The Murray River – The Source to the Sea

The Murray River

Record Attempt

Sheltering under our tarpaulin, which was pulled out from the vehicle, we watched the rain, so heavy that it flooded the ground beneath our feet within minutes. Gusts of wind violently ripped the tarpaulin from its stays, making our shelter quite useless in this horizontal rain storm. Lightning strikes illuminated the darkened sky, and powerful claps of thunder vibrated the ground and echoed through the forest. Gezza, Carl, Tim and I stood in amazement watching this summer rain storm unleash its powerful forces; the trees bending like javelin poles and the Murray river beside us rising with every hour that passed. The following day I was to attempt a record descent of the 2,500 kilometre Murray River.

As I stared into the rainstorm, I reflected on my epic journey since leaving Perth in Western Australia 8 months earlier. I had kayaked 850 kilometres on the ocean from Augusta to Geraldton, 800 kilometres from Cooktown to Cape York and done some shorter trips around Hinchinbrook Island, Whitsunday Islands, Fraser Island and into and out of Sydney. I had also walked 1,600 kilometres across the Great Sandy desert, 450 kilometres across the Simpson desert and 900 kilometres from Wilson’s Promontory through the Victorian mountains to Mt Kosciusko. To link these remote and unique areas together I had cycled 3000 kilometres on dirt tracks and over 5000 kilometres on bitumen roads and I still had 10,000 kilometres of my trek to complete.

Originally, I had planned to paddle from Tom Groggin, our present position on the Murray River, to the ocean, at a leisurely pace. But that had now changed.

I now had a much more exciting and ambitious plan; to establish a new distance record and beat Mick MacManus’s record of 16 days and 16 hours from Hume Weir to Goolwa, on the way. Realistically, the odds were stacked against me before I started: I had not been in a kayak for 3 months, I did not know the river, or its exit and entry points and Tim was my one and only support crew. But that didn’t matter; success or failure, I knew I would give it my best shot.

An added diversion in my itinerary prevented me from rendezvousing with two friends, who originally were to accompany me down through the Murray Gates rapids. Finding two canoeists to take their place, in what was going to be a low water trip, was impossible, so I had no choice but to hire two rafting guides, Gezza and Carl. It was even harder to find someone willing to lend me a plastic slalom kayak, but Paddy Pallin from Jindabyne responded to my final plea for help.

As we sheltered from the powerful rainstorm, we planned the start of my 2500 kilometre Murray River descent. Gezza, who had expected the river to be low, was now a little apprehensive about the rapidly rising waters, and fearless Carl didn’t ease our minds as he told stories of the mishaps he and his parties had previously experienced rafting down these turbulent waters.

In the early morning, the severe storm suddenly stopped and we continued our breakfast in a more comfortable and civilised manner, talking about the rapids which had grown even larger in the night. For the last few months, I had started each day with a huge bowl of muesli, but this morning after so much talk, I could hardly eat a thing. What was waiting ahead. I could see that Gezza was not completely happy with the conditions and talk of putting the trip off filtered towards my ears. When a very excited Frank Bakker, another experienced canoeist, arrived, I was relieved when we all decided to take the plunge.

MurrayGroup

The Team. Frank, me, Carl and Gezza

The Rapids
I was eager to get away, so after securing safety gear in our kayaks, we had a few seconds to warm up before Tim Fry, my support person, started the countdown. At 8.15 precisely we left the Tom Groggin picnic area. ‘Oh what a feeling,’ only 2500 kilometres to go! But what if I capsize and get injured? It could mean my whole trip has failed! Should I have planned to take on this dangerous section when so much was at stake! Three days earlier the river had been powerless; a stream threading itself through and around the bouldery bottom.

But after 3 days of heavy rain it was now a raging torrent and capable of tossing us around like a compost tumbler. Only minutes into our trip, a small waterfall blocked our path. I approached it with caution. On a short practise run the previous day, and being a little rusty, I had capsized, and been forced to roll in its mangled mess of turbulence. But today my determination was high and I shot it without incident. A few kilometres downstream of the waterfall, we had to portage a concrete bridge. Then we forged on, working our way down the river, pushing through the easier grade 2 rapids and pounding through some grade 3s. Carl, enjoying himself, had a constant grin on his face, especially when a larger rapid approached.

