The end of the river
Over the past three weeks we have journeyed alongside the meandering 2520km of river and finally to the mouth, where it disappears into the surf of the Southern Ocean. My pace has slowed – it’s hard not to when you share a journey with a river that moves at 1km/hr. That means that the bubbling stream water we began with is still many kilometres upstream. Our slow pace is still rapid compared to that of nature, and it makes me feel more than ever that our lives are just a blip in the passage of time.
In our final week, the flat dry plains have fallen away to slightly more rolling terrain. We could follow the river more tightly, quiet back roads instead of desert highway. There were hills to descend and climb, down and up the escarpments sculpted by the river, even greenery and trees sprung from the floodplain. It felt cooler, the sun on our backs instead of burning on our faces since the river turned south. We rode through sunsets and into stars, moonlight riding a new found pleasure after our desert nighttime odyssey. Arriving late into the village of Walker Flat, thankful for the all night ferry across the river, we didn’t realise we were camped on ‘Sprinkler Drive’. Our peaceful breakfast tent scene was sprayed by sprinklers too powerful to warrant their name, more like jets of water that drenched us through.
But soon we lost the river, its guts spilled into Lake Alexandrina, a giant lake more like sea. Without the river I felt a little lost. Our focus had dispersed. We had choices of routes to follow, different roads and trails that might lead us to the official end, where the river flow meets the waves. Winery Road, abundant in vineyards and labels familiar from supermarket shelves, led us to the small town of Goolwa, the end of our ride.
The only way to the very end was by boat, from the lake, through a lock across a barrage, and into the special landscape of the Coorong – a fragile wetland ecosystem threatened by salinity. At the river mouth, I listened to the drone of small boats dredging sand to keep the connection open between the ocean and the lakes, a project that has already cost 40 billion. It seems somewhat futile, a few tiny boats and a stream of dollars attempting to control Mother Nature. As if we can.
The flow of people with hearts as full as the vines are in grapes, has never stopped. Our penultimate village, Clayton Bay, led us to Hal, Luci, John and Barbara, locals and ‘grey nomads’ with collections of trikes, boats, utes and trailers, more hospitality, beds and lifts to the airport. The people of Australia continue to astound. But the lovely twist in the story was the discovery through Hal of the ‘Inland Rivers National Marathon Register’ a register that began somewhat accidentally when a legendary man, Frank Tuckwell, now 84, bumped into a canoeist on the banks of the lake many years ago. He had paddled the Murray and asked Frank where he could register his effort. There was no such register but Frank made one up there and then, and has curated it ever since!
We are proud to be the first cyclists on the register, and to share it with a woman I have never met, but who inspired me to take this journey. Tammy Van Wisse swam the whole length of the river in 2001. We are numbers 350 and 351 on the register of people who have travelled the Murray’s course. I love that the world has plenty of crazies in it. If we aren’t a little crazy, how can we cope in this world that has gone mad?!
Thanks to the Murray River and the special people we have met, to the Royal Geographical Society and to BBC Radio 4, for the experience of making a radio documentary (to be aired later this year). The insights, perspectives and connections I’ve been lucky to experience have truly made this a Journey of a Lifetime. It has reconnected me with nature , with people and with myself. I’m sincerely grateful.
And a huge thank you to BBraun U.K. and Adidas UK for your support of me as an athlete and adventurer.
Also to Gerald Simonds for a fantastic pressure relieving bike seat, & to Tiso Outdoors, Alpine Bikes, Calico UK and Odlo for support of the Quest79 project.