Tracing the story of a nation along southern Australia's winding Murray River

More a meander than a mighty waterway, the Murray — Australia’s longest river — is home to monumental stories that have shaped a vast continent.

Australia’s longest river cuts a slow course from the remote Snowy Mountains of New South Wales through the Outback to the Southern Ocean.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove
By David Whitley
photographs by Chris Van Hove
Published 10 Jun 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 10 Jun 2021, 11:01 BST

“The less you paddle, the more you enjoy,” the kayaking guide calls out from across the water.

“Just stay in the middle of the river and let the current take you.”

There’s a cost to not following this simple advice: I find myself drifting towards the riverbank, getting tangled in the snagging branches of overhanging willow trees and capsizing while trying to battle free. The kayak overturns. The camera in my shirt pocket takes a fatal dunking. The flailing struggle to get back on board is considerably complicated by duplicitous currents and teeth-chattering water temperatures that bear no resemblance to the warm spring day outside the murky soup that is the Murray River.

This unsolicited swim pierces the serenity somewhat. Until that point, the drift downstream towards the centre of Albury had been a magical slice of Australiana: kangaroos standing to attention on the riverbanks; a platypus coming up for air after scurrying along the riverbed in search of tasty yabbies (small freshwater crayfish); and tiny turtles sliding off logs for a dip. Australians call their country’s longest river ‘the mighty Murray’, although in truth its 1,570-mile course deals in meek, apologetic meandering and stoic survival rather than ferocity and grandeur.

The source of the Murray lies high in the Australian Alps, in a wilderness area that’s nigh on impossible to access without the assistance of a helicopter. The closest road to it is the Alpine Way, a narrow, twisting, rockfall-prone route laced through the mountains that eventually settles into something flatter alongside high-country lakes and forests. Any settlements are hardy, token hamlets, until you hit the city of Albury, 179 miles downriver, the first place European settlers managed to cross the waterway. Since that initial conquest, the Murray has been thoroughly bullied, browbeaten and harangued. Just outside Albury is the Hume Dam, the first project of many in man’s crusade to harness the great river. Lake Hume, the giant reservoir created by the dam, has six times the capacity of Sydney Harbour, and water is released when needed.

The banks of the Murray River in Australia are lined with monumental stories — plucky tales of ...

The banks of the Murray River in Australia are lined with monumental stories — plucky tales of immigration, determined irrigation and visionary agriculture that today incorporates some of the nation’s finest vineyards.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove

This is why, if you fall out of a kayak on the Murray near Albury, it’s so profanity-provokingly cold. The water is released from the bottom of the dam, where lack of sunlight makes it 10C colder than it would naturally be. This doesn’t just affect idiot paddlers grappling with willow branches; it affects the native fish populations, too. And the temperature drop is just the start of the dam’s environmental impact. Irrigation demand requires higher flows in summer — the reverse of the natural state of affairs, where winter and spring floods play a critical part in the surrounding landscape.

Along the length of the Murray, which is punctuated by several dams, the story is similar. A push and pull of agricultural irrigation and natural vegetation sees lakes and billabongs dried out, trees growing where they ought not to and environmental protection measures in the form of elaborate systems of culverts and regulators trying to repair the damage. Even a cursory exploration of the Murray quickly reveals that a journey along this waterway is as much about its natural landscape as it is about the people who have shaped the river, and along with it, Australia itself.

Murray migration

One jolting, often-forgotten human tale is set in the shadow of the Hume Dam. “Between 1947 and 1971, over 300,000 people passed through Bonegilla,” says Diana Johnston, who runs tours of the Bonegilla Migrant Experience, on the site of what was once the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre. Australia’s largest and longest-operating migrant reception centre in the post-war era, it comprised 24 blocks and had its own churches, bank and sports fields; today, just one block remains.

It was here that migrants underwent health checks, learned English, were taught the ‘Australian way of life’ and awaited employment that only rarely matched their skill set. “One in 20 Australians today has a family link to someone who stayed in the camp,” Diana adds.

