The Murray River is Australia's second-longest river in its own right (the longest being its tributary the Darling). At 2,575 kilometres (1,600 miles) in length, the Murray rises in the Australian Alps, draining the western side of Australia's highest mountains and, for most of its length, meanders across Australia's inland plains, forming the border between New South Wales and Victoria as it flows to the northwest, before turning south for its final 500 kilometres or so into South Australia. Despite its length and size, the Murray has no estuary and very little of its water flows into the ocean. Instead its flow is dissipated in an area of lakes and swamps, including Lake Alexandria and The Coorong.
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The Murray River forms part of the 3,750 kilometre (2,300 miles) long combined Murray-Darling river system which drains most of inland Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland. The Murray carrys only a small fraction of the water of comparably-sized rivers in other parts of the world, and with a great annual variability of its flow, in its natural state it has even been known to dry up completely in drought years.
The Murray makes up much of the border of the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales. The border is generally agreed upon to be the southern high water mark of the river. This boundary definition can be ambiguous, as the river has changed its course slightly since the boundary was defined in 1851.
West of the 141° E line of longitude, the river continues as the Victoria – South Australia border for 3.6km. This was due to a miscalcuation in the 1840s when the border was originally surveyed. Past this point, the Murray River is entirely within the state of South Australia.
Being one of the major river systems in one of the driest continents of Earth, the Murray has significant cultural relevance to the Australian Aborigines. According to the peoples of Lake Alexandrina, the Murray was created by the tracks of the Great Ancestor, Ngurunderi, as he pursued Ponde, the Murray Cod. The chase originated in the interior of New South Wales. Ngurunderi pursued the fish (who, like many totem animals in Aboriginal myths, is often portrayed as a man) on rafts (or lala) made from red gums and continually launched spears at his target. But Ponde was a wily prey and carved a weaving path, carving out the river's various tributaries. Ngurundi was forced to beach his rafts, and often create new ones as he changed from reach to reach of the river.
At Kobathatang, Ngurunderi finally got lucky, and struck Ponde in the tail with a spear. However, the shock to the fish was so great it launched him forward in a straight line to a place called Peindjalang, near Tailem Bend. Eager to rectify his failure to catch his prey, the hunter and his two wives (sometimes the escaped sibling wives of Waku and Kanu) hurried on, and took positions high on the cliff on which Tailem Bend now stands. They sprung an ambush on Ponde only to fail again. Ngurunderi set off in pursuit again, but lost his prey as Ponde dived into Lake Alexandrina. Ngurunderi and his women settled on the shore, only to suffer bad luck with fishing, being plagued by a water fiend known as Muldjewangk. They later moved to a more suitable spot at the site of present-day Ashville. The twin summits of Mount Misery are supposed to be the remnants of his rafts, they are known as Lalangengall or the two watercraft.
Remarkably, this story of a hunter pursuing a fish that carved out the Murray persists in numerous forms in various language groups that inhabit the enormous area spanned by the Murray system. The Wotojobaluk people of Victoria tell of Totyerguil from the area now known as Swan Hill who ran out of spears while chasing Otchtout the cod.
The first Europeans to explore the river were Hamilton Hume and William Hovell, who crossed the river where Albury now stands in 1824: Hume named it the Hume River after his father. In 1830 Captain Charles Sturt reached the river after travelling down its tributary the Murrumbidgee River and named it the Murray River in honour of the then British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Sir George Murray, not realising it was the same river that Hume and Hovell had encountered further upstream. Sturt continued down the remaining length of the Murray to finally reach Lake Alexandrina and the river's mouth. The area of the Murray Mouth was explored more thoroughly by Captain Collet Barker in 1831.
In 1858 the Government Zoologist, William Blandowski, along with Gerard Krefft, explored the lower reaches of the Murray and Darling rivers, compiling a list of birds and mammals. During the expedition they accumulated 17,400 specimens and classified a number of newly discovered species.
The lack of an estuary means that shipping cannot enter the Murray from the sea however in the 19th century the river used to support a substantial commercial trade using shallow-draft steamboats, the first trips being made by two boats from South Australia on the spring flood of 1853. One boat, the Lady Augusta reached Swan Hill while another, the Mary Ann made it as far as Moama (near Echuca). In 1855 a steamer carrying gold-mining supplies reached Albury but Echuca was the usual turn-around point though small boats continued to link with up-river ports such as Tocumwal, Wahgunyah and Albury.
