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Rolling on the river: the Murray from source to sea

Alia Parker's picture
Mark Carrington cycling the entire Murray River. Cycle Traveller

Mark Carrington grew up riding his bike everywhere on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, where he says he felt “totally free”. He continued to ride throughout university before, back in 1979, he took part in the second ever Cape Argus tour – now the world's largest bike race with about 35,000 participants. But his first taste for bicycle travel came a year later when he and a friend rode from Stellenbosch near Cape Town up the coast to Plettenberg Bay then back over the mountains to Paarl covering 1,000km in nine days riding.

The seed was planted, but it would be years before he took up travelling by bike again. After 13 years living in the UK and working as a management consultant throughout Europe, he moved to Australia in 2000 where the passion for cycle touring was reignited. Now, having almost cycled his way around Australia, we catch up with Mark as he pedals his way along the entire length of the Murray River.

CT: What got you back into cycle touring?

MC: I saw a small advertisement in Australian Cyclist advertising a trip across Australia with Cycle Across Oz. They were doing Melbourne to Perth and then a return leg. I signed up. Till then I had not ridden more than 120km in a day. In October 2002 we departed Perth in the direction of Melbourne. The ride was supported – so no need to carry gear – though we were camping pretty well all the way. There were many milestones on that trip: riding more than 120km; riding more than 100 miles in a day; riding two 100 mile days in a row; and riding five consecutive days of more than 100km.

The Murray River. Photo by Mark Carrington. Cycle TravellerWhat did I discover? I have a talent for sitting on a bike and churning out the miles. I do not get bored; I do not get frustrated; my mind and my body can recover so that I can do it day after day. What is remarkable about that is that I was never any great shakes as a sportsman. I reached Melbourne after five weeks and 4,500km of riding and had proved that ordinary people can do the extraordinary – just give them a bicycle and an open road. Did I get the best out of that ride that I could have? My guess is I did not as I focused too much on riding and not enough on seeing the places I travelled through and talking to people along the way and soaking in the history. In 2004, I signed up to do the same ride again – this time I rode up every lookout and took in every historical marker and took a whole lot more photographs and wrote a journal on Crazyguyonabike.

The seed had germinated and was spreading like a forest fire so that in 2006 I rode Darwin to Adelaide, Rockhampton to Darwin in 2009, Broome to Perth in 2011 and Darwin to Coral Bay on the West Coast in 2013.

CT: The Murray River is intrinsically linked with Australian culture, history and the landscape. What is it about the Murray that drew you in?

MC: When the opportunity came along to ride from Sydney to Adelaide via the Murray River I was keen. For one I could close some gaps as I have not ridden Melbourne to Sydney. What really appealed to me is that it felt like it could be a favourite ride. The rides in Australia I have enjoyed the most are the ones where I get back to the water regularly. This was really ignited for me when I rode Broome to Perth where pretty well every second day we would be back at the sea. As it was also not far past the end of the wet season, the rivers of the Pilbara still had water in them – I know I dunked my feet in every one. This was reinforced on last year's ride from Darwin through the Kimberley to Broome where the route follows the rivers day after day before crossing to the next one – from the Katherine to the Victoria to the Fitzroy Rivers. And the bonus for that trip was we were just behind the cyclone that flooded large parts of the Pilbara around Karatah – the water was all over the road in parts.

View along the Murray River. Photo by Mark Carrington. Cycle Traveller

CT: Would you recommend the ride along the Murray to others?

MC: The Murray River plays an important part in Australian history – every Australian ought to spend time on it. As a foreigner, it is very different to me; I hardly know any of the names of the people who shaped this land but I wanted to see how they had done it and what the result was. I wanted to see with my own eyes what the truth is about how the river basin has been so damaged by salinity and erosion and the like. I wanted to see how the lifeblood of the country flows along Australia's longest river. I also wanted to do a ride where I could explore smaller slices at a time rather than riding over 100 miles a day , day after day.

The river has lived up to my expectations – the history is rich though it is not the history of pioneer explorers and battles and soldiers as I know from my roots in South Africa and England. It seems much more a history of ordinary folk going out to tame a land hostile for high temperatures and a lack of water. There is even less pestilence than we see in Africa. It is a history ultimately of pastoralists who for me are the people on whose backs the culture is built.

