Chances are if an Aussie doesn’t live near the coast, they cling to a river somewhere, and none is more significant to our lifestyle and economy than the mighty Murray. With headwaters in the Snowy Mountains, this great river wanders lazily along its 2506km course to its destination, the ocean at the Coorong in South Australia.
That the Murray is third only to the Amazon and Nile as the longest navigable river in the world is made possible through a series of locks built in the early nineteenth century. But everyone along its meandering path is thirsty for water, and by journey's end, it can sometimes be little more than a brackish pool.
The Murray sustains many of our largest inland cities and towns and is the lifeblood to the county’s food bowl of thousands of hectares of irrigated land. But along its course, it's a river of contrasts, and there might be no better way to see those extremes than a trip along its northern bank in the far west of New South Wales.
If the river were human, no doubt it would have laughed, then cried at the attempts of early European settlers to tame it. Aboriginal occupation had long thrived along its edges and around the many billabongs and wetlands where an abundance of wildlife sustained them even in drought.
We begin our journey in Wentworth, NSW, before motoring west along the Old Coach Road to Renmark in South Australia. Although the road distance without detours is only 163km, the river follows its own ancient course, winding and backtracking for 263km through historic outback stations, state parks and locks that govern its progress.
A MEETING OF RIVERS
Wentworth sits on the confluence of the Murray with the Darling River, which follows its own 2700km journey from Queensland. A small settlement at the crossing grew in significance when the river trade took hold in the 1850s. Early attempts at agriculture met mild success, blighted by drought, floods and rabbit plagues. Then, in the early 1900s, an irrigation project at nearby Curwall was the first in NSW and the beginning of prosperity blossomed along the river.
Nowadays, Wentworth is a thriving town of 8000 people, and as a gateway to the outback, it's a hub of tourism and a great place to visit for a few days. Tourists will find plenty of accommodation including a pretty caravan park in town and right on the river and numerous free camping sites on the river west of town.
At the junction of the rivers is a small park with an observation tower and innovative garden combining a view of its plants with the town backdrop. History abounds with the pick being the old gaol, a replica of the 1897 wharf and customs house, St John's church and Lock 10, built in 1929.
Several walking trails wind along the river to a soundtrack of hundreds of birds in the giant red gums. My favourite track leads onto Junction Island past an ancient Aboriginal canoe tree and onto a sand spit at the intersection of two mighty rivers.
These days a system of weirs and locks sustain the Murray but they were initially conceived to support the riverboat trade by offering year-round travel without the vagaries of the seasons. As is easily imagined, the three states with a claim to the water rights fought for years, but with the establishment of the River Murray Commission in 1914, plans were set in place to guarantee navigation, store water for irrigation and guarantee South Australia a minimum flow.
Original plans called for the construction of 26 weirs and locks, but with the passing of time and the collapse of the river trade, only 14 were completed between 1922 and 1939. They include weirs one to eleven between Blanchetown and Mildura, leaving Locks 15 at Euston and 26 at Tombarry as outliers in the plan, but still creating 1600km of navigable water to Euchuca and Hay on the Murrumbidgee tributary.
TAKE THE HIGH ROAD
If you are on a mission to meet a timeline, then the sensible path between Renmark and Wentworth is along the blacktop south of the river. But if you have a few days spare and like to explore the backcountry, then the Old Coach Road on the NSW side of the river offers much to experience.
The road followed the original stock route between New South Wales and Adelaide and became the mail route for many years in the days of horse-drawn coaches. For most of the way the road surface is hard-packed gravel, but it can run to deep mud in sections after rain.
SANDS OF TIME
Only a few kilometres into our journey, we arrived at the turnoff to the Perry Sandhills, formed thousands of years ago when sand was blown from the nearby riverbed to form dunes. Similar to the formations at Lake Mungo to the north, the hills have revealed fossils of giant megafauna and remnants of Aboriginal campsites.
A wander through the sand is a timely introduction to the outback, especially at sunset when the sand takes on a deep red glow.
If you have time and energy, check out the 400-year-old river gum, christened the God Tree, which has been covered to a depth of five metres up its trunk, allowing you to walk through its canopy.
ANCIENT RIVER COURSE
It’s not far to a bridge over the Great Darling Anabranch which was the original course of the Darling until 100,000 years ago. It now only flows along its 480km course in flood, but the lower section also receives backwater flows where it joins the Murray. There are great places to camp along either bank and there’s easy access for fishing under the stately River Red Gums.
CAMPING ON THE RIVER
Road names vary according to different maps, but the loop to the South of Lake Victoria continues as either Old Wentworth Road or Rufus River Road when it branches off Renmark Road.
