2,225 kilometres on
Australia’s most important river
in a Record Time of 8½ days.
FROM its first concept in April 1980 the Murray River Expedition was a challenging and daunting venture.
The aim was to halve the 18 day record, set in 1977 by a NSW team using a 20 hp and a 40 hp motor, for the 2225 kilometre river journey from the Hume Weir, Albury, NSW to Goolwa, SA but with motors ¼ of the power.
In March 1981 the 18 members of the Murray River Expedition, using Mercury 7.5 h.p. outboard motors, smashed this record to 8½ days.
To achieve what would, at first, seem to be impossible took nine months of planning, six boats, eight motors, 18 men, three vehicles, two trailers, four tons of equipment, $20,000 and the co-operation of many people including government departments, journalists, boat manufacturers, Lockkeepers, outboard motor mechanics, race organisers, local instrumentalities, caravan park owners and Sponsors.
By its seemingly impossibly objective the expedition attracted the attention of the media both prior to, and during, breaking the record. Local newspapers and television stations along the way reported its progress to such an extent that residents, holidaymakers and other users of the river were awaiting the arrival of the six boats at all points along the river.
Wins in the Edward River Race and the Albury to Howlong Murray River Run before the expedition created more publicity. Results here.
The expedition’s successful conclusion was an achievement that captured the imagination of the media with reporters from TV Stations 2, 7, 9 and 10, filming from helicopters and boats, and journalists from the Adelaide Advertiser and other newspapers being at the journey’s end in Goolwa.
Current Day Note:
This expedition was undertaken before GPS, moving map technology, mobile phones, the internet, email, websites and even easy access to long distance phone calls. As an example, approval for our radio licence arrived by telegram.
In late 1977 I read of a Victorian crew who had set a record of 18 days for the 2225 kilometre trip down the Murray River from Hume Weir to Goolwa. They used two aluminium dinghies powered by a 20 hp and a 40 hp outboard motor.
After returning from a motoring holiday to the area in March 1980 I proposed the idea of breaking the record to members of the Dinghy Touring Club [now Power Dinghy Racing Club] and others.
The plan was to travel the 2225 kilometres of river in ten days during the month of March in 1981. Coincidentally this would be 150 years after Captain Charles Sturt explored the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers.
The rise of power dinghy racing in Western Australia was the basis for the attempt. From humble beginnings in 1973, power dinghy racing had grown to be an exciting and thrilling sport with approximately 280 competitors racing throughout the year in such events as the Avon Descent, Blackwood Classic 250, Rottnest and Return Race and the Round Rotto Rally.
The Dinghy Touring Club of Western Australia was formed in 1977 and at the time of the record attempt had a membership of 80.
REGULAR planning meetings were held, numbers grew, a budget was prepared, sponsorship was obtained, information gathered, transport arranged and eventually it was clear that expedition would be a reality.
On 3 March 1981 Harvey Webster and I departed for Deniliquin to compete in the Edward River Race.
More information about Planning and Preparation.
We held two practice weekends.
One might imagine that following a defined river course would preclude the possibility of becoming lost but this is not so nor was it a simple matter of just ‘heading off’.
It was vital that the boat crews rendezvoused on time at pre-planned locations to refuel.
We employed various strategies to ensure accurate navigation.
THE crew in the truck left for Albury on Tuesday 10 March. The remaining expedition members departed Perth by Pioneer coach on Wednesday 11 March.
Their uncomfortable three day journey across Australia was accentuated by 38-40oC temperatures and a non-working air conditioning system on the coach.
After success in the Edward River Race, Harvey and I left Deniliquin and set up camp at the Spillway Caravan Park, Hume Weir. We booked sites in readiness for the arrival of the main group and did some pre-expedition publicity photos that appeared the following day in the Border Daily Mail.
The next day we followed the Murray River towards its source in the Snowy Mountains as far as we were able to reach in the four wheel drive. On return to camp we attempted to contact the truck crew. The radio frequency allocated by the Department of Communications was also in use by a locally based Army Transport Unit. The demands by the Army for me to cease transmission were frustrated when I started quoting licence numbers and letters of approval. After discussion, we agreed on friendly co-existence.
We contacted the truck crew mid-afternoon and guided them from Wodonga to the campsite. Apart from a broken spotlight and a flat tyre, they had a fairly uneventful trip from Perth. The ten tons of boats, vehicles and equipment, all painted bright yellow, was a feature on the highway, causing much comment along the way.
We spent the next few hours unloading. After the evening meal, we went into Albury to meet the main group on the coach. The intervening hours were spent successfully playing the ‘one arm bandits’ in one of the licensed clubs – a novelty for Western Australians.
The crew arrived at 2.00 a.m. and after three tiring days in the coach they had a further 20 kilometre trip in the back of the truck to the Spillway Caravan Park at Hume Weir .
Having the entire group together in the one place for the first time after more than nine months of planning engendered a feeling of identity, and a defined sense of purpose.
DAY MINUS ONE
SATURDAY morning was half over before most of the expedition members were awake.
A special trip was made to Albury to unload Sunshine. Harvey joined the crew to replace the faulty exhaust system on his four wheel drive.
Equipment was sorted out, the trailer was repacked, the radio was fitted into the Nav Boat, and the boat crews made a final test run during the afternoon. Upon return from the downriver run, the boats were given a final checkover and the advertising stickers were replaced and/or repaired.
I spent a quiet evening arranging the crews for the next day’s big race.
It was 5.00 a.m., cold, and still very dark. A trace of movement appeared in the caravan park at the base of the Hume Weir on the Victorian bank of the mighty Murray River. Eighteen members of the Murray River Expedition were preparing to start their attempt to break the record for the 2000 plus kilometre dash down the river.
By 6.00 a.m. the tempo increased, the excitement was palpable, the climax of nearly twelve months’ planning had arrived!
A hot drink and a plate of cereal was all anyone had time for as tents were dismantled and packed, personal gear and sundry camping equipment was stowed away and vehicles were loaded.
Seven boats entered the water at 7.15 a.m. We would maintain precise records of ‘on water’ time from this juncture forward.