There is a sad part to the story – this river was a very important place for Aboriginal people as it was a constant source of food whether from the river or the land. Thus far in my journey the only evidence remaining are the names of places as they paid the price of advancing pastoralism and were pushed away or wiped out by foreign illnesses.

Of course, it is hard to be general about a river that runs over 1,400km – especially after I have only ridden half of it. I would say one needs to look at the river in three phases: the river that leaves the high country (say between Khancoban and Jingellic); the river that passes through the dams and irrigation systems (say from Tallangatta to Mildura or maybe beyond); and the river that is navigable through the open country into South Australia (say from Echuca to the sea).

Cycling along the Murray River. By Mark Carrington. Cycle Traveller

CT: Have you had a favourite part so far?

MC: My favourite section so far has to be the high country section because there is always relief in the landscape to admire and contrast (and the river flows with more energy.) The section through the irrigation schemes is quite different because it is punctuated with living and often vibrant communities that are not that far apart on both sides of the Victoria and New South Wales border. This has been a pleasant change for me as I have become accustomed to passing through 'dead' towns in my other trips across the length and breadth of the continent.

CT: What condition is the Murray in at the moment?

MC: I am not an expert on river condition. There is no doubt that the heat of the last summer has extracted its toll – the land is parched brown. It is pretty clear that the river level is three or so feet below the level it was a short month ago – the wet river banks tell me that. In the high country it seems that the river banks are in better shape than further downstream. There is no doubt to my untrained eye that the irrigation schemes have extracted a toll on the land with rising salinity levels changing what grows when left to nature's devices. The water itself is in a lot better shape than the last time I crossed downstream in 2002 and 2004.

From Barha-Koondrook westwards the water seems to have a greenish tinge which I have not seen further upstream. That said, it is disappointing to see parts of the lake system closed to swimming and fishing on account of blue algae caused from land runoff.

CT: You've cycled across, around and all over Australia quite a few times now. Which are your top three regions to ride through and why?

MC: The Murray River ride definitely ranks in my top three regions to ride – and the beauty is one could easily ride it unsupported and without too much planning. I would also rank the South West Corner of Western Australia for much the same reasons – I did Perth to Albany around the coast and a zigzag back through the wheat and hay country unsupported in 2006 – and it provides a deep variety of the essence of Australia in a short period of time (coastline, pastoral country, mountains, forests, vineyards, etc). Lastly, I would add the Kimberley ride starting from Darwin or even Katherine to Derby or Broome because of the big rivers and the gorges they flow through – though there are some big distances to address (e.g., Katherine to Victoria River is 195km). That leaves out of the top three the section of road between Adelaide and Melbourne via the Cinque Ports and the Great Ocean Road. It is a great road, but to my mind it does not offer the diversity of the essence of Australia that the other rides offer.

River boat on the Murray. Cycle TravellerCT: What's your favourite little piece of equipment to take on a bike trip?

MC: I have become fiercely independent and the key piece of equipment that helps me to do that is my hydration pack. The one I currently have holds three litres of water and stays insulated from sun and body heat providing me with a good supply of water that is not hot. Beyond that I always ride with a camera of some form as I am always framing pictures. However the key to success in long distance and endurance riding is a clear head – psychology plays a key part in being able to turn those pedals for hour after hour and for day after day and when it gets really hot as it does in the dry country.

CT: What's next?

MC: What is next is always a good question. I have now ridden almost a whole circuit of Australia. All that is missing is the section between Taree on the New South Wales north coast and Rockhampton, north of Brisbane. I doubt I will ever fill that in as the way I would like to ride it would be to go the sea sections as often as I can – that will require a lot of in and out sections down to the sea and back.

During the course of all this riding I have done quite a bit of randonneuring including qualifying for and participating in Paris Brest Paris which is run every four years and spans 1,200km in 90 hours elapsed time. Perth Albany Perth is also run every four years and encompasses a 1,200km route that takes in the the south west corner of Western Australia. I have pre-qualified for it twice and not ridden it yet. It runs again in October 2014. And Paris Brest Paris runs again in August 2015 with qualifying beginning in November 2014. Away from Australia are a whole bunch of roads to be ridden.

Mark is cycling in support of SOLVE Disability Solutions Freedom Wheels which modifies bicycles for disabled children. You can donate to this great cause on Mark's donations page, or follow Mark's journey on his blog.


Looking great nice and green this year 2014 Mark

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