The untold story (of the Murray River)

by Paddler, Educator and PHD Candidate.

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips
Peter Phillips grew up on the river and took up canoeing after watching the Marathon go past in the 1970’s. He completed 2 full distance marathons in the 1980’s, and more recently, 2 as part of a relay and 5 as coach of the St. Joseph’s College Kayaking team.
He is a strong believer in the confidence building nature of the marathon, particularly for young people. Now a secondary school teacher and part time PhD Candidate at La Trobe University, he has lived as an expat in Germany for 13 years, worked in Australia, Africa, Antarctica and Germany, as an ecologist, field guide, youth hostel manager and a landscape gardener, before taking up teaching.


In 2012, Peter began to paddle the inland rivers and has paddled the length of the Murray, 600km of the Goulburn River and 400km of the Murrumbidgee. The questions these trips brought up were the stimulus for his PhD investigating the resilience of the banks of the Murray River
The aim of the study is to develop a model of river bank resilience which can be used to focus funding on problem hot spots and fine tune river management strategies, improving the capacity of the river banks of the Murray River to remain healthy in the face of change.


The Untold Story


The reasons people paddle the marathon are many and varied, but inevitably people refer to its

beauty, the feeling of isolation and the uniqueness of the journey. It is a marathon after all and

in 404 km the river changes quite a bit. We all have our favourite sections, quiet corners, lonely

stretches, wide beaches, tall forests, or wherever the finish line happens to be on that day.

But why does it change?

What is its story?








The story of the Murray River is both a natural and a human one. For the aboriginal people it provided shelter and a reliable food source. They did not have to move as much as those who lived in other parts of the country. The river was bountiful, providing fish, mussels, crays, water birds, edible plants and animals that lived in the surrounding forests and plains.

The richest environments were permanently settled by family groups of particular tribes and the best places were occupied by distinguished individuals. The spot where the Barmah Creek enters the Murray belonged to an elderly gentleman in that tribe and he retained the rights to his fish traps across its mouth until he died.

It's not hard to identify these hubs of aboriginal activity. They are where our towns are today. So every time you enter a town along the Murray you are entering a place steeped in aboriginal history, stories and spirituality. Try and imagine it. A beer might help, or perhaps two.



At the start in Yarrawonga it is easy to feel small. Behind you the river is bubbling and swirling, driven by the pressure of water denied its passage behind a 10m concrete wall. On either side are tall, steep banks, which the weir joins and which hopefully continue to hold it in place.


On the water time is ticking. People rush to get their boats ready, circling to be in position, and before you know it the gun has fired and you're off. Actually you weren't ready. You rarely are. Well that's been my experience. Nevertheless off you go.

Who could have thought canoes could put up so much wash? After a while you settle down, find your rhythm and paddling companions. At checkpoints you might even find your land crew, but after that you're alone again.

It's just you and the banks. Why do they change?

What is their story?


Between Yarrawonga and Tocumwal the river is old and wide. It flows through the bed of the Ovens River, which is even older. This ancient river carried the rocks, dirt and soil from a great dividing range which was once at least 3 kilometres higher than present and filled the Murray Darling Basin, creating its famously flat plains.

Older residents from the area remember a time when there were none of the big beaches characteristic of this stretch. They say that when they were small, the river had rounded clay banks. The river is not deep here, it's bottom is only about 2 meters down. If it wasn't for the current you could probably stand in places. When the river is low, you can find pebble sized, rectangular rocks on the bed of the river. So where did they come from?

In the late 1800’s there was a gold rush in the Kiewa Valley. Miners used water cannons to extract the precious mineral, but in the process, washed a section of the valley 300 meters wide and 3 kilometres down the Kiewa.

When Yarrawonga weir was built in 1939, it trapped some of the sediment, but a large proportion of it continues to move down the river today.

Every year it moves a few kilometres further down the river.

There was gold in those beaches.








Not long after Tocumwal, the river enters the Barmah-Millewa Forest, the biggest river red gum forest in Australia. This is the most isolated section of the Marathon, prone to and adapted to flooding, it is often cut off after heavy rain. The forest formed after a series of earthquakes blocked the river around 35,000 years ago. The earthquakes continued for another 10,000 years and so would be in the cultural memory of local aboriginal peoples.

The river still hasn't made up its mind how to get around the Cadell Tilt. Many small streams head North, feeding into the Edwards River in Deniliquin and watering the forest in the process.

Others head South, feeding the Barmah and Moira Lakes. This area is called the Barmah choke, because the river narrows to around 50 meters. In floods, the river simply spreads out through the forest, dropping the sediment it carries and nourishing the environment.

It also has another effect: if you look closely, when the river is near the top of its banks, it is actually higher than the forest beyond it.

There is a reason for those ‘no wash signs’ as you near Picnic Point.




Land crew will note the large sandhill they drive along to get to Picnic Point. It is made from the sandy base of Lake Kanyapella, which was formed when the Goulburn River was blocked by the Cadell Tilt.

Lake Kanyapella stretched all the way to Echuca. When the Goulburn eventually broke through, 22,000 years ago, the lake drained. Aboriginal stories tell of how in a large flood around 8,000 years ago, locals who had retreated out of the forest onto the sand dune, decided to drain the flood into the old bed of the Goulburn on the other side by digging with yam sticks. This isn't as farfetched as it might sound as they also managed wetlands in this way.

You can see the spot the Murray broke through about two kilometres upstream of Checkpoint C as you paddle towards Echuca. Even though the river now tracks South around the Cadell Tilt, more water flows North in times of flood because of the braking action of the Barmah Choke.

About 17 kilometres out from Echuca the Murray flows into the bed of the ancient Goulburn. It stays in this track until it rejoins with its brother, the Edwards at the Wakool Junction after Swan Hill. In this section the river is wider than the narrows, but is not as wide as the oldest sections. It was known by the Paddle steamer captains as ‘the cutting’. The up to 22 meter high banks are influenced by the uplifted Cadell Tilt as the river runs along its southern edge.

Between Kerang and Swan Hill, the Murray cuts through the old delta it formed when sea levels were much higher than today. The low gradient prompted anabranches such as Gunbower Creek and the Little Murray, creating the second iconic river red gum forests on the river. The red gum statues in Barham are a tribute to the importance of the forests to the identity and history of that proud town.

The further north west the Murray winds, the drier and hotter it gets. The vegetation changes along the banks and on land, signs of salt give hints of its past.




The Murray is like that. It provides hints. It has stories. Some you can discover, some it has kept secret for thousands of years.

All are personal, like your marathon.

The marathon is not just a race, it's an experience, one you will never forget because it becomes part of you.


Peter Phillips