Dense early morning fog lay heavily on the calm waters at our camp 200 metres downriver from the base of the Hume Weir. The boat crews drove upstream to the Weir for photographs. Turbulence and noise from the outlet pipes combined with the noise of the motors, made this a rather slow operation but eventually David Whitney was satisfied that this historic moment was adequately recorded on both still and movie film.
Roly Ritson and Ted Whitney led the way as their boat was slowest. They moved off cautiously into the fog with the other boats in line astern.
A short time later only four boats could be seen. The fog had severely reduced visibility, the flow was greatly reduced – the lead boats had taken a wrong channel. They retraced their course back to the caravan park. Not a very auspicious start to the grand adventure.
The support crew were still at the caravan park and told the four boat crews the others had left and had not returned. The crew in the four ‘lost’ boats re-started their journey to Albury.
The boats finally caught up with one another about three kilometres short of Albury. My motor would not engage forward gear and all hands were trying to solve the problem.
I told the crew of four boats to continue on to Albury and the other two boats towed my disabled boat there. We arrived at 8.10 a.m. and by this time the support crew had also arrived.
The faulty navigation and mechanical breakdown was not a good start but we set about to correct the situation.
We entered seven boats in the Albury-Howlong 2AY Murray River Run.
Meanwhile, we placed my motor on the bracket on the front of Harvey’s Landcruiser. Vic Watt and Les Simpson removed the gearbox and stripped and inspected all components. The loss of gears was caused by a loose retaining ring. The gearbox was assembled, filled with oil and placed back on the motor. While Vic and Les were busy with the gearbox, I had removed the recoil start assembly, the flywheel and the electrics so that the four bolts securing the end cap bearing housing could be re-tightened. Oil had been seeping from this area.
Propellers were sharpened and buffed and final checks were made on all equipment. Speed was of the essence as it had been stated that the race start time had been brought forward thirty minutes. This was later found to be incorrect and, as a result of the earlier rush, all was ready with plenty of time to spare.
Local spectators congregated around the expedition boats, amazed at the speed with which the repairs were effected. Other competitors were incredulous that it was possible to strip and assemble the top and bottom of a motor all in under thirty minutes.
With all boats prepared in like manner and the members wearing their Kentucky Fried Chicken T-Shirts and Mercury caps, there was no mistaking the Murray River Expedition crews.
David Payne, in Sunshine, headed towards the first checkpoint approximately 20 kilometres from the start. This checkpoint was in actual fact on a section of high ground surrounded by water. When told by race officials that unless he had a four-wheel drive vehicle, he would get bogged, one can imagine the looks of amazement as Sunshine gently purred across to the checkpoint.
Expedition members took the first three places in both 8 hp Classes and were 4th and 5th in the 10 hp Class.
See Race Results.
Shortly after the remainder of the 8 hp Class finished, a local entrant submitted a protest. He was unsure against which of the Murray River Expedition boats he was protesting and he was also unsure of the grounds of his protest. He was, however, ‘under the influence’. The race officials were very patient and thoroughly scrutineered Les Simpson’s motor before dismissing the protest.
The boats were refuelled and at 2.45 p.m. departed Howlong for Corowa.
The run to Corowa was uneventful, finishing at 4.10 p.m.
We stayed at the Corowa Caravan Park, close to the water’s edge.
The boats were cleaned and the motors checked. Harvey noticed that the trailer had a pronounced sag near the ‘A’ frame. On closer inspection it was seen that the ‘A’ frame had broken away at the welds. It was re-welded at a local service station early the next morning.
Eyes open at 6.00 a.m but it was two and a quarter hours later before the crews in the six boats departed slowly into the still-present light mist – an eight knot speed limit extends for a considerable distance downstream from Corowa.
Ted’s boat was slower than the others. He was cutting the corners of the winding river to keep up and a bent propeller shaft appeared to be inevitable – and it was. Fortunately, he was able to continue.
Before it enters Lake Mulwala the river splits into many channels.
Local Police advised us against travelling through a whirlpool section of river where a duck shooter had drowned the previous week. When we drove through the fateful length of river it was merely fast flowing water and of little concern to anyone who has taken a power dinghy down a rapid.
This is a very picturesque section of the river, winding through twisting, willow-lined channels that eventually broadened out to become Lake Mulwala – a forest of dead trees.
David Whitney and I were just short of the fuel stop at Bundalong when the motor hit a submerged stump, kicked up violently and popped out a rubber shock absorber mount.
Quick, safe refuelling was one of the key reasons for the success of the expedition.
In the meantime, Ivan Helm and Tony Poole had arrived at Bundalong in the truck. They had both commented on how quiet it was on the radio so Tony called the boats. No answer! The coax cable and aerial had been ripped out by some low foliage. He had the radio working in time to see the boats appearing out of the maze of trees.
After the fuel stop, my motor was vibrating badly due to the missing rubber mount. In his usual inventive manner David lashed the trunk to the swivel bracket using a piece of rope he had found on the river bank at Bundalong. This reduced the vibration but severely hampered the steering.
As the lake was so wide it was considered prudent to have a support vehicle on each side. Binoculars were needed to sight the boats. Harvey and Victor in the four wheel drive were on the New South Wales bank. Tony and Ivan in the truck, and David Payne and Dave Coles in Sunshine, were on the Victorian side.
The boat crews followed empty detergent bottles that had been employed as floats to mark part of the way through the dead trees from Bundalong to Yarrawonga.
The journey across Lake Mulwala was one of the highlights of the expedition.
The bird life was almost beyond belief with great flocks of pelicans, black swans and cockatoos everywhere.
Regardless of the disturbance of these flocks by the Nav Boat, it was still a spectacle for those following.
Activity in the Nav Boat was absolutely frantic. David Whitney was taking photographs of the lake and bird life with his 35 mm camera on which he was constantly interchanging lenses, filming with the Super 8 movie camera, communicating with the support crew and at the same time trying to spot submerged obstacles. I had my own problems trying to hold a course through the dead trees while maintaining a bearing of 265° magnetic, a task made even harder because of the reduced steerage. I also had to keep the following boats in visual contact as the closeness of the dead trees reduced the visibility to about 200 metres.
