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A Source to Sea Descent of the Murray Darling River, Australia
Mark Kalch

Stand-up paddleboarding the continent’s longest river system, the Murray-Darling, 3,700km from source to sea, would turn into a journey torn in two by scarcity of water to paddle and illness enough to fear death.

March 11th 2016. Early morning, still dark, far west outback New South Wales, Australia. I lay collapsed face down where I had fallen – again. Half in, half out of my tent on the steep bank of the stagnant, coffee-coloured river. Despair. Black ants crawled over me. I wore nothing but torn and mud-stained board shorts, the drawstring loose and falling from my hips. Every minute my body would convulse, the muscles tightening hard as if they would snap. I sweated and shivered in equal measure. My head felt as if it would explode. I had dry-retched countless times overnight with nothing left to expel. Occasionally, between the waves of pain, I thought about the deadly snakes that hunt at night slithering over to investigate. I had been in some scrapes on expedition but this one was bad.

Across the world, rivers flow through every environment imaginable – mountain, desert, jungle, and city – roaring and crashing with such terror and power, or trickling across dry riverbeds until they can travel no further. In dry inland Australia the latter kind seems to take precedence. Stand-up paddleboarding the continent’s longest river system, the Murray-Darling, 3,700km from source to sea, would turn into a journey torn in two by scarcity of water to paddle and illness enough to fear death.

Paddling from the river’s origins on the green slopes of the Great Dividing Range, north then west, deeper into a land increasingly unforgiving and harsh, proved to be some of the most difficult expedition days I had ever experienced. Rather than grow in size with every tributary and drop of rain, the waterway became increasingly starved and withered.

The furnace heat of the summer bush was relentless. 11-hour days of paddling and dragging a loaded SUP board in 40˚C heat take their toll physically and mentally. Enormous networks of red gum root systems reached out from metres-high banks towards the precious water, forming a never-ending canyon out of which nothing could be seen.


Five and a half days earlier I had set out from Brewarrina, whose Aboriginal fish traps in the river, claimed to be up to 40,000 years old, could be some of the oldest human-made constructions on Earth. The relief at having enough water beneath my feet to float my board was astounding, despite doing more punting than paddling at times. The heat was offensive and my body rebelled. Exhaustion battled with heat exhaustion.

By day’s end, my muscles felt feeble, my sense of balance a wreck. One task at a time was all I could manage. With dinner forced down, I lay supine on my inflatable mat; but now, despite the wracking heat, I shivered uncontrollably. Limbs bent against their will as my muscles contracted with all their force. A pressure built in my temples and where my skull met my spine. My insides joined the revolution and sought to eject water and food as hurriedly and in any way they could.

Dragging myself out of my tent and into the bush to throw up took superhuman effort. Eventually it became too much to manage. I lay there, half in, half out of my shelter, and in the fog of my thoughts I realised that things were critical.

For the first time ever on expedition, I carried a personal locator beacon – something I hadn’t done walking alone across the mountains of Iran or paddling the length of the Amazon. The device was programmed to check-in all OK, to summon emergency rescue, or an acceptable middle option for me: call Mum. Failing outright or being overcome by the river was painful, but having to trouble emergency services due to my folly didn’t sit right either.

So, as night slowly lifted, I pushed a button on my device. ‘Need pick-up, non-life threatening,’ the pre-determined email pinged off to my family, exact location attached.

Another night by the river could be fatal. Surely, to die out there would be far more embarrassing and shameful than being rescued by Mum?

Searching my maps, I could see that the river – after endless kilometres, twists and turns – ran within a couple of hundred metres of a dirt track, which would go on to meet a road. If I could reach there, perhaps I could flag down a passing truck.

Laboriously, I broke camp and loaded my SUP board under the punishing mid-day sun. Too weak to stand, I sat and paddled off downstream, questioning my actions. Leaving the place where I had activated the beacon could prove to be a mistake. However, I knew it would be easy to activate it again later.

My progress after a couple of hours was painful; even seated, several times I almost toppled off the board into the water. Reaching the road that day began to seem ever more unlikely. Another night in the bush loomed.

At 4.00pm, still far from hope, still deep below the high river sides, the faintest of sounds drifted down to me: a motorbike. I didn’t know or care if they were looking for me. As fast as could be managed, I scrambled up the steep bank and called out, yelled and yelled, but nothing. The noise faded and then silence. Some expletives later I was back on the river, paddling and poling.

Half an hour later it was back. Almost immediately I spotted a motorbike, a man sitting astride it, some way back upriver. I waved my paddle overhead and he called out: ‘Around the corner. Water pump. River right. Stop there.’ I signalled my understanding and set off. Sure enough, a bright yellow pump sat on the river’s edge with a water pipe snaking up and away into the bush. Sitting beneath a tree above the river, feeling exhausted beyond words, I marked my position on my GPS and sent another beacon transmission. All I could do then was wait.

Time passed. My watch said 45 minutes. I opened my eyes at the sound of a vehicle and saw a 4WD bouncing along a dusty track at speed towards me. It came to a halting stop and Farmer Scott jumped out, accompanied by his young daughter, big smile on his face. He had been looking for me.

After shaking hands, my first question: ‘Don’t tell me, the coppers are on their way, are they?’ He laughed; yep they were. Sure enough, within 10 minutes a police vehicle and the local volunteer emergency services crew drove up.

