The Murray is Australia’s big river.

Part of the Murray-Darling system which drains most of the continent’s south-east, the Murray is the source of the water that is used to grow most of the nation's food and brings life to the eucalypt forests and wetlands along its length.

Flowing west from the Great Dividing Range that runs up the Pacific coast the Murray is, except in its very upper reaches, a brown, sluggish river that at a first glance often looks dirty to people.

You need to get to know it a bit better before it becomes clear that, in spite of its dubious colouring, it is more than clean enough to swim in- and flowing through plains that are completely parched for a lot of the year there’s something about the way it draws in every sort of life ranging from speed-boat enthusiasts to rare frogs.

In the unlikely event you see anything about the river in the news it will most likely concern the ecological sufferings it has recently faced, and what these portend for the people of Australia who (directly or indirectly) are very much reliant on its water for their livelihood.

The reality is that over the past few decades climate change, the construction of dams and the growth of the settlements along the river have put the whole system under far more stress than it can cope with. By the time Murray finally reaches the sea, not far from the city of Adelaide, the water has been considerably degraded (something that anyone who has ever drunk tap water in that city will be not be oblivious to) and recently there has been talk suggesting that if the current drought continues the river may stop flowing altogether in the driest years.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, more than a beautiful river, more than one of the pegs that holds the Australian economy together and makes our way of life possible, the Murray is a stream that runs right through the very heart of whatever it is that Australia has become today.

The old people tell the story, from many places, in different languages, of the hunter chasing a Murray Cod; the river formed by the fish slipping and weaving to safety across a brown landscape. A deep bodied fish flashing small eyes and a short concave profile. Clear water paints his sides in patterned greens. The riverbanks echo the pattern with intrepid greenery.

So many lives follow the river. Sulphur-crested cockatoos flock and swerve, looking for fruit and nuts.
The spoonbill pans for treasure in the silt. A slow moving wombat pockets her child and cuts across the road following a trail of tussocky grasses. Kangaroos move at dusk, finding water and food along the banks. A pelican sweeps across the water with wide wings and wider mouth.

The river still twists in muscular curves, like a snake moving uphill, but it is muddy
and bled and blocked. The ocean waits with a salty remedy by his thirsty mouth.

The people of Lake Alexandrina say the Murray was created by the tracks of the Great Ancestor, Ngurunderi, as he pursued Pondi, the Murray Cod.
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.

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