Amazingly, we hit very few underwater snags. But thick weed caught around some of the propellers of the boats at the rear and the front runners had to slow down to allow them to catch up.
The journey across Lake Mulwalla was not a race. It would have been very easy to get lost in the maze of trees. It was important to keep all boats within sight.
The water gradually deepened and the number of trees lessened until the lake opened up to broad, clear water a few kilometres from Yarrawonga. It was then a simple matter to maintain a bearing of 265° to reach the destination, Yarrawonga Weir.
Harvey had arrived first at the Weir. Sunshine and the truck arrived shortly after with fuel. A quick conference amongst the support crew was required to solve the problem of the portage around the Weir. All equipment had to be portaged across the main connecting road between New South Wales and Victoria. No vehicles are allowed to stop on the Weir wall. Consequently the support crews had to drive back and forth across the Weir passing messages and equipment to the boat crews who were busy manhandling their boats across the roadway.
Harvey delivered a rubber shock absorber mount to replace the one missing from my motor. This was replaced, using only a screw driver, while the boat and motor were being moved from the lake to the downriver side of the Weir. At the lower level the boats were re-launched and taken to the beach of the caravan park on the Victorian bank.
The portaging operation had taken 45 minutes.
This weir was the first of 15 locks and weirs the expedition passed through.
The boat crews had been wearing lifejackets because of the supposed hazardous stretch of river where the duckshooter had drowned. They were dispensed with at Yarrawonga and left with the support crew. More on the subject of life jackets later.
After photographs, it was back to the task of breaking the record. Destination East Cobram. The river to East Cobram passes through pleasant, tranquil bushland and forest country with holiday camps and shacks nestled among the trees.
During the run to East Cobram, Ted’s motor developed overheating problems. Crew changes were made to lighten the load in Ted’s boat. The motor was replaced at East Cobram while the other boats were being refuelled.
A photographer from the Cobram Courier met the boat crews at the Tocumwal Town Beach. This NSW riverside town was the first mail stop. Harvey took the mail into the post office for franking and on return he drove down on to the river beach where he got bogged! However, with 17 men on standby he wasn’t delayed for long.
A lady sunbathing topless provided an interesting diversion for the boat crews – and the photographer!
The mail arrived back after being postmarked and the downriver journey continued. About five kilometres downstream, my motor blew a gasket. We contacted the support crew by radio and arranged to rendezvous two kilometres back upstream so the motor could be changed. This motor had been causing problems since the start of the expedition.
Valuable time was lost replacing the motor but eventually the expedition re-started on the run to the overnight stop at Lupmans Camp. This was the first occasion that the value of the low band VHF radios was fully appreciated.
Since Yarrawonga the River Murray Charts had been used. Navigator David Whitney located a short cut shown on the charts that would save about five kilometres. By the time we reached the channel, three boats had, contrary to instructions, passed the Nav Boat. Consequently, the three errant boat crews continued past the short cut and were surprised to find that about ten minutes later the three boats that they thought were behind them were now in front of them.
After leaving Tocumwal the support crew vehicles separated, with Sunshine and the truck heading straight for the overnight stop. Tony and Vic changed vehicles. The four wheel drive with Harvey, and now Tony, followed the boats along the river.
On a number of occasions they had to disconnect the trailer when crossing creeks and manhandle it across. At one unstable bridge the trailer was wheeled across the rickety structure and the four wheel drive made its own path across the creek and through the bush to re-connect with the trailer.
Radio contact was poor when the boat crews attempted to inform the support crew that they had arrived at Lupmans Camp. The maps the support crew were using did not show Lupmans Camp and a little drama ensued in trying to guide them to the site. They finally arrived amid clouds of dust!
Activity was then fast and furious. The boats were completely stripped, cleaned, straightened and re-assembled. The batteries were put on charge. The motors were checked and, where necessary, repaired. Tony modified the Nav Boat radio speaker. Tents were erected and the evening meal prepared.
I called a meeting to iron out some operational issues.
- No boat was to pass the Nav Boat.
- The breakdown procedure was amended.
- Radio procedure was amended.
- A paddle held aloft by any boat would mean ‘all stop’.
Complaints were heard and discussed.
During the evening it was noticed that most of the lifejackets were missing. After investigation it was realised that they had been left on the beach of the Yarrawonga Caravan Park. Harvey and Vic volunteered to travel to the nearest phone at Strathmerton, to make further inquiries. They returned to camp at 3.00 a.m. having confirmed that the jackets had been handed to the Yarrawonga Police. Arrangements to collect them would be made at a later time.
With mechanical breakdowns, lack of discipline in maintaining convoy formation, failure to maintain the schedule due to various time losses, the late arrival of the support crew and the debacle of the life jackets, morale was low. The second day could not be considered one of the better days of the expedition.
DAY three dawned. Even with an early start to the day it was still a long procedure to feed 18 men, pack all the equipment and prepare the boats. So much so that the boats did not depart till 8.30 a.m. – 20 minutes behind schedule.
The early morning run was through a river red gum forest on a winding, comparatively narrow river. The water level was abnormally high (but not flood conditions) and the banks were very low.
For the first time the sky was overcast and rain was threatening but in fact, no rain fell during the entire expedition.
On approach to the Picnic Point area willows began to appear until they dominated the banks. This is a particularly beautiful and peaceful section of river, and it is a popular holiday spot. We stopped at the Edward River intake.
A long section of water upriver and downriver from the Picnic Point Caravan Park is subject to an 8 knot speed limit and so the boat crews had plenty of time to appreciate the unique beauty of the area. Holiday shacks and caravans lined the banks for many kilometres.
We saw the first houseboat of the trip Just downstream of Picnic Point, tucked away amongst the willows. A short time later the first of two unusual but functional residences were noticed – Catalina flying boats that had been converted to houseboats.
Meanwhile the support crew, on their way to Barmah, passed through the small town of Picola. On arrival they saw that the fire brigade was busy damping down the burnt remains of the local and, unfortunately, only general store.
