Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 69. Voyage to the Interior.

Camping beside the Murray.

"Time`s up ! It`s my turn to row!" The winter wind is cool, especially for my wife Heather sitting idly in the stern of our 14' dory Edith. We have had this kind of discussion many times over the past few years: from the west coast of Canada, south along the long coastline that reaches down to Mexico, and west through the many islands that sprinkle the South Pacific across to Australia. Edith is the dinghy to our wooden gaff rig schooner Shiriri and has provided us with many intimate and interesting experiences of the lands we have visited over the last couple of years. Now, here we are rowing down the Murray River in central Australia, several day`s drive from our yacht where we left her in the care of cruising friends near Brisbane on the east coast.

Edith is a pleasure to row at any time with her long narrow canoe shaped underbody and now we appreciate her wide flared sides as well, that allow us to carry ourselves and a full cargo of camping equipment. Our boating experience was begun in little rowing and sail boats like this and as we moved up to larger and more complex boats the early skills of small boat handling have continued to be the most valuable. We had another dory in the past and camped among our own Gulf Islands, so when we finally reached the land mass of Australia and still had westering deep in our psyches it was natural for us to switch from charts of the ocean to maps of Australia. "Look!" we had said to Australia friends, "Inland, just beyond the Great Dividing Range are the headwaters of rivers that we could follow west across the interior plains." They laughed." Not enough water most of the year. Dangerous!" "Hmmm," we thought. "Now that sounds interesting!"

Great ideas do become modified as more information is collected and digested and we began to understand that our Australian friends were right in many respects. Through much of the year the landscape of the dry interior is blistering hot and rivers are low or retreat into damp bits between the sand bars; that is, when they are not flooding from sudden heavy rains. The fascinating flora and fauna as seen in tourist photos also include a lot of other specimens that match the conditions and are anything but gentle. It really would not be wise to wander off into the bush without a lot of careful forethought.

Our daughter Anne, who had sailed across the Pacific with us, had found a teaching job in an inland town called Mildura which just happened to be on the Murray river: the biggest one in Australia. We had been loaned a van so we decided to drive across country to visit her during the mid winter break and together drive north to the Red Center to see the country around Alice Springs. Ah, we thought, remembering our river dream, we could carry Edith on the van, and after the interior trip, Anne could drop us off some way up the Murray and we could row and camp our way back down river to Mildura through a particularly interesting section that has park land on either side.

So here we are on a wintery afternoon being most solicitous that whoever is at the oars should not exhaust themselves for one more minute than permitted. We decide to camp early on a sand bar the first day, so we pull Edith well up and after setting up camp, prop her up on her side as a wind break against the cool west wind. I soon have a eucalyptus fire started as Heather cooks supper on the single burner propane camp stove. It rained today so everything is a little damp and dreary. The wind drops with the soft grey evening light and we have a strange sense of dislocation as a large shrieking flock of cockatoos settles down for the night in a tree on the next bend of the river: it feels so like tropical rivers we have floated down and yet is so cool and grey. Already, so soon on our solitary little journey into the interior we are feeling the strangeness of this landscape.

A mechanical sound buzzes on and off during the night and in the morning we see a pumping station on the far bank. The Murray River has served mankind in many ways for thousands of years and nowadays it is also a source of irrigation water for agriculture along the banks. We are about to enter the park reserves and will leave these pumps behind for a while but not their effects: the salts flushed out of the soil and back into the river will keep us drinking bottled water for the duration of our trip.

The morning sun filters through the tall red gum trees on the bank behind us, a flock of parrots fly cheerfully by and swallows flit back and forth across the river. The cool west wind is back, so we shake the dew off the tent and are soon rowing down the meandering river. Those curves require that the helmsman in the stern must act as a human compass, continually correcting the changing course with a pointing hand. The person at the oars corrects with a stronger pull on one oar, glances over the stern and finds a mark on the bank behind to steer by until the next course correction. There is plenty of time though, for us to observe this unique landscape. The winding river bends and the ancient eucalypt riverside forest have a hypnotic sameness, but also a subtle beauty. The ancient grey-green trees seem to be quietly chanting a song to themselves and at first, to be indifferent to our presence. A bird calls, "Bo Brady, Bo Brady" from the bank. A red fox trots along under the trees. We stop on a sandbar for lunch, and run around for a while to warm up and get the kinks out. Some of the red gums are enormous but the piles of sticks and fallen trees and the heavy branch that drops just behind us discourages any desire to explore away from the river bank. The river has been dammed for irrigation control in several places and this has meant there are few seasonal floods to spread over the banks and renew the riverside environment as they did in the past.

