How About Another Joke, Murray?


My home state of Victoria is quite modest by Australian standards. Shoved into the southeast corner of this sunburnt land, it contains just three percent of Australia’s landmass – three times bigger than Tasmania, but eleven times smaller than Western Australia. But that does not Victoria a small region make: It’s comparable in size to Great Britain or New Zealand. If it joined the USA, it would be the twelfth largest state. But what I’ve always found fascinating about the Education State is a line that is simultaneously an indispensable part of Australian history and yet intangible. This line is called the Murray River. How can a river be imaginary? The water and its banks are certainly real, but the broken lines upon the maps that divide the river between New South Wales and Victoria are simply not there. Actually, all the water along this border belongs to New South Wales, so if you stood on the Victorian side and cast a fishing line, you will need a NSW fishing licence – at least, theoretically. This hardly sound like astute observations (a river acting as a political border? how odd!), but in the Australian context, it is actually a remarkable thing.

The story of borders in Australia begins back on 26th January 1788, when a colony called New South Wales was founded in what is now called Sydney. That’s Australia Day, which in recent times has stirred controversy over whether the date should be the day the nation is celebrated, or if we should ‘Change the Date’ due to concerns over upsetting already tense relations with Aboriginal Australians. Given the horrific crimes that were perpetrated against them once settlers arrived (The Stolen Generations springs to mind), It’s not an unfair claim to make. However, Change the Date is a distraction from more pertinent issues which are certainly challenging and confronting, but by focusing on these areas we can heal the divide between Aboriginal Australians and those descended from settlers. At least, in a more substantial way than debating on which day we should get drunk and have a piss-up.

The Bridge over the Murray river at Murray Bridge, South Australia. Flooding is a frequent occurrence, hence why the path has been closed. The park behind me was completely submerged.

My opinions on contemporary issues aside, New South Wales originally consisted of the eastern half of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. Yep, the Brits just claimed three percent of the Earths land area in a single day. Three percent! New South Wales got even bigger when they pushed the border out west in 1825. Since then, that impossibly long straight line that cuts a third of Australia off has served as the border of Western Australia (Although it was first called “Swan River” before that unimaginatively renamed it “Western Australia,” but they still use swans as a leitmotif alongside surfing and Hungry Jacks). Tasmania, the beautiful southern island that too many people forget about, was also proclaimed a separate colony that year (and went by the name “Van Dieman’s Land”). Being an island, its shores formed natural borders. New Zealand also became its own distinct colony in 1840 (They declined to join the Australasian Federation in the 1890s, but they’re still eligible to join at any time; it’s in our constitution. One of us!). Again, its shores constitute its borders – the islands remain intact, cartographically speaking.

Afterwards, in 1836, three straight lines that completely ignored geography or culture formed South Australia. These straight borders I can forgive because this was unexplored territory, at least until John Stuart trekked through it in the 1860s. What I can’t forgive is the weird gap of New South Wales between South Australia and Western Australia which was only closed in 1860! You can claim three percent of the world in a single day, but extending a strange border takes you thirty-five years? Other states were proposed and revoked during this time (including “North Australia” – we’re not great at naming things, apparently). Finally, little Victoria came to be on 1st July 1851. And literally the next day, we struck gold. The precious metal was discovered in Mount Alexander, which triggered one of the largest gold rushes in world history and made Melbourne a very, very rich city economically, culturally and politically, making it more important and way better than Sydney. Hey, any excuse for a Melburnian to take jabs at Sydneysiders (We have huge sibling rivalry energy)!

This is what Australia actually looked like in 1846. Notice the disconnected piece of New South Wales wedged between South Australia and Western Australia! Victoria is not yet created. Credit to Wikimedia Commons for the illustration.

Anyway, Victoria’s northern border was defined by the length of the Murray river to its source within the mountains, and then a straight line just cuts through mountain ranges like a hot knife through butter to split it from New South Wales. That’s not the whole length of the Murray river since part of it flows in South Australia, but because the surveyors already said “screw geographical features” and just followed random longitudes and latitudes, as soon as the Murray hits that vertical South Australian line, it ceases to serve as a border for Victoria. That’s another funny border Australia: Victoria juts into South Australia by about four kilometres due to a border dispute that lasted over seventy years! South Australia whinged and moaned about it, but in the end they had to cede a very long, thin line totalling 1300 square kilometres to Victoria. They’re still kinda grumpy about it. Anyway, apart from a small part of the Queensland-New South Wales Border (and a tiny sliver of the Murray border in South Australia), the Victoria-New South Wales border is the only Australian state line with a natural geographic feature serving as a border. But there’s a good explanation for that.

The Muray is the longest river in Australia. However, it comes in at 16th globally (and Australia’s second-longest, Murrumbidgee, is only 96th in the world). But, after the Nile and the Amazon, the Murray is the 3rd longest navigable river in the world! Several of its tributaries are also navigable, the longest of which is the Darling river. This means that there’s 77,000km of waterways throughout eastern Australia, most of which can be navigated. It was relied upon for millennia by several Aboriginal Australian nations when they needed to travel across the continent, and after settlers arrived in the areas during the 1800s, their remote towns and stations were connected by these natural highways, with navigation possible year-round thanks to a sophisticated system of locks and weirs. Paddle steamers would bring in supplies and bring out goods such as wool, one of Australia’s biggest industries. Finally, I have the answer to the question that was burning inside me while the scorching Summer sun roasted me externally during my drive down the Barrier Highway: Why are these towns so far apart? Why did they build the next town a hundred kilometres away? How on Earth did these people get supplied before trains or motor vehicles were invented? Well, by bitumen they appear isolated, but follow the rivers and it’s clear that they’re not so remote after all.

