Just as I start to get strong on the bike, this second cycle tour of my adventure has come to a close. This afternoon I rode into Swan Hill 13 days after I left Adelaide en route to Melbourne. It feels good to have another tour under my belt and to know that I am getting stronger on the bike. I am learning a lot about myself as I ride and camp my way through the countryside. For example, I am not a hardcore tourer because I like a shower at the end of the day, prefer to camp legally in a designated area (whether free or paid), cannot eat on $5 a day because I like my food too much and am willing to cheat by catching trains or other transport if I need to. What I am is a cycle traveler who enjoys the slow pace of cycle touring while relishing in some little luxuries along the way.
Fields of canola greeted me as I rolled out of Manangatang this morning. It has escaped the fields and now grows in gay abandon along the roadside under the mallee. I wonder whether it will ever take over the landscape as a weed or whether it is a crop that can be controlled. I guess time will tell. What I do know is that the bright yellow flowers are pretty.
I reach Bailey Flat. It’s stunning. The small ankle-high shrubs look like they’re about to burst into bloom with red flowers. I stop to take some photos and also to watch the caravans and cars zoom across the flat. What took me about twenty minutes plus photo time takes them less than five. I can’t help but wonder whether they even notice the flats with its beautiful red shrubs.
I am rather surprised when I see the sign notifying me that I am entering another wine region. I didn’t know there was wine out here on the Murray River in Victoria. It seems rather a waste in a way because I don’t drink wine. The vines here grow in red soil, rather than between green ground cover. Stone fruuit orchards sit alongside the vines. It will be beautiful here in a few weeks once the flowers are all in bloom. Some fields are already awash with pink but none close enough to the road for a photo. But in a few weeks, I am sure this will be one of the most beautiful places in Victoria.
The Murray River greets me as I come to the end of the Mallee Highway. She’s lost some of her condition since I last saw her in Berri and her name has changed. In South Australia she was called the River Murray. Back there she was wide and cliff-lined, and her waters were green. Here on the border of Victoria and New South Wales she is called the Murray River. She is narrrower, her banks slope muddily from the surrounding landscape and her waters are brown. She’s not as pretty as she will become but I like this ugly duckling still. I follow her all the way to Swan Hill where I check into the cheapest hotel in town and discover it’s a comfortable gem with a movie channel on the television. This tour is now over and I am going to have a couple of days off to write a university paper and travel by train to Melbourne. And then, on Tuesday, a new adventure will begin – four days trying my hand at cross country skiing at Mount Baw Baw.
I woke to the sound of birds singing and the sun shining. All my gear had dried overnight under the shelter of the marquee and I could walk around without my feet getting wet. I looked around the beer garden and thought this place must be a great place to hang out in the spring when the weather is warm but not yet hot. After packing my gear I was on the road by 8:30am and enjoying the views over the River Murray that were blocked by yesterday’s rain. It was beautiful to look out over the flats below the cliffs that I was steadily climbing. Back on the highway I stopped at the Overland Corner Cemetary where gravestones told the stories of the pioneers of this part of the world. Across the road was a view out over the hotel and river so I stopped to cook up a breakfast of eggs with zucchinni and romano cheese followed by bananas fried in butter and sugar served with custard. As I sat there the sun disappeared, a cold wind picked up and gray clouds blanketed the world.
I rugged up and set off down the road. Before long I turned off the highway towards Bamara and came to the Loch Luna and Bonney Lake. The lakes are huge and I am sure that Bourke and Wills probably would have fallen over their tongues thinking they were the mythical inland sea they sought. Small waves were lapping against the shores of Bonney Lake, making it seem a little menacing in the winter cold. I was definitely not tempted to pull out the packraft though it would be a great place to paddle on a sunny day.
In Bamera the lake looked much more beautiful due to both the jetty and being on the side where the wind was blowing from. I stopped for a rest and to imagine how many laughing people would have jumped off and swum around the jetty on warm summer days.
