The highway hugged the river's voluptuous curves, staying faithful for a hundred rolling kilometres before tiring of the relationship and breaking straight northwest. The river rolled southwards and then west, betrayed by the line of red gums following it like a lost army. Then red dirt and orange groves in perfect square rows. Late in the day the sun drove shafts of light through the gaps, flickering gold on the road like a projector that has run out of film.
It was still hot. Swan Hill had come and gone. No room at the inn: inn being one of those camping grounds that is a mini-city at this time of year, complete with a massive playground with lurid plastic climbing toys about a hundred feet high, a giant waterslide above that and six thousand sweltering caravans below. You could hear it coming. I stopped anyway and went into the reception office. Instead of a slamming flywire screen, you go in through an electric sensor door and are greeted by air conditioning, grey decor like a medical centre, and two receptionists wearing matching corporate uniforms. No, there wasn't any spare room, but it would have cost $68 to pitch a tent anyway. We drove on. The noise receded. The heat stayed with us. It was five o'clock.
Now the river had come back to the highway, which was on the Victorian side. Orange and almond groves came right up to the roadside with honesty fruit stalls at the front. Bag of oranges, $5. Leave the money in the tin. Then Boundary Bend, population 182, where Charles Sturt's whaleboat met the Murray one day in 1830, having sailed down the Murrumbidgee. Nuts? That's nothing. He sailed it back up again*; or more precisely, part-rowed and part-carried it back up. I love stories like these, because they are madder than science fiction, and because they are true. Imagine rowing a whaleboat a thousand kilometres up a river against the flow. Insane. Or maybe we have just lost the instinct for necessity.
Then over a 1924 single lane lift span bridge into a town where a small, quiet caravan park happened to have a vacant patch of grass. The grass was lush and there was a sailcloth over the grass for shade. $25.
I got the tent up without waking two black labradors who were snoozing in the hot silence across a concrete pathway and then crossed the road with the boys to the river. A tiny three-room bridge keeper's cottage, now selling local art and farm produce, sat on the bank adjacent to the bridge. The man in the shop, a retired Canberra press gallery photographer and part-time farmer, told me the original bridge keeper raised eleven children in the cottage. Five metres from the river's edge.
*The Overlanders by Garry Hogg, Pan Books, 1964