In his foreword to Steve Strevens’ book, ‘Slow River’, Stefano de Piero attests to his appreciation of the slowness and strength of the Murray River, noting that words like ‘mighty Murray’ are too clichéd. Stefano continues to quote poet and scholar Paul Kane, who describes the Murray in this way,
“The Murray, a river of work, cutting its way through time and all resistance: here broad and reflecting, there deep and gorgeous in confinement- scoriated limestone valleys of imagination – and stillness too, in swampy backwaters and billabongs, where the traveller, the river’s reader, can paddle about and muse on the curious vicissitudes of Nature’s Muse, who is like a river, only she is her own source of plenishment, whereas the Murray- refreshed by loss- is both less and more.” Paul Kane, 1995.
I have tried on a few adjectives too and I keep coming back to ‘elemental’ and ‘primordial’ to describe this river and its beautiful surrounding bush. Although not many of us are in the position, like Steve, to take a ‘tinnie’ (a small aluminium boat) down the Murray from source to sea, we can appreciate its wonder and hypnotic attraction by camping along its banks.
One evening, a posse of around 20 pelicans came bobbing along, appearing as if from nowhere from a nearby fork in the river. For the first 10 minutes, like obedient troupes, they stayed in a neat line as they travelled upstream. Bills up and down in unison, they hugged the banks of the river for some time. Then, as if commanded by an invisible force, they simultaneously spread out in a wide circle, a choreographed show, and the hunt was on. Fishing time! Amidst the white troupe, one small dark cormorant had joined the gang.
Human daytime activities consist of walking and photography, noting the variety of flora and bird life, and watching the ever-changing moods of this slow river as it passes by. Other pastimes include reading books about the Murray ( see below), fiddling with the solar panels, and considering whether it’s time for another cup of tea or something stronger. Big decisions. The days are sunny and the nights are frosty in early September so a camp fire is recommended. From November through to May, camp fires are banned due to the risk of bushfire.
At times, a houseboat cruises by. The nearby Lyrup Ferry service operates 24 hours a day: it is a free service and one simply pulls up, presses the red button, and out comes the ferryman to take you and your car over the short stretch of river. Of course, I couldn’t stop singing Chris de Burgh’s, “Don’t pay the ferryman, don’t even fix a price, don’t pay the ferryman, until he gets you to the other side, ah ahh ahhahaah”. South Australia retains some fine traditions.
In the late afternoon, food is prepared and the fire is lit. Mr T chops onions, garlic and ginger: he is my favourite kitchen hand. Tonight’s feast includes a Keralan fish curry, loaded with fresh curry leaves found in the excellent Indian shop in Mildura. Alongside is an Aloo Gobi stir fry- a simple little cauliflower and potato dish with added Kalonji seeds. I put Kalonji seeds in many things these days, especially flat breads.
The next day, a big shared Szechuan soup for lunch with wongbok cabbage, tofu and chilli hits the spot and at night, my favourite, jaffles cooked in the fire. Food tastes so good in the open air.
Camping by the river is one of the best ways to enjoy the Australian bush, especially in September when you have the place to yourself, along with the birds, and the silence of the slow Murray River. As the night descends, it’s time for a glass of local wine and perhaps a hummed tune, ‘Take me to the River’ ,after the wine has disappeared.
Slow River, A journey down the Murray, Steve Strevens, Allen and Unwin 2006
The River. A journey through the Murray- Darling basin, Chris Hammer, Melbourne University Press, 2011