TALL TALES, EMPTY TANKS – AN AUSTRALIAN ODYSSEY
On late night radio an elderly man talked about catching giant Murray cod on chicken eggs; ‘I thread a fish hook through the shell of a raw egg then I hard boil it,’ he assured the dubious host. His theory was that cod are accustomed to eating cockatoo eggs, which drop into the Murray River from overhanging red gums. My partner and I were planning a trip to the Riverina, but were so intrigued by the fisherman’s story that we decided to include the Murray on our itinerary. It would be an opportunity to find out if the old bloke was on the level.
New South Wales was experiencing severe drought at the time, and driving west from the Blue Mountains via Lithgow, Bathurst and Blayney we were shocked by the number of dead kangaroos by the roadside. Hunger had forced them to graze the grass verges, and they had been hit by motor vehicles.
The country became even drier as we passed through the regional centres of Cowra and Grenfell. Outside West Wyalong, stock scavenged in the dirt for hand fed grain. The Prime Minister made a whistle stop tour of the region several days later. He promised assistance, but commented that unfortunately he could not produce rain. I suspect local farmers had been hoping against all reason that he could! We may not have been in what is accepted as The Outback, but the isolation was such that a careless motorist could run out of petrol between townships. Sadly, it was not carelessness that had caused rain water tanks to run dry.
At tiny Goolgowi we turned south to Griffith, and with guilty relief watched the landscape change from dust and empty dams to citrus orchards and vineyards. The lifeblood of the Riverina is its network of irrigation channels fed by water from the Snowy Mountains. We spent the night at Griffith, but made an early start next day for the neighbouring town of Leeton. Our visit was partly a pilgrimage on behalf of an old friend; Leeton born and bred but then living in London. We were in search of a statue, erected in 2004 to honour the women who worked at the Letona Fruit Cannery. The cannery closed in 1994 after succumbing to a combination of domestic and foreign competition. One of those workers was our friend Yvonne, who dreamed of escape as she graded stone fruit back in the 1960’s.
The town’s visitor centre must surely be one of Australia’s most beautiful, located in an historic home surrounded by wide verandahs. Appropriately enough the house was built in 1913 for the head of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. The immaculate gardens have been planted with roses, which were in full bloom. Among them we found the life-size bronze statue; a woman in 1920’s dress, wearing a Letona cap and peeling a peach.
Inside, a young man apologized for being unable to show us a promotional video on the town. The exhibition room was otherwise engaged, but a glance through the door told us much about the spirit of Leeton. Every surface was covered with trays of food; sandwiches of all kinds, lamingtons, jelly cakes, pikelets, and slices of iced sponge. The food had been prepared by the Leeton Breast Cancer Support Group, part of a national charity event known as Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea. Trays were about to be delivered all over town. I doubt there was a business in Leeton which had not ordered one.
Before leaving town we completed a whirlwind tour; past the old Cannery, now a rice products factory, then down the main drag to the Art-Deco Roxy picture theatre, opened in 1930 by the much loved Australian singer Gladys Moncrief.
The Roxy fuelled our friend’s desire for the bright lights of Sydney and beyond, but some people are content to stay put. We chatted to an elderly lady who told us she was born in Leeton 86 years ago and had lived here happily ever since. Finally, we took a closer look at the irrigation channels, where Yvonne and her friends swam despite hazards such as submerged barbed wire, snakes, and currents that could reputedly suck kids into pipes and spit them out at Griffith covered in leeches.
Cod’s Own Country!
Some 170K further south we got our first view of the Murray River at the beautifully preserved village of Tocumwal. The river was alarmingly low, and there was something so vulnerable about its exposed banks that I was almost moved to tears. The fisherman’s cockatoo egg story gained credibility when we saw red gums alive with white birds, but they turned out to be corella’s, which feed on rice from a local grain depot. They had reached plague proportions (50,000 and counting).
Across the Victorian border in the riverside town of Echuca I called at a fishing tackle shop and quizzed the proprietor about cod bait. He rated yabbies as the best, but backed up the radio caller; ‘Yep, he’s right. I had a bloke in here recently after bardi grubs and when I said I’d run out he said not to worry, he’d go back to using chook eggs.’ Cockatoo eggs falling from trees was harder to swallow, he admitted, mentioning something I had thought of myself; that the birds lay their eggs in the safety of tree hollows rather than in open nests.
Early next morning we walked down to the wharf. It was lined with paddle steamers, which now transport tourists instead of farm produce.
Not only were there plenty of sulphur crested cockatoos around, but we discovered an alternative source of eggs; ducks, foraging in weed at the water’s edge.
Before heading home we travelled across East Wimmera, to the township of St Arnaud. I had been drawn by its Pioneer Park, designed by the legendary Australian gardener, Edna Walling. Oddly enough a local café displayed a framed photo of a monster Murray cod, caught around 1910 at Echuca and said to weigh 402 lbs. (I have since discovered this is almost twice the generally accepted record!) . It seems the giant fish’s nemesis was something a little larger than a hard-boiled egg. The story goes that it was reeled in while suffering concussion. after colliding with a Murray River paddle steamer.
It is not until we re-crossed the Murray at Swan Hill that we actually met a fisherman, and perhaps he should have the last word. When I trotted out my cockatoo query the conversation continued as follows;
‘From around here are you?’
No, we’re from the Blue Mountains.’
‘Oh, right. Well I wouldn’t feed bull**** to visitors. The truth is, cod did used to eat birds’ eggs that dropped into the river, but the old Murray’s so low these days that the bloody things hatch before they hit the water!’
COD PIECE – The largest recorded Murray cod weighed in at 113kg but the average size landed is between 3 and 4kg. The oldest fish caught was estimated at about forty eight years, although it is believed the fish live much longer, possibly over one hundred years. They will eat almost anything, including frogs, yabbies, cheese, rabbit, boiled eggs, and bardi grubs (larvae of the ghost moth) which feed on the roots of red gums. There is a three month ban on fishing for Murray cod between September 1st and November 30th each year. The bag limit during open season is 2 fish per person per day.
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