Six friends, two vehicles and a trailer, six kayaks, the joy of four public holiday days in a row, a week’s supply of camping food, a drive of 11 hours straight, and a river flowing well.
‘You blokes right?’ asked a local, addressing the men in our group. ‘Sea’s that way.’ He thumbed behind him, looking bemused by the sight of sea kayaks in the Outback.
‘We’ve come to see the water we’ve sent you from Queensland,’ Marilyn said.
Bourke lies on the Darling, Australia’s third longest river. It had been inundated by floodwaters making their way along the inland water courses from Queensland since December. Bourke is near the start of the river, which draws lazy loops across the western plains for nearly 1,500 km before it joins the Murray River at Wentworth.
The river is often a string of long billabongs separated by dry bed. But for three months water had overflowed its banks and spread across the plains, cutting the local roads and isolating landholders. The waters had only recently subsided, and last of the dirt roads had opened a few days before we arrived.
We arrived with some questions. Would the current be too strong for us to paddle? Would logs and other flood debris make the trip hazardous? Were the weirs above the current water level? Were the local roads passable again? Would it be possible to camp on the riverbank, and would the support vehicle be able to get in to the river every night? We knew the distance between Bourke and Louth was about 100 km by road, but how long was it by river? And how far would we get? How had we managed to leave the topographical maps at home?
As it turned out, our timing was near-perfect: the river was flowing gently, the debris was a speckle of twig and leaf fragments marking the position of the current.
We ported the kayaks down to the riverbank to discover flood deposits of mud, sometimes knee-deep, caking the banks, and, lying on top of it like thick icing, tens of thousands of rotting fish, eye sockets outstaring the sun. Thousands more dead fish floated downriver on the current, and festooned branches hanging over the water. Hundreds of still living ones groped for air on the surface of the water, a sign that it had been deoxygenated. That put paid to our ideas of swimming in the river.
Despite the stench of the fish, the river was magnificent. After the inundation the banks and floodplain were lush, the grasses and wild herbs thick and seeding. Unfortunately, the noogoora burr (Xanthium occidentale) was thick and seeding as well. River red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) lined every stretch of the river, some so gnarled by the passage of the years that it seemed likely that you could walk under a root, fall through a crack in the soil and come out in a fairytale. Most bore the high-water mark of the flood, 8 or 10 metres above us. It is terrible to know that along many parts of the Murray–Darling river system these regal trees are threatened—because of humans taking too much and giving back too little.
The banks are home to an equally legendary tree, the coolabah (E. coolabah), and we made good use of their shade on most days.
Birds were making the most of the generous season, and we spent our hours on the river happily cricking our necks to gaze on thousands upon thousands of them (see list of species below) wheeling about their birdy business.
The further from Bourke we paddled, the fewer dead fish we saw. Arch, a local grazier who appears to enjoy wielding a steak knife as readily as he enjoys a hearty yarn, had a theory about the dead fish.
‘Yeah, there was a fish kill up around Bourke,’ he told us as we left our camping spot on his property. ‘My grandfather lived here all his life. He never mentioned fish kills, and his knowledge spans a hundred years. Reckon it’s the cotton.’
A pause. ‘Though they’ve cleaned up their act a bit,’ he said.
Despite the flow in the river, we still had work to do to make each night’s campsite. Some days we reckoned we made about 50 km. All up, we kayaked about 240 km, and ported the kayaks around three weirs.
Five of us paddled each day, the sixth in the support vehicle running errands (to the refrain of ‘Buy more beer!’), seeking river access from landholders, and welcoming the paddlers to the night’s camping spot. Despite the amount of water in the river, we often had steep bank landings.
On our last day, we pulled in just short of Louth, population 40. Our timing was spot on. It was Friday evening, and Shindy’s pub was booming. We ordered beers and dinner, and chatted with the locals while they mocked the British royal wedding screening on the tele above the bar. The moment the ring was on the finger, they switched channels to get the important news: how the footy was going.
Julie, one of the locals, left the blokes to it and sat chatting with us. Life hasn’t been easy here. She arrived in Louth as a teenager, and raised a family with her husband, Ian, who until recently earned his crust as a roo shooter.
‘We only got electricity in 1986.’ Julie said. ‘I had to wash for the whole family in a copper. It was hard yakka.’
She chatted on, full of stories about roo shooting, min min lights, strange smells in the night, life in the tiny township where she earns a few bucks cleaning on one of the properties and keeping the school, with its 3 students, clean of mice. Until it was time to go.
Our wonderful days on the river were over, and we had to turn north and east for home. We took three days to travel back, going via Gundabooka National Park, the Aboriginal fish traps at Brewarrina, and the hot pool (fed by artesian water) at Lightning Ridge. We spent our last night trying to sleep in our small hiking tents that were pitched alongside the road trains at the Westmar truckies’ stop.
Birds we identified on the river
These are the birds we were able to identify; there are at least as many others that we couldn’t (e.g. finches, robins)
Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), Australasian darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae), black kite (Milvus migrans), blue-winged parrot (Neophema chrysostoma), brown treecreeper (Climacteris picumnus), brown quail (Coturnix ypsilophora), crested pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes), crested shrike-tit (Falcunculus frontatus), galah (Eolophus roseicapillus), grey teal (Anas gracilis), kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), little corella (Cacatua sanguinea), little egret (Egretta garzetta), peaceful dove (Geopelia striata), peewee (Grallina cyanoleuca), pelican (Pelecanus conspicullatus), pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis), pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius), red-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii), restless flycatcher (Myiagra nana), sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus), southern boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae) [heard only], swamp harrier (Circus approximans), wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus), white-backed swallow (Cheramoeca leucosterna), white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae), white-necked heron (Ardea pacifica), welcome swallow (Hirundo neoxena), willy wagtail (Rhipidura leucohrys), yellow-billed spoonbill (Platalea flavipes), yellow-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus)