Summit to Sea – The Murray River

It has nearly been 6 months since I started my career break. It was slightly unfortunate timing that this break pretty much started at the same time as the COVID-19 restrictions. This has not really had a massive impact on what I was planning to do this year, but it looks like it is going to mess with a lot of the overseas travel Kath and I had planned for next year. As a result we have been shuffling around a few of our plans, including bringing forward a big adventure I have been thinking about for a long time. One of the Bucket List items I have been dreaming about for many years has been to kayak the entire length of the Murray River and I am now planning to do this in May and June 2021.

The Murray

For those not familiar with the Murray River, it is the longest river in Australia (2,508km / 1,558mi) and flows from the Snowy Mountains, near Mt Kosciuszko (Australia’s tallest mountain), along the New South Wales/Victoria border, into South Australia, and then eventually flows into the Great Australian Bight at Goolwa (near Adelaide). 

I have always loved The Murray and it seems to have played a role in many ways during my life. As a small kid, when we lived in Adelaide, and our family would have houseboat holidays on the Murray. I have many early memories of catching yabbies and being towed behind the houseboat in a dingy.

In 1996 I spent a year living in Albury while studying at Charles Sturt University. During this (very fun and crazy) year we spent a lot of time swimming, kayaking, partying and just hanging out on the Murray. 

Murray River in South Australia (Stock Photo)

The Murray River also played a role during my formative years of ballooning and competition ballooning. Every year, during the mid 1990s and the early 2000s, we would spend weeks in Mildura, flying and competing over (and sometimes in) the river. 

Being that The Murray acts as most of the border of Victoria and New South Wales, which are the two states that I have spent most of my life travelling around, I have crossed the river countless times. The Murray River has always seemed to be there and now I plan to see all of it.

Unfortunately, the Murray River is not a very healthy river. Over the last century there have been serious environmental impacts to the waterway and the surrounding areas. The introduction of dams and irrigation have altered the river’s natural flow significantly and increased salt levels. Runoff from agriculture and the introduction of foriegn species, such as the European carp have had a big impact on the native species. There has been a lot of contention and conflict at a Federal and State level about the use and protection of the river. One of the big reasons I want to paddle along the river is so I can see all of these issues first hand and get a better understanding of the issues. I also fear that it is only going to get worse and I want to experience it before it does.

Bringing the Trip Forward

I had planned to do this trip in September 2021, when the water levels below the Hume Weir would be at their highest, however I have decided to bring this trip forward to May 2021. There are a number of reasons for bringing it forward by 5 months. The first is that it will help fill in the time while international travel is still restricted (we are assuming restrictions will continue in the first half of 2021). 

The second reason is that the weather will be better for the section in the Snowy Mountains. If I was to start in September, I would be dealing with early spring cold (and snowy) conditions in the High Country and then late autumn / early summer (hot) weather in South Australia. As you read further in this post about the plan, you will see why the weather in the High Country will be a consideration. 

The final reason is probably the most important… I just want to get on with it. So early May is the planned start.

“Summit to Sea” not “Source to Sea”

The actual plan for this adventure has changed a few times, but I have finally worked out what it is going to be. Originally I wanted to paddle the Murray from “Source to Sea”. However I have discovered that the term “Source to Sea” is fairly contentious in the kayaking world, because technically it is impossible to paddle from the source as it is a tiny trickle of water (if it has been raining) on the side of Mt. Kosciuszko. Basically the first 110km of the river is not really able to be paddled and it is in some of the most remotest parts of the High Country. As a result, many people who paddle “the entire” Murray River often start as far down as the Hume Weir which is some 330km downstream from the Source.

I had originally planned to just start the journey at a place called Biggara (near Khancoban), so I would be paddling the entire “navigable” length of the Murray River. However, the more I thought about this it started bugging me. It felt like I was missing out on the first 110km of the river and I wasn’t really going to be travelling or seeing the entire length. 

A few people have hiked along the first stretch, but it just looks miserable and very difficult. It would also be something I would not want to do solo. Afterall, my trip is not about conquering the river, it is about enjoying it and experiencing it. 

I then came up with a better idea that I am happier with. I was scrutinising the map of the Upper Murray and found there were various remote tracks and fire trails near the river. I was able to plot a route through the mountains that kept me pretty much in the same valley as the river and within a few kilometers the river for most of the time. I also realised that the starting point was so close to the top of Mt. Kosciuszko, that the idea then morphed into travelling from the top of Australia (the summit of Mt. Kosciuszko) to the Sea (Goolwa) via the true Source of Murray River. 

So that is the plan, I am going to travel from the Summit to Sea.

The Details

So how is it going to work? Well I am not going to describe the entire trip now, but here are the main points.