The boat crews reached Barmah Bridge, the first refuelling location, just before eleven o’clock. This late arrival caused some concern to the support crew who knew that this would place the boats near the limit of their range, however, they failed to take into account the speed restriction between Picnic Point and Mathoura. Additionally, a little extra time was spent at the Edward River intake.
The first of the houseboat fleets was seen at Barmah Lake.
On towards Echuca. We reached the junction of the Goulburn River just past midday. The skies had cleared and it was getting warmer. An iron bridge spanning the river stands as a gateway to the historic town of Echuca, a one-time busy river port.
The support crew was busy obtaining provisions, motor parts and tools. Ted made himself known at the local police station so that he could contact the Yarrawonga Police and make arrangements to pick up our lifejackets. The police at Yarrawonga offered to bring the lifejackets and the necessary paperwork halfway to Echuca. A rendezvous was arranged on the Murray Valley Highway. In actual fact, the police travelled more than half way to meet Ivan and Ted in the slow moving truck.
Meanwhile, Harvey was having trouble getting the mail stamped at the post office. He returned to where the boat crews were having lunch at the swimming jetty to explain the problem to me.
We returned to the post office and spoke to one of the postal clerks on duty. He went out of his way to be rude, arrogant and offensive. He also refused to stamp the envelopes. Not to be thwarted, I used a public phonebox to call the Postmaster at the Moama Post Office and made arrangements to have the envelopes stamped. This meant driving across to the ‘twin town’ on the New South Wales bank. The Postmaster was very helpful and even made facilities available so Harvey and I could wash our hands before handling the envelopes. What a contrast! Meanwhile, the others were practising at being tourists and were seeing the sights of Echuca, such as they are. Finally, all was ready for departure. Two of the boat crew were missing! As the others prepared to get underway, Vic and Rob sprinted down to the river and jumped aboard their respective boats.
Downriver from Echuca the banks are higher and the trees are older. This section is actually the former bed of the old Goulburn River, which now enters the Murray 16 kilometres above Echuca.
Mid-afternoon, at the 1044 mile marker, Roly’s motor began to overheat. He lifted the water intake clear of the water and found that a water rat had fouled his propeller and blocked the inlet pipe.
The water in this section is deep and wide as the river is within the influence of the Torrumbarry Weir, the first of the thirteen locks and weirs.
The wooden gates of the lock were inoperable which meant that the boats had to be portaged a considerable distance around the weir. The Lockmaster allowed Harvey to drive across the weir to refuel the boats. He also assisted to portage the boats.
The water level downstream from Torrumbarry Weir was very low. The river twists and turns through the Gunbower State Forest with the high banks giving the impression of being in a big ditch. The overnight stop had been planned to be at campsite 44. On arrival it was found that the banks were too steep to get out of the river. The boat crews advised the support crew of this by radio, and continued downriver in search of a more suitable site, eventually deciding on Campsite 43. The support crew had some difficulty in locating the spot. While they were not lost, they were, at times, geographically embarrassed. Names on signposts such as Broken Axehead Creek, Dead Horse Creek, Suicide Bridge were not encouraging.
By the time all parties were in the one place, the light was fading fast so it was decided to dispense with erecting the tents and instead extend the annexe from the truck.
Vic prepared a magnificent meal of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and carrots to top off what was a successful day.
ANOTHER early rise!
The result was that the boats departed at 7.45 a.m. – ahead of schedule for the first time. The water was low, the birds and fishermen plentiful and the driving interesting.
Clay banks and bars began to appear within the first few kilometres providing, with the various snags, an interesting interlude to the normally predictable river conditions.
Navigation was quite challenging – just as it was in the support vehicle. The navigator in each vehicle had to keep a close check on the boats, a job made easier by the accuracy with which the boat navigator could state his position. However, some difficulty was experienced in relating the strip charts to the road maps until we came up with the idea of marking the grid lines on the strip charts.
Speed restrictions at the twin towns of Barham and Koondrook added eight minutes to the elapsed time. This was a resupply point for the expedition giving the support crew opportunity to purchase various items needed by the boat crews, the cook and the mechanics.
After leaving Barham, Ivan and Ted, in the truck, went ahead to Swan Hill to forewarn the Mercury dealer and the local media of our imminent arrival. ETA was 4.00 p.m.
On the water, the boat crews were making excellent time despite the fact that one of the motors was making disturbing noises at speed.
Harvey was keeping a close check on the boats. Although the river broadened near Gonn Crossing the current was still relatively swift.
The boat crews passed Pental Island pumping station around noon. Pumps such as this were frequent sights along the river. They pump water for the massive irrigation schemes that have turned the desert into productive agricultural land, and also for domestic consumption, untreated.
Past Pental Island the river narrowed and the water level was low. Trees were hanging over the water. Clay banks and snags were still numerous.
For the first time in the course of the expedition, and despite the low water level, clay banks and snags, the boat crew began to surpass the projected schedule – so much so that they arrived in Swan Hill 2½ hours early. This threw the media into a panic but they arrived at the water’s edge just in time.
While the mail was being stamped a carburettor gasket was replaced on one of the motors and other minor repairs were also carried out. After interviews the boat crews turned on a show for the TV cameras.
We left Swan Hill after an hour and the overnight stop, Nyah, was amended to Wood Wood, 62 kilometres further on.
Twenty three kilometres downstream from Swan Hill we encountered one of the more unusual highlights of the expedition. At Beveridge Island a private punt spans the river. Although it can be dismantled it was easier to portage the boats over it. This spot was nicknamed ‘Deliverance’, after the movie. Pigs, fowl and other animals roamed freely. Old machinery was lying everywhere. Hay was scattered across the ground, the punt and the river. The place looked like an inhabited rubbish dump. The two youths there gave the impression that they had just come down out of the trees. They were not very communicative – by choice or otherwise was not immediately clear. Real hillbilly stuff!
Most of the group were still shaking their heads in wonderment even after we had left the area far behind.
Past Beveridge Island the river is wide and shallow. The banks are lined with young trees that have been growing only since the waters of the Murray have been controlled by levee banks and other means.
By this time the boat drivers were getting used to the clay banks and they were posing no problem to navigation. Unlike sandbanks which form on the inside of a bend thus requiring the selection of a wide route, the clay banks generally form on the outside of a bend.
