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Renmark to Mildura in a row-boat

This article originally appeared in The Riverlander, March 1958. The author, Therese Hocking, who is now in her 85th year (now deceased), did the trip with her parents in the Depression years, when work and money were very scarce. It shows the determination of the hardy souls in those times.

Row-Boat from Renmark to Mildura

By Therese Hocking.

Have you ever thought of travelling by river? Not in a comfortable steamer, but in an open boat. My father and mother, my sister and I tried it some years ago when we did the trip from Renmark to Mildura and back.

Our two-roomed canvas cottage that stood on blocks was exchanged for a rowing boat and a white tent. We rolled the latter, stowing it with only what was necessary, including a fortnight’s groceries, into the boat and left early one morning.

It was my job to mind my little sister, while mother and father, seated side by side, rowed the boat. Unfortunately “Mary” developed a love for watching things zig-zag down through the water out of sight. I am unable to remember how many odds and ends we lost this way until she tired of it. We then began to count the scarred trees out of which the aborigines had cut their canoes. On the lonely stretches of the river there often were many.

Posts for the tent were cut whenever we decided it was too chilly to sleep under the stars, or if we stayed a few days to fish or set rabbit traps. In fact, we travelled ‘Wagga’s way’, as we came to call it; because he was the only other person we met using a rowing boat for that purpose.

Wagga was the first, but one of the many characters we happened to meet. A big man, straight, in spite of sixty years, He had a huge, rounded beard as black as midnight. So was his big cat “Satan”, who sat on the prow of his master’s rowing boat and was the most ‘human’ cat I have ever met. Wagga always pushed, facing the front to row his boat, as he “liked to see the way”, He was a super-cook and used the native way to cook fish or wild game, straight from line or gun, wrapped in clay and placed amongst glowing coals: When cooked the feathers stripped off with the clay.

We first met him one evening when he rowed across the river to warn us that the side where we intended to camp was haunted. The story was that a woman passenger on one of the paddle steamers had wandered off while the crew were cutting logs for the boiler fires. She was never found. Her spirit, we were told, used to come back to that part of the river looking for the boat.

Mother is Irish, so we did not stay to find out the truth, but quickly crossed to the other side. It was here next day that a huge ram frightened us. Father and Wagga went off shooting and We other three sat on a fallen gum tree to drink in the surroundings. Suddenly mother’s sixth sense caused her to look round and there, not more than three yards behind, stood the ram. His curled horns looked really dreadful. We hastily and quietly withdrew to the boat and continued enjoying peace and wild beauty from there.

Between towns we met several families who had settled on the banks of the river. One that astonished us was the goat farm people. They were a big family and owned goats of every kind, size, sex and colour. They ate goats, milked them and used home-tanned skins for rugs and mats. We were welcomed like old friends. A huge meal was prepared for all and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I have often wondered how they never grew tired of goats, goats, goats.

Sometimes we never met anyone for days; there was just the never-ending scrub and the gurgling of the Murray River. Then, round a bend, a home stead would come suddenly into view. The people of the homesteads were mostly kind, giving us meat and often flour. In return father would solder their leaking kettles and things.

There was only one accident. Mary, running down to the water’s edge to watch a paddle steamer, cut her foot badly. We came to a homestead next day and the people there re-bandaged it. Not a scar was left.

We reached Mildura four days before Christmas, pitched our tent opposite the town and decided to stay a few days.

The next couple of mornings father spent in the township, trying to get soldering or other work. We others washed and cleaned every thing, giving, the camp oven a good scrub with the clean, white sand found at he water’s edge. Christmas was spent quietly, it was cool under the giant gums. Then it was decided we would go back to Renmark. In Renmark the fruit picking season was about to start and father had been promised some work. So we started back. It took six weeks to come up, and a fortnight to get back.

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22 comments

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  1. Michael Taylor

    My Dad told me that as a 12 year-old he walked 14 miles to sell a dozen eggs for 3d.

    And 14 miles back home again.

  2. Michael Taylor

    The Depression taught my Dad to never waste money (except on beer).

  3. Joseph Carli

    I put that post up as a matter of interest to show that “we” have been to this place before…it can make for some interesting experiences..