The Riverland where I am riding is one of Australia’s big wine and fruit growing areas. When I wasn’t riding through mallee scrub or between lakes, vines and citrus trees lined the roads. Just about everyone here works in agriculture or to support it. Fruit picking, vine pruning, potato or onion farming, wine making and automotive work seem to be the big employers. Despite the labour intensive agricultural industry, unemployment is said to be high due to the seasonal and physical nature of the work. It’s a story told over and over again across many parts of rural and regional Australia.
Fruit stalls lined the road between Bamera and Berri. Some are retail stands while others are run by growers. I happened to stop at a pretty stall run by a grower who was proud of her produce.
I bought a big bag of mandarins despite not having enough space to carry them in my panniers. So I found a new use for the touring bars and rode the final 6km to camp with the mandarins resting on the bars. I reached camp at about midday and enjoyed my first hot shower in four days. I am learning that I am not a roughing it kind of guy; I like a hot shower every few days and the comforts of a camp kitchen where I can sit comfortably at a table to write blog posts and do some work. I spent the afternoon eating lunch near the River Murray, reading a book in the sun at camp and taking an afternoon nap.
Cold and wet. They are the only words to describe the ride from Waikerie to Overland Corner. The rain pelted down as I rode into the headwind, leaving me looking and feeling like a drowned rat. Normally I would prefer to sit it out but I need to be in Melbourne by 6 September to fly home for my birthday so I took a tablespoon of cement and hardened myself up.
The scenery was pretty enough and I only had 40km to ride to get to the Historic Overland Corner Hotel, which I had heard so much about. As I rode I found myself daydreaming of a warm log fire, hot food and some country hospitality. It passed the miles away quite nicely as I rode through the mallee country. I barely even took my usual 10-15km rest stops because the call of warmth was so strong. I still enjoyed the ride but, like most people, I do prefer blue skies and sunshine.
And then, like manna from heaven, it materialised. It started with a sign stating that the pub was just 3km up the road. And then an arrow pointing off the road towards said pub. And then, as I rolled down a long gentle slope, there it was … The Historic Overland Corner Hotel. I could smell the deliciously warm smell of chimney smoke before I saw it and made a beeline straight for the building. It was all I could do not to just dump my bike on its side and bust into the warmth of the public bar but I contained myself and propped it gently against a post in the beer garden before walking inside soaking wet. Oh it was so warm and cozy and friendly in the pub. I knew instantly that this would be one of the highlights of my trip.
I ordered a drink and Phil (the publican) offered to let me pitch my tent outside under a marquee so that I would be dry and comfortable for the night. And so began a delightful afternoon and evening of food, drink and conversation (only soft drink for me though because I am mostly a tee totaller). I can report that the open BLT with chips is delicous and the hamburger is one of the best you’ll taste anywhere. Throughout the afternoon locals and a few travelers came through the doors into the small bar to warm themselves, have a drink, share a yarn and move on. There is a wonderful Dutch word “gezelig” that I personally think is one of the highest compliments anyone can give to a host and “gezelig” is exactly what the Historic Overland Corner Hotel is. I don’t often recommend places, but if you are in the area or want an excuse to go up to the Riverlands, check it out because it’s definitely a winner.
After listeining to hoons doing donuts outside my tent late into the night, I woke to gray skies and cold weather. With a couple of university assignments due in mid-September I decided the best option for the day was to try to find somewhere warm and dry to do some work instead of moving on. I had heard from the visitor centre in Morgan that Waikerie was a very nice town. Personally, I found the town a bit rough and unfriendly compared to river towns in the Murraylands. But at least there was a powerpoint outside the library in the cold where I could plub in to work (without sun I couldn’t charge my devices any other way) with my fingers slowly turning blue. The council officer I spoke with said that they don’t like backpackers hanging out inside the public library so they have opted to cover all indoor powerpoints and only allow charging of devices outside.
