The Murray River or the River Murray

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Continuing our post-Covid thinking of doing more test rides in Australia, we rode down the Murray from Albury to the junction of the Darling. We chose January, and were fortunate to not strike a heatwave. I was testing Schwalbe G-One Allrounder 2.8” (70mm) tyres, and I was using the new Baramind handlebars which have a bit of downward flex in them. The second bike was a standard drop-bar Swabia.

In the world of bike travel, there are those journeys that last for many months and even years, but there is also our lifestyle: working normal jobs and taking 3-week bike tours in breaks. Our ride was the latter. 

Cycling infrastructure is the responsibility of local government. Thirteen councils on both sides of the river have formed Murray Regional Tourism. They have endorsed the idea of a cycle route along the River but it is early days and we didn’t see another travelling cyclist for 1,000km. It will develop over time, though, and there are lots of rideable roads, some separated paths, especially as you approach the towns.

Noel McFarlane riding along the Murray River on a Vivente Bike, 2024
There are lots of places where we were right beside this amazing river.

There’s plenty of accommodation along the way. Wild camping would be easy, and there are many campgrounds and motels. But on a 3-week ride, we opted for motels and hence only had rear panniers and handlebar bags. The motels all have microwaves and fridges and typically only had to be booked a day in advance and cost about AU$125.

Noel McFarlane at Southern Cross Station with a Vivente Bike, 2024
From Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, we caught the V-Line train to the start. We wheeled them on and wheeled them off in Albury. The train seats were prebooked but not the bikes.
There is not one Murray River ride “route” as such. There are countless variations. There are some long sections of off-road sealed path, eg Corowa to Mulwala shown above.
Kim holding figs near the Murray River, 2024
Any ride through farming country brings the chance of roadside snacks from wild trees. We were too late for apricots but scored well on the figs.
A road train near the Murray River, 2024
From Robinvale to Mildura we rode the A20 with the road trains. The A20 isn’t unsafe but you need a mirror and to be a confident rider. Every road train driver that passed us was good.

In this era of strange weather, bike travellers have to keep an eye on forecasts. There are several rivers that rise in the south of Victoria and flow north to the Murray. At one stage we knew the Campaspe river was going to flood and we had to get across it by a certain time or risk waiting out the flood.

The Campaspe river rising.

Summer on the Murray is the time of year when the dirt tracks are mostly rideable. But a bit of rain can switch from dirt to tar on short notice. This is part of riding in the region. You certainly don’t want too rigid a plan.

The Swabia had 40mm tyres and that kept us more on the sealed surfaces. The Diamantina with 2.8” tyres seemed to be happy everywhere. Wherever we were though, we were on the lookout for puncture risks. 

The 2.8” (70mm) tyres deserve their own discussion which is best done under the heading of touring bike wheels.

As we got further west there were more three corner jacks, also known by other names including cat’s heads and goat’s heads.

The best defense is to see them in advance. In January, the new crop is not yet hardened. But there are still puncture risks. We got three punctures. One from a staple on the 2.8” tyres that have no Kevlar belt. And one on each bike from three-cornered jacks. Tubeless most likely would have prevented all of them. But you have to balance that with the work of setting up tubeless on relatively short-duration rides. See our separate article on this.

The further west you go the better are the chances of seeing wildlife. There are raptors all the way along the river, but we didn’t see a goanna or an echidna. Further west, and away from highways, we did get into the emu and kangaroo country.

Mallee fowl were a hope but talking to park rangers revealed just how rare it is to see one of these amazing creatures. That’s a bit surprising given how the related common brush turkeys are now on the east coast. But feral cats and foxes are the main reason mallee fowl are endangered.

Bike travellers spend most of their time in wilderness or farming regions. Some of us are actively interested in farming and there’s plenty to see along the Murray.

Table grape industry around Mildura and Wentworth. 80% of the vineyards are table grapes. They are covered by plastic, not to stop birds and not to stop the sun, but to protect against hail.
Table grapes have to be picked by hand. This guy is pretty much “in” the vine. He has a set of scales and is putting the grapes directly into the kilo bags for a supermarket. They are chilled within a few hours of harvest and more than half are exported to Asia (by sea).