  4. Michael Taylor

    Back then, Joe, the memories of WW1 was still fresh in the minds of many people (my assumption, of course), and attitudes were different (another assumption).

    These days people will think they’re throats had been cut.

  5. Joseph Carli

    Michael..interesting observation about the canoes cut from the trees along the Murray…some indigenous people would come up the Marne to the Barossa to cut specific bark canoes evidently..and float them back to the Murray via a once more healthy Marne River.
    Also that mention of cooking “The Native way” by wrapping the bird or fish in clay…little bits of info..

  6. Michael Taylor

    Joe, there is a famous canoe tree on the road to Cape Jervis, which sadly, some hoodlums set fire to. Bastards.

    And yep, those “buryings” produced outstanding food. Wrap a fish in clay, bury it, when cooked remove the clay (and the skin comes off too as it had stuck to the clay), and the flesh just falls off the bone.

  7. Larry Cirillo

    Thanks Joseph, can you believe they exchanged their two-roomed canvas cottage for a rowing boat and a white tent! The value of what we have is very different in a depression I suppose. Food for thought today. I’m sending this to me mate Cary Hocking in Waikerie, bet he knew Therese..

  8. Barry Thompson.

    Michael. That was not wasting money.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Dad didn’t see it that way either, Barry. Same with port. Beer or port was a necessity, not a luxury. 😉

  10. Joseph Carli

    Larry…the Hockings of my story were from Moonta..the author was my mother..and though they did live at times in Wakerie…unless that chap has rellies in Moonta . . . ?

  11. Joseph Carli

    ” and the flesh just falls off the bone.”…..that, along with our experience of using the old German vault-oven, tells me they didn’t eat too bad in those olden times…the source of the tucker may have been “unusual”, but by jingo…could they cook!!

  12. Michael Taylor

    Joseph, this might (I hope) be of interest to you.

    Scattered around Lake Mungo are numerous ancient hearths with delightful archeological remains. Among them are the bones from fish ears, all, incidentally, the same size: from large fish. This indicated that the ancient Australians who were at Lake Mungo from 40,000 – 15,000BP (when the lakes dried up) practiced gill-net fishing, ie, only the large fish were taken. The juvenile fish were left alone. They were for a future meal.

    Another piece of evidence that these ancient people used nets were the large amount of jawbones with ground down teeth. Over their lifetime, their teeth were ground down from forever chewing on the reeds that were used to make the nets.

    And something else, while I’m at it …

    There’s a cave in the cliffs at Seal Bay (Kangaroo Island) that shows evidence of occupation over a span of 8,000 years. Smashed seal bones litter the cave. They were smashed for the bone marrow: the only part of the seal that young babies or old toothless people could eat.

    Gosh I love this sort of stuff.

  13. Joseph Carli

    Thems were the days!…Say..as a matter of interest, can I ask what has happened to “Diannaart”?

  14. wam

    A beaut piece, Joseph!
    We had our honey moon on the Murray and I set a line across the river in front of the cabin. A couple of mates popped up from Adelaide and we shoot enough rabbits for the week. Then in the morning the river was flowing and a bit of wind my darling was pulling up the line whilst I rowed and she screamed at a snake like turtle headan let the line go
    The flow and the wind caught us and I know how bloody hard it was to row up stream a 100 metres much less 130 kilometres.

  15. Uta Hannemann

    Michael, you say: “The Depression taught my Dad to never waste money (except on beer).”

    I was born in 1934 in Germany. The post WW II years were very tough for us. I was taught never to waste money and never to waste food!

  16. johno

    Michael… there is a famous canoe tree on the road to Cape Jervis

    Which road ?

  17. Michael Taylor

    Hi johno, on the road from Adelaide. Closer to Jervis Bay/Victor Harbor than Adelaide.

  18. wam

    Joseph,
    your link to the past showed me what a poor negative selfish prick i am with a pencil.
    Like you, I miss dianaart, helvetini and even old blunderbuss, the crow et al but i doubt they would miss my nasty inept personal references.
    The covid19 quarantine may clear my head and, if I have avoided the virus, may make me mellow enough to ignore hangups and prejudices so I can write as a fair human being.
    ps
    Michael sadly we have to postpone our return vivonne bay holiday for the 3rd time.
    There is a beaut example of a canoe tree near goolwa on the strath goolwa road

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