Kayaking the Murray River: Source to the sea

By Heidi Hutton December 2, 2011
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A husband and wife team paddled the length of the Murray River, from the source to the sea.

Heidi and Peter Hutton paddled from the source of the Murray River to its mouth at the sea…

THE FUTURE OF THE Murray River is uncertain after sustained drought and the raging water rights debate between pundits for agriculture, lifestyle and natural ecosystems. Amidst the controversy the heavens opens up, dumping biblical proportions of sweet rain into the Murray-Darling catchment. The river ignores the debate and transforms itself into a majestic flowing postcard. There is water and it is everywhere and with it comes new life.

We had contemplated kayaking the Murray River from source to sea for at least 10 years. But when a window of opportunity opens, we seize on it and make our plans. It has taken eight months to put ideas into action, watching all the while watching widespread flooding throughout the Murray-Darling catchment bring the river out of years of drought.

From source to sea, the Murray River snakes about 2500km through five distinct sections: the mountains; steep banks and river gums; the mallee and outback; limestone cliffs; and the plains, lake and mouth.

The mountains – Khancoban to Albury

We launch at Bringenbrong bridge near Khancoban at the base of the snowy mountains. Day 1 is a series of emotional ups and downs. An immediate feeling of isolation washes over us as our support crew wave and fade into the distance. We are not sure what to expect on the swollen river. It is narrow in parts with many bends, swift current and the potential for strainers from the swath of recently fallen red gums.

The late afternoon is filled with the sight and sounds of white cockatoos and corellas. It is a terrific feeling to be part of this wonderful landscape; trees and logs stacked up high against each other at over 2m higher than current river levels. The river is almost completely dammed by trees in places.

The isolation along Lake Hume is sublime. No-one can reach us by road and there are no houses in sight. Nudie swims are becoming the norm. Below the Hume weir near Albury is the first of the blue kilometre markers which escort us downstream to the mouth. Only 2224km to go.

Our paddle strokes set a primeval rhythm and we feel the squeeze of the Kevlar hull through liquid. The peaceful swish combines with our exertion to induce a meditative state. Time and space distort and the kilometres slip away. We are free to contemplate; we are in the present, the past, the future; we sing; we live…

Steep banks and river gums along the Murray River – Albury to Swan Hill

The mountains fade and billabongs are a reminder of the recent floods. They are beautiful but provide breeding grounds for mozzies and at every sunset the air hums with their bloodsucking ways. The radio preaches to us about Ross River virus and encephalitis and we pray that our dodgy tent zip lasts.

We enter the low-lying and heavily treed land of the enchanted Barmah State Forest. It is a living, breathing, pulsing thing. We spend an eerie night surrounded by the mysterious noises of the bush.

Centipedes and wonderfully ornate beetles clamour over our tent. Fish flop and smack their lips. There is frequent stomping and movement in the bush, snorting and growling as vegetation crashes. Our minds race to picture the animals responsible. We chuckle nervously inside our tent and draw our pocketknife just in case. The next day reveals a defiant stallion and his mares circling our camp with snorts and stomps to tell us to move on. We see wild pig tracks and kangaroo dung within 20 metres of our tent.

The water has broken the banks and flows into and out of the Barmah lake system. As a result we paddle four hours longer than anticipated in search of solid land. As the sun dips over the horizon we find a rest stop and with much relief avoid an uncomfortable night’s sleep in the kayak. The high nutrient load from the recent floods produces duckweed in the lakes and it washes out thick and choking. It accompanies us for hundreds of kilometres.

Fish are plentiful and do their best to jump into the kayak, but they are not jumping onto fishermen’s lines because there is plenty of other food on offer. Fishermen become sightseers. But yabbies are plentiful and there for the taking. It is a tricky business standing in mud while unloading and loading the boat with toe-biting yabbies on the war path.

The mallee and outback – Swan Hill to Renmark

We find ourselves on an expansive river wandering across its own floodplain, anything from 5km to 30km wide. We pass through the main tributary but are always aware of the flanking lagoons. It would take a lifetime to explore the whole system and we meet some skippers along the way who are doing precisely that.

The magnificent birdlife has become part of our daily scene – mischievous chatter of cockatoos and corellas; kookaburras with their wake-up and goodnight calls; the elegant movements of spoonbills and herons; wood ducks with fake broken wings to protect nimble swimming chicks; darters and nesting chicks that clumsily bounce and bellyflop into the water as we pass only to emerge seconds later as expert swimmers.

Golden limestone cliffs – Renmark to Mannum

We enter South Australia and again the landscape changes. The river becomes wide and slow moving. Until this point we have rarely seen the landscape beyond the river but now we stare up in awe at the imposing limestone cliffs that flank our way. The cliffs are magnificent but are accompanied by mind-numbing straights where the next bend can only be seen as a speck on the horizon.

After one gorgeous sunny day on the river, with mist on the water, fish jumping, the still and clear day reveals many holiday houses, still semi-submerged even weeks after the peak in floods.

Before the trip, we had been concerned the recent floods would make it difficult to find campsites. But there are thousands on offer and we become expert at finding suitable spots to set up.  Campsites vary from spacious, sandy beaches to bare patches of mud no bigger than a dining room table. Every piece of real estate comes with glorious water frontage.

Plains, lake and mouth of the Murray River – Mannum to Goolwa

The great Northwest bend at Morgan is behind us and we head due south with some trepidation as the great Lake Alexandrina looms. The lake is wide with a shallow bottom and flukey winds, which make for steep and unpredictable waves. We had heard stories along the way of souls lost on the lake in treacherous weather and set out with a little trepidation, just as the sun eases up over the horizon and bravely enter the cauldron.
The predicted 20km/h winds soon hit 40. It is a wild and white-knuckled ride with steep and crumbling waves that threaten to broach us. But our gear is good and we screw our courage to the sticking place.

The wind drops and we revel in our final night of the journey, camping on the serene banks of Lake Alexandrina. There is a curious feeling of deep satisfaction, mixed with a sadness for the river. We crave for nothing and we begin to feel a longing for the river even before we have left. Tomorrow we kayak to the mouth.

A surreal paddle under the bridge at Goolwa in cloudless, still conditions. A lone fisherman welcomes us to the coast. We make our way past the sea barrage and out to the mouth. We swim in the salt water and stand on the sand looking south over the breakers towards the Antarctic. The experience is deep and satisfying. We soak in our achievement over champagne and luxury accommodation after nine fantastic weeks paddling from source to sea.