Covid Roadtrip No. 1

After the initial outbreak of covid-19, when most of Australia went into an 6-week lockdown, the country went through a curious period where individual states periodically closed there borders to other states and region where even the most minor incursion of the virus occurred. It worked well for a long period in keeping the country relatively covid-free, but played mayhem with travel plans.

This first trip was actually planned for November-December 2020, but the detection of a few covid cases in Adelaide at that time sent the entire state into a week-long lockdown, just when we were meant to be on our Riverland canoe trip. With Christmas rapidly approaching, we had to postpone everything. Fast forward three months and most areas were covid-free - we could again get a border pass and enter South Australia. Thus we packed up the car and set off on our first covid roadtrip.


As it nears South Australia, the Murray River abuts an extensive low-lying area to its north. Here a complex system of anabranch creeks spreads out to create a landscape of floodplains and wetlands. This area is listed under the RAMSAR Convention as an internationally significant region for migratory waterbirds and its ecological importance is recognised by its designation as the Riverland Biosphere Reserve, one of 14 such reserves in Australia.

The creek systems lend themselves to canoeing and kayaking and, when the fair Nello and I decided to do a roadtrip to South Australia, we planned a 3-day kayaking adventure here. Initially, this was planned for early December, but a covid-19 outbreak in South Australia at the time put paid to that. Now it is the end of March and, with the virus largely contained in Australia, we are trying again.

Centuries old red gum in the Perry Sandhills

On top of the 100,000 year-old dune system

To get there, we drove from Canberra, armed with our cross-border covid permits and, keeping on the north side of the Murray River to cross directly into South Australia rather than passing through Victoria, headed for the river town of Renmark. This route enabled us to see some new country, such as the 100,000 year old Perry Sandhills near Wentworth, a small and isolated system of dunes laid down when the rivers flowed much faster.

View across the wetlands to Lake Victoria

The Murray River east of Renmark

We also drove along part of the Old Coach Road from Blanchetown to Wentworth, which was built in the 1860s as the then main route from South Australia into New South Wales. It was also the route taken by my ancestor and his fellow settlers in 1867, when they loaded up their bullock wagons to travel from South Australia to take up land in the Albury region of New South Wales - their "promised land". That made this rather arid and scrubby landscape that bit more interesting.

Day 1 - Border Customs House to Little Gums (20.5 km)

We arrived at "Canoe the Riverland", a little north of Renmark, at 8.30am. Jim, the proprietor, had our rental tandem kayak ready on the trailer and, after a quick transfer of gear from our car to his, we climbed aboard and drove the 22 km to the Old Customs House (a relic of colonial borders). It was from here that we would start our 3-day kayaking adventure.

The fair Nello is a great organiser and managed to fit what seemed like too much gear into the water-tight compartments and one deck strapped dry bag. It seemed an even better idea now to have had left our water supplies stashed at the two campsites. Then we wiggled ourselves into the kayak cockpits and headed off onto the dull green waters of the Murray. The river level was high, the current almost non-existent, the wind still and the sky clear - it was a perfect day to be on the river.

All packed and ready to go

The broad reach of the Murray River

Th entry ot Isle of Man Lagoon

We paddled around a couple of long broad bends, watched by herons, cormorants, snakebirds and egrets perched on the overhanging branches of the gnarly redgums lining the banks. After a few kilometres getting the feel of the kayak, a reedy section along the bank announced the entry to the Isle of Man Lagoon. We paddled in and glided slowly across its broad still waters through patches of lilies and floating weed, as swallows flitted across the surface.

The still waters of Isle of Man Lagoon

The start of a short portage

Soon, on our right, we spotted the entrance to Pipeclay Creek, our gateway into the complex system of anabranches that cross the Chowilla floodplain and wetlands. We paddled in and, a few hundred metres on, reached our first portage.

The creek was blocked by the Pipeclay Regulator, which held the river waters back a metre higher than those of the creek below. A hundred metres seems a long distance when carrying a fully-loaded tandem kayak, but we were soon on the other side and paddling down Pipeclay Creek.

The good news was, with water flowing over the regulator, we now had a nice current to push us along. The bad news was that there were now many snags that we needed to avoid - as the banks of these branching creeks erode, the big trees tumble in. All along the roots of the big gums were exposed on the steep clay banks - more snags on the way.

It was a good way to practice my rudder skills on the kayak and made for a more interesting period of paddling, as we wound our way through the meanders of Pipeclay Creek to eventually emerge in the wider Chowilla Creek.

Entering Pipeclay Creek

Pipeclay Regulator

Snags across Pipeclay Creek

The heavily eroded banks of Pipeclay Creek

At a campsite on Chowilla Creek

Here we turned left to paddle downstream, stopping for a snack break at one of the many campsites that Parks SA has set up along the banks (but no facilities). Quite a few of the sites had pop-top camper trailers set up. This area is clearly a popular place to escape from the city to the bush, though the big red gums lining the river banks quickly give way to the more arid scrub of the floodplain beyond. We exchanged waves with the campers as we passed.