The wind is still heading us. If this keeps up we will be doubly glad that we left the now useless mast and sail in the van as being just too much extra to burden Edith with. Heather keeps well bundled up in the stern and we regularly remind ourselves how lucky we are to be on the river at this time of year instead of when it is boiling hot. "Yes," I say, "And it is not really cold, we have just been used to tropical temperatures for a couple of years". "Brrr, its still cold!" replies the wrapped figure in the stern. There is lots of interesting bird life on the river though: some big mallard-like ducks, cranes in flocks riding the wind, a red billed black swan and familiar ospreys fishing up and down the river. Serried ranks of massive trees line the banks as we pass. By day`s end we estimate we have traveled about twenty-four kilometers and are now deep into the Park.

Once again we repeat our camping routine well away from the fringe of the forest: that falling branch during our lunch stop felt suspiciously like it was "accidently done on purpose"and we joke about a sense of being observed. Sheltered beside Edith we listen to the sound of silence: no distant sound of traffic, no aircraft, just the sigh of wind in treetops, the creak of branches and the gentle gurgle of the flowing river. I wake in the night to hear the scream of something being gobbled up in the darkness.

Morning arrives at last with an evocative kookaburra chorus and we start using the wood fire for cooking our porridge and morning tea. The propane single burner is misnamed: it will burn everything! In the sandy world of the river bar we use Edith as windbreak, backrest and kitchen counter. The ribs act as dish racks. We chat about our nights sleep and find we have both had the same disturbing dream: some ancient terror, a massacre on this bend of the river. This is still definitely an alien landscape to us and we feel it fending us off even as we become more in tune with its moods. Realistically, to this landscape, we are the dangerous aliens. Back on the river again.

Civilization! We walk up from the riverbank through the trees to a little store set in an orange grove, to buy drinking water and two chocolate bars. This is the community of Nangiloc and just down the road is its mirror image, Colignan. We have slipped out of the park and into the world of irrigation pumps and intensively farmed orchards and vineyards. Once this was all scrub land until enterprising people developed machinery to rip it out and built big pumping stations to irrigate large tracts of land. It all hangs in the balance now as long droughts reduce the available water and farmers work to adapt to low water use irrigation. It`s tempting to condemn the whole concept of destroying a natural ecosystem and replacing it with this industrial farming model but we are just passers by and know that if we paused to probe the system more thoroughly things would seem less clear cut. We all benefit from this agricultural model after all and so we wish them well with adapting to making less demands on the river. It is a beautiful landscape and our farmer`s hearts respond to all that green productivity. The wind eases and Heather rows five kilometers in the next hour as we follow the river north into wilder country again. The Murray is wider now and flows more smoothly, perhaps we are nearing the long section penned up by the Mildura weir.


The air is still and the clouds are black by the time we find a beautiful campsite, free of big trees, on the south side of the river. We quickly set up camp and cover our gear with a plastic tarp as it begins to rain. Soon the storm rolls away to the east and that evening after an undercooked supper over the propane burner ( We just can not get it right with this devil.) we enjoy the quiet rain washed air, flickering firelight and a star filled southern sky. We seem to have left last night`s sense of weirdness back in the park reserve. Just perfect! It is this image of camping in the outback that we share as an ideal with all the peoples of Australia, even those who never stir beyond their city gates and bathing beaches. We all know that this is the original and essential life of all human kind. Billy tea and damper cooked over the coals are the final touch. We have a dreamless sleep interrupted slightly by a kangaroo doing speed trials behind our tent.

As we prepare to leave the next morning we hear a steam whistle and the chuf- chuffing of a steam engine. A train, we think and scan the river bank downstream for train tracks. Finally, around the bend, comes a paddlewheel steamboat liberally sprinkled with men in blue coveralls. They pause opposite us and one yells "Is there a good depth of water further upstream?" I spread my arms wide to indicate four feet or so and they continue puffing and splashing on their way. We read later that there is a flotilla of private steamboats attempting to reenact another use of the Murray when steamboats were the main form of transportation and roads and trains had as yet not been developed in the interior.

The cut-through.

