Here be dragons

The sound of the dragon could be heard from afar as it neared, its approach shattering the brooding silence of the Australian bush as it waded in the dark, slow moving waters of the river with an unrelenting exactitude.

Whump hiss, whump hiss.

Somewhere above, a cloud of parrots scattered from the ancient River Red Gums that suspended gnarled shapes out over the river banks, the birds screeching in protest at the abrupt end of a quiet that had lasted time without measure.

The next moment, like a watery phantasmagoria, it turned a bend in the river and the “dragon” was revealed. A fiery Leviathan, it came on in a cloud of steam, breathing smoke and spitting sparks, its paddle wheels lashing at the languid waters of the Murrumbidgee with an erratic delivery somehow at odds with its consistency.

The Australian river boat steamer.

The story of the navigation of the waters of inland Australia is tied up with a conundrum dubbed the “Riddle of the Rivers”. It started with the spectacle of boats on carts dragged by explorers into dry sand hills and abandoned. It ended with an understanding of where all that rain water went that occasionally fell on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a place that in another age of exploration might have been simply marked on the edges of a map, “Here be dragons”.

Thomas Wragge, c1860. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

It was in this way that the putative Great Inland Sea of Australia was proved a myth and by the start of the second half of the 19th century, those dragons were taking shape in another form. Thomas Wragge’s arrival in the Colonies in 1851 was just two years earlier than the first experimental steam exploration of south eastern Australia’s inland river system and it coincided with that moment in time that saw the dawn of Australia’s steam age. This ambitious Nottingham farmer carried a letter of introduction to the Bakewells and soon began working for them at their various property interests, including of course “Yallambee Park” near Heidelberg. When the Bakewell brothers returned to England in 1857, Thomas became their tenant at Yallambee with the evidence of the certificate of his 1861 marriage to Sarah Ann Hearn describing him as a “gentleman” and a resident at the “Lower Plenty Bridge”.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee Park), view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)
PS Ulonga towing a barge on the Murrumbidgee past the Uardry Station, c1915. (Source: State Library of South Australia)

Soon after this marriage, Thomas joined into a pastoral partnership with his brother William and his brothers in law, John and James Hearn and in 1864 the partnership purchased “Wardry”, a run on the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales which they renamed “Uardry” expanding it to 32,000 acres by 1866.

“On the Murray River at Echuca”, by P J Lysaght, 1876. (Source: National Library of Australia)
Murrumbidgee/Murray River confluence, c1863. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Distance from the markets was a major obstacle to pastoral activities in the Riverina at this time and while Melbourne was the logical centre for business, bullock drays could take as long as three months to complete a return journey. In 1864 the rail line from Melbourne to Bendigo was extended to Echuca and the Wragge/Hearn partnership, which commenced operations that year at Uardry, found that it could transport wool to the Melbourne market by sending it on barges pulled by paddle steamers along the river to the rail head. A regular steam boat traffic developed on the Murrumbidgee, taking wool and other produce from the upriver stations, downstream to the Murray River confluence and from there upstream to Echuca.

An early view of paddle steamers at the Echuca Wharf. (Source: picture by George Henry Kendall, State Library of Victoria)

In her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder wrote:

“It is highly likely that the partners employed William McCulloch and Company as their transport agents as soon as they began operating from Echuca in 1865. Their (McCulloch & Co) paddles steamers took produce from Lang’s Crossing (Hay) to Echuca, from where they forwarded wool bales to Goldsborough in Melbourne”.

This journey involved a customs levy from the Colony of New South Wales at the Victorian border but it was still a practical solution to the problems of transport from the Riverina and preferable to the alternatives.

The impact of river boat traffic on the properties bordering Australia’s inland water ways at this formative period cannot be overstated. The feeling of isolation endured by the earliest settlers of the Riverina faded as the river boats brought in stores and mail, building materials and farming equipment and took away wool bales loaded onto barges into high pyramids greatly increasing the potential profitability of the inland stations in the process.

Of the partners however, only Thomas Wragge and his young family lived on the Uardry run. He and Sarah were there for three years in the early 60s and lived in a homestead, (later extended) that they built on the property.

Wragge family memorial at Warringal Cemetery, February, 2016.

For all this though, it seems probable that Thomas and Sarah never considered that the Murrumbidgee property was likely to become their permanent home for they maintained a lease on the Bakewell’s Yallambee Park throughout the 1860s and were negotiating for its purchase. Significantly, when the Wragges’ second born child, James died aged one year in April, 1864, the final resting place chosen for the infant was Warringal cemetery at Heidelberg near to Yallambee, not elsewhere.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

Thomas Wragge and his family left Uardry and sailed for England in March, 1868. While Wragge had been sub leasing his Yallambee interests to John Ashton throughout much of the 1860s, it is possible that the visit to England was in some way connected to the death of Robert Bakewell three months earlier on Christmas Eve, 1867. It seems certain that it was on this trip that he visited the surviving brother, John Bakewell at John’s home at “Old Hall” north of Nottingham to finalise the outright purchase of “Yallambee Park” as it was on Wragge’s return to Australia in 1870, that the Wragge/Hearn partnership was dissolved and Wragge’s freehold title at Yallambee was established.

