Murray Source - Bringenbrong Bridge (Top 150 km) 2017
Top 150 km, Murray Source - Bringenbrong Bridge (12-18 Dec 2017)
Warning: The hike and kayak trip described in this section is very challenging. Anyone attempting to repeat this should be an experienced hiker especially in thick scrub and an experienced whitewater paddler unless under the guidance of a professional guide. In any case you should be fit and expect challenging conditions for at least a week. You should ensure that you have proper walking, paddling and camping gear, carry an emergency beacon and not walk or paddle alone. You should also carry a minimum of 8 days food. The conditions you experience are likely to be quite different and quite possibly much more challenging from those we encountered as described below.
In 2013 I walked from the Murray Source to Bringenbrong Bridge generally following the river to complement my earlier paddling journeys down the river downstream of Bringenbrong Bridge near Corryong. That journey was conducted in three parts. The first was an arduous 8 day walk from the Source to Tom Groggin. A few months later I walked from Tom Groggin to Damms Bridge via the Harrington track and various fire trails. The remainder, Damms Bridge to Bringenbrong Bridge, was done by walking along the road. However, during these walks I was often a kilometre or more away from the river and missed seeing how its character changed along the way. These hikes are also described in detail in the NPA Bulletin, Vol. 50 No. 4, December 2013.
According to Murray-Darling Journeys, paddling journeys on the river upstream of Tom Groggin are very infrequent. The common theme of the few accounts available is that upon launching at The Poplars camping area, lilos or rafts often needed to be dragged through the cold, shallow water and over log jams down the river bordered by near impenetrable scrub for the first couple days. Downstream of Tom Groggin is the "Murray Gates" which includes a series of grade 3 and 4 rapids as the river passes between mountains that tower 800 m above water level. This section requires a high level of whitewater paddling skill to negotiate. Of all the accounts available of journeys between the Murray Source and Bringenbrong Bridge, details of some are sketchy and some did not hike closely along the river between the Source and points further downstream (either taking firetrails or going high onto the ridge away from the river for part of it as I did in 2013) thereby missing on seeing the changing nature of the river and some features such as waterfalls or beautiful river scenery.
Links to subsequent journeys between the source and Bringenbrong are:
- Jason and Xavier, 2019, as part of their source to sea journey, https://fennerschool.anu.edu.au/research/projects/helping-river-sing-innovative-approach-communicating-river-health
- Alan D, 2019, as part of his source to sea journey, https://etaunknown.com/expeditions/murray-river/blog
In early 2017 Richard Swain (Swainy) of Alpine River Adventures posted on Facebook that he was wanting to conduct a recce for a hiking/kayaking trip for the top 150 km of the Murray River from the Murray Source to Bringenbrong Bridge and was looking for "fit intrepid adventurers" to join him. Swainy is a very experienced whitewater guide and has been through the Murray Gates countless times over several decades.
The trip was set to start on 12 December and expected to take anywhere between 7 and 11 days. The party included guides Swainy and Kristian Cargill (Kribba) and whitewater novices Matty Hunter and myself. For Matty it was the start of his source to sea journey. He is raising money for his charity, the Secret Creek Wildlife Sanctuary near Lithgow and is due to reach the sea in early March 2018 (this was successfully completed). For me it was an opportunity to paddle the Murray River from the highest navigable point at The Poplars camping area down through the Murray Gates to Bringenbrong Bridge to add to the 2400 km that I had already paddled over the last 22 years. Swainy and Kribba were going to have a big job getting Matty and I up to speed to handle the Murray Gates. But first of all we needed to hike for two days from the Murray Source to The Poplars following the river closely all the way.
