|The Murray River
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.
The Team. Frank, me, Carl and Gezza
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.
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.
Relief And The Long Haul Ahead
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Chased By Channel Nine
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 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.
Hanging On to A Thread
The Final Fling
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.
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.