The George Chaffey Bridge in Mildura, Victoria, going left to right from New South Wales to Victoria.

The importance of rivers as transportation routes in Australia started to decline in the 1920s and 1930s since newer, quicker and more efficient forms of transports were developed, but even today these rivers are navigated by ancient paddle steamers and modern cruise ships, particularly along the Murray. In fact, the oldest (and biggest surviving) paddle steamer in the world, the PS Adelaide, still operates out of Echuca, Victoria – And you can ride on it for only a few dollarydoos! That is, when the Murray hasn’t dried up or, as happened recently, when it’s flooding. I’m still thinking about those people in Echuca who got shafted by the local council through no fault of their own – “you’re on the wrong side of the levy we just built so we’re not helping you,” what a disgrace! But most of the time, it’s comfortably full, with plenty of clean water for humans and critter to drink (unlike the Yarra, which looks more like a stream of shit flowing through the middle of Melbourne).

As a place where animals and water were readily available, the Murray carries a lot of significance for local Aboriginal people, but not for purely utilitarian reasons. The Murray is also important to Aboriginal mythology or Dreaming (sometimes called Dreamtime), an English catch-all term for all the highly complex spiritual, cultural and social concepts of Aboriginal people all across Australia. Dreaming has been described as an encyclopedia of life, where all knowledge can be accessed, and often times is written onto the land itself, ready to bequeath knowledge if you just know where to look. It is where life is created and, as far as I understand, is not a point in time (Aboriginal languages supposedly lack words for the abstract concept of time), but instead is an environment where creation takes place, which is always present around you and is accessible to anyone at any given time. So, the legend I’m about to describe didn’t happen eons ago, but is still happening right now (if I’ve understood Dreaming correctly – it’s as complex as it is captivating, so bear with me). The details vary, but basically:

Ngurunderi, an ancestor of the Ngarrindjeri people, was chasing a Murray cod called Ponde. Ponde carved the bends of the river with his tail to avoid Ngurunderi’s spear, who became agitated and threw it at Ponde. This made Ponde swim in a straight direction (creating a straight section of river) and the spear became Long Island, an island in the middle of the Murray at Murray Bridge. Eventually, with the help of a brother-in-law, Ngurunderi speared Ponde at Lake Alexandrina (where the Murray drains into right before the ocean) and chopped the giant fish into tiny pieces, creating the innumerable fish in the ocean.

Ngurunderi has many other adventures after this, but I’ll leave that for you to discover (preferably from someone far more familiar with the story than me, who heard it a while ago but always liked it).

I missed out on cruising upon the Murray with the PS Adelaide, but I found plenty of other things to do and see in Echuca, like this cannon!

This river has played a vital role to settlers as well, albeit in an economic way. Naturally, the abundance of water has led to many irrigation schemes originating from the Murray (and its tributaries), which supply thousands of farms that produce crops in what would otherwise be water-scarce regions, contributing billions of dollars annually to the economy. It’s also the source of many dams and water reservoirs, allowing communities to exist far away from its banks. Yet hundreds of thousands of people choose to live right next to it regardless, including settlements like Murray Bridge, Mildura, Yarrawonga and Albury-Wodonga (technically two separate cities because of the border, but effectively treated as one). These towns are popular holiday destinations, particularly for us city-slickers, and contribute big bucks through tourism, fishing, boating and other such activities. Although they lost out on the lucrative trading brought about from river navigation, these towns have nonetheless grown and prospered.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all towns that inhabit the Murray-Darling basin. Once the rivers’ importance as a highway dried up, so too did the revenues of many towns. For example, Wilcannia, NSW used to be a prosperous town on the Darling River with 3000 residents only a century ago, but now only has 746 souls (2016 census) and is one of the most economically disadvantaged towns in NSW. It’s a nice place, but they’re hard done by and through no real fault of their own.

A bridge over the Murray in Yarrawonga, where the Murray flows into Lake Mulwala. This is one of the most popular spots along the Murray. I’m standing on the New South Wales side.

And one more tidbit: On the map, it looks like it should flow ‘down’ to the right, but it flows ‘up’ to the left. That has always annoyed me – It just looks so wrong! Then again, maps are only projections of the real world and can be wrong (I learnt this the hard way on Mt John), and I’ve seen with my own eyes the direction it flows in. So, if you’re ever looking for a place to go on a nice, relaxing road trip, the Murray is always a good choice, with plenty of stops to make and no end to the impressive sights and breathtaking scenery created by Ponde’s escape from a hungry Ngurunderi.

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Thank you for reading this article! If you could do me a favour and share this blog with your friends and family, I’d really appreciate it. You know, there’s a YouTube channel where I post regular stories about experiences that could help you out on your journey. Safe travels and until next time! – Jacob

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