MORE THAN A BOOK: Murray-Darling Journeys is a fascinating compendium of the hundreds of river journeys made during the past 200 years. It was written by Mike Bremers and his daughter, Angela.
By JOHN DOOLEY
A Canberra Times newspaper article from 1991 about a river journey completed in 1934 by out-of-work adventurers ‘Webster & Minter’ caught the eye of public-servant Mike Bremers, and he thought he’d like to do something similar.
Little did he know it would be the catalyst for a book – ‘Murray-Darling Journeys’ that he, and his daughter Angela, would produce one day in the future.
For Mike, it was the beginning of a love affair and fascination with the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers which led to him either paddling his kayak or walking the length of both.
“It was a fascinating article which captured my imagination and motivated me do some paddling of my own,” Mike said.
“Between then and 2012, I had paddled most of the Murray and Murrumbidgee in stages from the towns near the source of the Murray, and in 2013 I walked it.”
The Murray River starts out as a small stream, just 40 kilometres from Australia’s highest mountain, Mt. Kosciuszko, and continues its 2756klm journey to the mouth at Goolwa in South Australia.
Most people attempting to paddle the length of the river by kayak, set off from the ‘Bringenbrong Bridge’, near the townships of Towong and Corryong, close to the Murray’s source.
Interestingly, the historic Towong racecourse is where scenes from ‘Phar Lap’ were filmed and where the gangster Squizzy Taylor once stole the takings!
The actual inspiration to write the book came from an unexpected quarter. In 2012, Angela was looking for a topic for her Masters thesis in Cultural Heritage that she was completing at Canberra’s Australian University, and thought the idea of the history of the Murray River might be worthy of consideration.
“I had a few ideas which I mentioned to mum and dad, telling them I was thinking of profiling a town along the Murray, and dad said: ‘Why not broaden it to look at other adventurers who have travelled down the Murray and other rivers’, something he had thought of while he was undertaking his trips,” Angela said.
“The thought of doing my thesis on this topic was exciting and appealed to me.”
Researching material for the thesis was an exacting task for Angela, having to consult multiple sources, she visited libraries in towns along the Murray, contacted numerous historical societies, and discovered anecdotes from people’s journeys down the various river systems.
Given the amount of resource material gathered during the thesis, the next logical step was to combine the stories into a book, something she and her father have done in ‘Murray-Darling Journeys’.
The book is about the history of significant, long distance rowing and paddling journeys in ‘human-powered’ craft, on the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin from 1817 to 2016.
The book provides a comprehensive listing of more than 430 published accounts covering journeys of exploration, surveying journeys related to the paddle steamer trade, gold rush and depression era journeys and recreational and fund-raising journeys.
The first journey detailed is that of Surveyor-General John Oxley, Captain Charles Sturt and Major Thomas Mitchell’s expedition, carried out at the behest of New South Wales Governor Macquarie, and the book concludes with, ‘Dave Jacka’s’ kayak trip down the Murray from the Hume Weir to the river mouth in 2016.
The authors say the book brings back to life long-forgotten journeys that are a reflection of the times in which they occurred.
Murray-Darling Journeys was launched by the Mayor of Alexandrina, Cr Keith Parkes, in Goolwa, last week, at the National Trust of South Australia History Centre.
Angela recalled an anecdote of a character named Jack Robson, who paddled a self-made galvanised iron canoe down the Tumut, Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers to the mouth of the Murray at Goolwa in 14 weeks and two days.
“Robson had no experience in handling canoes, and on the first day he encountered many rapids in the upper reaches of the Murray, and the canoe became swamped several times, and ended up with a leak in it,” she said.
“He was also forced to seek refuge in a gum tree when some wild pigs cornered him and lost a lot of his possessions and stores he had laid out on the river bank, when the wake from a passing paddle steamer washed everything into the water.”
Goolwa is significant not just for being at the mouth of the Murray, it’s also the home of a National Trust Heritage listed register, which documents the journeys down the river and was an invaluable source of information for Angela.
The Inland Rivers National Marathon Register as it is known, was established in 1954 by Alexandrina Councillor, Frank Tuckwell, who is now 83 years-of-age.
Mr Tuckwell started the register as a result of his meeting with a man called Bill Confoy, who had just completed his journey down the Macintryre, Barwon, Darling and Murray rivers, from Goodiwindi to Goolwa.
The intrepid canoeist paddled up to young Frank and asked him where he could register his river journey, and Frank said: ‘Nowhere’, but gave him a rough piece of paper to acknowledge his journey and arrival in Goolwa, and so the register was born out of this event.
“To this day Frank still takes an active interest in journeys down the river, and greets many paddlers on their arrival in Goolwa, and his foresight is credited with ensuring the remarkable journeys down the river are recorded for posterity,” Mike said.
Our own ‘Hugh King Drive’ in Mildura is named after one of the characters in the book, Scottish-born paddle steamer Captain, Hugh King.
Captain King, together with two crewmen, paddled a canoe made out of a gum tree up the Murray from Wentworth to Echuca.
They had just delivered the paddle steamer ‘Moira’, to new owners in Wentworth, and were faced with the problem of getting back to Echuca, as the river level had become too low to allow them to navigate a steamer back up it.
Later on, King became involved with the Chaffey Brothers, and together they formed the Murray Navigation Company, hence his connection with our region, and the name given to the road that runs along the river from the Bridge to Lock 11.
The list of hilarious, and some not so funny tales, is a long one, and makes the book a fascinating read.
The book is bound to make an ideal Christmas present, appealing to a broad range of readers, particularly those interested in the history of river journeys.
“It’s an easy read, you can just open it up at random and read one of the many stories contained in the book, you don’t have to start at page one and read the whole book from front to back to understand and enjoy it,” Mike said.
Murray-Darling Journeys is available at Collins Books Mildura, Wentworth Newsagency, and most visitor centres in the region.