Day 1: 12 December 2017 (15.2 km)
Matty and Swainy had organised a helicopter drop off at Cowombat Flat. The flight from Jindabyne was spectacular on a clear day. The helicopter flew up the Murray Valley towards Cowombat Flat giving us a birdseye view of the route we would follow of the next few days. As we approached the Flat we saw 4 hikers walking off to the west - perhaps walking the Australian Alps Walking Track. After landing we left our packs at the Flat and headed up Cowombat Track and after a couple kilometres at a small cairn headed into the bush onto a brumby track. We found the pole marking the Murray Source (S36.79704° E148.19676°), signed the notebook and then headed up Forest Hill to Cairn No. 1 (S36.79887° E148.20128°) of the Black-Allan Line (the straight part of the NSW/VIC border). We retraced our steps to the pole and followed the trickle that was the Murray River downhill to Cowombat Flat. We visited the exclosures which demonstrate how well vegetation grows when feral animals are excluded from an area. We then visited the wreckage of a DC3 that crashed on the Flat in the 1950s, returned to our packs and had lunch. After lunch we walked for about 3 hours down along the Murray, crossing many times and sometimes walking in the river till 5:30 pm when we found a flattish open area that made a good campsite just past Copperhead Ck which is about 9 km downstream of the Murray Source.
Day 2: 13 December 2017 (9.5 km)
Day 2 continued much the same as day 1 finished, with much river walking and frequent crossings. Occasionally we went high to avoid cliffs but at all times we were within a stones throw of the river. After about 4 hours we reached the Bulley Ck confluence where we had lunch. After another 3 km we were at the Limestone Ck confluence where we had afternoon tea. The Murray is now significantly wider with the waters of this major tributary. Another hour or so of river and bank walking had us at The Poplars Camping Area at 4:30 pm where Joe and Justin (Matty's mates and our support crew) were waiting with the kayaks and supplies. A most enjoyable evening was had by all and included a delicious roast pork and vegetable meal cooked by Joe. The only downside was stiff muscles and joints by us walkers after a tough couple days of walking.
Day 3: 14 December 2017 (30.4 km)
At the camping area I met Mary and Russ from Sydney. We had a chat about paddling (Russ had paddled part of the Murrumbidgee and had followed Murrumbidgee River Canoe Trip) and they were interested in buying a copy of Murray-Darling Journeys which Justin had shown them the previous day. Joe repaired my torn shirt with his speedy stitcher and the inflatable kayaks were readied for launching. On launching we practised ferry gliding and then we headed off downstream at about 10 am. The water level was quite good after decent rain the previous week and we made good progress. Occasionally Matty and I got stuck on rocks and sometimes we needed to disembark and pull the kayak off. Swainy and Kribba didn't seem to have much problem - no doubt due to the ability to "read" the river and their superior control of their kayaks. During the afternoon somewhere before Tin Mine Ck we came across the 4 hikers who we had seen 2 days earlier at Cowombat Flat. They were about to cross the river when we paddled past (we would not have been able to see then if they were a few metres back due to the thick bush). They had walked from Dead Horse Gap to Cowombat Flat and were now headed for Tom Groggin along the river. Having done the walk in 2013, I felt sorry for them for the tough conditions they were about to encounter. I later found out they they were from the Coast and Mountain Walking Club. The leader said they had to leave the river at Tin Mine Ck because the going became very slow and they were running short of food. They headed up the hill to the fire trail to get out. It was steep and scrubby and worse at the top with huge fallen trees from the fires. It would have been somewhat more difficult walking in the river which was about 30 cm deeper than what my group experienced in 2013.
We were making much better progress than in those accounts of earlier paddling journeys so we kept going until 6:30 pm to make the best of the conditions on a falling river. Campsites were difficult to find so we made the best of a rocky beach and made some tent sites in the scrub. The only mosquitoes we saw on the whole trip were in the scrub around the tents. A Murray crayfish with its white claws and eggs was found in the water at our campsite and was returned to the river. That night I began to worry about the Murray Gates - I had not felt like I was in good control of the kayak during the day and the rapids were only going to get a lot bigger and more difficult downstream!