A stretch of Lake Hume, the reservoir created by the Hume Dam.

A stretch of Lake Hume, the reservoir created by the Hume Dam.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove

The centre was part of a ‘populate or perish’ scheme that changed the make-up of the Australian population after the Second World War. Migrants from all over Europe were lured Down Under with promises of Bondi Beach and Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. Then, on arrival at the Port of Melbourne, they would be shunted onto a seven-hour train journey to the middle of nowhere and, once at Bonegilla, would disembark to be met by tanks and military personnel. Given that some had only recently left refugee camps, this must have been an utterly terrifying bait-and-switch.

Initially, migrants who were deemed to ‘look’ Australian were preferred. The first influx was from the Baltic States, then the English and Dutch, who were assigned huts with better facilities. Soon enough, though, it was a free-for-all.

Today, the displays at the Bonegilla Migrant Experience feature tales from the people who went on to be a part of the Greek, Italian and Yugoslav communities in Australia’s major cities. Bonegilla is brimming with stories, and life in this bizarre half-way house is made vivid through a cascade of written anecdotes, diary entries and photographs. A Slovenian tells of being terrified of possums and snakes. A German chap moans about the repetitive diet (many swore they’d never eat lamb again after being subjected to so much boiled mutton).  A Dutchman speaks of how easily his children fitted in. “The kids are speaking English. They pick it up so easily, unlike us,” he says. “At 40, we just can’t get the hang of it.”

Bonegilla — pronounced by Aussies as ‘Bone-gilla’ and by the newcomers as ‘Bon-e-gilla’ — was chosen partly because it was already the site of an army camp and partly because of the Murray River’s political function. For most of its length, the Murray acts as the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria. Before federation occurred in 1901, they were two separate, self-governing colonies, with surprisingly divergent laws, systems and, crucially, rail gauges.

“An exploration of the Murray reveals that a journey along this waterway is as much about its natural landscape as it is about the people who have shaped the river, and along with it, Australia itself.”

by David Whitley

The mismatched railway tracks were a hangover long after federation, and basing migrants at the state border meant it was easier to send them onwards — north or south — as the demand for labour required.

Before railways, however, there were the riverboats. Over 1,000 miles from the mouth of the Murray, and a two-and- a-half-hour drive from Albury through modern wine country, lies Echuca. From the river, the town looks like a set from a period drama. The huge wooden wharf is spread over several levels, designed to allow paddle steamers to be loaded however high the water levels. There are still plenty of those paddle steamers moored outside, although none have been built for over a century. The PS Alexander Arbuthnot, the last to be constructed, was originally designed as a logging barge in 1916. The vessel’s eventful life has included sinking; being raised, restored and put on display at a local theme park; and being put back into action on the Murray for tourist cruises.

It’s not alone. Several dolled-up old war horses putter and chug along this handsome stretch of the river. For the engineer down below, heaving logs into the boiler, this is hot, sweaty work. But for those on deck, it’s a delightful opportunity to take in the sleek, creamy trunks of the area’s ubiquitous river red gum trees — the surrounding Barmah-Millewa Forest forms the world’s largest river red gum forest. Among the most iconic of Australia’s eucalypts, the trees can stand in water for months on end, stretching their limbs high above the surface.

Listen beyond the clumping engine noise, and there’s a cacophony of birdsong. Without binoculars, an amateur twitcher on board is reduced to speculative whimsy. One bird sounds as if it’s hiccupping, another like a DJ scratching on the turntable; a third has a very wet whistle, and one is seemingly blowing bubbles underwater.

