The Murray River, from its source high in the Australian Alps to the Southern Ocean near Adelaide, is a near-3000 km long ribbon of water, the longest river in Australia. On April 10th, a few days after racing in the Commonwealth Games, I began ‘riding the river’. There hasn’t been rain here for months, the region arid and threatened by wildfire, and even with a complex system of water management, the amount of water that flows down the Murray in a year is similar to the volume flowing down the Amazon in a single day. But we have brought a little bit of Scotland with us – day 1 at the source of the river, we woke to the pattering of rain on the tent, and just a few days in, the rain hammered down like a power shower. ‘We haven’t seen rain like this in at least 12 months’ our savior of the day, John, announced as we sheltered in his truck.
Certainly this is a different journey to any I have taken before. After a gruelling first day climbing Alpine-style passes through pungent Eucalyptus forest, kangaroos bouncing around with their Joey’s, we descended. High mountain forest gave way to rolling hills, and regular wafts of dead wombat. We’ve only seen one ‘live’ version of the waddling, fluffy creatures, the rest with their four-legs pointing skyward, upside-down carcasses at the side of the road. There have been a few snake skins dotted around too, though luckily no sign of a live snake in camp yet, but sleeping bag checks are routine, as are shoe checks for spiders! On a bike, the uphill always feels longer and more significant than the down, but we have certainly left the hills behind and arrived on the river plains. The fields of wheat, canola, and orchards of fruit stretch in all directions, the roads long and straight, the scenery as if it’s been ironed, the horizon far and flat.
The arid climate and over-irrigation of the river basin that feeds Austraila means the river struggles to stay healthy. Salinity and bacterial blooms are ever-threatening. It sounds a bit like my body in the past few years. The demands I place on it to train so hard means my vital energy sometimes struggles to flow. My body fights the acid by-products of hard training. I’ve had my own version of algal blooms – recurring abscesses full of infection, bacteria running riot. I LOVE to ride my bike, but the lifestyle of being an athlete sometimes leaves my soul feeing parched to the point where it can’t absorb the vital nutrients of life anymore – fun, friendship and the joys of life have sometimes run over me as I’ve been too tired, or too occupied with thinking of the next training session to be able to absorb them. Like the floodwater running off the land here.
So this journey feels special. It’s a big change in frequency, coming straight from high competition of the Commonwealth Games to a slower pace. I want to learn from the ‘Mighty Murray’, learn from the people here. I want to learn about balance again.
The ride from source to sea in the time we have requires 80 to 100km of riding a day, similar to the big ride from Canada to Mexico last year. However, with luggage and a touring pace, that means there is no time to experience the place or meet the people, beyond brief roadside or car park conversations. This journey needs to be different. I am here to learn, and to tell a story, to explore the river and take time to reflect. I want to learn how to keep flowing, but stay healthy.
Yesterday we met Robby and Fraser of the ‘Paddlesteamer Cumberoona’, floating on Lake Mulwala. Their eyes lit up telling us stories of the river history, of navigating downstream in the beautiful refurbished steamer we sat on board. The wood creaked, and the smell of oil was strong even with the blasting wind outside. We too could sense the history. The river runs strong in them, as does their passion for the water, the environment and the steamers. ‘We’re all about the water’ the campsite owner tells us too. The river connects people around here. It is the thread, the passion and the life of the region.
I think about the flat weeks of riding ahead. The Murray drops only 200m in 2000km now, it’s waters feeding the grains, vines and cotton along the way. It’s not my usual environment. I am drawn to mountains, not to plains, to the beauty in the drama of the summits and valleys – maybe they are a metaphor for life, never a dull moment, constant ups and downs, highs and lows, moments where I feel to be stood on top of the world, others like being lost in dark valley forests.