Day 4: 15 December 2017 (37 km)
We again made good progress on day 4. I was able to identify my rocky campsite and Karen and Bob's sandy campsite of 28 March 2013. It was then new territory for me. In 2013 we left the river and climbed 200 m above the river to escape the thick scrub. In doing so we missed seeing a few kilometres of river. We passed Tom Groggin Top Flat and after Leatherbarrel Ck we began to encounter some grade 2-3 rapids and practised some drills. Matty and I survived these and our confidence grew. I was surprised to find that shortly after the Tom Groggin ford there is a rocky chasm. It's quite unexpected when you see the calm river flowing at a gentle pace just upstream at the ford. Further downstream, before the bridge to Tom Groggin Station, there is a waterfall with a drop of about 6 feet. Going over was fun but my enjoyment was tempered by the thought of the Murray Gates which we would pass through tomorrow. We arrived at our campsite at Grassy Flat at 5 pm. I was feeling a bit more confident about the Murray Gates than 24 hours previously and I slept better.
Day 5: 16 December 2017 (27 km)
Matt (Matty's mate) arrived to pick up our gear and transported it to our planned destination of Bunroy Ck Camping Area. Swainy said Matty and I were doing well but the Murray Gates were another level up and we needed everything in our favour i.e. lighter, more responsive craft. Kribba gave us a safety briefing including the use of the rope throw bag for rescuing capsized paddlers. You could not have found two more attentive students! I wondered how many times I would be rescued during the day. We launched at 9:30 and I tried kneeling instead of sitting in the kayak. It felt good and the kayak definitely were more responsive with less cargo. The next few hours were a blur but we passed through grade 3 and 4 rapids with names such as "Head Banger", "Long Island", "Hole in the Head", "Guides Mistake" (renamed for the day as "Mike's Mistake"), "South African Swim", "The Thing", "Sharks Tooth" and "Jellyfish Rock". A couple times we lined the kayaks down a rapid and there were a few scary moments but Matty and I had enough skill (or was it luck?) to recover from these sticky situations. We stopped for lunch once we had passed all of the grade 3 and 4 rapids. The remainder of the way to Bunroy Ck was very enjoyable with easy rapids and definite feel of a river going downhill. On arrival at Bunroy Ck Camping Area we were greeted by Matt and a bit later Scotty (another one of Matty's mates) with lots of cold beers. For the second time in the day the next few hours were a blur but it is safe to say we were all satisfied with ourselves for getting safely through the Murray Gates. One standout memory was the bolognaise that Matt's wife had prepared for us!
Day 6: 17 December 2017 (24 km)
A late start of 11:10 am as we did not have too far to paddle today. After a few kilometres we exited Kosciuszko National Park and entered farmland. It was like another world - there were no native trees on the river bank at all, noisy pumps, willows were hanging low over the river, in many places the banks had been trampled by the cattle and often the cattle were standing in the water. We no longer drank straight from the river. The low hanging willows meant we needed to stay alert because often the main current would flow underneath these low branches and there is a risk of being trapped amongst them. Eventually we arrived at our destination of Indi Bridge Reserve after about 4 hours of paddling. Matt and Scotty had more cold beers waiting which were very welcome on a hot afternoon. Swainy's wife Alison also arrived in preparation to drive us home the next day and with more beer!
Day 7: 18 December 2017 (12 km)
Mark (another of Matty's mates) arrived in the morning. It took only two hours to paddle the final 12 km to Bringenbrong Bridge. It was a narrow river with sharp bends and overhanging willows until we arrive at the Swampy Plains River confluence. There was a strong flow coming down the Swampy Plains and the Murray was significantly wider. The final few kilometres were covered quickly (easily doing 8 km/h) but we needed to pause just before the bridge because a journalist from the Corryong Courier had just arrived and wanted to take our photo as we passed under the bridge. After lunch and packing up we said farewell to Matty as he launched for Towong and eventually the sea 2400 km and two and a half months away.
In conclusion I would like to thank everyone involved, Swainy and Kribba for their expert guidance and patience with Matty and I - without them we couldn't have done it, Matty's mates (as mentioned above) as support crew and Alison for meeting us at the end to take us home. Best of luck to Matty for the rest of his journey to the sea!