endurance psychology is underlined by an ability to deal with what is inevitably to come, and in Australia you’re unable to travel great distances without being reminded of exactly how far there is to go. By road there is a blunt green triangle every 5km showing distance to the next town. Along river, the signs are larger and blue with white writing, but to the South Australian border they are fixed to trees every 2km, after the border, there will be one per km. These are not necessarily a bad thing, indeed, breaking down the larger distance into smaller, more manageable bites pays great dividends to morale.
This November’s temperatures may be unseasonable, and I’d be a fool to say days of over 40 degrees don’t have any effect on this Pommy Paddler, but the human body is remarkably adaptable, especially if there’s a sensible head to coax it in the right direction. Starts become earlier and earlier. Once upon a time in that place called the Upper Murray my good friends and I would be on the water by 10am. Now, I’m stopping for coffee and breakfast at 9am with 20km already under the belt. Hard to believe that five and a half weeks ago I was wading through snow in the Alps, cursing my heavy pack, but now there is nothing to curse, even when weary from a full morning’s effort I step off into the shade of the bush for an afternoon’s rest only to realise my chosen sandbar is also inhabited by a Red Bellied Black, or a Brown, Yes, the onset of summer invites one certainty in Australia, the snakes get on the move, but as with anything once you see a few they become known, not feared. I’ve seen four in the water and two on land to date and am perfectly happy to keep my distance, but magnificent it is to see them glide freely in the wild.
Since my speedboat-laden approach to Echuca the river has been quiet. Two days of rest in Echuca was dearly needed and was made all the more comforting by the hospitality of the Barnes family, who also happened to have a say on who was allowed into the VIP tent at the Echuca Races. Needless to say, a rest day was needed to recover from the rest day, but when the time came to continue on I was joined out of town by twelve youthful paddlers from St Joseph’s College, where I had addressed a couple of classes in the hiatus. Peter Phillips, a teacher from St Jo’s, and his son Tim paddled over 50km with me the next day, too, with wife and Mum Ruth patrolling the banks armed with an Esky full of delights. Two days on I was given an informative and welcome introduction to the town of Barham, which until now I had endlessly confused with Barmah, a week upstream. Turns out I’m not alone in this, Faye and Popsy O’Brien, my Barham hosts, have had post delivered to Barmah, and many a visitor to the area has arrowed themselves to Barmah only to find their meeting/party/friends are nowhere to be found, because they are some 200km away in the other Bar***
Faye and Popsy (all blokes in Barham have a nickname it seems) toured me around the Koondruck Perricoota Red Gum forest, pointing out their opinions on drought-proofing forests and making their views clear on ‘locking up’ trees in national parks. I’ve heard this line before. National Parks designed to protect Red Gums are bemoaned by many as a bending-over on behalf of the political Greens (political Greens and true Greens, who live and work on the land and therefore have a direct and vested interest in the environment, are often grossly different in approaches), who would rather no trees are felled. State forests need maintenance, though, and without easy access tracks and thinning policies they become a green light to any bushfire. I must point out that I’m still forming my personal opinions on all matters Murray – and how to deal with Red Gum forests certainly falls into that category – but driving around with Faye and Popsy, who are saw millers, couldn’t have more starkly revealed the plight of overpopulated and under-watered forests. Areas that had been thinned (the practice of removing unhealthy trees clumped together tightly with stronger, albeit stressed Gums) were without doubt surviving well. Even in a drought that has lasted more than ten years Red Gums not battling with others for minimal moisture were thriving, green canopies almost fluffy. But there were crowded areas reserved for Willow the Wisp, bony, leafless creatures, suffocating each other, dying. The only sure thing for these forests is that a good flood is needed, but when that will come naturally nobody knows – the forecast is not good.
My environmental lessons in Barham didn’t end with the trees. John ‘Spud’ Lolicato is a rice farmer based near the Wakool River, 20km north. He is a passionate bible of information on irrigation and in the short few hours I spent in the area we covered everything from devastating fish kills on a Wakool tributary (instigated by an unsuccessful government water policy) to the very basis of the Murray Darling’s irrigation system. I’d been to school by the time I talked to John, but he accepted that I wouldn’t be ready to take exams until I had travelled all the way to the sea, there is plenty more to learn.
I was also taken out on the river in a tinny, yes, a boat with a motor. Roger Knight could catch a fish in a puddle, I had been told, and although that seemed like a much easier thing to do than catching one in a river I valued the experience and received yet another opinion that whoever has been declaring that Murray Cod are nearing extinction need to do their homework. Indeed, it took no more than 50 seconds for our first Cod to bite, and although it’s out of season and the little blighter went back in the water it wasn’t the only one snared that evening. Carp, it seems, have had their heyday in the Murray. Long have they been a cuss on the lips of Murray fishermen, but the tables have turned and if the rod-holders I’ve spoken to so far are to be believed, Carp are down, Cod are doing rather well.
In other news, Wilderness Systems have agreed to auction my kayak Nala (Tempest 170) for charity (We are supporting the AV Foundation - www.justgiving.com/greatbigpaddle) at the conclusion of the journey, and the Murray River Expedition received a mention in the Queensland Parliament late last week, wonderful news! For now though, I can’t rest on my laurels, it’s 6pm, the day is fading and I’ve avoided the afternoon heat, it’s time for another 10km. Next stop: Mildura, Tuesday 24th.