Edith slides smoothly back into the river again and as we row we soon see a gap in the river bank through which rushes a large volume of water. Here is the cut-through we have been warned about: the meandering river has recently created a short cut that will soon completely cut off a big bend of the river. Fallen trees drape across the rapidly flowing water from both sides. We row over to have a close look, mentally map out a way through and decide to go for it! Rapidly we zig zag through the tangle of sweepers and are soon in calm water again.

We feel a pleasant adrenaline rush. We laugh, we did n`t need to do that, we are ahead of schedule, and an upset amidst all those branches could have been deadly. We have become adrenaline junkies on our sailing trip and needed a hit! A little physical risk in life makes the world shine brighter. If only it would stop the wind as well!

That last sluice ride has dropped us into the impounded waters behind the Mildura weir at last. We miss the unfettered life of the free flowing river and smile to feel how easily it speaks to us in metaphor. "This river is your life," it says, "This is how it feels to be fettered, controlled and put to work." Our sunny morning gives way to cloud and the familiar cool wind still impedes our progress. Pull, pull, pull, as we wander around curve after curve against it. We stop for a warm lunch of noodles, and then find that at last the wind has dropped and the sun is actually trying to shine. The adrenaline effect was just delayed after all! A long stretch of river is filled with fishing cormorants and as we pass the red cliffs of Red Cliff, long flights of white pelicans patrol the upper air. We had planned to stop for the night at a sand bar near the Lindeman winery but on arrival find it to be a dusty dreary place, obviously near a road. We have absorbed some of the river`s wildness ourselves and instinctively distrust this human place, so we row on and find a camping spot up on a low bank in the Gol Gol state forest. We scrape down to the clay for our fire hearth and Heather uses a stump for a kitchen. The stump explains why this is a young and vigorous forest: it had been logged off several years before. She is bitten twice by big, inch long bull ants and we get in our tent very carefully to avoid bringing any to bed with us. Later that night we hear "Thump, thump,... snurt?" A kangaroo has stumbled across our camp and is expressing... what? Surprise, anger, passion? I stick my head out and say " Get lost!" Thump, thump, thump into the distance. We hope that Skippy the bush kangaroo does n`t have a big brother.

Night encounter.

There were no return visits overnight and we are off again early in the morning. We had planned to camp one last time before we reached Mildura but after a stop at a winery where we found it only opened to booked tour groups ( no one expects stray scruffy tourists wandering up from the river at this time of year), we push on past possible camping spots on the river banks that are too beaten up and easy of access to cars and partying people. " Press on," we say. "Press on!" By late afternoon we pass under the Mildura bridge, pull into a waterside park and phone Anne for an early pick-up. While eating our last camping supper and waiting for our daughter to come home and get our message, we observe the passing scene in the gathering dusk. Just down the way a man is obviously selling drugs to young folk so they can party their Friday night away. We remember our own adrenaline high as we sluiced down the cut-through and partially understand their desire for an elevated mood. Like the river itself, they are feeling confined by this town but unlike the river they can choose an artificial, temporary escape. We think we will stick to an exciting reality though: it may be a bitter pill to swallow at times, but it does you good, leaves great memories and lasts forever.

Endless cold winds, repetitive scenery, biting insects, danger! What kind of a holiday is that?

For us of course, it really was n`t so much a holiday of escape in the usual sense as it was about getting close to the deeper reality of life. This human need underlies the popularity of adventure tourism and in our case there were parallel journeys into the interior of a continent on a flowing river and in our own personal lives. The story of Edith the little rowboat meandering down an Australian river and the perspective it`s occupants gain along the way lies at the heart of what we all seek in life but often end up buying into the easier consumer version instead.
On our way across the Pacific we had stopped at the Polynesian island of Raiatea near Tahiti. It was Canada Day, we had dressed ship with all our signal flags, and I was available at dockside to welcome anyone aboard. Three retired American men off a nearby cruise ship came by to admire our big classic schooner. They were so interested in what I had created that I invited them below so they could see how the whole boat really worked as an integrated system. As they left, one said wistfully, " This is the first Real thing we have seen on this whole cruise." They had bought a fantasy luxury cruise but belatedly recognized that they were missing something essential in the process. Unfortunately it was something that money could not buy: it was the struggle of the voyage itself that gave our life meaning.

"People say that what we`re all seeking is a meaning for life....I think that what we`re really seeking is an experience of being alive ,so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we can actually feel the rapture of being alive."
Joseph Campbell.

"Drugs are vehicles for people who have forgotten how to walk.

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