JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME: A rare few will ever have the opportunity to navigate the course of the mighty Murray River in a kayak, let alone produce an award-winning, feature-length documentary in the process – for Albany Asher and her partner James Livingstone, this became a reality. They are pictured at the end of their journey, James kayaks with dog Rocco, and a snapshot of the mighty Murray River.

By JOHN DOOLEY

SOME years ago, when filmmaker and post-graduate astrophysicist Albany Asher sat chatting on the back verandah of her family’s Blue Mountains home with her partner James Livingstone, the idea to travel the length of the Murray River by kayak was set in motion.

What better location could you choose to make a documentary, for an astronomer to view the stars and a restless traveller to explore?

Eventually, the couple and their two cattle dogs, Onyx and Rocco, would be on water, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. 

“The idea of making a documentary on the Murray River was first brought up by James in 2011, as he discussed his hopes and dreams with me on the back verandah of my family’s home,” Albany said.

“James is a well-travelled Kiwi who felt that most Australians didn’t know their country well enough, especially the Murray River, and he wanted us to kayak the river together and document the journey, so we could encourage others to travel to this beautiful part of the country.

“At the time I told James that he would need to find a producer to help him make it, as it was going to require an enormous amount of effort to document a journey spanning nearly 3000 kilometres.

“Little did I realise that I would end up being the writer-director-producer of ‘Rivers of Australia: A Journey Along the Murray’, working solidly on the project from 2012 through to 2017, with official completion occurring early this year.”

Albany said their journey started at the source of the Murray in 2012, and was completed in several stages over 18 months, in part due to inclement weather, and also work commitments. 

“The kayaks launched at Bringenbrong Bridge point near Corryong on October 16, 2012 and we finished the journey on March 27, 2014,” Albany said. (Distance kayaked was approximately 2500km – the first section is Alpine territory, which isn’t navigable in a sea kayak).

“It took a year to get through all the footage and write the scripts, and another couple of years to do the post-production.”

The resultant product from all that hard work is a beautifully produced, feature-length documentary, narrated by Tony Barry, one of Australia’s most distinguished and highly-respected actors, which follows the two adventurers on their awe-inspiring kayaking journey along Australia’s longest river.

The film is now available for people to view via multiple streaming video-on-demand services, including through the education system. 

Albany said that the couple had three different support personnel throughout different stages of the journey.

“Grayden, Dave and Rick drove our ute with all of the camping gear and they would meet us at each pick-up point,” she said.

“My sister Melanie also supported us when we kayaked from Boundary Bend to Mildura.

“As James and I were filming the documentary on our own, without a film crew, it was an enormous effort to kayak the river and document the journey at the same time.”

Albany said her intention has always been for the film to become available to the public, both in Australia and overseas, through video-on-demand (streaming) services, DVD, cinema screenings, the education system, and ultimately on television. 

“It’s a unique documentary, both entertaining and educational, and it’s an important film that captures the Murray at her majestic best,” she said.

“With the school screenings, I am so impressed with the Australian Teachers of Media organisation, who have created a wonderful study-guide that teachers can link with the class curriculum. 

“The children can watch the documentary and enjoy many pages worth of interesting and challenging pre and post viewing activities ranging from focus discussions on conservation, history and wildlife, to activities pertaining to locks and weirs, through to how they would prepare for their own kayaking journey along the river. 

“I’ve had a good read of the study guide and it’s a brilliant educational tool.”

Throughout their expedition, the couple met some ‘salt-of-the-earth’ river dwellers, including one local big-cat hunter with a very unique story to tell. 

They also encountered endangered wildlife, including a colony of koalas, and some of the world’s deadliest creatures, including the red-bellied black snake. 

James and Albany explored conservation projects including the Neds Corner Station regeneration program, and innovations that benefit the sacred Murray, including the Williams Carp Trap design, and the conversion of carp into fertiliser at the Charlie Carp factory. 

The couple also took the opportunity to meet with local Indigenous elder Graham Clarke, who taught them the Indigenous and geological history of the Mungo National Park.

But like all ‘best laid’ plans, not everything went according to the script, and Albany and James would soon learn that the Murray can be as brutal, as she is beautiful. 

The couple had to overcome many challenges throughout their expedition, a highlight of which was persisting through gale force headwinds in South Australia. 

There was also the ‘escaping from camp’ when rain turned the clay-dirt, dry-weather track, into slippery, impassible mud. There was the rescue of an injured pelican and magpie fledgling and finding a way off the river when the access gate was locked – meaning their support person couldn’t reach them! 

On top of that, their support crew’s ‘tinny’ broke down twice, the 4WD was nearly bogged in the most remote region of the river, and the dogs needed to have a shade cover built so they could cope with the extreme heat.

Albany said her love of travel was engendered at an early age as she travelled throughout the eastern States of Australia extensively from birth to age six-and-a-half.

“Mildura’s neighbouring Merbein is one of the places I called home during that time. I used to swim in the Murray as a youngster,” she said.

“I mostly grew up in the Blue Mountains region though, where I was the quintessential bush kid and fell in love with nature and wildlife. 

“I’ve returned to the Murray River numerous times as it has always felt like a second home, especially Mildura.”

Albany said that Mildura and Wentworth feature in the documentary, as does Mungo National Park.

“In Mildura we met up with Merbein local Tim Williams, who has also kayaked the Murray,” she said. “The Sunraysia region features quite prominently in the film.”

‘Rivers of Australia: A Journey Along the Murray’ premiered at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City in October last year where it won the ‘Humans and Nature’ category.

A ‘Q&A’ fund-raiser cinema screening will be held at the Wallis Cinema complex in Mildura on Wednesday, October 16, at 6.30pm. Tickets may be purchased at the event (adults $15 and children and seniors $10). 

Funds raised from the event will go to the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife (FNPW) to support the Murray River Turtle Project – Foundation for National Parks  and Wildlife (www.fnpw.org.au).

For more information visit www.riversofaustralia.com.au.