Australia's main waterway, the Murray River, linking New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, is experiencing a return to century-old transport -- the paddleboat.
This was how people travelled between Murray River towns last century. In those days, there were hundreds of paddle-wheel steamers plying between the river ports, with provisions, produce and passengers.
Q. THERE MUST BE A LOT OF PEOPLE HERE YOU HAVEN'T SEEN FOR A LONG TIME.
A. THERE IS - BUT IT'S THAT LONG TIME AGO, I HARDLY RECOGNISE THEM.
A. WE HAD ONE CHAP COME DOWN WHEN - TO SEE ME TONIGHT... DINNY COLE. HE WAS THE BARGEMASTER WHEN I WAS ON THE "PEVENSEY" - MATE - IN 1972. WE'VE NEVER SEEN EACH OTHER SINCE, BUT HE CAME DOWN TO SEE ME TONIGHT.
Q. DO YOU THINK THE PADDLEBOAT OR THE MODERN EQUIVALENT WILL EVER COME BACK?
A. YES, DEFINITELY - AS FAR AS PASSENGER TRADE IS CONCERNED - TOURISM IS THE THING THAT HASN'T EVEN STARTED ON THE MURRAY, IN MY OPINION.
Q. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT NON-PERISHABLE PRODUCE, LIKE, SAY, A THOUSAND-TONS OF CEMENT, OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT, THAT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE AT A CERTAIN POINT ON A CERTAIN DATE - DO YOU THINK THAT'S FEASIBLE?
A. NO, NO, I DON'T THINK IT'S FEASIBLE BECAUSE THERE'S TOO MUCH HANDLING ON A BOAT. IF WE WAS LIKE CONTAINER-BOATS, THEN IT WOULD BE ALL RIGHT.
Q. BUT DON'T YOU THINK THAT COULD BE INTRODUCED?
A. UH, NO - NOT ON THE DEPTH OF WATER YOU'VE GOT ON THE RIVER.
A. YOU'D HAVE TO HAVE A VERY, VERY SHALLOW WATER BOAT TO DO THAT.
Q. WHAT DO YOU THINK COULD BE DONE ON THE RIVER, TO MA E IT WORK MORE EFFICIENTLY? DOES IT NEED A LOT OF SNAGGING, FOR INSTANCE?
A. VERY MUCH - VERY MUCH - THE RIVER'S FILTHY, FROM ONE END TO THE OTHER. I DON'T KNOW HOW WE'D HAVE GOT ON, IF IT'D BEEN LOW-WATER.
Q. WHY HAVE YOU TAKEN ON A HOT, STEAMY JOB LIKE THIS TO - STOKING A BOILER FOR A THOUSAND MILES?
A. I CONSIDER MYSELF TO BE VERY LUCHY TO BE ABLE TO ASSIST IN BRINGING A STEAMER UP. I'VE GOT THE REST OF MY LIFE AHEAD OF ME TO DO THE OTHER SORTS OF JOBS, BUT THIS IS SUCH A RARE OCCURRENCE- AND I CAN - UM - WHEN I CAN BRING A STEAMER UP NOW, BUT I CAN'T BRING IT UP LATER ON, BECAUSE THERE WON'T BE ONE TO BRING UP.
Q. DO YOU FIND THAT THOUSAND MILES HEAVY AND TIRING - WAS IT AT ALL BORING?
A. OH, WELL, THE SKIPPER'S BEEN ON THE RIVER SINCE 1924, AND HE'S STILL LOOKING AT THE TREES, SO IT DOESN'T GET BORING.
Script is copyright Reuters Limited. All rights reserved
Background: Australia's main waterway, the Murray River, linking New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, is experiencing a return to century-old transport -- the paddleboat.
SYNOPSIS: These were everyday scenes for rivermen like Captain Arch Connors. Now 89, he left the river only five years ago, long after its bustling fleet had dwindled to a mere half-dozen paddleboats in the face of competition from the railway and the motor truck.
Every year, the people of Echuca, in Victoria once Australia's biggest inland port, remember their town's lively past, and river neighbours come, from up and down the Murray to take part in Echuca's Festival of the Rich River.