After a long day behind the keyboard (and making good progress on my university studies) I changed camp to stay along the river on the other side of town. The camp was okay and there were no hoons overnight. But before I bedded down I unpacked my packraft and spent a lovely half hour unwinding on the River Murray, just drifting around and dipping in the paddles every now and then for some very slow propulsion. It was the highlight of an otherwise businesslike day. If you are traveling the Murray, I would recommend against bothering with Waikerie. Stop in Morgan or at any town down in the Muraylands instead. They are much more beautiful and friendly.
Mmmm. The great Aussie steak pie. It was exactly what the doctor ordered this morning for breakfast. Well, I’m not sure any doctor in their right mind would be happy with me eating a steak pie for breakfast. But hey, fantasy island is a lovely place to live sometimes. Anyway, I could have done crackers with cheese or two-minute noodles with tuna or even bought a bread roll. But the blokes outside the bakery seemed to be enjoying their meat pies so much I couldn’t resist.
I retraced my steps of a few weeks ago by cycling from Morgan towards Cadell. This was the road where I had such strong headwinds on my last tour. And would you believe it, the wind has turned and is now blowing strongly from the south-east so I had headwinds again. Not gale force winds like last time but still a stiff breeze that forced me to get my quads cranking.
As I’ve probably mentioned way too often, I love this open saltbush country. While it would be nice to have something to block the wind, being able to see for miles is awesome. I rode about 15km from town then stopped, took this obligatory jumping for joy photo then sat down between the saltbush to read my book.
Farther down the road the landscape changes. The soil turns red and mallee scrub springs up around me. I stop at a rest area. Stuart and Barb from Packenham in Victoria stop there too. They have been traveling Western Australia in their caravan for the past three months. They boil the kettle and invite me to join them for a cup of tea and some cake. They tell me about where they’ve been and ask me where I’m headed. I enjoy the yarn before we set off again on our separate adventures.
Not far from where I met Stuart and Barb is Lock 2. This is the second Lock from the Murray’s mouth. The water is flowing quickly over the weir and there are no boats waiting to use the lock. The lock has a fish ramp to allow fish to travel up and down the river. I don’t know how many fish make it successfully through the ramp though, what with all the pelicans and commerants waiting to eat them. The pelicans fly up close to the weir, dropping into the turbulent water before drifting downstream a short distance and then repeating the process. Some are braver than others; flying right up to the weir wall. A couple of pelicans are more like me – they look too scared to enter the turbulent water and instead bob outside the safety rope.
Lock 2 also signals another change in the landscape. I leave the mallee behind and enter the Riverlands fruit and wine region. Huge vineyards battle with massive citrus farms for prime real estate. The vines here are different to those in the Barossa, Clare and Fleurieu. They look wilder, taller and more gnarly. Perhaps it’s the variety or just a reflection on how harsh this river country is. The citrus is in the middle of being picked. Everywhere there are signs saying “No work” and many of the trees are just green blobs. But others are beautiful with their branches heaving with great orange globes. They grow it all here: oranges, mandarins and grapefruit.
And then I arrive at the river itself. A short ferry ride takes me into Waikerie. It’s a larger town than most with two supermarkets (Woolworths and Foodland), two bottle shops, a petrol station, a good number of houses spread around and a public library. The citrus and wine must be ensuring this town is still flourishing while so many of the river towns I passed on my earlier trip are dying. There’s a commercial caravan park but it doesn’t look attractive. The free (and legal) riverside camping, on the other hand, is wonderful. I pull up an cook toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch in the afternoon sun before pitching my room with a view.
As the sun sets I feel content. Though I don’t enjoy the sounds of local yobs doing donuts in their cars. Fortunatley, by around 10:30pm the hoons seems to have left (they didn’t hang around – they’d just come down, do some donuts and leave). Tomorrow I will probably stay here. I have a university assignment that I need to start writing. Hopefully the sun is out though so I can charge my devices.
For today though, I’ll leave you with this image of me cycling along these quiet country roads enjoying life.