The Port of Echuca Discovery Centre has an outdoor museum and visitor centre.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Echuca wasn’t always such a gentle idyll. Back in the riverboat days of the mid- to late 19th century, it was all illegal drinking dens, fruity language on the wharf and whirring sawmills. Dot Hammond, president of the Echuca Historical Society, says its location led to Echuca becoming Australia’s biggest inland port. “Echuca is the closest settlement to Melbourne along the Murray River, and at the time it had the only river-crossing punts. After 1864, when rail came from Melbourne to Echuca, a line ran directly to the wharf,” she explains. “The paddle steamers would often unload goods directly onto the train at the wharf for the journey to the markets at Bendigo or Melbourne.”

Echuca became the hub for not just the Murray, but the entire Murray-Darling Basin, the vast system of rivers and surrounding pastoral lands that covers around one-seventh of the Australian continent.  While there was money to be made in timber, real fortunes were created off the back of sheep. The antipodean colonies were originally a few isolated coastal settlements, reliant on funds sent from Britain. It all started to morph into something much grander when pioneers struck out inland to stake out enormous, sprawling sheep stations. The wool was sent down the rivers in barges before being exported overseas.

The scale of the Australian wool industry hits home in Yanga National Park, around three hours’ drive north west of Echuca. Here, the woolshed of the former Yanga pastoral station sits on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, which flows into the Murray. It’s a behemoth of a place, over 300ft long and built to accommodate 3,000 sheep for all-weather, continuous shearing. Slightly dog-eared displays go into the history of shearing technology and the superhuman feats of the top shearers. Scoreboards of personal bests line the gates; utmost respect is due to the bloke who got through 218 sheep in one day.

Yanga was once a powerhouse. The average shearing season — which usually fell in August and September, when the river was high and paddle steamers could easily navigate — produced 2,000 bales of wool, equivalent to at least 220,000kg. And now, with Australian wool no longer a licence to print money and Yanga left to the wind, there is nothing. The woolshed was built in 1896, and the most moving thing within it is the photograph of the team from the final shear in 2005. The wooden floors still smell of lanolin, and the wind howls around, shaking the corrugated metal walls and whipping dust over the maze of pens outside. Stand inside the woolshed, alone, and the ghosts of the industry rattle and rage around you.

The century-old PS Alexander Arbuthnot paddle steamer in Port Echuca, originally built as a logging barge.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove

A network of nations

While sheep stations harnessed the Murray to send wool around the world, an altogether more thorough exploitation began in Mildura. The two-hour drive here from the Yanga woolshed is hugely revealing. Stray more than a few miles from the river and the land is largely repetitive mallee scrub. Here, low-density, multi-stemmed, stubby eucalypts punctuate an unrelenting horizon of flat infertility under a giant, blazing blue sky. It’s where the grey kangaroos of the bush meet the big red fellas of the Outback.

Explore further, however, and you’ll soon see that this is, in fact, a country of almonds, raisins, wine grapes and stone fruit. Mildura and its surrounds provide a bounty that goes a good way to feeding Australia. In 1886, William and George Chaffey came over from California and built the first large-scale irrigation scheme along the Murray. It was the precursor to the environment-transforming agricultural capitalism that today sees allocations of river water priced and traded for surrounding irrigation.

Chateau Mildura, set up by the Chaffeys in 1888 and now owned by Lance Milne, kickstarted the region’s wine industry — today, more than half of Australia’s total grapevine area is in the Murray-Darling Basin. “I had my eye on it for a long time,” says Lance, as he wanders around the winery’s highly idiosyncratic museum, featuring grape crushes, cobweb-coated barrels and centuries-old collector’s-item wine bottles. “When it came up for auction, I thought it’d be the only chance I’d ever have.”

So now, as then, Chateau Mildura is a small, plucky winery, often selling much of its output to individual buyers in China. And now, as then, experimentation is the name of the game — you’d be hard pushed to find anything like The Troitsa’s blend of Carménère, Petit Verdot and Saperavi (“it’s from Georgia,” says Lance, proudly) anywhere else in Australia.