The fancy-dress Hopwood Ball honours the memory of Henry Hopwood, the freed convict who founded Echuca in 1853. Three years earlier, Hopwood had bought a punt, and later he got sole rights to the Murray crossing at Echuca. The town he founded in 1853 prospered with the growth of the river trade in wool, wheat, timber, machinery and provisions. Hopwood died of typhoid in 1869 on the eve of a twenty-year boom when goods worth a million pounds passed across the Echuca wharves every year.
At the ball, the most popular role for the men is Hopwood himself. The town's founder was described in contemporary writings as arrogant and domineering, with a biting tongue. He loved a good fist-fight.
The shrewd Hopwood's punt and pontoon bridge both led directly to his Bridge Hotel, one of 86-pubs in early Echuca. The hotel is being reconstructed as part of a major scheme to restore the old port area of echuca. Typical of Hopwood is an advertisement he put in the Riverine Herald: "As the Hopwood Bridge Hotel is already known to be the best hotel outside Melbourne, further comment is unnecessary." The restoration project covers five acres of the port area. Its being reconstructed as it was when Echuca was a great centre for trade between Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
"Echuca" is aboriginal for "meeting of the water." The waters - the Murray, Goulburn and Campaspe Rivers - contributed in many ways to the growth of the town.
When reconstruction began a few years ago, the Port of Echuca office was established in the old Star Hotel. Later, the building will be restored as a hotel. Next door is Shackell's Bonded Warehouse, now in an advanced stage of reconstruction.
Offices on each side of the entrance will become craft shops, making and selling colonial handicrafts, and the main hall will house exhibitions and dioramas about river transport. Beside the rear entrance of the bonded warehouse is another original commercial building which has been altered over the year.
In its peak year, 1880, Echuca handled goods worth almost three-million pounds, from three-hundred boats. In those days, the duties on goods imported into Victoria from New South Wales and South Australia. Were administered from the old customs house. It is one of eleven original buildings being restored or rebuilt.
Echuca today is a typical, pro??? provincial city of eight-thousand people, independent of the river trade that made it rich. The last wool was unloaded on to the wharf in 1936. The paddle steamer, Canberra, once a South Australian river fishing boat, is owned by the Echuca Regional Development Society, and operates from the wharf on tourist trips. Most of the paddle-wheelers still running are owned by lovers of the river and of steam. They use them as private pleasure craft.
Eventually, it's intended that four-paddle-boats and several barges will operate out of Echuca's reconstructed port. The first stage of the restoration scheme, to be financed by local money, the Victorian and Australian Governments, and a national appeal, will cost more than half-a-million dollars.
The Echuca Wharf was the first historic structure restored. It now has a display of equipment common in the days of steam. The top of the wharf is thirty-five feet above normal river level. To allow for the great seasonal variations in flow. Another paddle-steamer acquired for Echuca is the Pevensy, one of the biggest paddle-boats still afloat. The local men who brought the Pevensey upriver from Mildura last year recently entertained twelve riverboat captains and other visiting river men.
Peter Basker spoke with a skipper who brought another old paddle-steamer, the Enterprise, more than one-thousand miles on a visit from Goolwa, in South Australia, captain bob reed.
Despite the snags, the constant flow from the Snowy Scheme and the Hume Dam makes the Murray more suited to year-round transport now than it was in the heyday of the paddle-wheelers.
The stoker on the Enterprise is a twenty-year-old South Australian, Mike Kelly, only recently out of secondary school.
Mike Kelly said that since the Enterprise was economical on fuel, he had moments of relaxation during his time on watch. Nevertheless, the boiler burnt up several hundred tons of firewood on the long haul upstream from the "bottom end" of the Murray, in South Australia.
In the old days, the engines of the paddle-wheelers often churned at full speed as their captains raced each other to port. Rewards were high for those who arrived first with scarce commodities. Speed was also necessary to avoid being land-locked by a falling river. Skippers would boast that their shallow-draught boats could "go across a dewy paddock". But they were sometimes land-locked for years when the rivers dried up into a series of waterholes.
The paddle-steamer-Etona, now privately owned, was formerly a Church of England mission boat serving townships and settlers up and down the Murray. Such boats are slow by comparison with today's trains and semi-trailers, But in their day, they were faster, safer and a lot more comfortable, than the lurching carts and ponderous bullock-drays, that for years were the only alternatives.