Snags increased around Nyah but the boats had a clear run to Wood Wood.
We camped at the Wood Wood caravan park. This necessitated stripping the boats of bean bags, fuel tanks, motors, and lunch bags, and carrying it all across the Murray Valley Highway to the park.
The expedition was progressing well. David Whitney and I studied the route charts and had good reason to be confident of success. We were well ahead of the schedule.
After two nights in the bush the showers were welcomed. Les Simpson was busy with maintenance on motors and had to be virtually dragged away to have some time to himself.
David Payne and Ted camped with the boats by the river. This was nothing new to Ted who, because of his snoring, had been banished from the immediate vicinity of the others since the start of the expedition.
Wood Wood to Wemen
via Tooleybuc, Goodnight, Piamble, Wakool Junction, Boundary Bend, Tol Tol, Robinvale, Euston, Lock 15
Wake time was at an unreasonably dark hour. There was, however, much to do. Apart from the normal tasks of making breakfast, washing up, preparing the boats and packing up, additional time was needed to carry the motors, bean bags and other equipment approximately 300 metres to the river.
The first planned stop out of Wood Wood was at Wakool Junction. The initial twenty minutes provided some excitement with shallow water, clay banks and snags creating the need for extra care.
The Bitch and Pups Rapids were a disappointment and in no way lived up to their fearsome reputation. The situation would possibly be different if the water was a metre or more higher – although no challenge to a WA power dinghy racer..
The fuel stop at Wakool Junction took longer than normal and it was 9.45 a.m. before we continued downriver. The Wakool River is an anabranch of the Murray. The Edward River, an anabranch that flows out of the Murray at Picnic Point, (not quite a distributary) flows into the Wakool. In times of flood more water can flow through the Edward and Wakool Rivers than through the Murray itself.
Shortly after passing the Wakool Junction the boat crews rendezvoused with Sunshine to pick up extra fuel that had been arranged as a precaution against running short on the next, longer-than-normal leg.
Water hyacinth is a serious noxious weed choking the Murray River. We noted little pockets of it back from the currents in this area. It is just one of many introduced species threatening the health of the river.
The confluence of the Murrumbidgee River was an anti-climax. Instead of a mighty river, it was a mere creek at its junction with the Murray, with waters of the Murray actually flowing into it.
A number of interesting points can be seen in the above photograph. I am wearing sunglasses and a peaked cap for sun protection, ear muffs to block the drone of the motor, a glove on the left hand only to prevent sunburn to the back of the hand and a long sleeved jacket to guard against windburn. Bean bags were used in place of seats to provide greater comfort. The cover of the motor has been removed to aid performance.
Shortly after the Boundary Bend Bypass we negotiated Jeremiah Lump, a dangerous clump of rocks in the middle of the river.
The next fuel stop had to be amended. The planned location was at a 60 metre high cliff! Sunshine was present but the boats continued on. At 12.20 p.m. one boat ran out of fuel. All boats were carrying a one litre reserve supply. The boat crews reached the amended fuel stop, at the 747 mile tree, ten minutes later.
Near Meilman Station, David Whitney noticed a snake swimming across our path. We had been told that this would be a fairly common occurrence, however, this was the first and last snake sighting.
The downriver journey continued for the next two hours through kilometre after kilometre of forest country. People were camped in secluded spots along the banks. High, red sand cliffs were interspersed among the lower banks.
This cutting, with the main river, forms the Bumbang Island sanctuary. Eventually these short cuts will form oxbow lakes and be completely disassociated from the river proper.
We arrived at Lock 15 at Euston at 3.00 p.m. The mail was immediately dispatched by vehicle to Robinvale. Lock 15 is the last hand-operated lock in the system and the first through which the expedition passed. Consequently, we spent more time than was scheduled and many photographs were taken. The mail was returned and, at 4.00 p.m., the boat crews got under way.
High red cliff lined the river downstream from Lock 15. Shallow water required extra care to navigate this section as clay and rock bars extended across the river just under the surface. Some crews had to get out and drag the boats for brief periods.
Similar conditions prevailed till we reached the overnight stop, near Wemen. The usual tasks involved in keeping the expedition going ensured that all were busy until late into the night.
The scheduled overnight stop, Robinvale, was 61 kilometres behind us meaning that at this, the halfway point in the target time, the expedition had travelled 1165 kilometres leaving only 1060 kilometres to the ocean at Goolwa. 52% done, 48% to go.
Wemen to Lock 9
via Colignan, Nangiloc, Karadoc, Gol Gol, Buronga, Mildura, Lock 11, Merbein, Davetor, Curlwaa, Wentworth, Lock 10.
RISING before dawn is becoming a habit.
My ‘pep talk’ the previous evening seemed to have had the desired effect and everyone worked with a will to get the show on the river by 7.00 a.m. Delay followed delay almost from the start. Propeller changes, fuel filter removal and carburettor problems negated the advantage of our early start. Shallow water, bad snags and rocky reefs stretching across the river did not help.
Doug’s boat was carrying a heavy load and, while able to maintain an acceptable top speed, was having trouble getting on the plane after each delay or stop. I modified the ‘all stop’ procedure. A paddle held aloft would mean that all boats except Doug’s must stop. This enabled momentum to be maintained whereas, previously, after a stop for mechanical problems, all boats would have to wait for Doug and Ted to catch up.
After Retail Cutting Simmo’s motor was sprayed with water by another boat. He had lost his motor cover near the Bitch and Pups and consequently this was a fairly serious problem. Eventually the electrics were changed – this being quicker than trying to solve the problem with de-watering fluid.
Tarpaulin Cutting and Island, 16 kilometres from Colignan, have been formed in the last one hundred years. Between Colignan and Nangiloc the river is still out of the influence of the Mildura Weir and as a consequence, there are many beautiful, sandy beaches on the bights.
High red cliffs are prominent near Karadoc.
After what seemed an eternity we reached Mildura. All members had been instructed to wear their Kentucky Fried Chicken T-shirts and, prior to entering the lock where TV cameras and Press representatives were waiting, jackets and jumpers were removed and Mercury caps donned. Vision of our expedition led the nightly TV news and the expedition later featured on the front page of the Sunraysia Times.