A goanna in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Thus far, the journey along the Murray has unveiled the stories of post-war migrants, wool barons and ambitious irrigators. But, of course, people were here long before them — and all along the Murray’s island- and lake-riddled floodplain are signs of indigenous occupation. In the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park, south of Mildura, Peter Kelly from Murray Offroad Adventures stops by a gnarled, rumpled tree. “It’s all knots and circles,” he says. “Indigenous groups would bend the branches of the trees to give directions and create boundaries [between territories]. This would have been a meeting place, where different groups would meet at the boundary.”

A complex network of nations lived along the river’s path, but the river tied them together. “Each Aboriginal group tells its own version of the Dreaming story,” say Peter of Aborginal creationist beliefs. “But all involve the cod being chased by a mighty hunter, carving through the landscape on the way.”

Elsewhere among the national park’s thirsty, mostly dried-up lakes are scar trees — trees whose bark was removed by Aboriginal Australians for various purposes, such as to create canoes or temporary shelters. This may have happened hundreds of years ago, but the marks are still visible. Human intervention in the riverlands isn’t a new thing.  And it may have been going on for a lot longer than once thought.

Seventy-two miles north east of Mildura, along an often bone-crunching dirt road into Australia’s cruel, parched interior, is Mungo National Park. It’s centred around Lake Mungo, which dried up around 14,000 years ago, and is now a vast, sand-blown crater of stunted bluebush, strutted across by hardy emus. On the eastern edge is a series of multicoloured, crescent moon-shaped sand dunes, known as the Walls of China. Every day, the shifting sands expose or cover up something new, from 20,000-year-old calcified tree stumps to the skeletons of small marsupials.

“The National Park guys come up every morning and put three sticks around finds as a marker,” says Steve Farrow of Mungo Guided Tours. “If it’s something significant, a red flag goes up and no one’s allowed to come within 150 metres.”

The Walls of China, a series of sand dunes in Mungo National Park.

Photograph by Chris Van Hove

And there have been hugely significant finds here. In 2003, the world’s largest set of Ice Age human footprints was found on the lakebed. But the discoveries of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, in 1969 and 1974 respectively, were truly revolutionary. Before these human remains were unearthed, it had been thought that Aboriginal people had only arrived in Australia around 12,000 years ago. Various dating techniques have been used, but current consensus is that the remains of Mungo Lady— the oldest example of ritual cremation discovered anywhere on earth — and Mungo Man are approximately 40,000 to 42,000 years. For perspective, this is when Neanderthals were still alive in Europe. Some more controversial studies put Mungo Man’s age at over 60,000 years old, which fits the beliefs of timescales held by many local Aboriginal people.

The top of the dunes, offering vast views of endless nothing in every direction, is a spot for quiet contemplation. I stand here in silence, just one unimportant human looking out on a place that makes him reassess what humanity is.

The Murray, bullied, harried and chivvied all along its course, finally reaches its end in South Australia. It limps and trickles through man-made barrages into the Coorong, a lagoon separated from the Southern Ocean by two long, spindly sand peninsulas.

It’s enough to tempt a battle-scarred veteran back into a kayak. Here, the paddling is lullingly, dreamily serene. Pelicans strut in formation along the Younghusband Peninsula, switching from comic relief on the ground to streamlined elegance in flight. The sun gently cooks the scene, giving the brackish water a twinkle and allowing a sense of slow-drifting, clock-discarding bliss to descend. Sandpipers, having completed their epic migratory journey from Siberia, rest and feed on the sand bars. And the Murray, all its fight gone, and its journey done, embraces its peace.


Getting there & around
Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are among the airlines offering flights from Heathrow and Manchester to logical start points Sydney and Melbourne and end point Adelaide. Average flight time: 24hrs. A fortnight’s car hire, from Sydney to Adelaide, will cost from £350. 

When to go
September to November (spring) and March to May (autumn) see pleasant temperatures averaging 12-22C, while summers can be uncomfortably hot.

How to do it
Abercrombie & Kent offers a 10-night self-drive from £5,790 per person, taking in Albury, Echuca, Mildura and the Coorong. Includes accommodation, car hire and international flights. 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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