by Norma Wilkins, Russ Wilkins, Alan Tapsell and Noel Cleland
Last Xmas holidays three canoes set off with the idea of doing the Murray River. The canoes, with their crews, were: ‘Halcyon’, with George Blumer and Peter Blackwell; ‘Winnunga’ with Allan Tapsell and Noel Cleland; ‘Shadow’ (ex “Blood and Thunder’) with Russ and Norma Wilkins and Bruce Gilmore.
On the way to Albury, George Blumer was mistaken by the local constables as Darcy Duggan and only very swift work saved him from a fate worse than death. A farmer reported seeing ‘water nymphs’ sporting in the Murrumbidgee; he reported that their bodies were brown with white patches here and, on some, there.
We were photographed for the paper in Albury and our fortunes were made from then on. During the rest of the trip reporters were so numerous that they were often mistaken for our constant companions the flies.
Telling the story in her own words, Norma says:
“Three canoes, six men and I, were off for adventure on the Murray. One day upstream from Colemans was quite sufficient. The Murray was sluggish, the only obstacles were the willows; and on one occasion George found the opening a trifle small and did a magnificent back somersault helped with an obliging branch. We forced on regardless and caught up with the savage tribe (Sydney Branch) in the Tintaldra Pub. No wonder those boys have big canoes.
“At Towong Bridge, the local school teacher gave us a run of the orchard, including apricots and plums. On the third day we reached Tintaldra, after many miles of snag-dodging and cunning little races and all the willows and U-bends in the world. ‘Halcyon’ towed a partially plucked and clean snag for many miles, one day, before George was convinced that it was certainly not duck. But what was happening to our peaceful lazy holiday floating down from Albury? The men wanted anywhere where there were some rapids they said. A conference with a local carrier ended with a lightning break up of camp, and off to do the Mitta-Mitta via the Gibbo River. What a climb that carriers truck did with us – up into the Benembra Ranges, through the 4624 ft Sassafras Gap, to Kings Bridge!
“Canoes were launched early next morning. Then came eight miles of bottom-scraping to the chagrin of the crew of ‘Winnunga’, which was built of eight nights, and whose builders had not included rubbing strakes – a fact often bemoaned on the Mitta, a fast and furious river.
“The first near-disaster was when Russ started to rope ‘Shadow’. She was swamped but the rescue squad soon arrived. That was only the beginning! There were eight more hard and difficult portages to go, all together and at once! Well they were spread over two miles, anyway. Then we neared the end of the gorges and some first class rapids showed themselves”
Here Russ Wilkins takes up the tale. He swears the total number of portages was ten and describes the 60 mile battle down the Mitta rapids:
“We took it turns to fill up and sink, due to the large pressure waves and lack of spray sheets. Long will be remembered the look on George’s face when, after anticipating all morning a tin of pears for lunch, he opened the tin to see some very cold beans. We survived many narrow escapes, and in keeping with adventure tale tradition, our canoes remained sound until the last rock in the last rapid, where one canoe perched itself on top of a very sharp rock. It promptly lost three or four planks and many ribs and the unhappy crew had to walk the last three miles to Mitta Mitta. The remaining two canoes, delayed by this incident, finished the trip in darkness, surprising some illegal fishermen on the way, to arrive in town at 8 pm.”
The Mitta Mitta locals were very surprised to see us, especially at the local hotel. When our knock on the front door was unanswered we went to the back door, to find the local gentry dissolving guiltily from within. Being dark, and with no illumination, we had been mistaken for police. After a few minutes swift talking we had established ourselves and had booked in for breakfast.
Our ego was boosted considerably by the information that eleven canoes from Melbourne had attempted the Mitta further upstream from Gibbo Ck but were forced to pull out. As could be expected, the local paper (used for wrapping the local meat) interviewed us on pertinent subjects such as the love-life of trout and beetles in the Mitta Gorge.
From Mitta Mitta we returned by truck to Albury to be once again interviewed and photographed (perhaps Norma attracted the photographers). After this we retired to the hospital to dress poisoned fingers and legsThen sending the canoes off by rail we began hitching, to arrive home 24 hours later, very tired but well contented with our Xmas tripThe damage: One canoe, one paddle, one shin, one finger and a few bent reputations.