After having to wait for the PS Melbourne to clear the lock, we lost little time in through passage. Chicken supplied by the local Kentucky Fried Chicken store was gratefully accepted and greedily devoured.
Immediately around the first bend out of Lock 11 Doug’s motor again developed carburettor problems. The fuel filter was cleaned and performance improved.
We arrived at Wentworth at 3.00 p.m. The Darling River links up with the Murray at Wentworth and, as with the Murrumbidgee junction, the confluence of the two mighty rivers was something of an anti-climax. Flow from the Darling was negligible.
Wentworth was a mail stop. The Postmaster was very uncooperative and it seemed unlikely that the mail would be ready till 5.00 p.m. It was decided that four boats would continue to the overnight stop and the Nav Boat plus one other would stay and await the mail.
Roly was navigating and informed the four who stayed back, David Whitney, Simmo, Vic and me, that they should take a shortcut to the left exactly one hour after departure from Lock 10 at Wentworth. With this advice the four boats headed off.
A south westerly breeze had sprung up which meant that it was a bumpy and uncomfortable run to Lock 9.
The four leading boats had an incident free, final run to the overnight stop – unlike the two boat crews who waited for the mail.
The first four boats arrived at Lock 11 at 5.30 p.m. but, as the Lockmaster was aware that two more boats would be arriving later, he stated that they must wait until all boats were together before he would pass them through the lock.
This caused no problems as the campsite was immediately downriver from the lock, at the water’s edge.
Meanwhile, David, Simmo, Vic and I, having collected the mail, took a wrong channel.
The consequence of this proved to be one of the highlights of the expedition for we four. The channel twisted and turned away from the river with a number of other channels leaving and joining it.
The maze of channels could easily cause one to become lost and it required close attention to maintain a sure knowledge of one’s location.
The channel gradually narrowed and became shallower. David jumped out of his boat to start dragging. He then saw ‘something’ coming straight towards him under the water. He could not actually see it – the water being too muddy – but he could see the bow wave that it pushed up. Too far south for crocodiles and sharks aren’t known to be in the Murray River. He grabbed a paddle and struck again and again and came up with a large European carp! From then on it was non-stop hilarity with all four of us chasing and swatting at carp.
David was laughing so much he could hardly operate his camera. Simmo was out of breath and Vic was splattered with blood. I was dragging the boats and making sure that the carp went into David and Simmo’s boat and not Vic’s and mine – carp have a terrible stink.
But then it was time to get back to the main channel and head for the overnight stop.
Unbeknown to we four fishermen, we had been planing over very shallow water for a considerable distance. The bottom was black mud about 500 mm deep. It was a long hard trudge to reach the main channel.
By this time the light was failing. It was a cold, uncomfortable trip to the camp in near dark conditions.
Just short of the Lock we were met by Roly who had come out to guide us in. Others were positioned on the weir and waved torches at us to indicate the danger of approaching too close.
The Lockmaster made short work of passing the boats through and did not complain about having to work outside normal hours.
While thawing out and enjoying a meal of barbequed chicken, it was time to tell fishing tales before starting the inevitable tasks of motor maintenance and route planning.
The pinion gear was replaced in the Whitney motor. Cannibalisation of parts was commonplace. We placed a spare parts order with the South Australian Mercury manager, Ian Hay, who visited our camp. He promised to have the parts available the next day.
Route planning was a never-ending task for Roly, assisted by Harvey.
It was another late night after a long day but a day that, for four of the group, would be remembered for a long time.
Lock 9 to Cobdogla
via Lock 8, Lock 7, Devils Elbow, NSW-SA Border, Victoria-SA Border, Lock 6, Renamark, Lock 5, Berri, Lock 4, Loxton, Pyap, Moorook
Saturday dawned clear and crisp.
THE morning routine went smoothly and, taking this as a good omen, it was decided to practice some ‘formation driving’ in preparation for the expected publicity at Goolwa.
The water was flat and the ride so smooth that Ted was able to take notes as the boat was going along. David and I were in the Nav Boat. About 7.45 a.m. I decided to have a ‘thawing out’ stop. David perused the charts for a place of interest at which to stop. The group was quite relieved when a stop was called at what the charts showed to be a creek parallelling the river.
There was plenty of time to explore the area as the Lockmaster of Lock 8 would not be on duty until 8.00 a.m. We located the creek bed after a short walk through the bush. Simmo found a partly dried ram’s head and placed it in his boat – much to the disgust of his partner.
Onwards to Lock 8. We were through in only 15 minutes. Five minutes out of Lock 8, Doug’s carburettor again developed trouble. Coincidentally this occurred at the site of the wreck of the MV Success. While some worked on the carby, others inspected the wreck. Simmo wanted to take it home but was told that ram’s head was enough.
The maintenance job on Doug’s carby was declared a success (excuse the pun) and it was onwards to Lock 7. The river between Lock 7 and 8 is very peaceful.
The first boat swept through the already opened gates at 9.40 a.m. After changing fuel tanks and making requests for chocolates, the expedition continued at 9.50 a.m..
There are many groynes reaching out into the river from Lock 7 down. These were log and brush fences built part way across the river in earlier days to divert the main stream into shallower sections and give a deeper, safer channel. Many of these fences have disappeared but shallows and some of the logs remain. Although they are marked by a red square or black triangle, they still require care to negotiate them.
Below Lock 7 the six boats moved up behind two duck shooters who were in a boat similar to those being used by the expedition. The duck shooters did not hear the approach of the expedition boats and one can imagine the stunned look on their faces as six boats shot past them one after the other.
Ted and Simmo were having trouble keeping up but with the simple expediency of removing the motor cover they were able to maintain the No. 2 position, demonstrating how evenly matched were the boats. This had been achieved by constantly changing the distribution of weight – a procedure that was undertaken each day until the optimum result was achieved.
We passed Lake Victoria homestead on the right at 10.30 a.m. After discussion it was ascertained that yesterday’s ‘four fishermen’ would have entered Lake Victoria had they continued onwards during the previous day.