Huge Drops
I was now becoming more familiar with my borrowed kayak, and my confidence began to soar, as we threaded ourselves around large boulders, deep holes and giant ‘stoppers’. Suddenly our progress came to a halt as we approached one of the bigger rapids, ‘South African Swim’. It was a technical rapid, so we paused to check the big stoppers and bottomless holes, and posted rescuers with throw bags at strategic positions. One slip on the top rapid, one slight mistake sliding down the next drop, could mean a capsize, a swim or even worse, an injury. After a faultless run down SAS, our concerns were eased and we didn’t bother checking any more rapids, we took them as they came. At times, when the paddler in front dropped out of sight I knew that a special surprise was waiting at the bottom of the drop. As Carl led down ‘The Thing’, he suddenly disappeared over the last drop and failed to surface. A few moments later, still no Carl. It looked like a rescue attempt would have to be put into operation, but after a roll Carl finally surfaced with a cheesy grin across his face. Then it was our turn to face the drop!


Frank taking on one of the big rapids on the Murray River in summer floods. I had to paddle grade 3 & 4 classed rapids before being able to paddle the flat water.

As we moved down the river, blasting through ‘stoppers’, standing waves and holes, we manoeuvred skilfully as a team. There were few mishaps, but we had our moments…Gezza got plastered against the wall at ‘Easy Over’, and I capsized between two giant holes on ‘Roller Coaster’, which resulted in a quick roll. Carl did a few tail stands and other uncontrolled stunts, and Frank had great fun in his high buoyancy kayak sliding down backwards, sidewards and treating the rapids as if they weren’t there. By the late afternoon, we had conquered the most dangerous grade 3 and 4 rapids: Sharks Tooth, Head Beater, Hole in the Wall, South African Swim, Himalaya Wrap, The Thing, The Wall and many more. And I was still in one piece.

MurrayRapid1

Relief And The Long Haul Ahead
Having no injuries at this point took a huge weight off my mind. Now I could concentrate on the ‘easy’ bit, 2450 kilometres of flatter waters. Before leaving, Frank bought 20 of my ‘Kimberley Challenge’ Magazines, so I was able to pay Gezza and Carl for their services.

After saying goodbye to Frank, Gezza and smiling Carl, I hopped into my racing kayak, the ‘machine’ that was to get me to the end much quicker, and headed towards Tintaldra 60 kilometres away.

As I threaded my way around dozens of weeping willow trees which the storm had demolished the evening before, I also had to watch out for barbed wire fences that jutted out into the river. By the second night, I was heading across the Hume Dam with a strong wind blowing. In the darkness it was difficult to cut through the rough waters, let alone see the dead trees that once lined the river bank. My midnight finish at Hume Weir turned out to be the earliest stop in 20 days.

In the early morning mist I portaged the huge weir, knowing that the 270 kilometres I had just paddled had been a warm up, an appetiser for the main thrust of the trip. The section below the weir was where all the record attempts had been started in the past. Fisherman were already there, busily casting their lines, and cockatoos screeched, filling the valley with a disturbing noise. But as I walked closer, I sensed something different; a silence between the screeching. I tried to figure out what was wrong. As I followed a vague track down to the water’s edge, I suddenly realised that there was no sound of water gushing from the outlet pipes. This was devastating, it meant that the usually swift current that would assist me down the river, was no longer there. The heavy rain meant that the farmers downstream didn’t need water to irrigate. A mighty blow to start my record attempt.

Wasting no time, I headed towards Albury in the lower water level, where I scooted passed my first paddle steamer. Further downstream, closer to Yarrawonga, hundreds of water skiers took advantage of the long weekend and churned up the river before me.

