We headed home from our overnight stay, and wonderful dinner, in Mildura planning to take a couple of days to meander along the Murray Valley Highway through Swan Hill and Echuca. The Murray is Australia’s longest river, at 2,508 kilometres in length. It rises in the Australian Alps, and drains the western side of Australia’s highest mountains, and then meanders across Australia’s inland plains, forming the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The river supports a variety of wildlife – fish, birds, reptiles and mammals. It is generally fringed with forests of red river red gum.
Much of the land along the middle and lower sections of the river is irrigated to support farming, orchards and grape vines. Along our first part of the day’s drive between Mildura and Robinvale, we passed an enormous number of extensive orchids growing almonds and other edible nuts. Somehow the town of Robinvale has become a mini ‘United Nations’. It not only has a sizeable aboriginal population but it also has a large Vietnamese community as well as a quite a number of Tongan people. I read that around 30 languages are spoken in the local primary school.
Further on, we made a short detour to visit the river town of Tooleybuc where we stopped for lunch. The only shop that was open on a Sunday was the General Store but they did make a very nice chicken roll with gravy. Opposite the store is the historic bridge. It is still used although heavy vehicles are limited to crossing one at a time. I don’t know what other option there would have been as the bridge is only wide enough for one truck to cross anyway. The bridge was constructed in 1925 and designed with a central section that could be raised to let paddle steamers pass through. There are now only two bridges of this design left along the length of the river.
We stopped overnight in the town of Swan Hill which is 344 km north-west of Melbourne and only 70 m above sea-level. Prior to European settlement this area is thought to have been occupied by the Wemba-Wemba Aboriginal people. The Surveyor and explorer, Thomas Mitchell, camped here in 1836 and gave the site its European name because the honking of native swans on the nearby lagoon kept him, and his party, awake all night. A punt began operating at Swan Hill in 1847 as a way of crossing the river. It was the only point at which the Murray could be crossed within 160 kilometres. When the first punt sank, the wood was salvaged and used to build an equally important structure – the town’s first pub.
Across the river, is the location of the historic Murray Downs Sheep Station. This was settled in 1839 and occupied over 180,000 acres. It had the biggest river frontage property along the banks of the entire Murray. The Murray Downs Homestead is a grand Victorian mansion still furnished with many of its original fixtures. It is surrounded by large formal gardens and its fort-like design was to afford maximum protection against Aborigines. The property was semi-autonomous with its own bakery, blacksmith and 50 employees who gathered in the homestead each Sunday for church services. The property has since been subdivided but the original gates remain.
Not far from Swan Hill is the almost circular Lake Boga. There is a very interesting little museum there that tells the story of the secret Catalina flying boat repair base that was located on the lake during WW2. After many of these aircraft were destroyed in Japanese bombing raids along the north west coast of Australia, the authorities looked for a safe location for storage and repair of Catalinas and other amphibious aircraft. The museum houses a fully restored Catalina and lots of other interesting equipment from the war days. Because the lake is circular and 3 kms in diameter, aircraft could take off and land in any direction.
A little further along are the Kerang Wetlands where there are many small lakes, billabongs and swamps on the broad flood plain of the river. These wetlands are the scene of an annual conflict between duck hunters and conservationists each year at the start of the duck hunting season. We didn’t see too many ducks but there is a large Ibis rookery. There where thousands of these birds nesting. At one place there is a hide for observing them, but it is now a bit overgrown and it is hard to see much through the foliage. It certainly smelt like a bird rookery though. We drove along a dirt road around a little lake but couldn’t get close enough for decent photos of these birds without a long telephoto lens.
Along the way, we took a number of detours from the highway across to the river bank. The river views were mostly consistent with the river looking a bit like a large drain with steep banks. Occasionally, we came across birdlife in the contributing creeks.
There are a number of weirs and locks along the river that regulate its flow and store water for irrigation. These have also evened out the flow of the river and there are not the same levels of flooding in the old days. There are stories of paddle steamers that travelled upstream in a flood to pick up a cargo of wool. only to find themselves stranded as the water levels dropped. They would then have to stay put until the next season’s rains came and the river was again deep enough to navigate.
We stopped for a final overnight stay in the town of Echuca. Its name comes from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘Meeting of the Waters’ as it is located near where the Loddon, Campaspe and Murray Rivers meet. Echuca was founded by one of the most enterprising characters of the early colonial days, an ex-convict named Henry Hopwood. In 1850 he bought a small punt which operated across the Murray River near the Campaspe junction and charged exorbitant fees to cross the river. The relatively small settlement known as “Hopwood’s Ferry” became Echuca as the town grew. The Post Office known as Hopwoods Punt was opened around 1854 and the town was renamed to Echuca in 1855.
By the 1870s Echuca had risen to prominence as Australia’s largest inland port. Being the point of shortest distance between the Murray River and the major city of Melbourne, Echuca was both a key river port and railway junction. Steam-driven paddleboats would arrive at the 400-metre long redgum Echuca Wharf, unloading cargo that was transported by rail to Melbourne. Wool, wheat, other grains, livestock and timber were the most common cargoes. The wharf has now been listed as a Heritage site.
This industrial boom led to a rapidly expanding population, at one stage in excess of 15,000, with more than a hundred pubs rumoured to exist in the Echuca district at one time. An iron bridge was constructed over the Murray River in 1878 by the NSW Railways. However, the expansion of the railway from Melbourne to most parts of Victoria, as well as improvements to roads, combined to lessen Echuca’s importance. By the 1890s the paddlesteamer fleet was in decline. An economic depression and the collapse of several banks virtually ended Echuca’s role as a major economic centre, and her population began to disperse.
We had a lesson in the power social media when we stopped for lunch at the Wombat Gardens Cafe in Daylesford. Jill posted on Facebook that we were eating there, only to find that within a minute or so, my sister-in-law had seen the post and was calling to say that she and my brother, who live a few kilometres away, were coming into town to catch up with us. We had a very pleasant chat over a glass of wine but we arrived home much later than we expected.