Our journey from Kerang to Mildura today, took us across the broad flood plain of the Murray River.
We left Kerang after doing a couple of circuits around the town and finding the ‘Sir John Gorton Library’ below the old town water tower. John Gorton was Prime Minister at the time that I was conscripted into the army. He was an orchardist, growing citrus fruit at the small location of Mystic Park, near Lake Kangaroo, not far from Kerang.
Our first stop for the day was at Lake Boga. This large lake is roughly circular in shape and is a very popular location for water sports, particularly water skiing. The surrounding area is used for agriculture including fruit and vegetable growing and grain production. There is a sizable wine grape industry in the area and one local winery.
On the southern shore of the lake is a museum that features the PBY Catalina. After the Japanese attacked Darwin and Broome in 1942 there was a need for a safe landing point for flying boats outside the reach of Japanese airplanes. Lake Boga was picked as it allowed almost unlimited choice of landing/take off directions and was free of obstructions. It was also close to nearby infrastructure. The airforce base at Lake Boga was commissioned in June 1942 as the No. 1 Flying Boat Repair and Service Depot.
These slow and lumbering aircraft were used in anti-submarine patrols and were noted for their long range. They are famous for their ‘double sunrise’ flights between Perth in Western Australia and the Royal Air Force base at Lake Koggalanear Galle in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The name of this flight was derived from the crew and passengers observing two sunrises on each long flight.
The topography along much of the way today was flat and uninteresting. Occasionally, like this scene at Wood Wood, the road came right alongside the river. Apart from long patches of scrub, farming activities along the way were mostly the growing of sheep and wheat. These go together as the best of both activities relies on a similar climate and the sheep provide a second income by grazing on the stubble after the what is harvested..
The little town of Tooleybuc (across the river in NSW) is accessed by an historic ‘lift bridge’ that was designed to allow paddle steamers to pass underneath. It is one of only two surviving Murray River bridges of this design. (The other one is at Swan Hill). It was built in 1925.
As we continued north west along the river, we passed extensive areas of agriculture. The wheat fields stretched to the horizon. We passed kilometre after kilometre of almond orchards and occasional farms growing citrus trees, pistachio nuts and olives. Some irrigated areas were used to grow vegetables.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at Boundary Bend. This is near the junction of the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. It was at this point that Captain Charles Sturt and his party of explorers first sighted the Murray River in 1830. They had travelled down the Murrumbidgee, and continued downstream along the Murray in their whaleboat.
Here, the river rounds a tight ‘U-shaped bend. Many returned soldiers from the First World War were allocated farming blocks to the south of the town.
We spoke to a man who had moored his little paddle steamer along the bank and had hung his washing on a rope between two trees to dry. He told me that this boat was not his permanent home, as much as he wished it would be, only because his wife wasn’t prepared to live on it full time.
Near the town of Hattah, there was a road that we took into the Hattah Lakes National Park. The lakes in this area lie in typical mallee country with extensive low scrub and open native pine woodland. Many well adapted birds, animals and vegetation thrive in the poor, sandy soils and searing summers. The lakes are currently dry although they are seasonally filled by creeks connected to the Murray, and provide food and shelter for waterbirds and fish. These lakes can remain full for up to ten years without flooding, but flooding generally occurs once every two years.
This geographic area of Victoria is known as ‘The Mallee’. “Mallee” is an Aboriginal word for groups of eucalypts that grow to a height of 2–9 metres and have many stems arising from a lignotube. Their leafy canopy shades 30–70% of the ground beneath them. It is clearly a semi-arid type of vegetation. The present extent of this vegetation type is estimated to be about 214,000 km2 but the estimate prior to 1750 is 318,000 km2. A large amount has been lost due to land clearing for farming purposes.
One of the machines originally used for clearing Mallee Scrub is “Big Lizzie” which is now housed at Red Cliffs, near Mildura. Thanks to the ingenuity of inventor and blacksmith Frank Bottrill, Big Lizzie reduced years of back-breaking work for the new settlers. His design of this whopping monster of a machine, was hailed as the largest tractor in the world for its time and took a year to construct. Big Lizzie was used to flatten more than 20 hectares of scrub a day and cart over 900 bags of wheat on its two gigantic trailers.