The Murray keeps one man’s life rolling along

By Charmayne Allison

FOR Echuca’s Peter Phillips, the Murray is so much more than a river.

It has been a haven, a healer, and is – and always will be – home.

Through the highs and lows of his childhood and teen years, its smooth surface was a refuge, a quick paddle on the river is all it took to calm him down.

This love of the river would transform into a career as well as a love, leading him to study and work in environmental science and later, become a science teacher at St Joseph’s College.

And finally, it would become the scene of his greatest adventure: kayaking every one of the 2200km from the Hume Weir at Albury to the Murray Mouth at Goolwa, South Australia.

Not just once, but twice.

Two massive voyages which ignited the deep love of the river he is now sharing with the growing number of adventure-seekers taking to the Murray with kayaks and canoes.

And while he’s explored everything from the rapids of the high country and the ghostly gums of Lake Mulwala to South Australia’s gorge country and its winding limestone cliffs, there’s one river port that keeps calling him home.

“Echuca really celebrates the river. Not all places do. It’s part of our story,” he reflected.

“And we share this love of the river through the paddlesteamers, the houseboats, the fishermen.

“I love its history. You could spend a whole lifetime peeling back the layers of storytelling here.

“But we’re also a gateway to the huge forests and lake systems of the Gunbower-Perricoota and Barmah-Millewa lakes, which are our own little version of Kakadu and every bit as beautiful.

“So there’s a lot to explore which we may not even realise is here.”

Although Peter started kayaking at 16, he didn’t undertake his first major expedition until 2012, three years after getting ill with a virus.

An outdoor-loving free spirit, he was suddenly confined to a sick-bed, the illness hitting him with a series of relapses, until he was struggling to walk.

Worst of all, it stripped him of purpose until he felt hopeless and helpless.

Exhausting all treatment options, he turned at last to his sacred site – the Murray.

He had the ambitious goal to paddle from Bringenbrong Bridge above the Hume to Goolwa.

The mammoth paddles turned out to be the perfect antidote for the virus, kick-starting his system and helping him find new strength and motivation.

Four years later, it was déjà vu all over again as he launched his kayak into the warm waters and headed west and south west.

But this time it had to be all in the one go as he was on a tight schedule.

“I had a limited time window of 52 days as I had to take time off work,” he said.

Peter’s second trip was largely motivated by the first.

“During the first trip I was writing a blog all the way down,” he said.

“And while I learnt a lot, I had so many unanswered questions at the end that I decided to complete a PhD about the river.”

While he had planned to focus his study on the resilience of the Murray’s riverbanks, Mother Nature had other ideas.

“It just so happened the river was in flood on that second trip, so I ended up paddling in flood conditions all the way, which has never been done,” Peter said.

Although he couldn’t examine the banks as planned, Peter still took a photo every 250m as he paddled, documenting the causes of blackwater and examining Murray flood conditions.

“It’s the only study I know of that length, 2200km. And the river has never been photographed so systematically,” he said.

While he gathered vital information about the Murray’s ecology, it was the breathtaking beauty of the river that will be forever branded in his memory.

“Despite growing up on a river, I’d never realised it was actually higher than the forest around me when in flood,” Peter said.

“So as I was paddling I was looking down into the forest. And seeing the water flow slowly into it and it coming to life and fill with flowers everywhere was amazing.

“I also loved paddling on the river in the early morning when the sun was coming up and the whole surface was covered in mist.

“It seemed to part before you, you could hear every drop. And shafts of sunlight cut through it from every angle – the whole scene was just magical.”

Peter has now become an accidental advocate for Murray paddling.

“I just try to promote the river, how beautiful it is, what people will see on the way down, where there might be good campsites and what to watch out for,” he said.

“There are actually more and more people doing the length of the river for all sorts of reasons – life goals, fitness, recreation.

“It used to be one person a year and now we’ve got about one a week going through.”

Peter describes it as one of the last "big, safe wilderness experiences” out there.

“You can call into towns about every five days and yet, most of the time, you’re in fairly natural environments so there's that experience of solitude," he said.

“And with kayaking, you're always busy. So you don't tend to get bored because you still have to paddle that boat, steer, things like that.”

While Peter did train for his trips, he said it wasn’t as necessary as some may think.

“So long as you do what feels right for you on the day, you actually get fitter during it,” he said.

“Just make sure you stop when you get tired, so you don't injure yourself. Then you'll find that every day you can do a bit more.

"When I'm advising people, I always talk safety. Make sure you look after your health and choose good campsites where a tree branch isn't going to drop on you. That sort of stuff.

"The physical effort is big, but it doesn't need to be hard. It's one of those epic adventures everyone can do."

In addition to his two big Murray trips, Peter has also paddled from Lake Eildon to Echuca on the Goulburn, from Picnic Point to Deniliquin on the Edward and Hay to the Murray on the Murrumbidgee.

But he always comes home to his Murray; what he describes as his life source. 

"If I could, I would do this journey every year," her said.

"It's just so beautiful. We get to know our section of the river and start to think the whole river is like that. But when you do a big trip like this you realise how it changes.

"Every day you see something different."