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  • Writer's pictureKaia Colestock

Day 46: Murray River & the Outback

The Murray River watershed is the largest in Australia, or about 1/7th of the total area in the country. Headwaters begin in southern Queensland and travel 1,558 miles before they empty in Southern Australia. The Murray drains the western side of the Australian Alps - the highest mountains - and joins with five of the six longest rivers of Australia. The river is used as a jurisdictional border between New South Wales and Victoria.

In order to access regions on the fringe of the Outback, we had to cross the Murray River near the town of Mildura, and chose a bridge instead of a ferry for our journey. The difference between river regimes this year versus past years was that the channel underwent massive flooding and received unprecedented rainfall. Extensive flood damage was already apparent, even in the driest upstream sections. All campgrounds along the river were closed for hundreds of miles.

On the north side of the Murray, habitat began to immediately change. Eucalyptus turned to sparse sheoak, scrub gave way to grassland, and waterways became scarce.

We didn’t have the time to go far into the true Outback, so we stayed in the vegetation belt to the south, but it was nice to stick a big toe into the most arid region we would visit on this trip.

We had no intention of pushing our luck with a commercial campervan, or any vehicle for that matter. Even if we had a 4WD, it is easy to get bogged down with just about any rig.

An Austrian couple was stranded in the Simpson desert when they buried their vehicle to the axles in sand. The woman took 12 of their 15 liters of water and began a trek to a dirt road was that more likely to yield them a rescue. Temps reached 120 degrees F. It’s hard to wrap your head around just how oppressive that kind of heat is, let alone in full sun. She made it fewer than 48 hours and died after walking 18 miles, just a little less than halfway. The man stayed with the vehicle and sat in the shade, and he was rescued. The Simpson Desert is 68,000 square miles of red sandy plains and dunes of quartz grain. The largest dunes on the eastern border are 130 feet high. Rainfall is about five inches a year and large sandstorms are possible. After nightfall, the sand is still so hot, that even driving a vehicle for rescue has its risks.

Another couple of young men - experienced conservationists - lasted fewer than 12 hours when their truck was stuck 10 miles from a station. After several failed attempts to free the truck, they headed for the station on foot without enough water. Once core body temperature exceeds 104 degrees F, the blood thickens and stresses vital organs, followed by heat stroke. One of the two men curled up under a bush and barely survived. Station staff found him about an hour from death. The other man was not as lucky. Why the two men attempted to walk during the day is a mystery. A couple of teenagers took a utility vehicle out and became bogged down. Their remains weren’t found for five months. While the Simpson Desert was still a full day drive away, these stories were not far from my mind. We chose to stay on well-traveled roads, and took extra provisions just in case. Still, I was relieved when we made it back to our hotel that night, unscathed.

When we crossed the Murray River a third time on our way to South Australia, the extent of flood damage was front and center. Homes along the river were abandoned, and house boats lined up on shore where people were making the best of their evictions. We stood at a vista above the river that made the Murray look like the Mississippi. Every inch of the known floodplain was covered.

An Australian man came up next to us and exclaimed, “Unreal, aye mate?”

”It is.”

”Well, it ’asn’t been flooded like ‘dis since 1938.”

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