Means No Rest
I soon realised that to achieve my goal I had to paddle into the night. This didn’t seem too much of a problem at first, but when I started averaging 3-4 hours sleep a day it was difficult to keep awake. By 11pm my eyelids were beginning to falter. The strain of looking into the darkness was overwhelming, and the river snaked and slithered across the country. Trees that had crashed down on bends were like giant antlers rising up out of the muddy waters, creating dangerous hazards and difficult to see. At every twist in the river, I chanced being speared by the snags if I ever took a short cut.

When I looked upward into space, I could see the bright stars and constellations and a world alive with shooting stars and satellites. Back on earth, trees flanked the river, silhouetted against the brighter sky. As the river narrowed, the sound of the current cutting through the snags increased my anxiety, as I had no idea if I was heading into them. I often thought of Mick MacManus. Why did he set such a high target, forcing me to paddle at night, and why was I so convinced that his record could be beaten? Paddling till 2.00am, sometimes later and sometimes completely through the night, became a regular pattern. Three hours sleep was my maximum relief, and kept me on target to beat the record.

Night paddling was hazardous. As well as all the snags protruding from the water, I couldn’t prevent myself from dozing off. Then there were the shadows! Trees created shadows. Shadows created problems, extra problems I didn’t need. I saw shadows as objects; objects that I thought were logs, trees and rocks. Startled, I would flinch and my heart would leap into my mouth, when I thought I was going to collide with these imaginary solid things in front of me.

Inspired By The Moon
As the days flew by, the moon became my only friend on the river. It rose like a giant guardian, brightening my world and giving me a glimpse of the river outside of my imagination. This new insight made me feel happy and content, as I watched the huge glowing sphere move slowly across the sky. But every time I glanced up, wanting to observe its mysterious craters some 384,400 kilometres distant, my balance became shaky. Since beginning my trip 8 months earlier, the moon had become a very special companion, and the full moon became one of the highlights of the month. Eventually its reflected light would finally fade or merge into the day, leaving me inspired and eager for its return.

Paddling became a nightmare, I couldn’t prevent myself from dozing off and often woke up with a wet arm, after automatically doing a support stroke to prevent myself from falling in! Many times, tiredness forced me to stop for catnaps. I would run my kayak up the bank or into a place that would support it. Then I would slump forward on the deck, clutching my paddle in one hand and using the other hand as a pillow. This uncomfortable position didn’t allow me to sleep for long, maybe a minute or second, I never really knew, but it was enough to allow me to continue for a while longer.

For much of the day, I would relax my whole body and fade into my own dream world. The warmth would make me feel content, secure and drug me into a feeling that I could paddle for ever. It was my way of meditating and it was such a beautiful feeling. But as the hot summer days dragged on, the sun also became my enemy. The glare and heat made me drowsy, weary and often forced my eye lids to close.

My methods of keeping awake were not entirely successful. I carried several pieces of fruit and ‘vegies’ that I ate continually and I sang all the songs that I knew at the top of my voice, so I repeated three songs all day. When this failed, I would wet my head and face, but even that didn’t meet with much success.

Tim Was My Lifeline
Tim was my life line to the outside world. I would meet him every two to four hours to take a short break and replenish my larder and water supply. Tim informed me of the latest news, which was mainly the Iraqi war. I took away with me horrific stories; the bombings, the killings and the destruction. I had plenty of time to think about it all as I meandered down the river, locked between two banks and a barrier of trees. Beyond the trees meant nothing to me. I didn’t even know what the landscape looked like beyond the banks, was it fertile or a sunburnt country!

But within my timber walls, my mind became full of guilt. Should I be trying to help, and should I be home with my wife Jenny! The more I thought about the war, the sadder I became, which affected my paddling, so I tried to think positive and hoped that some miracle would solve the crisis.

