Islands in the Stream

Chris Whitelaw — 6 February 2020
As Victoria's largest National Park, Murray-Sunset is steeped in history and grogeous scenery

Wedged in the far north-western corner of Victoria is the gloriously remote and relatively untouched Murray-Sunset National Park. At 677,000ha, it is the state’s largest national park, stretching from Ouyen in the south to Mildura in the north, and west to the South Australian border — a fair day’s drive from the nearest capital cities, Melbourne (550km) and Adelaide (400km).

Most of the park qualifies as Victoria’s ‘outback’, with semi-arid saltbush plains, rolling sand dunes and shimmering pink salt lakes, but the south bank of the meandering Murray River, downstream from Mildura, presents a very different environment. Here, Lindsay, Mulcra and Wallpolla Islands are formed by separate anabranches of the mighty Murray and occupy expansive floodplains riven by numerous creeks and channels that connect permanent and ephemeral wetlands. Lindsay Island (15,000ha) was made part of the national park in 1991, with Mulcra (2156ha) and Wallpolla (9000ha) Islands added in 2010.


THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT

The prevailing climate is typical of Victoria’s mallee country, the hottest and driest in the state. Owing to their inland location, the islands’ rainfall is sporadic and highly variable. 

In prolonged dry periods, the many shallow watercourses shrink to isolated swamps and billabongs, exposing alluvial grasslands interspersed by mallee scrub and riverine woodland. But with teeming rains or when the Murray floods, water spills across the landscape, inundating the surrounding plains, filling seasonal lakes and marooning the ‘islands’.

At the extreme edge of the rangelands, close to the Murray River, the vast Lindsay–Wallpolla alluvial floodplain supports an extraordinary diversity of plants, many found nowhere else in Victoria. When inundated, the waterways and wetlands host aquatic plants that provide refuges and resources for a wide range of fauna and are important waterbird breeding habitats. As the waters recede, the muddy beds promote salt-tolerant herb vegetation, ideal grazing for resident and migratory wading birds. More than 320 plant species have been recorded on the islands, of which about 80 are listed as threatened. 

River red gums grow mainly along the Murray River channel and on the edges of waterways and wetlands, providing woody material for fish habitats in the creeks, ground litter for snakes and lizards, and roosting and feeding habitats for arboreal animals. Black box woodland grows higher up on the floodplain, where conditions are drier, supporting both arid and riverine bird species. Lignum shrubland occurs on the low-lying areas of the floodplain away from the main river channel. When dry, its cracking clays shelter small carnivorous marsupials, snakes and geckoes. When inundated, they provide feeding and breeding habitats for waterbirds, frogs and some fish species. On the arid fringes, mallee dominates the sandy loam soils, with scattered pockets of native cypress pine and she-oak.

The islands’ diverse plant communities are inhabited by an incredible array of aquatic, wetland-dependent and terrestrial wildlife, including many considered threatened or endangered — 210 bird species, 30 species of reptiles and frogs, 400 species of invertebrates, numerous mammals and at least eight kinds of native freshwater fish. Mullaroo Creek, a permanent Lindsay Island anabranch, supports one of the most significant populations of Murray cod in the Murray-Darling system.

ABORIGINAL HERITAGE

The Ngintait Aboriginal people occupied the Lindsay–Wallpolla floodplain for more than 15,000 years before the arrival of Europeans, with one of the highest population densities of any region in Australia. They led a semi-nomadic lifestyle, constructing earthen mounds as base camps during floods and making canoes for fishing expeditions; in drier times they roamed widely across the Mallee plains. Physical evidence of their presence on the islands exists today in many forms across some 3800 heritage-listed sites — ancestral burial grounds, shell middens, hearths and oven mounds, grinding stones, stone tools, and scar trees that provided bark for canoes, shields and shelters. 

EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT

The first colonial incursion into the Murray Valley occurred in 1824, when Hamilton Hume and William Hovell passed through on their journey from Sydney to the southern coast. Thomas Mitchell’s glowing accounts of the lands he traversed in 1836 drew the first wave of drovers and squatters to the area, first around the Wodonga district, then gradually spreading westward. Pastoral stations were established, homesteads were built and lands were fenced to graze sheep and cattle. Timber-cutters harvested the forests and saw-millers created local industries around river transport hubs. Advancing European settlement caused a rapid decline in Indigenous populations along the Murray through competition for resources, the introduction of diseases, conflicts, displacement and attempted assimilation into white population centres.

Stock grazing in the 'Sunset Country', as the Lindsay-Wallpolla floodplain was known, began in 1849 when Edward Bagot took up a leasehold near Mulcra Island to run cattle, sheep and brumbies. He named the property ‘Neds Corner’ after one of his shepherds who used a loop in the river to contain the stock. By 1911, the station had expanded to almost 200,000ha. After World War l, the property was broken up for soldier settlements and a collection of 18 settlers were granted freehold to parts of the Neds Corner lease in 1938, forming the Neds Corner Pastoral Company Pty Ltd.

When drought ravaged south-eastern Australia in the 1940s, the property was sold to the Kidman Pastoral Company, becoming part of an agricultural empire that encompassed three per cent of Australia. During the Kidman era, some leases between the station and the South Australian border were not renewed by the government and were instead added to the Murray Sunset National Park in 1991. Fascinating remnants of these pastoral operations remain in the form of fences, yards, tanks, water supply systems, and buildings such as Mopoke Hut and the shearers’ quarters at the former Berribee Homestead, which can be hired for hostel-style accommodation within the national park.

