Chapter Twenty-two: Challenge at the Murrumbidgee

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

The pace of the Lady Augusta , the power of her twin engines, and my own will to travel through darkness by lantern light means that she forges on at a pace that must bring her ever closer to her smaller rival. Though we began our journey ten days after the Mary Ann, from some eighty miles further downriver, we reach the Darling on the seventh of September, just four days behind the Randells and the craft that has surprised all and sundry by making it so far.

We send a rider for Dr Fletcher, leaving Davidson in his hands and we steam on towards Swan Hill, some three hundred river miles to the south-east. We are tired, the crew is strained. The passengers are squabbling and one day I catch Travers Finniss amongst the cargo on the Eureka, with his lips pressed against those of Lillie Younghusband.

The offspring of two of my most powerful supporters cannot be allowed to behave in this way, and I have terse words with Travers afterwards. Yet that very night, I allow the boy’s mother to massage my shoulders, aching from hours at the bridge. This moment of weakness angers me, and I am abrupt as I walk away.

We forge on, past acres of reed beds, endless river red gums and the welcoming committees of river stations, the local inhabitants in their mongue canoes and new horizons. My appreciation of the vastness of this land grows. Day and night we travel, and finally, finally, the moment comes.


The Mary Ann and her crew were tied up to a snag and settled into the late evening hour. William, Tom and the Reverend Davies enjoyed a final cup of tea on the foredeck while the crew were already asleep in their bunks.

It was a day to celebrate, for they had reached the junction of the Murray and Murrumbidgee – that third great Australian river that forms the Murray. This mighty waterway was spawned in the peat and marshes of the Fiery Ranges north of Kiandra, picked up the flows of the Queanbeyan, Goodradigbee, Yass and Tumut Rivers, the Crookwell and Abercrombie, and wound through snag-lined channels for nine hundred miles.

One day, William vowed, he would steam up that great river, but for now the Murray was still yet to be conquered. ‘Just three days to Swan Hill from here,’ said William proudly, ‘and us with more’n a ton of flour still to sell. The townsfolk’ll be pleased to see us no doubt.’

He raised his head abruptly. There was a noise from downriver, something unexpected and loud, a cacophony of splashing, huffing and moving iron parts. A squad of flying foxes in the trees nearby left their perches with screeches of alarm.

‘What in the name of the dear Lord is that?’ breathed Davies.

Finally the Lady Augusta came around the bend, seeming even larger because of the enormity of the Eureka beside her. She had a lantern mounted at the bow, surrounded by reflectors that lit up a good portion of the river. Covered paddlewheels churned away on either side.

Voices rising over the sound of the engines hailed them, and the engines slowed. A man appeared, leaning against the upper deck rail. William had never met Captain Cadell, but this surely had to be him.

‘You took yer time to jine us,’ drawled William. ‘We reached the Darlin’ three days ago, and well before you.’

‘So what?’ said Cadell. ‘There was never any race to get there, for neither of us have a boat that qualifies for the prize money. The last leg was null, for you had a head start. The race is between you and me. From here to Swan Hill, and may the best man win.’

‘Since when has the race been t’ Swan Hill?’ spat William.

‘Since right now. Take it or leave it.’

And with these words, Cadell turned away. After a series of shouted orders, the paddlewheels started again, and bore the big steamer and her barge off into the night. William threw down the last of his tea. ‘That, dear friends, was a challenge if ever I’ve heard one, an’ I’ll be damned if that floating circus’ll get to Swan Hill before us.’

‘If we keep the boiler warm we can be underway at first light,’ said Tom.

‘No, we’ll get underway as soon as we have steam to drive us. You know I don’t like steaming at night, but this is different. All hands,’ he called, ‘to your stations.’

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Photo of unknown paddle steamer by Mathew Hamilton Baird, 1860. Victorian State Museum.

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