It seems a long time since our last blog, back in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. And there’s no truth to the rumour that we are still there, slowly sampling our way through each and every winery!
In fact, we’ve spent the last three weeks slowly meandering along Australia’s largest river, the mighty Murray. (We’ve also had a couple of side trips along the way to check out various silo art trails, but we’ll leave that to the next blog.)
The Murray is over 2,500 kms long, rising in south-eastern New South Wales, then forming much of the state border between NSW and Victoria before arriving in South Australia and ultimately emptying into the Southern Ocean at the The Coorong, near Goolwa – where we began this journey six months ago.
The Murray is an important source of water for irrigating the many nearby vineyards, orchards and farms, and was previously a key inland transport route plied by paddle steamers from the 1880s until the mid 20th century. Many paddle steamers still feature on the Murray today, but these are largely for tourist cruises, while some are permanently moored as B&Bs.
We’ve been keen for many years to explore the Murray, and make use of the many free camps along its banks. This trip would see us stopping in South Australia’s Waikerie (just west of Renmark), before crossing into Victoria to check out Mildura, Swan Hill, and the twin border towns of Echuca (Vic) / Moama (NSW) and Cobram (Vic) / Barooga (NSW) – in all, a distance of around 700 kms.
Waikerie, South Australia
It is probably fair to say that we loved Waikerie, and could have stayed far longer than we did. Our free camp was right on the banks of the Murray, with our nearest neighbours a good 50-60 metres away. Not that there were many … probably only another five or six campers to share an expansive camping area. We felt like we were a million miles from civilisation, and yet the town of Waikerie, with its many facilities, was just three kms away. The best of both worlds!
Our next home away from home was Mildura, across the border in Victoria.
We really enjoyed Mildura, even though it was a tad busy when we first arrived, towards the end of the September school holidays. Like most towns along the Murray, the river is a hub of activity, and Mildura was no exception – with paddle steamers, houseboats, recreational fishing boats, water skiers and wake boarders, and even the odd stand-up paddle-boarders. We found a cafe where we could sit back and enjoy the passing parade (image below).
While in Mildura, we booked a cruise on the paddle steamer Melbourne, as we were keen to experience passing through one of the Murray’s famed locks – in this case, Lock 11.
The PS Melbourne was built in 1912 and, like all paddle steamers, has an almost flat bottom, allowing her to safely operate fully laden in barely more than one metre of water. Of the 250 paddle steamers built and used on the Murray, the PS Melbourne is now the only original one still cruising daily on the river that is still driven by her original steam engine.
The image below depicts one of the many remote hydrometric monitoring stations along the Murray, which records river and storage levels, calculated flow rates, rainfall, and various water-quality attributes, information which is accessible to the public.
There are numerous locks along the Murray to enhance navigation through the varied heights of the river, and sailing through Lock 11 near Mildura Weir was fascinating.
Lock 11’s concrete chamber is 61.5m long, 17.1m wide and 7.6m deep. Each of the lock’s four steel lock gates is 9.4m long, 6.9m high and weighs 18 tonnes. The lock is filled by opening the four butterfly valves that are located beyond the two upstream lock gates. Water enters the lock chamber via two tunnels and the chamber can accommodate approximately 4.5 megalitres. The lock chamber is drained by opening four butterfly valves near the downstream gates, which allows vessels to transition the approximately 3.7m difference between the upstream and downstream river heights.
Of course, on the return journey, we had to sail through the lock again. 😊
This short video below shows the turbulence and noise as the lock chamber rapidly fills with water.
We enjoyed the experience so much that we returned to Lock 11 the next day, this time to watch another paddle steamer sail through the lock.
Previous flood levels are indicated on the marker in the image below, well above the current water height (which, incidentally, is full capacity).
We had ringside seats from our campsite at Mildura, watching the many houseboats, water skiers and wake boarders pass by in front of us.
We were pretty amazed when a paddle steamer broke the evening silence when it passed by our campsite on its way up the river (and back again), lighting up the banks like London’s Christmas illuminations!
Reedy Lake (Kerang), Victoria
Not technically on the Murray, this delightful lakeside camp was near the Victorian town of Kerang, just south of the Murray and about 50kms south-east of Swan Hill. We used it as a base for a few days to explore surrounding Swan Hill and Lake Boga.
We made the mistake of dropping in to see Swan Hill on a Sunday afternoon, when very little was open in the town and few people were around. Still, it made it easier to walk around town. 😉
Just down the road from Swan Hill was Lake Boga, home to a large Catalina flying boat base during World War 2. The Lions Club of Lake Boga have restored a Catalina A24-30 and the original, secret communications bunker as a commemoration to the service personnel who served at No. 1 Flying Boat Repair Depot in the 1940s. A Flying Boat museum has been established there and is well worth a visit.
And why was a Catalina flying boat repair depot hiding out in inland Victoria, you ask? Well, just that, hiding from the Japanese following the destruction of military planes and facilities during the bombing of Darwin, Broome and other northern Australian sites during WW2. The Lake Boga site was built as a safe haven for flying boats and other amphibian craft.
416 aircraft were serviced, repaired, restored, rebuilt or overhauled at Lake Boga during WW2, including Catalina, Dornier, Sikorsky KingFisher, Sunderland, Walrus and Martin Mariner. In the five years of the base’s operation (1942 to 1947), there were more than 1,050 aircraft arrivals/departures and an estimated 800 test flights, including by both Australian and Allied forces (including USA and the Netherlands).
We were delighted to find this memorial plaque (image below) on an old mooring buoy, commemorating the Air Force personnel who served at Lake Boga. The plaque was unveiled by Group Captain Mick Lyons who, at the time of its unveiling (1978), was the Officer Commanding of RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia, where John’s father was the Senior Engineering Officer. Mick and John’s Dad were more than colleagues; they became lifelong friends.
Echuca (Vic) / Moama (NSW)
Our next base along the Murray was the New South Wales town of Moama, immediately across the river from the Victorian town of Echuca. Together, these twin towns are often locally referred to as Echuca-Moama.
We chose to break away from free camping for this four-nights stay, and splurged on a caravan park. Ooohh yes, the luxury of power and water! And what’s more, this site (image below) would have to have been the largest site we’ve ever had in a caravan park, and came with side-by-side concrete slabs for each of the truck, caravan and awning/annex, PLUS a tiled area with our own chiminea fireplace, and a lockable storage shed with our own front loading washing machine. How cool is that?
The weather was still a tad chilly, but the ducks seemed to enjoy having the pool to themselves!
In keeping with other major towns on the Murray, Echuca is home to several famous old paddle boats, including the Emmy Lou (image below) and the Pevensey (which starred as the fictitious ‘Philadelphia’ in the All the Rivers Run television series). We caught up with some relatives there and took a cruise on the PS Pride of the Murray.
Cobram (Vic) / Barooga (NSW)
Our last stop along the Murray was in Cobram on the Victorian side of the river. We had initially headed for Quick’s Beach near the New South Wales town of Barooga, only to find that National Parks NSW had banned open fires in the region two weeks earlier. What, no campfires? As there were no such restrictions in place in Victoria, we headed back over the river to a sandy riverside camp by the name of Big Tom’s Beach.
And we continued to pinch ourselves … how lucky are we in Australia to have free campsites along the mighty Murray River? And within cooee of towns with modern facilities and conveniences?
Jen took the opportunity to dig out an old cross-stitch that she first started more than 20 years ago … an advent calendar that, sadly, probably won’t be finished in time for this Christmas (again)!
As mentioned earlier, we also took several side trips away from the Murray to explore various silo art trails. These will be detailed in the next blog.