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 An Amble Down the Murray

by Sandra Fraser

© 1997, Sandra Fraser

 "572 ..." It's the fifth time that (now familiar) voice has called me on to the water. His is the awesome job of getting everyone onto the river. 975 paddlers are in this event. Every ten minutes a group sets off, starting at 7am with the open canoes.

The start line is chaos. Inevitably someone capsizes in the hustling for front line positions. I tried starting at the front of the pack ­ boats collide, paddles bash, currents every which way. Now I stay snug at the right bank away from the frenzy and it's a good possy for smiling at your (by now, very tired) ground crew. This 7:10 am start is for those in the single touring type classes who request an early start ­ the not so speedy mob.

 

I see Peter's right arm is strapped hand to elbow today. He's in a plastic sea kayak. It's his first marathon and he's suffering. Lee, in a TK1 with rubber ducks stuck all over the deck, is the one I pace against ­ it's her seventh year running. Ted is lined up, this is his fifteenth and he started doing them when he turned sixty! Now our marathon family is ready ­ oops! The guy on the surf ski is over. Three...two...one...baaannnggg!

Today I'm not fussed. It's New Year's Eve, the final day. It feels like I've been paddling this river all my life and it's even scary to think that later today it will all be over ­ there will be more to life than keeping the arms rolling, admiring the twisted old red gums, soaking up the summer smell of eucalypts, listening to the screech of the sulphur crested cockies and the happy laugh of the kookaburras.

The Murray River Marathon started in 1969 with seven people doing an expedition as a fundraiser (they raised about $1 000). Now the Red Cross run this slick and popular race. These days it raises nearly $100 000.

I had written offering to crew for Frank (my Dad) who has been paddling for three years with Bendigo Canoe Club. The Murray River Marathon to them is like the Avon Descent to us, dominating the calendar. In his reply he said that he'd recruited my two brothers and their kids as crew, but would I paddle a TK2 with him. Most of my training had been in a down river boat, during early mornings in Port Hedland on a tidal creek ­ it was usually 35o C by 8:30 am up there! Frank trained in a TK1, doing 18 km/day ­ he's a very fit 65 year old!

On the first day of the marathon we were in the TK2. By the end of that day I had drunk ten litres of water, paddled 92 km and gone through four partners in the boat. Frank had pulled out after 44 km due to painful hips. I recruited a Bendigo guy from the bank ­ that leg was wild! The trees blurred as tears streamed from my eyes, we even wash rode a K4! The next recruit was my brother who had been in a boat once. He jumped in with jeans, straw hat and enthusiasm. He loved it and chatted as we wobbled to the next checkpoint. My frayed nerves from those wobbles had me searching for a more experienced partner. Tom, a young guy paddling in a relay is pumped up from just completing his leg ­ he's keen! More wobbles, maybe it's me. "For how long have you been paddling, Tom?" "This is my sixth time in a boat." Tom's energy lasts ten kilometres before he crashes. I feed him bananas and Mars Bars to keep him going the next ten kilometres to the finish.

On the second and remaining days I paddle a TK1, as a non-competitive participant.

Now it's the last leg on the last day. Along comes the big wooden row boat, like a surf rescue boat. They have a six foot stuffed gorilla as mascot. These guys have great muscles, my rating increases trying to keep up with them.

Here's a sign ­ "5 to go". Swan Hill is just around the bend. A paddle steamer chugs past. The waves are a good diversion but a nearby paddler swims because of them and a Canadian is swamped. "1 to go". I can hear dogs howling. Sixteen dogs have jumped in to cross the finish line with both the TK2s from their relays. They're "doing Murray Doggy Style" and have howled and woofed their way down the river. One night they ate, from their dog bowls, in dinner suits and evening gowns and, thus clad, entered the egg throwing competition (along with two hundred others). They're sponsored by a dog food company. Now, as they're singing "How much is that doggy on the Murray, woof, woof", I complete my 404th kilometre.

Jeff Kennett was at the finish for presentations, though he was gone well before I finished. My hard working crew are waiting, looking proud but weary. They had thought that they would spend their days sightseeing, between dropping me off at the start and collecting me at the finish. Twnty one checkpoints later they are relieved the job is done.

I found the Murray River Marathon easier than the Avon Descent ­ no trees or valley to fret or lose sleep over. The sheer length of it was testing. The challenge was in keeping in good physical shape, helped by free daily massages, and maintaining a positive attitude. The camp environment and camaraderie on the water make this event great.

Frank is preparing for his '97 attempt. Both brothers have started paddling and my ten year old niece is already sitting comfy in a sprint boat. Perhaps we'll have a whole relay team to enter next time! I loved it.

Sandy Fraser

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