So my journey continued; passing pumping stations, the occasional bridge, a few houses, some river boats, and people who witnessed my passing only briefly. At night, when I became too drowsy to be safe, I had no choice but to sleep wherever tiredness smothered me. I carried nothing more than a tent fly sheet, food and an extra jumper, and slept anywhere, except in the long grass, I had seen several snakes in and around the river. I used the tent fly as a ground sheet, my buoyancy aid as my pillow, my jumper as my sleeping bag and the cold mornings as my alarm clock. I slept on nothing but the hard ground, and by 4.30 am without fail the cold would wake me and force me to rise and paddle on to get warm again.

Never before had I seen so many days and nights blend into one. I was paddling at sunset, I watched the stars ease across the sky throughout the night, I saw shooting stars by the dozens and I experienced the coming of dawn and eventually another perfect sunrise. Not only was I trying to beat a record, I was experiencing continual changes of the day and learning so much about myself. I was in a world of my own, and only Tim had a vague idea what I was going through.

I was paddling hour after hour with little sleep. I tried to grab a few minutes rest before going on. A record was at stake.

Lost
On the eleventh night after averaging 140 kilometres a day since leaving Tom Groggin, I left Tim at 1.05am and planned to meet him 30 kilometres further downstream in the Hattah Lakes National Park. I left, knowing that I would meet him again in less than 3 hours and have a chance of putting my head down for a time. Within a few kilometres I was feeling drowsy. This made me uncertain of the speed I was travelling down the meandering river. I was also unsure whether I had taken the old river route, which would have added another 5 kilometres to my journey. Anyway, I kept pushing on, eating fruit and singing those familiar songs to keep me alert. Finally I established my position, and shortly afterwards arrived at our rendezvous point. Tim was nowhere to be seen. Had he gone to sleep forgetting to switch the light on, or was he lost somewhere in the forest? I was in no mood to go searching, but I had to make some attempt to locate him. I fumbled around in the dark, the light from my torch doing nothing to help me climb the steep slippery embankment. Once in the forest, I headed south to where I thought he may be, and found a dirt track that had obviously not been used recently. With no sign of Tim, I returned to my boat and carried on downstream, in the hope that I would find his camp further down.

The miles and the hours ticked by and the mystery deepened. Sunrise arrived and I hadn’t slept. My objective was to continue until I reached the small village of Coligman, 40 kilometres from our rendezvous point, where I hoped to find a telephone. I was pretty whacked by the time I arrived, and to top it off I had no money for calls or refreshments. We had agreed that if we ever became separated, we would ring my wife, Jenny, in Perth, to establish each others position. It was
5am in Perth when I rang and Jenny hadn’t heard from Tim, so I called the local police. Had Tim broken down or had an accident in the forest? I could do nothing but wait next to the phone.

I questioned every motorist stopping at the shop, and after 3 hours I met a man who had talked to Tim on the edge of the forest. At least now I could relax. Taking up the man’s invitation to look for Tim, I jumped into his people carrier and headed for the national park. He was a really friendly geezer, and within minutes he asked me if I liked grapes. After I’d said yes, he stopped the van next to some old grape vines and took off on foot across the paddock to find some. I followed reluctantly. I didn’t really want to be traipsing across a paddock when I had a record to break, but my concern didn’t prompt him to forget our goose chase. Eventually we were on the move again, and arrived at his home on the edge of the park, where he asked me if I liked water melon. I couldn’t bear to go walkabout again so I firmly said, ‘no’!

At this point we changed over to a roofless landrover and he charged through the forest. His dog sat behind, dribbling over me and the front seat, and when it felt the urge, it jumped off to follow the scent of some distant animal. Vehicle tracks intersected the park like a jigsaw puzzle and finally my guide admitted that it would be impossible to find Tim, so we headed out of the park again. I hung on, my greasy hair trailing in the wind and the dust infiltrating my strained eyes. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. I was trying to break a record and now I was being raced around like some yahoo, speeding through a forest, clipping trees and bumping over deep wheel ruts, and half expecting to be thrust into oblivion any moment.

More Sleepless Nights
We eventually left the National Park in one piece. Soon after Tim arrived. He had accidentally camped on a big billabong thinking it was the river, and hadn’t realised for some time, that it wasn’t the correct position. He’d then decided to search for me, before ringing Jenny in Perth.