If you are looking for a place to camp it’s good to remember that remote property owners value their privacy, so they don't welcome strangers turning up or camping unannounced on their land. Tempting as it might be, if the sign says “no access” or “private”, you need to respect that or risk being hunted off with vigour.
Various open tracks lead to the river and suitable campsites, but the pick of the bush camps is just near the approach to Lake Victoria where signs point to Lock 7 and a superb campsite at the meeting of the Murray and Rufus Rivers.
Arriving midweek, we scored a spot right on the bank at the junction, and for a few days, we were the only ones there. A couple of families who had travelled out from Wentworth turned up on the weekend, but dozens of campsites are spread through the bush.
South Australia Water staffs the weir and lock in an arrangement that dates back nearly 100 years to when that state built the original nine locks and weirs. All of those facilities have two lock keepers who monitor the flow of water along the river in a complicated sharing arrangement overseen by the Commonwealth. As well as directing water downstream to South Australian agriculture, the staff at Lock 9 also ensure that Lake Victoria has sufficient storage for Adelaide drinking water through a gravity-fed pipeline to the lake.
Recreational boaters have free passage seven days a week by phoning the lock or sounding a horn for attention. Because of the COVID-19 border closures, passage into South Australia at Lock 8 was restricted to bona fide travel at time of writing.
Nowadays, the Rufus River crossing at Lake Victoria is a regulated flow under a concrete causeway, but in 1841 it was a deep ford that was difficult to cross with a mob of sheep. Following several skirmishes with travelling stockmen and local Aboriginals in which both drovers and tribesman were killed, a party was sent from Adelaide to escort a mob of cattle through the area. On August 26 and the following day, some 500 angry Maraura tribesman confronted the group and over two days of fighting upwards of 40 Aboriginals were killed.
This report from Mr Moorehouse, SA Protector of Aboriginals, who was present, is telling:
“Mr Shaw's party on the western, and Mi. Robinson's on the eastern side of the Rufus now advanced and commenced firing. The natives were almost instantly thrown into confusion, 100 running into the scrub, and about 50 into the water, with an intention of concealing themselves in the reeds. The Europeans followed them, to the water's edge, and continued the firing for about 15 or 20 minutes; and the result was, to the natives, the death of nearly 30, about 10 wounded, and four (one adult male, one boy, and two females) taken prisoners; and to the Europeans, one individual (Mr Robinson) speared in the left arm.”
A small memorial at Lake Victoria and an annual remembrance day at the lake recalls the Rufus River Massacre as a significant event to the local Aboriginal population, but unfortunately, this event has not passed into our national memory.
In 1919 the South Australian government, under the then Murray River Commission, created 52km of embankments and an earthen dam on the southern shore of Lake Victoria to enlarge the storage capacity of the ancient natural lake to 680 gigalitres. But in 1994, maintenance work uncovered significant Aboriginal sites dating back 25,000 years, including camps, tools and as many as 4000 graves. It’s no wonder the Maraura people were upset at the arrival of Europeans.
The cultural and engineering significance of Lake Victoria means there is virtually no access to the vast wetlands, but there is camping, toilets and showers to make it a popular stopping off point along the road.
THE BIG BEND
The area around Cal Lal was a thriving community in the early 1900s, and there was even a police station and magistrate's court, which was abandoned in 1938 but can still be seen at the side of the road. Several of the properties have been broken off from the expansive Kulcurna Station holding that stretched all the way to the SA border. There’s bush camping on the river at Big Bend, operated by Tracey and Leo Piddington, descendants of the original settlers along the river.
When Kerry Alderson and partner Eric Thomas took over the 160ha Wompinni Station, in mid-2019, it had been neglected for years. Since then, the pair have set up the property for guests, and now maintain Kerry’s mob of endurance horses on site. Even from this remote location they still run Kerry’s well-respected Harrison Trucks Endurance Racing team in events across the country.
After months of work renovating the 1921 homestead and four self-contained cabins on the banks of the Murray, Wompinni opened to the public as a top-class outback destination. As well as the cabins, you will find powered and unpowered caravan and camping sites right on the river. An architect-designed amenities block using shipping containers fits right into the scenery and has unlimited hot showers, just the shot after a long day's drive. Artist in residence, Jasmine Rose, has a studio of sculptures and paintings to add to the mix of reasons to stay.
Wompinni adjoins national park land with exclusive access to plenty of walking tracks through sandhills and unique outback scenery. A 1911 shearing shed hasn’t seen use for generations, and, while it’s seen better days, is as authentic an example of these old timber buildings as you will find.