The entire journey will be approximately 2,600km. I will consist of a small amount of walking, a bit of biking and then a whole lot of paddling. To put that distance into perspective, that is the same that Melbourne isn to Cairns, London is to Moscow and Los Angeles is to Chicago.

The entire 2600km route

The Hike

The first section will be a short hike (11km) from the summit of Mt. Kosciuszko to Dead Horse Gap where I will transition to my bike. 

For those people overseas, when we talk about Australia’s tallest mountain, it really is just a big hill. The peak is only 2,228m high but it does get covered in snow in the Winter months (usually between July and September). It is definitely not the type of mountain that other continents such as Europe and Asia have, as there is a paved track to the top and a toilet block just below the summit. Kath and I hiked there last year just before Christmas and it is a beautiful part of the World.

Kath on top of Mt. Kosciuszko last year

The Ride

After I have hiked (strolled) down from the Summit, I will meet Kath at Dead Horse Gap and pick up my bike and camping gear. I will then ride down Cascade and Cowombat Trails to Tin Mine Hut (about 40km). From there I will be able to hike the few kilometers to the true source of the Murray (based on GPS coordinates). Apparently there is a small marker in the middle of the bush.

I will then have to ride back uphill to Dead Horse Gap and then head down the Alpine Way back to the river at Tom Groggin campground. From there I will have to ride back up about 1,000m of elevation to top of Mt. Youngal (1,514m) and then I ride down a remote track called the Indi Track to Khancoban and then to Biggara. 

The Ride – Dead Horse Gap to Biggara

All up, the ride will be about 200km and should take me about 4 days. 

Being that I have not done much mountain biking (or any biking) in the last 10 years, the bike ride is the bit that will require the most training. Right now the 2,000km of paddling sounds easy compared to the 10km (and 1,000m gain) ride up Mt. Youngal.

The elevation profile of the ride

The Paddle

This is obviously the bulk of the trip. At Biggara, I will transfer all my camping gear from my bike to my kayak. I then start paddling all the way down to South Australia. There is so much information I could write about the paddle, but I have no idea where to start. Basically it should take about 8 weeks to cover the 2,400km. 

I will be living out of my kayak and camping on the side of the river most nights. There will be towns along the river every few days, so I will be able to restock my food, recharge batteries and post photos and videos. The longest section of the river without towns is between Wentworth (near Mildura) and Renmark, which is about 270km and should take about 5 days.

I don’t want to rush the trip. I want to experience it properly and spend time meeting people and experiencing the different environments. I plan to have a rest day roughly each week to give the body a rest, to break the monotony of paddling, to edit videos and to wash my clothes. Being that I am going to be paddling into Winter, I also foresee there will be the occasional day that the weather is too nasty to be on the water. 

Support and Logistics

I plan to do the majority of this trip solo and unsupported, in that I will be living out of my kayak (and bike). 

As mentioned earlier, there will be a bit of logistics switching from hiking, to biking and to kayaking. The current plan is that Kath (and maybe other family members) will spend a week up in the Snowy Mountains doing some day walks and relaxing. Kath will then be able to meet me at the appropriate switch over points to give me my bike and then to swap my bike for my kayak.

Being that I will be away for a couple of months, Kath (and maybe James) will also meet up with me a couple of times along the way. The current thinking is that she will drive down to Echuca for a few days, which is about a ⅓ of the way along the river. A few weeks later she will drive down to Mildura (about ⅔ of the way) and spend some days there. She will then leave the car in Mildura and fly back to Sydney. That way, she can then fly back to Mildura a few more weeks later, pick up the car and drive down Goolwa and meet me at the finish.  And people think balloon retrieving is complicated. 

Between Now and Then

There is actually not a huge amount of organisation from a logistics perspective required before May. I just need the State governments to open up the borders between New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. They keep saying they will be open by Christmas, so I am assuming we should be fine by May. And hopefully we will have a COVID-19 vaccine by then.

From a kayaking perspective, there is also not a huge amount I need to do. I have done enough multi-day paddle trips recently to have tested and sorted out all my kayaking and camping gear. I also paddle a few times a week, so I am (currently) paddle fit and as long as I keep that up I will be fine. 

Even though the bike ride will only be 4-5 days, it is the bit that needs the most preparation. I haven’t ridden properly for years and I even sold my mountain bike a couple of years ago. So the other day I bought a new bike (Kona Unit X) that will be more appropriate for multi-day off road rides. I went for my first ride on it yesterday and my butt and legs are now telling me that I have a fair bit of work to do to get ready to take on the Snowy Mountains.

In the meantime I will continue to post more blog posts and will resurrect my Vlog between now and May with more details so everyone can follow the progress. 

Time to go and ride up some hills.

Leave a Reply