This Story was covered in Issue 64 of 4WD Touring Australia.
The featureless Hay Plains stretches out before me, its pancake flat ancient lake bed devoid of anything to distract the mind. The road centre line, as straight as a laser beam, disappears into the horizon. Floating along the Sturt Highway the rhythmic hum of the AT tyres begin to give hints to the eyelids it is time to find camp. Having driven along this stretch a few times, luckily I knew of a nice little campsite near Carathool, perched on the Murrumbidgee River.
With the sun dipping below the salt bush, impenetrable darkness quickly takes over with no moon or stars to expose the barren landscape. Almost feeling my way I turn down the dirt track, the thought of a warm fire and my first beer further relaxing the consciousness. As the 4wd crests the large bank to drop down onto the river flat, inexplicably momentum is immediately sucked out of the car and a strange squishing sound emanates from outside.
While the foot presses harder on the throttle, the sluggish brain starts to process what is going on. I had camped here before on the flat dry river bank. I remember the cracked dry mud being a perfect spot to set up the camper. Dry MUD? Hadn’t there been floods through here a few weeks ago? By the time the neurons had computed what was going on I was 10 metres further in to the sloppy thick sludge.
Knowing that I would not be opening the cool ale soon it was time to make a plan. There was no option of going forward as it would only send me further into the abyss so reversing was the only exit. Luckily I had the maxtrax but with the camper on the back even these extractive wonders were going to need some help. The next hour involved the collection of branches, timber and logs within a mile radius to lay a path back up the bank.
Knowing there was only one chance of extraction, and not wanting to take a lonely walk in the middle of the Hay Plains, the shifter was thrust in to reverse. With mud flying and branches spitting out from under the 4WD I slowly inched my way back up the embankment out of the clutches of the river.
I should have known this could happen as the Murrumbidgee is no stranger to flooding with the system relying on its periodic fluctuation of dry and flood. Since first records there have been over 70 floods over 8 metres at this site, enough to put a halt to the best-equipped 4WD.
You can see the Murrumbidgee well before you get there, the towering River Red Gums clinging to the river edge relying on the ephemeral floods to remain healthy. The Murrumbidgee is one of the few locations where dense forests of these majestic trees can be found. These timbers are also home to threatened species such as the Superb Parrot and Regents Parrot, making camping along the river an ideal bird watchers weekend.
The River originates high in Kosciuszko National Park until it spills its soupy brown liquid into the Murray River at Balranald over 1600 kilometres later. The river twists through the land of Ngarigo, Ngunnawal, Wiradjuri, Nari Nari and Muthi Muthi Aboriginal tribes, each placing their own importance on this ribbon of life. With ‘Murrumbidgee’ translating to ‘big water’ and ‘track goes down here’, both have a new sense of meaning following my foray into the mud.
In 1829 Charles Sturt rowed his whaleboat along the river eventually discovering what the traditional custodians of the land already knew that the Murrumbidgee drained into the sea. For those who live in the NSW Riverina, the Murrumbidgee continues attract people to the river playing host to all kinds of activities including swimming, canoeing and fishing.
While the Murray River often gets all of the accolades for fishing, the Murrumbidgee is worthy of throwing in a line. With miles of timber snags it can result in success luring a golden perch or cod from their hide. Alternatively, if accuracy of your cast is not precise, it can end in hours of frustration with lures and timber becoming forever intertwined.
But the river also attracts those from out of town in search of their own bend in the river to camp. While much of the river runs through private farmland luckily there are still numerous campsites to be found. Many are basic with limited facilities however the benefit is that they are mostly free with very little crowds.
My only word of advice on choosing the best campsite …… check the flood levels before you venture too close.