As well as hours wiled away fishing for golden perch — 'yellow belly' to the locals — there are lonely drives on sandy tracks around Wompinni that lead to remote corners of the Murray. History lovers won’t want to miss the 1900 stone Cobb and Co post office on Tareena Station that sits in lonely solitude on a dusty track near a salty billabong full of fish.
A BORDER WITH A STORY
While the entry into South Australia is without fanfare, the border itself has a real story to tell. Talk about a mix-up. When Charles Todd was sent in 1847 to check the 141st line of longitude that separated South Australia and NSW, he discovered that the previous calculation from 1839 was wrong by over 3km. The new position was used to survey the border to Queensland, but the southern section of 138,700 down to the Murray was in dispute. For 53 years South Australia fought for the land through the courts but lost in 1911 when the High Court ruled the existing erroneous border was to stay.
Todd's Obelisk was built in 1868 to mark the correct position, and to this day any map of the lower corner of South Australia looks like a squiggly section of a jigsaw puzzle as the borderline runs in a straight line north and south then follows the meandering Murray to its mistaken conclusion.
CHOWILLA GAME RESERVE
Once inside South Australia, you are travelling in the 1800ha Chowilla Game Reserve, part of the internationally recognized Ramsar Riverland Wetland. This is the largest remaining undeveloped floodplain habitat in the lower Murray and supports significant habitats and endangered species including the area’s largest red gum forest, regent parrot and several frogs.
Lake Littra will give you a good idea of how the wetlands of the Murray have changed over the last hundred years. The lake was regularly flooded before European settlement but these days the lake needs to be watered from the allocation of environmental waters in a balancing act that involves three stares, farmers and the needs of the bush and significant bird-breeding sites. While there are hundreds of dead trees, efforts at regeneration seem to be working.
The game reserve website promotes both bird watching and duck hunting, which I imagine causes conflict at times, but being part of the much larger Riverland Reserve, one presumes ducks are much safer a short flight away. Studies have found the area has one of the highest diversities of birds in inland South Australia with 37 waterbirds among the 170 species represented.
Administered by Parks SA, the Reserve has a camping fee, which is to be booked online before entry. A labyrinth of tracks along the Monoman and Punkah Creeks leads to numerous campsites, and to walking paths to the Murray.
AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPES TRUST
Before you hit the blacktop and the coffee shops in Renmark, there’s one more surprise in store at Calperum Station. In 1993 the Chicago Zoological Society was so concerned about disappearing mallee and wetland that they got together with the Australian Government to buy the 242,800ha Calperum Station that spreads north and west of the Murray. The Australian Landscape Trust bought the adjoining Taylorville Station in 2000, and today both properties are managed from the Calperum homestead near the banks of the Murray.
As well as offering training and educational opportunities for high school and university students, the Trust is dedicated to restoring nature across the remote properties. Eight riverside camping spots cater to caravanners but if you are looking for something different or for some authentic station living there are cottages and huts where you can immerse yourself in outback life.
ORANGE TREES AND COFFEE
After checking out the Calperum campsites, wetlands and an old fisherman’s hut made from whitewashed hessian bags, we were again heading west. The dirt turned to tar and just like that we were amongst lush irrigated orchards for the last few miles into Renmark.
The Old Coach Road lost favour with east-west travellers once riverland irrigation took hold. The Sturt Highway to the south of the Murray is now an almost straight run of bitumen between Mildura and Renmark, cutting hours from the trip. But for those who don't mind a bit of dust in the van, the road to the north holds plenty to see and learn.
The Old Coach Road is 2km north of Wentworth off the Silver City Highway. It is marked on some maps as Renmark Road or Old Wentworth Rd. Turn left approximately 18km onto Wentworth Main Road towards Renmark. From Renmark follow Ral Ral Avenue to Wentworth Road.
WHEN TO VISIT
To make the most of the region’s weather and scenery, autumn and spring are the best times to visit Riverland areas. However, the climate makes it suitable for visiting parks throughout most of the year. January and February can be hot.
Roads along the flood plain are generally unsuitable for driving immediately after heavy rains. This, and other hazards such as bushfire, can force the temporary closure of some sections of the road.
BOOK YOUR CAMPSITE
Big Bend Campsite Cal Lal Rd, Rufus.
Ph 0408 552 193
Wompinni Station Cal Lal Rd, Rufus.
Ph 0422 138 074
Chowilla Game Reserve Book online at parks.sa.gov.au/booking
Calperum Station alt.org.au