Wednesday 8 November 2017

TRAVEL: A River Runs Through It: Echuca Dreaming on the Mighty Murray

Alfred Maslen's paddle steamer the PS Adelaide is still plowing through the waters of the Murray River today, after more than 150 years of service on Australia's greatest waterway. Cover picture of the Port of Echuca. See historic images below
Victoria's port town of Echuca on the Murray River has a rich history with its paddle steamers and riverboat men who travelled through vast inland areas of Australia. For a century, they transported wheat and wool and brought news, groceries and cloth to the people living in distant river country. Australia's Mississippi, the mighty Murray winds its way for thousands of kilometres from the soaring Mount Kosciuszko ranges down to the South Australian coast. Writer Geoffrey Maslen recalls his childhood days riding the river with his father, a steamboat engineer on the PS Adelaide
Morning mist rising from the Murray River
as a paddle steamer chuffs along
IN early winter the Murray River is low. Daily the mud-banks on each side appear to move together as if trying to staunch the river’s flow. The water is still fast-moving but without the broad, graceful sweep it has in spring and summer. Its colour, too, is different – a sombre grey, unlike the cheerful brown-green of the warmer months. As the morning sun drives back the shadows of the gum trees lining the banks, a white mist hovers over the waters. Seen from the top of a clay cliff bank, the mist winds away before me, slowly melting in the faint warmth. Below, at the water’s edge, a white egret perches on one leg eyeing its image – a long, pale question mark – in the water’s sheen. A flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos screeches like winged lunatics in the trees on the opposite bank. They suddenly take to the air and in an instant are gone. The brief silence is broken when a fat yellow-belly leaps out of the water and plops loudly back beneath the swirling waters – one of the many fish species that draw thousands of fishermen each year. A carolling magpie calls melodiously and a black-winged currawong sings a reply. Life is abundant around and in the river. For the creatures that rely on it, the river is life...
The Murray once echoed to the shrill whistles of a hundred trading paddle steamers, puffing thousands of kilometres with passengers and cargo ~ long before railways and motor cars and aeroplanes ~ through country Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The men on the steamers opened up a vast area of inland Australia, feeding and clothing the people living in the river country and carrying away their produce. They were also the floating mailmen and newsboys, spreading friendly gossip and even at times the word of the Lord. The overlanders who travelled by horse and dray, the steamboat men and the pioneer settlers regarded the river in different ways: for some the water was for crops and stock; for others, it was a great transport highway. The gums they saw as fence posts, firewood, boats or railway sleepers, the cliffs as quarries.
The steamboat men opened up vast areas of inland Australia, bringing food and clothing to the people living in the river country and carrying away their produce
Built in 1866, the PS Adelaide is still plying
 the river today, carrying passengers
In my childhood, my father Alfred Maslen was the engineer on the oldest paddle steamer then left on the Murray, the PS Adelaide whose age has now passed the century and a half mark. She is a sturdy old tub, no beauty to be sure with her squat lines and snub nose. But she has a certain rakish grace, sailing the river like some outsize, mechanical duck. As with most of the riverboats, the Adelaide was built to last in 1866. She was originally fitted out to accommodate passengers on the run from Echuca to Albury but in 1873 she was refitted as logging steamer and for nearly 100 years she pulled barges of cargo – red gum logs in her later years – up and down the river to Echuca. I can see her now, chuffing her way upstream towing a string of barges behind to collect logs from the Barmah forest. The barges were outriggers with a number of logs lashed crosswise and from these the red gum logs, too heavy to float, were suspended by chains on the surface of the water, parallel to the barge.
 Curled up in the paddle steamer's bunk house I could look up into the sky, stars glittering like tiny crystals while meteoric sparks from the boat's belching tunnel flamed momentarily beneath them
A small boy with the Riverboat Captain,
 at the big wheel of his paddle steamer
On special occasions I was allowed to go too ~ a week on the high road! Bliss for a small boy was the marvel of the two great thrusting pistons, the hiss of steam, the steady, hypnotic chunka-plunk-chunk of the paddles. During the day there was ever-changing scenery ~ red gum forests, high cliffs, sand bars ~ with occasional stops at the wood piles to load up with firewood. And there was wildlife galore: ducks of every kind, huge flocks of swans, innumerable species of other birds and sometimes a long tiger snake, its head up like a periscope, swimming like mad to escape the whack of the paddles. At night the great eyes of the headlamps would sweep the bends and stare along the reaches into the weird and silent darkness of the bush. Yellow water curled at the bow and the trees grew out of the darkness, flashed greenly for a moment, then sank back into the shadow. Curled up in the bunk house with the door open I could look out and up into the infinite depths of sky, stars glittering like tiny crystals while meteoric sparks from the belching tunnel flamed momentarily beneath them. As I was lulled to sleep by the steady throb of the engine I could hear the sound of the firebox doors being clanged open, the rattle of the long poker as it was wielded to rearrange the burning logs. As a new log was thrust in, the glow from the furnace would light up the trees along the bank. Then the firebox doors would clang shut and I would hear the sound of laughter and soft talk from some of the crew keeping the captain company in the wheelhouse.