I was just pleased the drama was over and I could get back on the river and paddle towards Mildura. Although I’d had a sleepless night and had lost time I was still ahead of schedule. However, I decided to push on without sleep through the following night, and arrived at Mildura ski club at 6.30 am. Channel 9 had found out from the Echuca local paper that I was going for the record, so they were interested in a story. They rang us on Tim’s mobile phone at 8am to organise a time to meet. Getting little sleep again, I took off at 9am after having a rare quick wash at a water tap next to the club house.

Tworivers

Where the Murray and the Darling Rivers meet

That night, I couldn’t reach my rendezvous point at Moorna homestead without having sleep, so I grabbed a 3 hour kip on the river bank and then continued paddling in the cool of the early morning. I arrived at Moorna in the dark, to find Tim missing again. The magnificent homestead stood peacefully overlooking the river, but I didn’t have the courage to disturb the station owners so early in the morning to find out where Tim was. I paced up and down wasting more time and praying that someone would soon rise, but eventually I could wait no longer. I started knocking on the doors, and one by one the household woke up. They were very friendly and invited me for breakfast and to my relief, informed me that Tim had camped a little upstream of the house. I gave him a call, and he realised that he had again camped on another billabong. This time when he knew we had lost each other he’d given Jenny a phone call at 4am, which she later told me had worried her considerably, as she feared that I may have drowned.

Murray3000

Chased By Channel Nine
As I portaged lock 9, 53 kilometres from Moorna, I heard a voice shouting to me through the reeds as I was about to move off. It was the lock master informing me that he had received a call from Channel 9 asking him to tell me to wait. They had just flown to Mildura from Melbourne and were about to hire a car to come out to film me. I was now in a bit of a dilemma. It meant another delay of 2 to 3 hours if I waited around.

I pulled my kayak out of the water and walked back to the beautiful grassed area of the lock grounds. I lay under the shade of a tree, convincing myself that the publicity was more important than the record. The more people that knew of my trip, the more people would buy my book. True or false it seemed convincing enough to stop me paddling and take an hours kip on the lawn. I was woken by Nick apologising for the delay. He was enthused with my adventure and wasted no time starting the interview. The cameraman taped a small camera on my kayak and I paddled a few circuits of the river. Unfortunately it wasn’t working so I had to repeat the process. More filming and another interview followed before I was free to continue my journey, with the knowledge that I had lost another two hours.

Most of the locks I would portage but a few the lock keeper would encourage me to go through them.

Battling Strong Winds
The following day, I entered South Australia with its spectacular cliffs and wider river. This indicated that I was getting closer to my goal. Unfortunately, as the river turned south I had to fight the strong southerly winds sweeping towards me. After all the delays, I couldn’t afford to lose any more time, but the strong afternoon breeze, that also blew through the night, frustrated my final push towards the ocean. Night paddling became a worry; the wind whipped up large waves, making it increasingly difficult to balance the kayak, especially in a drowsy state.

Murraysliff2

The scenery varied

I battled on against the wind knowing that the record was now at risk, but if I kept up my average pace over the next 4 days I could still break the record. Over the last 13 days I had thought of nothing but breaking the record. I’d pushed my body close to its limits and survived on little sleep, but despite all that, I had really enjoyed the paddle and learnt an amazing amount about my own abilities.

Tim’s job became slightly easier at this point, as a few more roads adjoined the river; for the time being no more worry and frustration that we might lose each other again. Tim quietly went about his own marathon, enduring the lack of sleep, cooking, shopping, working out our next rendezvous point, and spending long hours simply waiting. As a one man show he certainly had his hands full!

Our diet since leaving Perth had consisted mainly of cereal, fruit, vegetables, stew and lots of rice pudding. In fact, everyday for the past 8 months our diet had virtually been the same, although in the deserts and remote places we had no fresh food, so we relied on dried foods instead. Despite the monotonous diet, it was working well. I doubt if I could have felt any fitter considering what I was going through. I drank copious amounts of water, the odd cup of coffee and a delicious cup of milo at night. Meat was eaten about 12 times in 12 months.

