I’m up the Murray again on a research trip. This time it’s a houseboat from Echuca on the Victorian-NSW border, up to Torrumbarry Weir. Today I spent a fascinating day exploring the historic port of Echuca, Australia’s paddle steamer capital. The river precinct is an authentic working steam port, home to Australia’s largest fleet of steam-driven paddle steamers. It still operates much the same as it did in days gone by, with shipwrights and steam engineers providing a vital role in the port’s operations. Echuca holds a place in history as Australia’s busiest inland port during the late 1800′s, handling cargo from hundreds of riverboats annually. It’s still the centre of steam boat activity. Wander down the Murray Esplanade and you can almost smell the wood smoke from the old paddle steamers as they unloaded wool, timber and wheat, and took on stores, shearers and machinery for remote stations along the Murray and its tributaries.
We had lunch at the Star Hotel built in 1867, and explored the underground bar and tunnel. The bar lies twelve feet underground. After being de-licensed in 1897 due to the rowdy nature of the establishment, the underground bar became a ‘sly-grog shop’. An escape tunnel led to an outside alleyway, which was used in the event of a police raid. The underground bar and tunnel was only rediscovered in 1973. Previous owners had lived there for forty years, unaware of its existence.
Unfortunately, my trip up this part of the Murray only confirms what I’ve found in other places. Too many people wanting a piece of this majestic river. Giant river red gums losing their grip on degraded banks. Old jetties jutting out twenty meters above the current river level. The health of the Murray-Darling Basin is failing. Ecosystems which rely on the water flowing through the Basin’s rivers and tributaries are under great pressure, due to unsustainable extraction levels for irrigation and other uses. This problem is likely to become worse as water availability declines, due to climate change. We must act now, to restore the balance. Our children won’t forgive us if we don’t.