Another interesting crop is saltbush. They grow it so as to produce saltbush lamb. Join the club if you have never heard of it. According to the marketing… The protein-rich foliage and high mineral content of Oldman Saltbush gives the meat a very clean, crisp, lean and delicious flavour, a unique characteristic.

Rows of saltbush.

The Murray was the boundary for different Indigenous tribes. Europeans took their land and, in some cases, massacred them. There is little sign now that up to only 200 years ago, a civilisation dating tens of thousands of years lived here. But we did come across one extraordinary relic from olden times.

A Ring Tree. A rare surviving example of an old Aboriginal boundary marker. Also to show the way to a river crossing. The branches were tied together so they grew in this circular shape. This is on a quiet road to the east of Tooleybuc.

Mildura is the main departure point for tours to Lake Mungo. This is not rideable. You travel through vast stations. Camping on them is not allowed. You need to carry all of your water. But there are a few operators that will take you out there and ours was faultless. Visiting Lake Mungo is an incredible experience. 

You may have heard of Walls of China. They are eroded sand, blown up from Lake Mungo to its west.

The lake was one of five in a system that for many thousands of years drained the melting ice sheet on the eastern highlands. In 1968, an ANU geologist studying ancient and now dry lakes went there and found human remains. Named Mungo Woman, the remains are part of the earliest human settlement known anywhere. The lake dried up 14,000 years ago! 

About 35km beyond Mildura is Wentworth. This is where the Darling River joins the Murray. You can do a loop and see both sides of the river. You can also, from Wentworth, ride up the Darling. Towns peter out though and that’s another type of bike tour. We went as far as Pomona.

IMG14 – Big tree

“Buy-back” in the Murray Darling catchment, refers to policy whereby government would  buy back some water entitlements from farmers.. How wrong could buying back water entitlements be? I expected people that we’d encounter along the Murray River would have a “whatever-it-takes” attitude to achieving what was set out in the Murray Darling Basin Agreement. That was signed up to in 2007 and was to be achieved by 2024. But almost none of the promised environmental river flow has come about. There is irrigation everywhere. The farmer first needs to own a licence. That might be worth $4,000 per megalitre (ML). High Security licences are up to $7,000. Then he/she buys the water which, in a normal year, is (an extra) $80 per ML. The value of licences has gone up a lot. As much as 25% a year. They owners don’t want to sell. So, there is an impasse, and, as a result, our environment suffers.

Successive governments have over-allocated the water.  Taxpayers (the governments) want to buy back enough licenses to achieve the environmental flow they agreed on. But talking like that along the Murray River is not smart. Tentatively, I would ask…”what percentage of people around here are against buy-backs?” 100% was the answer every time.

This is where the Darling River joins the Murray. You can do a loop and see both sides of the river. You can also, from Wentworth, ride up the Darling. Towns peter out though and that’s another type of bike tour. We went as far as Pomona.
This Darling River pic is near the Murray junction and appears healthy this year. But the Darling upstream becomes foul. You would not want to swim in it. At first, I thought it may be escaped effluent, or some single event.

But the fouling might be upstream cotton industry- driven pesticide pollution. When I got back to Sydney and went to the Invasion Day rally in Belmore Park, a speaker was talking about how the Darling and especially its northern tributaries are poisoned by the cotton industry. I found more, including this article on the subject. The claim was that cancer levels amongst Aboriginal workers in the cotton industry around Moree are high. It looks like that is true.

Whether or not you share these concerns about the environment, a ride down the Murray River should be on your list. You can alternate between NSW and Victoria, there are towns along the way and plenty of places to stay. There are dramatically different landscapes. At Mildura you can fly to either Sydney or Melbourne. We were able to get bike cartons at the airport.

Shout-Out to Victorian Trains Taking Bikes

You can wheel your bike on and off Victorian trains. The lines go to Warrnambool, Sale, Wodonga, Echuca, Swan Hill, Ballarat and Shepperton, although there are a few time periods when it’s best not to. Read more about Bicycles, luggage and animals on Victorian Trains.

In addition to the train lines on this map, there is also the Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide. They accept bikes too but they need to be booked 72 hours out. You could get on or off at a number of stations.

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