The moon is still shining brightly in the sky when I wake for a shower. I want to get an early start on the day because I have to cover 87km (50 miles) to the next camp. There’s no campsites between Kapunda and Morgan, and I’m not the kind of guy who likes to just pitch a tent between the highway and a farmer’s fence. I know some touring cyclists cover double this distance every day but I like to keep my days to about 40-50km (25-30 miles) because I find this distance allows me to relax and spend time enjoying both the sights and my afternoons in camp.
I’m on the road by 8:10am and rolling out of Kapunda into the wheat fields (I read a sign today that said the green fields of crops I have been riding through are wheat fields). The hills around Kapunda are all bare. I assume the trees here were lopped down decades ago to make way for the mass production of food for our expanding national population. There are some trees in the fields and along the roadside but most of the hills are barren but for the wheat plants. A bright yellow field stands out in the distance. I think it’s a canola farm. The colour is amazing and spreads like a small sea in a vast emerald landscape.
As I push on towards Eudunda the landscape shifts effortlessly from wheat fields to grazing country. There are still plenty of lambs in the paddocks. Some are tiny. They are demanding of their mothers; continuing to try drinking even when their mothers try to run away from me. Sheep really are silly animals.
After a steady 27km (16 mile) climb from Kapunda I reach Eudunda. The town is tiny but the local ladies have embraced the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) festival by knitting up a storm. They have made the statue of Colin Thiele and his pelican a lovely scarf and beanie to keep out the cold. Thiele was the author of a number of Australian classics including Storm Boy (hence his having a pelican with him). The bike rack where I leave my bike is covered in multi-coloured and multi-textured wool.
Even the local post box didn’t escape the onslaught.
Though the star of the show was the giant ‘crocodile’ someone has fashioned out of an old stump in the local park. It made me chuckle out loud when I noticed it’s teeth glistening in the sunshine.
After Eudunda the land opened up. This is the bush as I love it. The wide open spaces, straight long roads that never seem to end and a sense of hardship inspire my imagination. I felt content as I rode through this landscape where many people say there’s nothing to see but really there are subtle changes happening all the time.
As I drew closer to the Murray I came to the saltbush plains and mallee trees that so captured my soul on the ride from Morgan to Burra a few weeks ago. Vast plains of blue-grey saltbush gave way to patches of mallee scrub that sprawled around like a drunken cowboy. A mob of emus saw me and started to run away; their feathers bouncing around like the grass skirts on those Hawaiin hoola girl dolls that people put on their dashboards. Fortunately, the emus ran away from me because sometimes when they run along the road they run into the very thing they are trying to escape and that would have been rather unpleasant.
About 15km (10 miles) from Morgan I noticed something bright just off the highway. Someone has created a fantastic interpretive display at the old Eba Railway Siding. A sign tells the story of days gone by when Eba was a thriving community of farmers and timber cutters. The story is told with wit and character. If you are ever in the area it is worth seeing. People must have been tough back in the olden days when some men resorted to living in dug out holes in the earth and eating nothing but stale bread, water and lard to fuel their bodies. Aparently this part of the world was so isolated that the children were shy. The story tells of a boy who went missing only to be found hiding in a hollow near the railway line. He was so shy he had to be coaxed back out.
Someone (possibly the person who wrote the story and created the display) has left a jar of smiley face buttons with a message on the jar “Help yourself. Have a nice day”. It’s a lovely little gesture so I left a note thanking the person for the display, story and button and leaving a link to my blog so that they might see how their efforts brought a smile to my face.
I’ve pinned the button to one of my pannier bags as part of my ongoing customisation of the bright yellow Ortliebs.
I arrived at the Morgan Conservation Park just in time to enjoy an hour of sunshiine before the sun sank behind the cliffs. Rather than pitch the tent I ate some food and lazed in the sun. Does anyone recognise this place from my visit a few weeks ago? I have pitched my tent at the same site but not in behind the trees as there is no wind here tonight.
Despite the long miles I rode, I had a wonderful day on the bike. There was plenty to see and smile about. Though tomorrow I will return to my usual shorter distances for a little while because I do prefer to have the afternoon off to do some sightseeing, paddling, work or study.
