Bush Camping At Hattah-Kulkyne

by John

When our youngest daughter was old enough to be slightly responsible, our family frequently went bush camping on the banks of the Murray River, where it flows through desert country.

No facilities. Just river banks for the tents, the river to swim and fish and yabbie, cooking on campfires. We took a chemical toilet which was located behind a canvas screen. We took drinking water in 20 litre containers. In summer, occasional days were very hot, up to 44ºc. Too hot to be outdoors or in tents. We would drive about an hour and a half to Mildura to shop in air-conditioned centres, or see a movie. But mostly the weather was warm and lovely. Rain was occasional, and could be very heavy.

Often, our family group (2 or 3 families) was the only occupant of the river bank. Sometimes there would be another family group, but privacy was respected, and tents were positioned as far apart as possible. There were friendly nods when passing on the 4WD tracks, or the beach. Yes, there was a beach. At Ki bend, there was a sandy beach about one kilometer long, and 50 to 100m wide, depending on the river height.

A 4WD vehicle was desirable due to the rough access tracks, and essential after rain. The river flood plain was fine clay, and incredibly slippery when wet. Recovering bogged vehicles was a common occurrence. After a few trips I progressed to a Landcruiser with a Warn winch, compressor, snatch straps, tow straps.

The river banks were populated with River Red Gums which extended for a kilometer or 2 away from the river. The red gum dead timber made for long lasting and hot camp fires, ideal for cooking, and evening socialising. The kids quickly learned fire common sense. My youngest became obsessed with fire, and would feed sticks, and watch the fire for long periods. She is still fascinated by fire. (that is the daughter who spent a day with me melting and pouring aluminium to make cannon parts.)

The nights were dark and clear, and we always were blown away by the brilliant night skies. Sometimes I would set up a telescope, or use binoculars, to talk to the kids about stars and constellations, and the moon. We could see the International Space Station quite clearly with the telescope.

The wildlife was wonderful. Large groups of kangaroos and emus. We counted 2000 roos one day! Goannas, and an occasional snake. Wild goats and pigs were visible on the opposite river banks where there was no road access. A half hour drive away there was a ranger station at Hattah, and we would always introduce ourselves to the ranger, and chat about the park.

And the birds! They would start up at dawn, and the squawking was deafening. Sleep was impossible when they commenced. Thousands and thousands of white cockatoos, hawks, eagles, parrots, budgerigars. They would fly off in groups, and return at dusk. Large birds would skim the water and occasionally plunge for fish.

Some days we would cook, eat, swim, play bocce or cricket on the sand, read and read and talk and talk. The kids mostly entertained themselves. The water was shallow and gradual off the sandbank. But we always watched them closely. The Murray is notorious for drownings. There are many submerged dead trees, and the river is constantly flowing.

Other days we would drive through the park to spot animals. And we would have day trips into the Sunset Country. That is true desert. The only water is in salt pans. The trees are low and scrubby. There are many sand hills. Some cattle farms struggle to exist on the margins. There are some operational and some abandoned mines for mica and bentonite. And abandoned iron machinery lasts for decades in the dry environment. We always take 2 vehicles, 4WD’s, in case of breakdown, or irretrievable bogging. And containers of water and food. 4WD is essential in some places due to loose deep sand, where the going is slow, careful, and heavy.

These were wonderful family holidays. When my daughters grew into adults and left home to make their own lives, the Hattah trips stopped, but they often reminisced about camping at Hattah. Lately they have been talking about taking their own children, my grandchildren, camping on the banks of the Murray at Hattah.

Then recently, my brother in law and his wife asked me if I wanted to join them on a nostalgic trip back to Hattah. I immediately agreed, and invited another friend to join us. My wife used to love the camping trips, but her arthritis limits her mobility, and sleeping on the ground is not an option for her. Even an offer to hire an off road camper was not acceptable. So I asked a friend who had never been bush camping, and had never done any off road driving. I was somewhat surprised when he immediately agreed. We are all into our 70’s. My vehicle is still an 80 series Landcruiser, 27 years old. But it is in good mechanical condition. Bull bar, Warn winch, heavy duty springs, compressor, dual batteries, driving lights, and I still have lots of recovery gear. I also still have a “minute” tent, small fridge, cooking gear, etc etc. It was all stored away in case such an occasion would arise. I also packed my anti snoring CPP device, medications, a first aid kit. And I bought a modern innovation, a solar blanket, for recharging the vehicle batteries, to keep the fridge, and my snoring device working. The fridge was for beer, meltables and vegetables. I am now vegetarian, so keeping meat chilled was not an issue.

I also purchased a pair of hand held small walkie-talkies, for communication between the two vehicles. We would be well out of mobile telephone range a lot of the time. In the old days we had vehicle mounted 2 way radios, but mice had got into mine and it was kaput. I was pleasantly surprised how inexpensive the solar blanket and walkie talkies were.

Spent a day gathering gear, and doing some repairs to vehicle and tent. Another half day packing the Landcruiser.

Then we were driving towards Hattah. Met the other vehicle at Gisborne. Crossed the Great Dividing Range, then the flat dry plains of north western Victoria. About 6 hours of highway driving, with a stop for lunch, then past the olive groves, and almond orchards of the irrigation country as we neared the Murray River. Finally we passed Manangatang and Annuello, then onto the dirt track for the final kilometers in the Hattah Kulkine National Park to the Ki Bend.

That track is always rough and bone shaking. But, with almost no use in 2020, and no maintenance, it was horrendous. I have driven the Palm Valley track, the Birdsville track, and other parts of central Australia, in the 1980’s and 90’s, and driven some rough tracks in the Otways before they were all closed, but for vehicle and human bone shaking, this was the worst that I had ever encountered. Deep corrugations which were impossible to avoid. And no speed change was of any help. After about 20-30 minutes of being shaken to bits we arrived at the Ki Bend. The river looked SO inviting. The sand bank was exposed. The river was about medium height. It looked as wonderful as I remembered. And, there was no-one else anywhere to be seen. No other camps. No vehicles. No boats. Deserted.

However there was a problem.

The camping sites were basically areas cleared of bushes and grasses, and not directly underneath river red gum trees, which are notorious for suddenly and randomly shedding huge heavy branches, killing or maiming anyone silly enough to be underneath. But, the sites were choked with tree saplings up to 3 meters high. We guessed that they had grown in 2020, in the absence of campers.

Camping on the sandbar on the River Murray. “Minute” tents take about one minute to erect. My friend Des. River red gums.

We could have removed the saplings, just enough to put up our small tents, but somehow, it did not seem the right thing to do. The other option was to camp on the sand bar. And that is what we eventually did. Small biting insects on the sand bar did not prove to be a problem. We were well away from potential dropping red gum branches. We could drive our vehicles on the firm sand near the river bank. And there was plenty of dry dead wood for the fire. We figured that if the river did start rising due to water release further upstream, we would have time to pack up and move to higher ground.

So, we put up our tents, including the toilet tent, dug a pit in the firm sand for the fire, gathered some wood and lit the fire, unfolded our chairs, and had some beer. By this time, dusk was approaching, the birds started squawking and settling into the trees, turning them white.

Our campsite is just visible in the shade of the trees.
The next day we were thoroughly relaxed. Des, Scott and me. Libby took the pic. When the river is high, the sandbank is totally covered. We have seen the river topping the banks, but not for many years.

…..to be continued…..