Higgins Cutting and, earlier, Pollards Cutting, are caused by the water breaking through a bend in the river.
At 11.30 a.m. we reached the points where the borders of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia meet. As the border of New South Wales extends to the Victoria bank it is possible to be in three states at the one time.
We saw houseboats in abundance. They ranged from the humble to the grandiose. Some were very well maintained, others tatty. Most were ‘fleet’ vessels belonging to hire companies. Thousands were seen throughout the 8½ days.
As a result of previous publicity most people were aware of the imminent arrival of the expedition. From the Mildura Lock through to Goolwa the boat crews were continually waving to residents, holiday makers and boat owners. Many times cameras were seen set up on tripods facing upriver. As the boats approached the camera buffs would be seen clicking away. The support crew were obviously doing their job in publicising the expedition.
The Haynes’ boat had been causing trouble for some time. It had developed a ‘hook’ that was difficult to see and even more difficult to remove. As a consequence it gave an uncomfortable ride, continuously ‘bucking’ and losing speed. Alterations to trimming and removal of weight had little effect. We weren’t able to solve the problem. However, it was able to maintain position when pared of all excess weight.
We reached the South Australia-Victoria border at noon.
Nine kilometres downstream from this border is the site of the proposed Chowilla Dam, consisting of a wall 15 metres high and 5.5 kilometres long. The lake formed would reach back to Wentworth. Construction of the dam has been deferred. We got through Lock 6 and a did a simultaneous refuelling in a mere ten minutes.
As an exercise in navigation, it was decided to locate a ‘canoe tree’ that was shown on the charts. David and I were navigating. David called a halt, declaring that the tree would be found thirty metres through the bush. In years gone by aboriginals would remove the bark from these trees and shape them into a canoe. Sizes varied from a single seater to a mammoth boat such as would have been made from this tree.
High cliffs line the river. Steps lead down from the cliff top to pump houses at the base.
Irrigation pumps are a regular feature and have been so for a number of days.
As liaison with the Lockmasters improved, the time taken to get through the locks was reduced. Locks 4 and 5 took only five minutes each. Lock 5 is at Renmark which is a major fruit and wine centre.
At Renmark, Tony Poole contacted radio station 5RM and requested that they give the expedition some publicity. However, the on air presenter wanted an interview. On arrival at the radio station, Tony was told that he would be on air ‘live’. What followed was five minutes of free publicity that markedly increased public awareness of the expedition.
The support crew had an opportunity to do some sightseeing near Berri, one of their few breaks from servicing the boat crews.
Berri is a beautiful little town 45 kilometres from Renmark. It is the base for Swan houseboats.
This part of the Murray River country has a sameness about it for hundreds of kilometres. One bend looks like the next or the last. The forest provides beautiful scenery stretching for many kilometres. Holiday camps, caravans, tents and houseboats were all along the river, separated by anything from 100 metres to a kilometre.
Recognition of the expedition was apparent throughout the day but was more noticeable after Tony’s interview. Waving became automatic.
Late in the afternoon the boat crews took six minutes to pass through Lock 4, the fifth and last lock for the day. By this time a Lock was an unwelcome sight.
We arrived at Cobdogla just on dark. Two boats missed the stop and I had to chase them for about 10 kilometres. By the time we returned the camp had been set up.
It was necessary to leave the boats at the water’s edge, a distance about half a kilometre from the caravan park. David Payne and Ted volunteered to sleep where the boats had been parked.
The strain of long hours and continual pressure was becoming apparent.
Cobdogla to Mannum
via Kingston-on-Murray, Lock 3, Waikerie, Lock 2, Morgan, Lock 1, Blanchetown, Swan Reach, Walker Flat, Purnong, Bowhill
ANOTHER cool morning.
Ted made his way from the water’s edge where he had slept the night maintaining security on the boats, to take over the cooking of breakfast from me as I had to sort out a few minor problems with the support crew.
Even though there was a lot of gear to be carried to the boats before the day’s journey could commence, we made an early start towards Lock 3.
We made passage through the lock in such quick time that I hardly had time to sign the register. The Lockmaster had the gates open when the boats arrived at 7.55 a.m. hours and they were closing as the last boat left at 8.00 a.m. Robert Whitney was driving for our navigator, Roly, leading the boats in line astern and all was going well. It was clear that the record would be broken and in fact it appeared that a full day would be cut from our own target.
A sense of urgency existed. Refuelling and lock procedures were executed in a much more efficient manner. Morale was high and no problem seemed too great to overcome. The group had been working as a team for a number of days and now they were coasting.
We reached Waikerie just before 10.00 a.m. and got through Lock 2 shortly after.
The support crew were behind the boats at this stage but, as the river makes a large bend between Ramco and Taylorville, they were able to catch up and be ready with fuel at the lock. The time taken in Lock 2 was a mere seven minutes.
Meanwhile Ivan and Ted had departed to Blanchetown to meet the Lockmaster and arrange to get the boats quickly through Lock 1. As with all locks since Lock 26 at Torrumberry Weir, the Lockmaster had been notified in advance by telephone and had the water at the right level.
The boats were very slow getting through Lock 1. Nine minutes! One should remember that the normal time for through passage is 40 minutes.
Problems! The sight of six boats sweeping swiftly around a bend just short of Swan Reach was too much for the local Marine and Rivers Department Inspector, who, from all the publicity the expedition was generating, was obviously aware of our approach and was ‘laying in wait’.
All boats were stopped and questioned as to the whereabouts of lifejackets and fire extinguishers. I spoke at length with the Inspector and convinced him that he should allow the boats to continue to Swan Reach to obtain the required items from the support crew. After a short time he was joined by his partner who was similarly equipped with a 20′ cruiser powered by a 150 hp Mercury outboard.
So it was that the Murray River Expedition received an official escort into Swan Reach.
Bureaucratic wankers even wanted us to have anchors! “Just doing their job”.
Although there was no trouble in obtaining the items from the support crew, the locals were very embarrassed and apologetic.
The Inspector wished us luck and granted permission to proceed. After what was clearly a ‘set up’. They were well aware that our convoy was approaching their location and determined that we should welcomed to South Australia.