The Wakool River at the Talbett’s Punt crossing place, (Kyalite) 1860, from the Ludwig Becker sketchbook. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

As recounted previously, in the 1870s Thomas Wragge’s pastoral ambitions then turned to another part of the Riverina plains, to an area between the Niemur and Wakool Rivers, both anabranches of the Murray, and to a property known as Beremegad which he renamed “Tulla”. The property would in time clock in at about 110,000 acres but at Tulla, with its closer proximity to the Echuca railhead, Wragge seems to have chosen bullock drays over river transport to move the station wool clips.

Map showing location of Tulla between the Murray River anabranches. (Source: “Walking in Time” by E J Grant)
Bullock dray loaded with wool crossing a flooded creek at Tulla in the 1890s. (Source: Lady Betty Lush collection)
Thomas Wragge’s first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873. (Source: “Walking With Time” by E J Grant)

As colonial road and rail systems improved and expanded, the use of river steamers became less important and as the years went by, would fade almost into extinction.

PS Nile stranded in the dry bed of the Darling River. (Source: Wikipedia, from the Harry Brisbane Williams photographic collection)
Small steam launch photographed in flooded High Street, Echuca, c1906. (Source: State Library of South Australia)

Steamboat navigation on the anabranches of the Murray like the Wakool and Edward Rivers had been difficult at the best of times and more or less impossible in the dry seasons. Boats could be stranded for months in water holes when the rivers dried up but even when flowing, snags could trap ships at any time and in a flood, if the rivers broke their banks it was not unknown for river traffic to stray for miles off course, only to be left stranded high and dry when the waters subsided again.

Removing snags from the water obviously improved navigation but the practice also removed the habitat of native fish and other aquatic animals and changed the ecosystem of the rivers in the process.

PS Grappler removing snags from the river, c1860. (Source: picture by Stephen E Nixon, State Library of South Australia)

The steamers’ enormous need for wood to fire their boilers, up to a ton of timber every two hours, was another factor in this change. The need for fuel saw the destruction of large expanses of river side woodland culminating in the gradual erosion of river banks and a subsequent further change to the river systems. Finally, the later introduction of locks and weirs to regulate water flows throughout the seasons and to feed the needs of irrigation was to forever change the ecology and flow of Australia’s inland rivers.

Early picture of a paddle steamer loading wood fuel at a river bank. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The golden age of the Australian river dragons is long ended. Today paddle steamer traffic in the Murray Darling basin is more or less limited to the tourist trade, but the changes that were made to the riverside environment remain. Section 100 of the Australian Constitution was intended to outline the Commonwealth’s powers regarding navigation on the inland river system and for the “reasonable” conservation of its waters for consumptive use, an outline that was made without the Green implications that the word “Conservation” might imply today. It’s an oft quoted clause today when the health of the Murray Darling Basin comes under scrutiny although until 1983 it was never tested in the High Court, and then only in the Dams Case of Tasmania.

Last week the taps were opened on a pipe line from the Murray River to the City of Broken Hill north of the Darling’s Menindee Lakes in a robbing Peter to pay Paul exercise of river systems management. As the Darling River dried up for the second time in three years, Broken Hill had been in danger of running out of drinking water, but while the pipe line will relieve the immediate problems of the “Silver City”, it will not address any of the underlying issues. In fact there is a concern that it will actually lead to less water in the Menindee Lakes, the previous source of Broken Hill water, as irrigators further up the Darling will have less obligation to leave water in the River for use downstream.

The eminent Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists which has a decade long history of commentary on the Murray Darling Basin said last month that their own studies have shown that environmental flows in the rivers are not meeting the government objectives and in at least one case, flows have actually decreased since implementation of the Murray Darling Plan.

The death of a million fish in January in an environmental catastrophe as parts of the Darling River dried up coincidentally coincided with the release of a South Australian State Royal Commission inquiring into the health of the Murray Darling River system. The release of the Royal Commission’s findings highlighted the problems associated with farming in the world’s driest continent and accused the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which had been formed a decade before, of gross maladministration of the Basin Plan and effectively proposed abandoning its principles and starting all over again. The MDBA had been charged to administer the Basin as a whole integrated system and to bring the rivers back to a sustainable level of health but in spite of billions of dollars spent, the Commission found that the original architects of the idea had been driven by “politics rather than science” and had ignored the potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change.

Temperature gauge at Lower Plenty, December, 2018

The 2018/19 Australian summer that ended with the last day of February on Thursday has been officially acknowledged as the hottest ever recorded, with average temperatures coming in across the nation almost a full degree above the previous record, the “Angry Summer” of 2012/13. In a Bureau of Meteorology statement it was observed that, “This pattern is consistent with observed climate change.”

There is a fanciful theory which suggests that tales of dragons are the result of some sort of genetic memory of a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth but be that as it may,  the history of the domination of chimp DNA is brief by comparison.

The Plenty River at Yallambie, June, 2018.

In a world of changing climates, the availability and access to fresh water is likely to become one of the greatest challenges facing societies. In other places this could lead to armed conflicts across the borders of nation states but in Australia it is hoped that we will continue to do things a little bit differently. That old Australian approach, “She’ll be right mate” could stand us in good stead, even when everything is clearly not altogether alright. No doubt the conflict in Australia when it comes will be limited to a bit of argy-bargy about State borders and constitutional reform and might end up in the High Court or in a Federal Referendum, but in the end it will come down to one basic question.

How do we save the Rivers?

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