I liked Morgan the instant I rode into town yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t just relief at being able to stop after a long day in the saddle. No, this was an actual deep sense of liking the place and so I decided to stay here two nights to rest, relax and allow my body to recover from the demands of five days on the road. I set aside the whole morning for work (I work 19 hours a week writing online training courses). I find that I am efficient and focused when I am relaxed and the sunshine in the town’s riverfront park was conducive to said relaxation. The hours passed by quickly and, before I knew it my laptop battery had died and it was already lunchtime.
After a trip to the museum, with it’s funny male manekins dressed in women’s garb (I doubt it’s intentional cross-dressing and more a feature of necessity), I couldn’t resist a visit to the old morgue. Apparently, this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the whole town. We humans are such morbid people 🙂
Morgan used to be a major centre on the Murray River. It was so big that it became a railway town in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a former railway worker myself, I have a thing for railway towns. There’s something kinda cool about trains and the way they can travel almost anywhere – so long as there are tracks for them to follow. The railways always conjur up an era of prosperity, adventure and industry. I think that I would have liked to have been a railway man in days gone past. And visiting railway towns also brings up fond personal memories of the men I worked with when I was myself a railways man.
Naturally, as a prosperous river town, Morgan was also home to a lively shipping industry. The local community are currently bringing life back into the PS Canally, which sank near Morgan many years ago. I hope one day to return to see her once again making her way up and down the river as the Murray Princess does today.
And then there were the houses from various periods of Morgan’s history. I think we all know by now that I like derelict stuctures, especially those built from stone. But I do also like structures that are still alive. There’s something about the stories that their walls must be able to tell about all the souls that have passed through the rooms, whether as residents, guests or maybe even thieves. There are countless little historic houses in town that trace it’s links to times long gone.
My final day on the Murray wouldn’t be complete without launching my packraft. My campsite didn’t really have a good launch point and I didn’t feel like wasting time searching the area for a better spot so I made do and got myself safely into the boat without the need for a swim (I am a strong swimmer but it’s not an activity that I enjoy).
The effort was worth it and I was soon paddling my way on the river’s greeny-brown waters looking up at the burnt orange cliffs on the opposite bank. I know I will miss those cliffs that I have followed north these past few days when I turn north-west away from the river’s path.
There is a gorgeous recurring burnt orange theme to the Murray’s banks in these southern reaches. Where cliffs rise on one side, burnt orange grasses grow in gay abandon on the other. If someone painted it with oils you’d say they were using artistic licence. But it really does look like this.
The pelicans are still here, swimming away and catching fish. But there are fewer of them than there were further south. Perhaps we’re starting to get too far away from the sea for their liking. Or maybe there’s not as many fish for them to eat up here. That’s not to say they are rare here because I still counted about 25 of them on my paddle. They seem to like being in pairs and I saw some swim quickly away when a third tried to join them. It was rather like seeing two lovers interrupted by an unwanted dinner guest.
The strangest thing I saw was this toilet stuck way up in a tree. Someone must have gone to a lot of effort to get it up there because it was very high. You’d need to park a houseboat under the tree and then probably still climb a ladder to get there. However it got there, it made me chuckle – for I am someone who finds these random sightings amusing.
After paddling upstream for almost an hour, I turned my raft for home and allowed the wind and current to carry me partway back while I basked in the sunshine. Don’t let the short sleeves and shorts confuse you – the maximum temperature today was only around 10 degrees celcius (50 degrees farenheit) but I seem to be aclimating quite well now.
Back at camp I laid my packraft out to dry while I cooked up some dinner and watched the sun drop down behind the cliffs. It was so quiet and peaceful watching the pelicans and listening to the kites calling. I have thoroughly enjoyed my week on the Murray. Perhaps one day I will be back to ride her waters by packraft or canoe. For now, the time has come to explore new territory. But I will enjoy one last night of listening to the water lap against the shore knowing that I am here sleeping beside Australia’s Mighty Murray River.