Throughout the remainder of the day the support crew continually stopped on the high cliffs to watch and film the boats’ progress.
The scenery in this section is magnificent. As the water cuts into the edge of the river valley, high cliffs are formed. The opposite banks are low, formed by silt deposits.
Being a Sunday, there was a lot of traffic on the river – which was one reason for the presence of the boating Inspectors.
Waterskiers and houseboaters all showed interest in the expedition and a number of boats followed the expedition for short distances.
The run to Mannum was made without further incident. The entry to the overnight stop at the caravan park was through shallow, muddy water that took some time to negotiate.
The local Mercury dealer visited the expedition during the evening and gave advice on the best method of crossing Lake Alexandrina on the following day.
It was a time for relaxation. Clothes and bodies were washed, phone calls to home were made and we enjoyed a few drinks.
Everyone had good reason to be pleased.
THE early morning silence was broken by the strains of ‘Happy Birthday’. It was Robert Whitney’s birthday anniversary!
With the record well and truly broken and the certainty of completing the journey inside the target time of ten days, there was no rush or hurry in decamping from Mannum.
To avoid possible delay in getting the mail stamped at Murray Bridge, Robert Whitney and Rob Craker set off thirty minutes ahead of the main group who were away at 7.45 a.m. The two Robs used the seventh boat thus allowing the twelve boat crews to arrive at Goolwa by boat.
After a journey without incident, the boat crews reached Murray Bridge at 9.10 a.m.
As planned, the mail boat had arrived well in advance of the main group and Tony took the envelopes to the Post Office to be stamped. They told him to ‘come back in an hour’. So much for our pre-planning.
Meanwhile, the Lady Mayoress and local photographers were gathered to welcome the main group on arrival. After a short introduction to the boat crews, the Lady Mayoress kindly wished us the best of luck and posed for some photos.
From Murray Bridge it was a short run to Wellington and the entrance of Lake Alexandrina. The crews formed the boats into a raft at top speed. This difficult manoeuvre took some time to coordinate and was relatively hazardous. Not that Rob Craker minded as he ran from boat to boat.
Conditions on the lake were slight and the confused chop was easily handled, if a little uncomfortable.
Prior to entering the lake the boats were refuelled to ensure that they had plenty of fuel to get across the vast expanse of water. The lake has a fearsome reputation and has claimed many lives over the years. The conditions can be extremely fickle and change with virtually no warning.
It was here that ‘Storm Boy’ was filmed.
Acting according to prior arrangement Vic, who was navigating, radioed to David Payne positioned on Cape Sturt, and requested that he scan the horizon with his heliograph. A heliograph is a mirror that can be aligned so the sun’s rays can be aimed at a required position. The flash of the heliograph from David Payne was easily seen and quickly answered. As an aid to navigation this was invaluable. The compass, which I was using to maintain direction, was difficult to read because of the continual bouncing. However, the regular flashes of the heliograph kept the boats on course.
A slight divergence towards the Murray River Queen, which was crossing the lake at the same time as the expedition boats but in the opposite direction, nearly proved disastrous.
The paddle steamer throws a very big stern wave and the boats had to take evasive action. The passengers had all rushed to the port side to catch a glimpse of the seven boats travelling in line astern.
By the time the boats were heading across the lake, Ivan and Tony had reached Goolwa in the truck. They quickly set up the banners in a car park on the banks of the river and local residents soon gathered around the truck asking questions about the progress of the boats.
Tony then headed to the nearest telephone box armed with a quantity of coins. He contacted the Adelaide newspapers and TV stations and informed them what was happening. The result of these phone calls became obvious when the boats were approaching Goolwa shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, in the boats, the radio aerial became dislodged while Vic was communicating with the crew in Sunshine. While he was trying to grab hold of the aerial and re-mount it he missed seeing one of the channel markers and, for a short time, the expedition was temporarily unsure of their precise location (not lost!!)
After a small amount of back tracking, the boats were back on course and were met by the first of the quite unexpected attention from the media.
A short time later we were in for another surprise.
The boats refuelled from the car park in Goolwa and then continued towards the barrage lock.
Harvey and Tony headed for the barrage lock. With helicopters landing and putting down camera crews and reporters, it was getting rather crowded on the lock.
It was a slow approach to the lock. With all the noise, activity and people it was difficult to even discern where to go.
Once inside the Lock things were hectic. The noise was incredible. The Lock was approximately half the size of previous locks and the noise of the motors reverberated around the chamber. With nine boats (seven expedition and two media) inside, there was very little room to manoeuvre. The three helicopters hovering above served to increase the confusion as reporters yelled questions at me, and the camera crews videoed.
The Lockmaster had never seen anything like and was more than a little overwhelmed.
After exiting the Lock the boat crews changed into their Kentucky Fried Chicken T-shirts before continuing to the mouth of the Murray.
Three reporters from Channel 2 had hired a boat so they could conduct an ‘on the water’ interview. Vic and I remained for this interview, while the others pushed on. The short journey from the barrage to the mouth seemed to take an eternity. The Channel 9 helicopter followed the progress of the boats, filming all the time and occasionally swooping low to get a closer view of the action.
Finally we arrived at the mouth of Australia’s most important river. The boats were beached and I was ducked – well, actually – thrown in!!
More interviews, more filming, more publicity. The Sponsors loved it.
I took the mail back to Goolwa in the Channel 9 helicopter – my first ride in a civilian helicopter. Harvey then rushed off to get it stamped and returned before the boats arrived back in Goolwa.
Then came the onerous task of packing the equipment, loading Sunshine and the boats and cleaning up for the return to Adelaide. In Adelaide, after booking into a motel, the celebrations continued till the early hours.
It was all too much for David!
Other parts of this Report:
© Kim Epton 1981-2022
10887 words, 115 photographs
Text and layout Kim Epton
Expedition notes by Ted Whitney
Photographs by David Whitney, Tony Poole, Vic Watt, Roly Ritson
Feel free to use any part of this document but please do the right thing and give attribution. It will enhance the SEO of your website/blog, and Adventures.