The Murray River is one of the most iconic rivers in Australia. It is steeped in history for both Indigenous Australians and European settlers alike and has been a source of transport, food and enjoyment for centuries. So to be able to enjoy sections of this river by paddling it in canoes is a privilege and a pleasure. To be paid to do it is just plain ridiculous.
This of course means that I am not doing it at my own leisure. No. It means that I am accompanying another group of high school students to ensure that death and disaster do not follow closely behind, as a portion of the community still think stalks Australia’s youth at every turn.
Previously I have given some insight into what it’s like to accompany teenagers on a hike so it is only appropriate that I now detail the ins and outs of being trapped in a boat with them for three days.
Students always seem quite calm and relaxed about canoe trips. The realisation that they don’t have to carry everything on their back probably streamlines this thought process somewhat. Personally, I will admit that I take way more equipment than is necessary based solely on the fact that I have a massive boat to help me carry it. Considering my pasty complexion, it’s mostly sunscreen.
The trip set out from Cobram in Victoria and was set to travel to Morgans Mill, a makeshift boat ramp in the middle of no-where. Travel on the Murray is effected by three elements; the weather, the water flow and the ability to paddle a boat effectively. To be honest the first two should have little impact barring a headwind gale or lightning storm (the idea of being fried on the water by lightning strike has very little appeal to me) but if you can’t properly paddle your boat then it’s slow going. That’s easily said for me, a trained “professional”, the person who is supposed to teach them how it’s done. But the thing with teenagers in canoes is that it’s like picking out an outfit to wear- some combinations just don’t match. While this particular group was good, it’s amazing how more efficient they become when you change partners around.
Some things don’t change between a hike and a paddle trip though. If I had a dollar for every time I had to tell them to put either their shoes or hat on, I would be living the high life on one of those three story houseboats you see parked on the river’s edge. The hat thing is straight forward but the shoes are a bit tougher. There is so much glass at some of these well used campsites that shoes are mandatory (I watched a student once step out of his boat and into the mud one day. He sliced a cut in his foot so big he could have smuggled drugs from Colombia in it). It seems to be pretty instinctive for people to not want to wear footwear on outdoor trips, no matter the risk, like some kind of glitch in the Matrix.
The section of the river between Cobram and Barmah Lakes is some of the most beautiful. Sandy beaches dot the banks providing a plethora of camping options. The thing to remember is that the river is actually the border between Victoria and New South Wales and camping is generally limited to the Victorian side. The New South Wales side is predominately privately owned, something you are reminded of by the mass amounts of homemade signs declaring “Private property, piss off” (not the actual wording but I’m confident that is what is implied).
This area is known for the abundance of koala’s. Spotting them in branches overhanging the water is a great past time but it is at night where they truly come into their own. Each campsite we chose, we shared with the little fuzz balls. You hear them before you see them as they grunt and groan in the trees (think of your grandpa snoring on the couch at Christmas. Amplify it, make it sound angry and you have a rough idea of what a koala sounds like. It sounds as though they are shagging in the trees above your head). They do the majority of their movements at night. The first night, one clambered down its tree, stared at us with discontent as it waddled past and quickly climbed a new tree away from its noisy new neighbours. The next night, while we slept, one climbed the tree some of the boys used to tie down their bivouac- no one noticed until we had completely packed up. The tree was so short we could have jumped up and hi-fived him. Along the section we travelled is a piece of land called Ulupna Island. The island is accessible by vehicle but has a community of koalas trapped there. To see so many in the wild is a beautiful thing, something you don’t really appreciate until the moment passes.
The only thing we saw more of than koalas was Australian flags. They were strung up on caravans, trees, poles and anything else that you could tie one too (at one point the ratio of koala sightings to Australian flag sightings was 1:1). The amount of flags must have been a reminder we were still in Australia, just in case we forgot as we looked over a scene of koalas, kookaburras, retirees and gum trees. Could be mistaken for anywhere I suppose.
On other trips, we have come across some other, less than ideal, river users. Snakes will freely cross the river without much hesitation, happy to cruise across to the far bank. I have had instances where students have tried to chase them in a moment of adolescent madness; the thought processes momentarily failing as they flail a paddle around and think that they are invincible. It is amazing how loud you can yell across the water when a teenage boy thinks that he has watched enough Bear Grills episodes to safely try and play games with venomous reptiles. The truth is that snakes are lazy, the water is cold and they will happily jump onto the nearest obstacle to have a break, including boats.
The beauty of this section is the ability to stop off in the town of Tocumwal along the way. A quick coffee never hurt anyone. Or as our students learned, a forgotten packet of pasta can be quickly rectified.
What amazed me was the amount of grey nomads a.k.a. retirees, who littered the banks along our 50 km journey; happily perched on sandbanks and river bends, campervan set up, fire going and a fishing line in the water. At one point we cruised passed a group relaxing around their fire. In front of them was a portable shower, one of those camping store ones that you use the sun to heat up the water. Just as all 6 of our boats was passing, a very naked, very middle aged man opened up the shower curtain. It was one of those awkward, overly long moments where he realised there was a bunch of school kids looking at him and we realised that accidentally naked people are hilarious. He dove back into the shower like a soldier diving out of the way of a live hand grenade. The lesson here being never assume you’re alone in the bush.
What I noticed was that although the river is one of my favourite places, you are never far away from civilisation. It’s remote but it’s not. That is what makes it perfect for a trip with a school group. There is always a road, four wheel drive track or evidence of previous use, whether that was a broken bottle, burned deck chair (plenty of them) or a fire scar.
I have never done a private canoe trip down the Murray River. It’s up there as one of my biggest regrets along with buying the Alanis Morisette album “Jagged Little Pill” in grade five (mainly because there was bad language on it) and reversing my mate’s car into a tree. All are things I am not proud of. But if I have to get paid to come here with a group instead, there is no shame in that at all. There is something relaxing about The Murray River. You don’t have to canoe it, even just setting up a tent and enjoying it is reward for effort.
Wayward Tip: Remember to take your rubbish home with you. It is the one thing that ruins this place. Don’t be selfish.