We passed the entry to Monoman Creek, opting to keep paddling along Chowilla Creek. It meandered along past the entry to Boat Creek, and not long after we came across a rare landing spot near the service bridge to Monoman Island - a good place to pull in for lunch. Pushing on, we found ourselves paddling into a slight headwind as gusts chased the ripples across the water surface.

Rest stop in the drier floodplain landscape

Billabong on Monoman Island

The Monoman Island bridge

Rest stop beneath the big red gums

Chowilla Creekscape

The Chowilla regulator

Passing the spot where Monoman Creek re-entered Chowilla Creek, we soon caught sight of the Chowilla Regulator ahead. It was a much bigger structure than Pipeclay Regulator, but not a problem, as it was not operating and the levels were the same on either side. We glided beneath the concrete structure and paddled on another 500m to reach our campsite at Little Gums, just before the creek's confluence with the Murray.

Campsite at Little Gums

The ruins of Ron's Camp

Sunset at Chowilla Creek

Finally we could set up camp and relax on the edge of the water, exploring the camp area for a bit of lower body exercise, listening to a silence broken only by the occasional twitterings of birds in the red gums and black box that lined the creek, and watching a pair of swamp harriers soaring to and fro from their nearby roost. Our first day on the river had been a success and was crowned by a magnificent sunset, reflected in the now still waters of Chowilla Creek.

Day 2 - Little Gums to Ral Ral Creek (24.5 km)

The moon had been full overnight, bathing Chowilla Creek and its fringe of redgums in a pale light. We woke to a clear cool morning, but with a cloudless 30+°C day forecast, it would be good to be on the river.

Gear packed and stowed, we set off, quickly reaching the junction of Chowilla Creek and the Murray River, a much broader green-hued stretch of water, lined with reeds and dense redgum forest. Turning west, we headed downstream to follow a series of sweeping bends. At the first bend, we pulled into shore for our first stop - to check out the old Chowilla Woolshed, built in 1870, and its accompanying shearers' quarters (now a place that groups can rent).

Murray riverscape near Chowilla

Chowilla Shearers' Quarters

Inside the Old Chowilla Woolshed

Riverside vegetation .....

Another two bends and we passed the Chowilla Station homestead. The paddling game was now to keep as straight a line as possible, cutting the corners on the big bends - a tactic that saved quite a bit of distance and energy on this wide river.

Two big bends later, we rounded the corner to see a red clay cliff rising up between the flat green forested banks - a nice change of scenery. It marked Wilkadene Lagoon, an old and by-passed meander of the Murray.

.... and the drier forest just behind the river banks

The start of the red ochre cliffs on the southern bank of the Murray

We paddled on down, almost missing the narrow entrance, before turning into the lagoon. The water was still and covered with lilies and other aquatic plants, apart from a narrow boat passage which we followed to reach our destination. Wilkadene Woolshed Microbrewery is perched high on the clay cliffs with a wide deck overlooking the lagoon. It was the perfect spot to stop for a break and, tempting as it was to sample their produce, we settled for a coffee.

The lagoon in front of Wilkadene

Wilkadene Woolshed Microbrewery

Leaving Wilkadene

Leaving Wilkadene, we paddled beneath the red clay cliffs that lined the lagoon's exit, only to leave them again as we re-entered the Murray and a bend swept us back into the forested floodplain landscape. As well as being watched by the perching herons and cormorants, several small flocks of ducks scattered as we passed, and wisely so, for April is duck-hunting season in South Australia and, ironically, Parks SA allows shooting in their part of the Riverland Biosphere Reserve.

Red gums lining the river bank

Lunch stop beneath Headings Cliffs

We were now getting hungry for lunch, but potential landing sites were few and far between - the river's edge alternating between steep and muddy clay banks, reed-beds and submerged logs. We checked a few out, but paddled on. Again, we were heading towards the line of ochre-coloured clay cliffs, which forced the river to turn sharply right. Just around the bend lay a beautiful sandy beach directly opposite the orange, yellow, white and tan eroded cliffs - the perfect setting for lunch. As we relaxed on the sand and admired the colours and form of the cliffs, we were glad we had abandoned the previous landing possibilities.

After lunch, we repeated the pattern, as a broad river bend took us back into the floodplain forest and a couple of bends later, we returned to the colourful cliffs, glowing in the afternoon sunlight. This time the long line of Headings Cliffs steered the river into a 5 km reach - the Big Straight - for an impressive stretch of paddling.

Close-up of the eroded ochre cliffs

After a snack break at Murtho Forest Landing, halfway along the straight, we pushed on to the entry of Big Hunchee Creek, another winding anabranch. Here we left the river, as our overnight campsite lay a few kilometres up this creek system. The fair Nello and I agreed that it was more pleasant paddling these narrower and calmer waters, dodging the odd snags, reed-beds and patches of weed. We even seemed to move faster, though I suspect this was relativity of the landscape scale.

