To travel the meandering Murray River in a quietly drifting canoe is to be reminded why the waterway is Australia’s mightiest river.

Story By Nick Cook

The mighty Murray River is the quintessential Australian waterway and one of the best ways to experience it is in a canoe, floating downstream between the river red gums. As the tiny vessel slices its way through the water, it’s difficult to think of a more peaceful way to travel. The lack of an engine means the only sound is the distant background roar of wind through the tree canopy – not dissimilar to waves on a beach – punctuated by the twitters, whistles and cries of the many birds that fill the plants. Dragonflies hover over the water like tiny helicopters and water boatmen scuttle across its surface but mosquitoes are mercifully absent and flies are at a minimum.
Barmah, a one-pub border village northwest of Shepparton, Vic, is a great place to start your river adventure. It boasts the largest river red gum forest in the world and has two significant wetlands – Moira Lake on one side and Barmah Lake, included on the Ramsar list of internationally significant wetlands, on the other. When it becomes inundated, it is possible to canoe between the trees amid a spectacular array of plant and birdlife.
Michael and Lyn O’Brien, who run Gondwana Canoe Hire, have been using canoes on the Murray for the past 25 years. They got the idea to start hiring them out after an especially big flood in 1993. “You could canoe along a lot of the tracks and trails through the forest and we were canoeing out to check on the condition of wildlife that was stranded on ridge islands that had formed,” Michael says. “We had visitors who were just amazed by it. They said it was better than Kakadu and there weren’t even any crocodiles. We’d taken it for granted before that. It made us look around and realise that yeah, this isn’t too bad, people might pay for this.”
This year, due to the ongoing drought, the river is too low to open up the wetlands but the Murray itself can always be canoed and is well worth exploring. There’s something oddly comforting about the monotony of the massed ranks of eucalypts that slip by as the canoe drifts downstream. Every tree is similar to the one next to it, yet entirely unique from any other in the forest. After a while they start to blend together into a mottled backdrop of green, brown and grey that is very soothing. Here and there, larger trees stand out from the crowd, some of them so large an adult could comfortably walk into the cave-like hollows at the base of their trunks. There’s a thrill in knowing they’ve stood there for centuries, watching over the river since long before even the majestic paddle steamers of yesteryear began plying the waters.

This story excerpt is from Issue #56

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2008