The arrival of steamboat transport was welcomed by pastoralists who had been suffering from a shortage of transport due to the demands of the gold fields. By 1860 a dozen steamers were operating in the high water season along the Murray and its tributaries. Once the railway reached Echuca in 1864, the bulk of the woolclip from the Riverina was transported via river to Echuca and then south to Melbourne. The Murray was plagued by "snags", fallen trees submerged in the water, and considerable efforts were made to clear the river of these threats to shipping by using barges equipped with steam-driven winches.
The volume and value of river trade made Echuca Victoria's second port and in the decade from 1874 it underwent considerable expansion. By this time up to thirty steamers and a similar number of barges were working the river in season. River transport began to decline once the railways touched the Murray at numerous points. The unreliable levels made it impossible for boats to compete with the rail and later road transport. However, the river still carries pleasure boats along its entire length.
Today, most traffic on the river is recreational. Small private boats are used for water skiing and fishing. Houseboats are common, both commercial for hire and privately owned. There are a number of both historic paddle steamers and newer boats offering cruises ranging from 1/2 an hour to 5 days.
Major article: Murray River crossings
The Murray River has been a significant barrier to land-based travel and trade. Many of the ports for transport of goods along the Murray have also developed as places to cross the river, either by bridge or ferry.
Water storage and irrigation
Small-scale pumping plants began drawing water from the Murray in the 1850s and the first large-volume plant was constructed at Mildura in 1887. The introduction of pumping stations along the river promoted an expansion of farming and led ultimately to the development of irrigation areas. In 1915 the three Murray states — New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia — signed the River Murray Agreement which proposed the construction of storage reservoirs in the river's headwaters as well as at Lake Victoria near the South Australian border. Along the intervening stretch of the river a series of locks and weirs were built. These were originally proposed to support navigation even in times of low water, but river-borne transport was already declining due to improved road and rail systems.
Lock 1 was completed near Blanchetown in 1922. Torrumbarry Weir downstream of Echuca began operating in December 1923. Of the numerous locks that were proposed, only thirteen were completed; Locks 1 to 11 on the stretch downstream of Mildura, Lock 15 at Euston and Lock 26 at Torrumbarry. Construction of the remaining weirs purely for navigation purposes was abandoned in 1934. The last lock to be completed was Lock 15, in 1937.
Lock 11, just downstream of Mildura, creates a 100 kilometre long lock pool which aided irrigation pumping from Mildura and Red Cliffs. Each lock has a navigable passage next to it through the weir, which is opened during periods of high river flow, when there is too much water for the lock. The weirs can be completely removed, and the locks completely covered by water during flood conditions. Lock 11 is unique in that the lock was built inside a bend of the river, with the weir in the bend itself. A Channel was dug to the lock, creating an island between it and the weir. The weir is also of a different design, being dragged out of the river during high flow, rather than lifted out.
Four large reservoirs were built along the Murray; in addition to Lake Victoria (completed late 1920s) is Lake Hume near Albury-Wodonga (completed 1936), Lake Mulwala at Yarrawonga (completed 1939) and Lake Dartmouth, which is actually on the Mitta Mitta River upstream of Lake Hume (completed 1979). The Murray also receives water from the complex dam and pipeline system of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
These dams inverted the patterns of the river's natural flow from the original winter-spring flood and summer-autumn dry to the present low level through winter and higher during summer. These changes ensured the availability of water for irrigation and made the Murray Valley Australia's most productive agricultural region, but have seriously disrupted the life cycles of many ecosystems both inside and outside the river, and the irrigation has led to dryland salinity that now threatens the agricultural industries.
The disruption of the river's natural flow, run-off from agriculture, and the introduction of pest species like the European Carp has led to serious environmental damage along the river's length and to concerns that the river will be unusably salty in the medium to long term — a serious problem given that the Murray supplies 40% of Adelaide's domestic water. Efforts to alleviate the problems proceed but political infighting between various interest groups stalls progress.
- River pilot maps 1880–1918 / Echuca Historical Society
- Down the River Murray An ABC 5 part series on the river and its people
- Murray-Darling Basin Commission: The River Murray and Lower Darling
- Isaacs J (198–0) Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History, Lansdowne Press, Sydney, New South Wales, ISBN 0–7018–1330-X