We have had a good first day on our trip to the Flinders Ranges. We left home at 9.30 am in drizzling rain and headed north. I put a lot of trust in my GPS and it took us an unusual way out of Melbourne through Yan Yean, across to Wandong and Kyneton and then up to Heathcote where we stopped for coffee. By the time we stopped for coffee, the weather had cleared and there were blue patches in the sky.
Just south of Heathcote, near Pyalong are a series of hills with outcrops of large round granite boulders. When I was in the army and posted to the military base at Puckapunyal (shortened to just ‘Pucka)’, I can remember one of these large boulders being decorated with graffiti in large letters that said ‘Pucka Sucks’. So True!
North of Kyneton, we passed many small wineries and olive orchards as we continued north. At Rochester, we passed some of the painted silos that we have seen before. They form part of the Victorian Art Silos Tour.
We reached the Murray River town of Echuca in time for lunch and our pre-booked river boat cruise. By International standards, the Murray River is a piddly little stream although it is the longest navigable river in Australia. It, and the Darling River that we will see when we reach Mildura, drain around a third of The Australian continent. In the 1880’s and early 1900’s it was the backbone of the grazing industry carrying most of the wool crop to inland ports where it as transported to rail for shipment to a port and export.
By the 1870s Echuca had become Australia’s largest inland port. It was at the point of the shortest distance between the Murray River and Victoria’s capital city of Melbourne, Steam-driven paddleboats would arrive at the 330 metre long redgum wharf towing barges laden with wheat, wool, timber and livestock which were unloaded by hydraulic crane, and the goods then transported by rail to Melbourne. The wharf has been listed as a Heritage Place on the Australian National Heritage List. In those days, there were no weirs and locks on the river to regulate the flow and the height of the river oscillated between extreme flood levels and low water during periods of drought. The wharf was built on long poles to suit this extreme fluctuation of river levels.
Our short but interesting one hour cruise was on a traditional paddle steamer named the ‘Alexander Arbuthnot’. She is named after the former owner of the Arbuthnot Sawmills at Koondrook, downstream from Echuca, where her hull was laid down and she began life as a barge. One of the last stream riverboats to operate on the Murray, in 1923 she was towed to Echuca for the fitting of engine, boiler and superstructure and commenced her new job as a working steamer towing barges laden with red gum logs from the nearby forests for the Arbuthnot Sawmills.
PS Alexander Arbuthnot worked at the mill until the 1940s. She was replaced by the PS Hero and onsold to charcoal producers at Barmah who used her to bring bagged charcoal to the Echuca Wharf during World War II. In 1947, after the war ended, she became redundant and eventually sank. A group of volunteers from Shepparton raised her in 1972 and in1989, she was bought by the Echuca City Council for further restoration at the Port of Echuca. She was recommissioned in December 1994 and became the youngest boat to join fleet at the Port of Echuca.
Heading on toward Kerang, we made a short detour to visit the weir and lock at Torrumbarry. There was an original weir here that was built in 1924 and used 14 removable steel trestles that could be winched out of the river to allow the passage of floods. This structure operated successfully until 1992, when major damage to its foundations occurred. A new weir was constructed between 1993 and 1996, keeping the original lock structure.
There are 14 weirs along the River Murray — all except Yarrawonga Weir include a navigation lock. The weirs at Mildura, Torrumbarry and Yarrawonga were constructed primarily for water supply, rather than navigation.
We found a rather pretty billabong on the road back from the weir that supported a heap of birdlife. Wetlands, like this, along the river are very important for the ecology of the area.