From the barge behind a song would sometimes drift across the water. One was sung to the tune of The Dying Stockman: Wrap me up in my tow-line and check-line And scuttle me deep down below, Where the cod and the snags won’t molest me, Where the Murray’s clear waters do flow... But usually it was yarns that were spun; oft-repeated tales of the great days on the river and the mighty mud pirates who sailed her. There was Captain Tommy Freeman who, as a young man was inspired by the feats of Blondin and walked across the Murray high on a tightrope stretched between trees on opposite banks. When he reached the middle of the river, the Echuca Riverine Herald reported, he lay down on his back and `kicked his legs about in the most astonishing manner’.

As I was lulled to sleep by the steady throb of the engine I could hear the sound of the firebox doors being clanged open, the rattle of the long poker as it was wielded to rearrange the burning logs
Paddle steamers leaving the wharves
at the Port of Echuca

Tommy was one of the best swimmers among the river men. One of his favourite pastimes was to dive in ahead of one of the paddle wheels of his steamer, let the thrashing blades pass over his head and then surface and swim to the rudder where he would climb on board again. His enemies called him `Tear-arse Tommy’ because he was always trying to get the maximum speed out of boats. Once, when sailing full-steam up the Darling, Tommy pointed to a camp high on the bank to his son Buck, who was the mate.

The camper was sitting outside his tent eating breakfast. `Watch this,” Tommy said and steered the steamer straight at the bank. At the last moment, he veered away but a great wave swept up the bank and over the unsuspecting breakfaster. The furious victim, however, was waiting at the next bend with a shotgun and peppered the wheelhouse with buck-shot. The captain and mate lay on the floor arguing about who should take the wheel while the steamer rounded the bend with no-one in command until she was out of range.

The firebox doors would clang shut and I would hear the sound of laughter and soft talk from the crew keeping the captain company in the wheelhouse

Then there was Wildman Bailey, another river captain from Echuca who acted for years as if the river was his private domain. Once, sailing in the Success with a barge called Croupier, Bailey met another steamer and was supposed to but refused to give way. The two boats steamed straight at each other and missed narrowly. Bailey managed to swing away from the other boat but a collision between it and the Croupier seemed inevitable. Bailey watched helplessly as the other steamer and his barge rushed head-on at each other. `Goodbye Croupier old girl,’ he called sadly.

The PS Adelaide docked in the rising sun at Echuca
But instead, the steamer crawled up on the Croupier on one paddle wheel, waddled the full length of her deck and then slid into the river again, leaving the barge barely damaged. On another occasion, Bailey was caught up the Darling on a falling river. Flying downstream on the last of the water, he passed a sheep station just before dawn and was hailed by an anxious squatter in his pyjamas. `Hey Bailey!’ the squatter yelled, `will you take my wool? It might be another year before the river rises again.’ Bailey leaned out of the wheelhouse and stared up at the squatter. `She’s so damn near sliding on the bottom,’ he yelled back, `that I wouldn’t even take a loaf of bread – and by hell am I hungry!’
Today, a dozen large and small home-built boats still chuff along the river, including the Alexander Arbuthnot ~ one of the last steamers built on the Murray River during the riverboat trade. She was constructed at Koondrook in 1923 to tow barges carrying logs from the forest to the Arbuthnot Sawmills for some years until the 1940s. Then she was sold to charcoal producers in the Barmah Forest and, during World War II, she lay idle. In 1947, however, she sank at her mooring and it was not until 1972, that the boat was raised by a group of Shepparton volunteers and was then bought by the City of Echuca in 1989 for restoration at the Port. The Alexander Arbuthnot is one of the 10 or more steamers that can still be seen on the river around Echuca.
Today, a dozen boats still chuff along the river, including the Alexander Arbuthnot ~ one of the last steamers built on the Murray River during the riverboat trade
The great sweep of the Murray River runs
through four Australian states
As it snakes its way across the countryside, the Murray drains an enormous area of land. The Murray-Darling Basin occupies more than a million square kilometres ~ about a seventh of the total area of Australia. With tributaries like the Darling, the Murrumbidgee, the Goulburn and the Campaspe, the Murray River takes in half of Victoria, three-quarters of New South Wales and part of South Australia, and an area of Queensland greater than the whole of Victoria. Maybe the Murray isn't as famous as other great rivers such as the Mississippi or the Amazon but, from its watershed in the Mount Kosciusko ranges more than 2000 metres above sea level, the Murray has wound its way for 20 million years ~ far longer than any other river on Earth ~ down to the South Australian coast 3000 kilometres away.

