A branch of the Murray in its middle reaches, near Howlong, New South Wales.
The Murray River is Australia's second-longest river in its own right (the longest being its tributary the Darling). The 3370 kilometre long combined Murray-Darling river system drains most of inland Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland. The 2500-kilometer Murray proper rises in the Australian Alps, draining the western side of Australia's highest mountains. Carrying only a small fraction of the water of comparably-sized rivers in other parts of the world, and with a great annual variability of its flow, in its natural state it has even been known to dry up completely in drought years. For most of its length, the Murray meanders its way across Australia's inland plains, forming the border between New South Wales and Victoria as it wanders to the northwest, before turning south for its final 500 kilometres or so into South Australia. It supplies much of Adelaide's domestic water supply.
Being one of the major river-systems in one of the driest continents of Earth, the Murray has significant cultural relevance to the Australian Aborigines. According to the peoples of Lake Alexandrina, the Murray was created by the tracks of the Great Ancestor, Ngurunderi, as he pursued Ponde, the Murray cod. The chase originated in the interior of New South Wales. Ngurunderi pursued the fish (who, like many totem animals in Aboriginal myths, is often portrayed as a man) on rafts (or lala) made from red gums and continually launched spears at his target. But Ponde was a wily prey and carved a weaving path, carving out the river's various tribituries. Ngurundi was forced to beach his rafts, and often create new ones as he changed from reach to reach of the river.
At Kobathatang, Ngurunderi finally got lucky, and struck Ponde in the tail with a spear. However, teh shock to the fish was so great it launched him forward in a straight line to a place called Peindjalang, near Tailem Bend. Eager to rectify his failure to catch his prey, the hunter and his two wives (sometimes the escaped sibling wives of Waku and Kanu) hurried on, and took positions high on the cliff on which Tailem bend now stands. They sprung an ambush on Ponde only to fail again. Ngurunderi set off in pursuit again, but lost his prey as Ponde dived into Lake Alexandrin. Ngurunderi and his women settled on the shore, only to suffer bad luck with fishing, being palgued by a water fiend known as Muldjewangk. They later moved to a more suitable spot at the site of present-day Ashville. The twin summits of Mount Misery are supposed to be the remnants of his rafts, they are known as Lalangengall or the two watercraft.
Remarkably this story of a hunter pursuing a fish that carved out the Murray persits in numerous forms in varying language groups that inhabit the enormous area spanned by Murray system. The Wotojobaluk people of Victoria tell of Totyerguil from the area now known as Swan Hill who ran out of spears while chasing Otchtout the cod.
Modern history of the river
The first Europeans to explore the river were Hamilton Hume and William Hovell, who crossed the river where Albury now stands in 1824: Hume named it the Hume after his father. In 1830 Captain Charles Sturt reached the river after travelling down its tributary the Murrumbidgee River and named it the Murray in honour of the then British Secretary of State for the Colonies Sir George Murray, not realising it was the same river that Hume and Hovell had encountered further upstream. Sturt continued down the remaining length of the Murray to finally reach Lake Alexandrina and the river's mouth.
In the 19th century the river used to support a substantial commercial steamboat trade, but the unreliable levels made it impossible for boats to compete with the railways and later road transport. However, the river still carries pleasure boats along its entire length. During the 20th century a large number of dams were constructed in the river's headwaters, including the Hume Dam, Dartmouth Dam, and the complex dam and pipeline system of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. These dams inverted the patterns of the river's natural flow from the original winter-spring flood and summer-autumn dry to the present low level through winter and higher during summer. These changes ensured the availability of water for irrigation and made the Murray Valley Australia's most productive agricultural region, but have seriously disrupted the life cycles of many ecosystems both inside and outside the river, and the irrigation has led to dryland salinity that now threatens the agricultural industries.
Dead and dying River Red Gums on the lower Murray near Berri, South Australia.
The disruption of the river's natural flow, runoff from agriculture, and the introduction of pest species like the European Carp has led to serious environmental damage along the river's length and to concerns that the river (and thus Adelaide's water and the irrigation water) will be unusably salty in the medium to long term. Efforts to alleviate the problems proceed but political infighting between various interest groups stalls progress.
Influences on political geography
An early map show proposals of colony boundaries, published in 1836, shows use of the Murray River as a colony border http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/australia_1838.jpg. It shows present day Victoria, most of present day New South Wales, and the area of South Australia south-east of the Murray, to be part of a single state, Guelphia.
Today, the Murray makes up much of the border of the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales. The border is generally agreed upon to be the southern high water mark of the river. This boundary definition can be ambiguous, as the river has changed its course slightly since the boundary was defined in 1851.
West of the 141° E line of longitude, the river continues as the Victoria - South Australia border for 3.6km. This was due to a miscalcuation in the 1840s when the border was originally surveyed. Past this point, the Murray River is entirely within the state of South Australia.
In the Media
In 2004 ABC radio presenter Phillip Adams interviewed a number of people who lived along the river in a feature series on the radio program Late Night Live. The series was researched and produced by Annabelle Quince.
- Isaacs J (198-0) Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History, Lansdowne Press, Sydney, New South Wales, ISBN 0-7018-1330-X
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