FROM KIDMAN TO CONSERVATION

At 30,000ha, Neds Corner is the largest freehold property in Victoria and, in 2002, it was purchased by Trust for Nature to become the state’s biggest private conservation reserve, adjoining the national park to the southeast of Lindsay Island. Through an ongoing programme of rehabilitation, Neds Corner has made a dramatic recovery from a heavily grazed agricultural holding to a conservation reserve of national significance. The work has included the removal of stock, the implementation of extensive rabbit and fox control, large-scale re-vegetation with more than 20,000 trees and shrubs, and a regular environmental watering program across 500ha of wetland. Restoration efforts have stabilised soils, encouraged the revival of threatened flora and revitalised habitats for birds, reptiles and a range of small mammals.

THE LIVING MURRAY INITIATIVE

Following evidence of declining health in the Murray River system, The Living Murray Initiative (TLM) was established in 2002 as one of Australia’s largest river restoration projects. Since then, a total of $700 million has been committed to improve environmental outcomes at six ‘icon sites’, including the Chowilla Floodplain and Lindsay–Wallpolla Islands site spanning South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

Under the TLM, a suite of works has been developed for the islands to restore more natural flood patterns and provide ecologically appropriate flows in waterways, rather than inundating large areas of dry floodplain. To that end, environmental regulators have been installed on the Lindsay River, at Lake Wallawalla (Lindsay Island), Mulcra Island and at Webster’s Lagoon (Wallpolla Island). A regulator and fishway are also planned to manage flows in Mullaroo Creek (Lindsay Island), while maintaining fish passage through this important Murray Cod breeding ground. On completion, the project at Lindsay Island has the potential to support the watering and restoration of 5365 hectares of environmentally significant floodplain.

TOURISM IN THE NATIONAL PARK

All these conservation projects will go far in promoting tourism in the region, which already attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. The Murray-Sunset National Park is a major component of this local industry, with the island floodplains satisfying a growing appreciation of nature and meeting an increasing demand for recreation in remote, undeveloped locations. Popular pursuits in the national park include camping, birdwatching, photography, and water-based activities such as boating, fishing and canoeing.

There are no developed camping areas on the islands, although camping is possible at The Caravan and Mouth of the Mullaroo (Lindsay Island), with many bush camping opportunities at picnic spots and boat ramps on the Murray and Lindsay Rivers. There is also a riverside camping venue and several picnic spots on Mulcro Island, as well as a boat ramp at Shaggy Point and some picnic spots on Wallpolla Island. There are no facilities at any of these island locations, and visitors need to be totally self-sufficient and ‘bush friendly’ in their habits. No bookings are required and no fees are payable for the privilege of camping in this pristine environment.

Alternative, hostel-style accommodation is available in the historic shearers quarters at Berribee Homestead, once the home of the lessee of the Sunset Pastoral Co. The quarters comprise a four-bedroom cottage that sleeps up to 14 people in bunk beds, with a communal kitchen that includes a gas fridge, limited cooking utensils, pots and pans, as well as a camp kitchen with gas barbecue. An on-site tank holds non-potable water for showering, but supply cannot be guaranteed. Visitors should bring their own cooking equipment, linen, firewood and drinking water. Access to the site is via unsealed 4WD tracks in dry weather only. Bookings are essential and fees apply.

Recreational fishing is popular from the water’s edge or in small boats on Mullaroo Creek, Lindsay and Murray Rivers. The waterways contain golden perch, Murray cod, redfin, catfish, silver perch, rainbowfish, bony bream and yabbies. A Victorian recreational fishing licence is required for fishing and yabbying in the lakes and creeks of the park and a NSW licence for the Murray River. Excellent canoeing can be enjoyed throughout the islands’ scenic waterways (water levels permitting), although negotiating fallen timber and snags can be challenging. 


FAST FACTS

LOCATION: Murray-Sunset NP lies in the far north-west corner of Victoria, about 550km from Melbourne and 400km from Adelaide.

ACCESS: 

  • Access to the park from Melbourne is via the Calder Highway and from South Australia via the Sturt Highway. 
  • Wallpolla Island, 25km west of Merbein, is accessed via Channel Road, unsealed Old Mail Road and Robertson Road.
  • Access to Lindsay Island is via the Old Mail Road and Sandford Track.
  • All tracks are dry weather only and closed by gates during flooding.
  • Two-wheel drive vehicles can access the islands in dry weather, however four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended. 

WHEN TO VISIT: Autumn, winter and spring are the best times to visit.

FUEL AND SUPPLIES: Fuel and supplies can be obtained in Mildura (VIC), Wentworth (NSW) and Renmark (SA).

CAMPING AND ACCOMMODATION: There are no designated camping areas on the islands but plenty of locations for bush camping with no facilities; no bookings are required and no fees are payable. Hostel-style accommodation is available at the Berribee Homestead shearers quarters; bookings are essential and fees apply.

CONTACTS AND INFORMATION

Parks Victoria 

P: 13 1963

W: www.parks.vic.gov.au/stay (for bookings at the shearers quarters)

W: parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/murray-sunset-national-park

Mildura Visitor Information 

Alfred Deakin Centre

180-190 Deakin Avenue, Mildura 

P: (03) 5021 4424 

E: tourism@mildura.vic.gov.au

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Aboriginal culture
  • Four-wheel driving
  • Riverside bush camping
  • Water-based recreation
  • Abundant birdlife

Tags

Travel Destination Victoria Murray-Sunset National Park