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Mid March 2022

Balranald to the Murray

The Shadow of Birds


 I drive down to Deniliquin via Leeton to see a friend’s exhibition. At Deni I meet with the Executive officer of the art board for that area, Southwest Arts. Kerry-Anne Jones who has very kindly agreed to paddle the last leg of the Murrumbidgee with me and then take me back to my car in Balranald. I am hoping to have a zoom call about another project so check in to a local Caravan Park. In the morning I get up at dawn and drive to Balranald, to a very nice Caravan Park right on the river. They agree to let me leave my car there for the four days. I pack and am on the water at noon. The first marker is Balranald Weir which I am told is 12 km downstream. It is a beautiful day and the river in carpeted with blossoms (acacia -?), bark and leaves.  They swirl and twirl and move slowly along with the current. The whole way to the Murray there are thousands of white Egrets, White Faced Herons, White-necked Herons, Nankeen Night Herons, and various species of cormorants that fly off as I approach. Or perhaps there is only twenty that stay ahead of me the whole way, because they are reluctant to fly back past me.

The weir seems a long way and takes me four hours of paddling, by which I calculate that I am only travelling at 3km an hour. I land at a bad place to portage around the buoy barricades and have to struggle through thick mud to get out of the water and up the bank. Fortunately, the wheels Peita gave me for Christmas come into their own and it is easy to transport the canoe to below the weir and I’m on the river again by 5pm. I start looking for camp at 6pm and find one. It is also up a muddy bank, albeit easier, but once there is a nice camp.

I slept comfortably but not much and am awake from 5am. It does not grow light until 7. The kookaburras are set to go off at 5.30am. On the previous days speed, I calculate that I need to paddle from 8am to 6pm to make 30km, and that I have to do this for two days, in order to have only 10km Saturday morning before I meet Kerry Anne.

There are some gunshots just on dark, which always put me on edge, and they start again at dawn the next day. I hear shotgun blasts every 15 minutes or so. Because I am not travelling far on the river as it twists and turns, I can hear them for a couple of hours.

I dig in to make the distance, but it is still a joy to be on the river. I think about how what I’m writing should not be a prosaic account, but give a sense of what it is like to be on the river, what the environment is, what it allows me to think. The project is to reach a deep understanding of the river, it’s nature and history, and being on its water is the perfect way to research this.

There are so many birds. I see Rainbow Bee-eaters in a couple of spots, Azure Kingfishers, Welcome Swallows, three swans and some pelicans. There are Whistling Kites and other raptors I can’t identify. There are also a myriad of small green or brown birds that fly too fast or are too far away to identify. Near a creek entry on one corner there are birds of many species, and there is huge commotion as I pull into view, and five pelicans struggle into the air. One swan is all on their own and calls forlornly as they swim ahead of me. There are many kingfishers.

More than the birds I see are the shadows that fall on me as they fly overhead.

Again, at many points along the bank there are fishing sheds of varied sophistication, with many looking like they were built in the 50s and had not been visited in many years. I don’t see as many poison drums and only one fridge, but there is an assortment of other rubbish making its way to the ocean.

I was told that a local who paddled it recently had to portage three times and though often the fallen limbs reach most of the way across the river I didn’t come to any impasse. Just on leaving Balranald, I see a man sitting on the bank and we exchange pleasantries, but I don’t see anyone else until a tinny running fast comes around a corner. Not far along I find a beach where they had obviously stopped, and have left a Melbourne Bitter can.

I see two young grey unconcerned kangaroos who start playfighting and then one goat, and a small mob. The closer I get to the Murray the more goats I see.

I try to calculate where I am by my presumed speed and the few named properties on the banks. Near some, massive clusters of pumps pull water noisily from the river.

My second camp is on a small patch of sand, after I stop to check out three options. Again I get up at dawn and am on the river by 8am, thinking I have to push another 30km. The river sides change and become less vegetated, with River Cooba and Black Box gums. On the low bends, where high water reaches, there are thickly growing young redgums. The banks are steeper and have no vegetation, but there are clumps of medusa like roots under the larger trees. Often the roots grow straight out, and then take a 90 degree turn and grow down into the bank again.

I stop at noon for lunch, and then get back on the river. In half an hour I see a guy in a small boat and we chat about fishing. I asked which way he had come, and said I had been expecting chokes that I would have to portage around, but had seen none. He said that I was only 600m from the bend so I would not meet any now. I did not understand what he meant, thinking perhaps that I had almost arrived at the point where the river starts heading roughly south after heading roughly north-west and that it might clear from there.

But shortly, what he had meant became clear. I reached the Murray River. A day early. The wider river passed at right angles headed for South Australia. My gopro battery had died, and I quickly pulled over and sat against the bank trying to recharge it from my solar battery. I pulled out my phone and took some photos. Then I paddled out in the bigger stream, and across to a beach where the fisherman I had met was camped. I landed and charged the gopro more, and text Peita and Kerry-Anne to tell them I had fucked up. The fisherman returned and came over and offered me a beer and I explained what had happened. His name was Nick and he knew the area well and explained what I could get in Boundary Bend. It was 12km further downstream. I arrived there at 5.30 and booked into the Caravan Park and spoke to Kerry Anne. She agreed to come and get me in the morning and return me to my car, but we would not get a chance to paddle together.

Later, I look at Google maps, and see why I made a mistake. It is 18km to the Weir, so I was travelling faster than I thought, over 4km an hour. The river was running faster that I had been given to believe, and I did not have to stop to portage, except one quick one where I cut off an anabranch. The 90 km (approx.) took me 21 hours of paddle time.

The Murray at Boundary Bend

Dr Greg Pritchard

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