More smiles and laughter. I had a feeling that my family had alerted them to my whereabouts, and I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that I’d involved them. One of the police officers just laughed. He told me he was just happy to find me alive. Two weeks before, they had searched for a woman who had left a vehicle and walked into the bush. They found her three days later, dead.

As night slowly lifted, I pushed a button on my device. ‘Need pick-up, non-life threatening,’ the pre-determined email pinged off to my family, exact location attached.

Failure meant walking away defeated without reaching river’s end. My expedition style was idea, plan, execute. Easy. I had overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles before, had believed that nothing could ever stop me. But I was wrong.

At Bourke District Hospital, the staff drew blood from me – the emaciated, bearded scruff – and put me on a drip. My muscles were cannibalising themselves and my kidneys were in a bad way. The cause was unclear; perhaps a combination of heat exhaustion and pushing my body too hard. I needed rest.

For me, momentum on an expedition is key. Once adjusted to life on the river, 12-hour days of paddling, crapping in a hole, and sleeping on the ground, time away from this routine is not ideal – even if it’s desperately needed. But my body and brain told me that I had little option.

I spent the next week in and out of emergency wards and an infectious disease ward. Endless tests. Finally the perplexed staff gave a very cautious diagnosis of leptospirosis meningitis. With hundreds of wild pigs, kangaroos, and rodents using the stagnant and muddy river as their toilet, this seemed a valid conclusion. This disease attacked the body, resulting in multiple organ dysfunction and inflammation of brain membranes. If left unchecked it can result in death. I grudgingly admitted that things could have been worse. They gave me antibiotics, discharged me, and told me to get further rest.

Days later, I stood on a headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean, waves crashing relentlessly against the boulders at the base of the cliff. My skull no longer rebelled and the medication seemed to be doing its job. So why did I feel worse than ever? My muscles were like jelly. I had no strength and my balance still suffered.

Returning to the river and once more being exposed to illness was constantly in my thoughts. I was fortunate the first time, but a second? Wow long would it take for me to recover enough to face another 2,500km to journey’s end? As had become usual over the last few years, my young family got on with their lives on the other side of the planet. The drive to return to them whilst paddling long rivers is what kept me going.

Failure meant walking away defeated without reaching river’s end. My expedition style was idea, plan, execute. Easy. I had overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles before, had believed that nothing could ever stop me. But I was wrong.


Three days later, I was sitting in our apartment in West London, my kids clambering over me and telling me endless stories of school and trips to the park. An agonising decision made.

Months passed; I slowly recovered. Not a day went by without thinking of the river of my defeat. The experience haunted me. Logic told me that I had made the right call, but that did little to soothe my anguish.

I needed to return and finish what I had started.


Tent erected, SUP board by the river’s edge, it was surreal to be sitting in the same place I’d limped away from months before. Although bursting with excitement to be back on the Darling River and ready to continue my descent, I was scared.

At Bourke the river turned abruptly south, and Louth, Tilpa and Wilcannia passed by. To finally have a river that had water to paddle was blissful. Shallow lakes created a confused river that spread out over the floodplains. I paddled through submerged black box Eucalyptus trees as spoonbills, cormorants, and coots waded by or sat in branches. A bush camp with an old bus up on blocks, corrugated iron toilet shed and BBQ hid itself on cleared land.

Arriving where the waters of the Darling and Murray met, I shed nearly 100 days of mental anguish. The mind is a powerful tool but I had let it hinder me for more than 2,500km of paddling. Every metre of the sparse river was a potential return to debilitating illness. But now, staring at the wide expanse of the Murray River, all of that disappeared.

For the next 220km the wilderness remained – a solitude relieved only by occasional campers and the chance to stop and talk. The Murray was greener than the river I had been paddling, its often grassy banks closer to the water, which was clearer and less muddy. I enjoyed passing the occasional houseboat whose pace was not much greater than my own. Now and then, nestled in the hills that rose a way back from the river, I would see a homestead. Their views of the winding river must have been superb.


I spent the last night of my journey at a basic campground by the Narrung ferry landing. My camping neighbours were an elderly couple on their way home to Adelaide, a family of six from Sweden, a couple from Queensland, and one bloke and his dog. A peaceful scene.

I woke in darkness the next morning at 3.00am, well aware that I needed to make as many kilometres as I could before the wind picked up. I paddled hard past the Aboriginal community of Rakkuan, where for thousands of years the local Ngarrindjeri people would meet, now a cluster of modern housing.

By 9.00am the wind had grown strong and endless small waves slammed into the front of my board, slowing me down. Light rain began to fall. I knew if I could make the safety of the barrage and the sand dunes on its other side I would reach the Murray mouth that same day.

My final hour of paddling Australia’s longest river system raced by. Finally at the Murray Mouth, I tacked in and out of floating pipeline and ropes belonging to two huge sand dredgers which faced a constant battle to keep the mouth of the river navigable. Seeing the open expanse of the ocean for the first time stunned me to the core. Enormous waves crashed as if avalanching down a mountainside. With just a few hard strokes and precarious balancing I skimmed across to the opposite side of the mouth. A final dragging of craft and a few steps; I was done. Relief. Joy.

Mark Kalch is an expedition paddler whose 7 Rivers 7 Continents project will see him complete source to sea descents of the longest river on each continent. He has so far completed descents of the Amazon River, Missouri-Mississippi River, the Volga River in Russia and now the Murray-Darling in Australia.

Twitter: @markkalch
Instagram: @MarkKalch

Mark is supported by Red Paddle Co and Alpkit