By the time I reached Blanchtown, I had paddled 2200 kilometres down rapids, across lakes, through forests and past swamps and beautiful high cliffs. As I approached the Blanchtown bridge, with a huge semi trailer crossing it – the first I had seen in over 2000 kilometres, I realised that although I was paddling in my own wilderness, civilisation was not far away.

Murraycliffs

Stunning cliffs

Champagne Premature
All along the river, whenever I saw someone they would ask where I was going. I naturally replied, ‘to the ocean’, which generally fazed people out, because at the time for many of the inquiries, I was hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres away from it. Although I had a task to complete, I always tried to be polite, but every time I stopped to tell my whole story it often took 5-15 minutes. I have many fond memories of the people I met, but I will never forget the time I passed Willowbanks Marina near Murray Bridge. I’d waved to a lady who had spotted me passing her property and she had recognised me from the channel 9 Clive Robertson show. (Clive thought I was a real nut case.) Soon after, three water skiers being towed by the same boat, came speeding up behind me and peeled off in front of my kayak. Under my breath I selected a few choice words for their inconsiderate behaviour. Then to my astonishment they held up a bottle of champagne that the lady had asked them to give me, to celebrate my achievement. The lady’s identity is still a mystery to me.

Hanging On to A Thread
The wind increased over the next few days, severely reducing my speed. I hung on a thread, as the record slowly started slipping from my grasp. Sadly the wind never eased, and I finally had to accept that I wasn’t going to make it, there was no chance of making up those lost 11 hours. However, there was no question of my giving up. I wanted to get as close to the record as I could, and I still had the Tom Groggin to Goolwa record to establish. Lake Alexandrina and the weather had different ideas. As I crossed the lake, 25 – 30 knot headwinds reduced the distance I usually covered, by two -thirds and I could hardly make headway. It was too dangerous to kayak at night, and extremely risky paddling through the day. So the horrific conditions continued, and I battled on, finally finishing two days behind the record. Despite this, I was very happy with my performance under the trying conditions, and considering my lack of paddling preparation. There was always a next time!

The Final Fling
Although I did not succeed in breaking Mick Macmanus’ record from Hume Weir to Goolwa, I did, however, establish a longer distance record, which included the rapid sections before Hume Weir. Someone will have an exciting time trying to beat that in the future.

After kayaking for 16 to 20 hours a day, for nearly 21 days, with a maximum of three hours sleep each night, I imagined the finish of the trip would be something really wonderful, and maybe the media would be there. But the wind made the end grind on, and although faxes and phone calls to the media went out in all directions, not even the local paper turned up! On Friday 11th February at 12.33 South Australian time, my only well wisher was Frank Tuckwell, the manager of the Signal Point, River Murray Interpretive Centre and an official for the Inland Rivers National Marathon Register. Although Goolwa is where the records are officially finished, I still had to battle 12 kilometres against gale force winds, to achieve my ultimate goal.

Goolwa

I reach the end – well not quite I have to paddle to the ocean which is a few more kilometres

So finally I reached the mouth of the Murray river – and what a spectacular sight! Furious waves were breaking round the entrance for several hundred metres out to sea. I had really arrived!

After my 2500 kilometres voyage had sunk in, the kayak went straight on the roof rack, leaving me with 15 kilometres to run back to Goolwa. I had walked 900 kilometres from sea level to the highest mountain and kayaked from near the highest mountain to sea level.

Now, all I had to do, was to cycle 1000 kilometres along the ocean road to Melbourne, starting the following day. Then I would board the ferry to Tasmania. There, I planned to walk and cycle around Tassie, before returning to Melbourne for a final cycle back to Perth, where my trip started.

I finally completed the 24,000 kilometres trip under my own steam in exactly 12 months. The 21 days on the river Murray was only a small part of what I endured in that time. But I would certainly do it again.

 

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