Humans have known and lived by the Murray for more than 40,000 years: the first people had it to themselves for almost all that time, up until 1830 when Captain Charles Sturt rowed down to its mouth: “At 3 pm, Hopkinson called out that we were approaching a junction and in less than a minute afterwards we were hurried into a broad and noble river,” was how the soldier-navigator-explorer described his discovery. “We had got on the high road and it was either to the south coast or to some important outlet but I will call it the Murray River.”

River trade endured for a century along the Murray River. By 1863, Echuca had been built to take the loads of wool, wheat and meat from the steam boats because it was the closest river port to Melbourne.

 The wharves at Echuca where wool and wheat
were unloaded for Melbourne
Some 20 years later, William Randall steamed from Mannum in South Australia nearly 1600 kilometres past Swan Hill ~ downstream from Echuca ~ in a home-made boat with a home-made steam engine whose boiler `swelled in defiance of bolts changes and wedges’, breathing, say the old-timers, like a concertina. Sturt’s `high road’ soon became a reality. River trade endured for a century and stretched across three colonies and 6000 kilometres of waterway. In 1860, 17 steam boats were trading and operating along the Murray River and by1863 the new town of Echuca had been built to take the loads of wool and wheat and meat from the steam boats because it was the closest river port to Melbourne. By then, it had a population of 300 but, in less than 10 years, there were 1,600 inhabitants and Echuca was Victoria's second largest port with 240 boats annually trading in all types of goods, particularly wool.

The PS Emmylou, one of the fine 19th Century
paddle steamers travelling the river
Just before the turn of the 20th century, however, railway lines began linking river towns with the larger cities and the steamboat era was already nearing its end. Eventually, boats were tied up all along the Murray River waiting for work that never came. Some sank or were broken up, a few ran halfway into the new century as fishing boats, logging steamers and passenger craft but they, too, eventually disappeared. But then interest spread among locals and historians and some of the old steamboats were restored and began operating trips up and down the river for tourists.

The Aborigines had looked at the river and saw fish and game; at the gums and saw canoes and shields; at the cliffs and saw caves for shelter, clay and ochre for dancing bodies. But there was a difference. To the Aboriginal tribes ~ the Baraba Baraba, Wemba Wemba, Yorta Yorta and Ngurraiilam ~ the river was sacred. It was not theirs; it did not belong to them. They belonged to it for the river was the source of their legends; for them the Murray valley had been carved out in the Dreamtime when a giant Murray cod went swimming down the piccaninny Murray, his waving tail so huge it created the great broad sweeps seen today.

To the Aboriginal tribes ~ the Baraba Baraba, Wemba Wemba, Yorta Yorta and Ngurraiilam ~ the river was sacred. It was not theirs; it did not belong to them. They belonged to it, for the Murray was the source of their legends

A white Egret on the Murray, one of the many native
Australian birds that make the river home
In their 40,000 or more years as custodians, the Aborigines left few scars around the river: sacred burial grounds, gum trees with bark cut out for canoes, smoke stains on the yellow cliffs where they camped; glittering kitchen middens of cockles and mussel shells. The marks of the European invaders, though, are more easily seen. Locks and dams have drowned the swamplands and the red gum forests, arresting the rhythm of the river which replenished the swamps and mud-flats and generated the breeding cycles for fish, and for crops and cattle, the river polluted with runoffs and drains. There are other changes: When I first learned to swim in the Murray’s warm brown water, paddle-wheelers still swished back and forth. Swimming like fish, we could easily dodge them and we chased their wash to catch the waves, bobbing like corks.

Today, though, swimming in the river is like playing hop-scotch on a busy freeway. High-powered speedboats roar down the river, trailing skiers for tails, scattering swimmers daring enough to try to compete or just to cross the river from one bank to the other. A screaming fibreglass rocket with a 60 horsepower outboard at the stern and a nut at the wheel has none of the charm, the serenity or even the style of the old river boats.

The memories flood back as I stand on the cliff looking down on the river, the white mist almost gone. Life along the river has experienced a vast change in the past 150 or more years. The indigenous people who roamed its banks for millennia have almost all disappeared. The inland sailors, too, have gone ~ Alf Maslen among them ~ and little of what they brought to the river remains. They have stepped out of the great river of history.

Geoffrey Maslen’s new books are An Uncertain Future: Australian birdlife in danger and Too late: How we lost the battle with climate change, are published by HardieGrant and available at all good bookshops.

An early picture of the Adelaide steaming up the Murray River, towing a barge carrying red-gum logs. Photograph: Courtesy of the Echuca Historical Society

In 1869, wool being unloaded at the Punt in Echuca. Photograph: Courtesy of the Echuca Historical Society.
Bullock trains in Leslie Street in Echuca, carrying the wool brought by the paddles steamers to be taken to Melbourne. Photograph: Courtesy of the Echuca Historical Society 
 An 1876 etching of Echuca's Main Street and the Bridge Hotel at left, both still key features of the town. Image: Courtesy of the Echuca Historical Society

Subscribe to support our independent and original journalism, photography, artwork and film.