Setting out down the Big Straight

The Murray near Murtho

Murtho Forest campsite

The shorter, sharper bends came quickly and we soon reached our second portage - barely more than the length of the kayak to cross a ford on the creek. A few hundred metres later, we arrived at the confluence of Big Hunchee and Ral Ral Creeks. We had hoped to stay here at Hunchee Point Campsite, but it was occupied, so we had to make one last push down the even narrower Ral Ral Creek to our campsite at Windmill Bend.

The ford on Big Hunchee

Ral Ral Creek

The extra work was worth it, as here we were alone and could pitch our tent on the creek bank, gnarly redgums mirrored in the still creek waters. Ral Ral Creek lies in Calperum Station, a privately managed part of the Riverlands Biosphere Reserve, where for a slightly dearer fee, the campsite had a longdrop toilet - luxury. The ducks could also dabble contentedly in the waterweeds near our camp - the Australian Landscape Trust does not permit hunting.

Campsite ar Windmill Bend

Evening reflections at Ral Ral Creek

It had been a long day of paddling and my backside was still feeling somewhat tender, but lounging here on this tranquil creek bank, watching the birdlife settle in for the evening, made the effort worthwhile.

Day 3 - Ral Ral Creek to Base (16.5 km)

Today was the last day of our Riverlands kayak adventure and, after the perfect evening with a full moon rising between the redgums reflected in the still waters of Ral Ral Creek, the morning dawned cool and clear. We packed up a bit earlier as another 30+°C day was forecast and we wanted to be back at base before the heat of the day arrived.

Leaving our campsite at Windmill Bend, we paddled back, retracing our route through the meanders and around the snags of Ral Ral and Big Hunchee Creeks. The reflections in the morning stillness were superb.

A still reach in Big Hunchee Creek

Reflections in Ral Ral Creek

Back in the Murray River

Once we had reached the junction with the Murray, we turned downstream and crossed to the left bank. The hard kayak seat was making my backside ache more quickly now, and I needed a spell of standing on dry land. One problem with the Murray is that there are not many spots suitable to pull out with a kayak - reed-lined shores, fallen logs from the riparian forest or steep banks with muddy shallows deterred us from landing. The odd low-flying pelican and splashes from carp wallowing in the shallow weed-beds provided some interest.

Fortunately, two bends later was the site of the Woolenook Internment Camp, where Japanese civilian internees and POWs were housed during World War II. Little remains of this camp now, but it had a nice landing area and we spent a bit of quality walking time there.

Rest stop on the edge of the Murray

Marker for Woolenook Internment Camp

Forest back from the river bank

A kilometre further on, we left the Murray yet again to enter the narrow opening of Inlet Creek. We were about to explore a system of creeks and lagoons, which seemed much more interesting than winding our way around the broad sweeping reaches of the Murray. Inlet Creek meandered its way between steep clay banks, with the usual assortment of overhanging trees and semi-submerged snags - it was nice to have to focus on our bearings.

Typical floodplains forest

Paddling down the Inlet Creek

The creek connecting Horseshoe and Main Lagoons

The creek opened out into a broad stretch of reeds and then clear water, as we paddled into the one end of Horseshoe Lagoon, an old meander of the Murray. Just before it made the sweeping curve to form the horseshoe, we left it via reed-lined Connecting Creek. As the name suggests, this brought us into another smaller body of water, though it was called Main Lagoon. We stopped on a scrubby patch of bank, the only bit clear of reeds, for lunch, before setting out on our last leg.

The broad expanse of Horseshoe Lagoon

Dead trees in Main Lagoon

Paddling past drowned trees and around a reed-lined island, we reached the end of Main Lagoon and the start of Outlet Creek - our route back to the Murray River. Our focus was now on the finish line and, on entering the Murray and turning downstream, we could see an old paddle steamer moored in the distance - The "P.S. Julie Fay" marked our canoe base, and less than a kilometre later, we paddled in through a gap in the reeds to pull up at the landing. My, it felt good to stand up again.

Riverlands canoe trail

Nearing the end of Outlet Creek

Back at home base near Paringa

It had been a good trip and we were very lucky to have had such fine weather. The Murray is a wide river here with sweeping bends and long reaches. Once we found our rhythm the paddling was not difficult, but 60 km over 3 days was physically demanding - shoulder muscles may have been rippling, but our backsides were numb. Overall, we found the side creeks more interesting than the river - not as lush a fringing forest, but narrower and winding, the banks dotted with gnarly redgums - not an attractive tree but one full of character. The bird life too was impressive, not just the many species of waterbirds, but songbirds in the lining forest and the ever-present swamp harriers. The highlight though was the nights spent camping on the river banks, the air still and warm and the moonlight pale, far from the trappings of civilisation.