I sat on the edge of the Murray River just after sundown as a nearly full moon came up. The water looked still at first glance, but through the growing darkness I could see the current rippling in the soft copper moonlight. It would carry you a mile in a few minutes. Once, in 1830, they rowed a whaleboat up the river against the tide; 'they' being explorer Sturt and his crew. The party had reached the so-called mouth of the river that ended in a lake. Sturt climbed a ridge at the end of it and saw surf breaking in the far distance beyond a mile of sandbanked channel. They were landlocked. So they rowed the whaleboat a thousand kilometres back up the Murray at the height of summer. It was either that or walk. I went back inside the cabin and picked up the day's newspaper and tried to read a story about gender diversity in the workplace.
Next morning we took the road north. The other road crossed the river by ferry and followed the Murray on its south side. We would go north and rejoin the river upstream later. What Sturt would have given for a car. Earlier we'd gone into an information centre doubling as a post office/newsagent/general store/museum, I can't remember which, where a volunteer lady wearing an large and faintly ridiculous red bow (among other things) was declaring to an old couple who couldn't decide for themselves, "Oh, you don't want to go that way, there's nothing to see except paddocks."
She was right. There was nothing, if you like Big Pineapples. Level farmland dirt-brown after the harvest stretched away from the river flats on both sides of an arrow-straight highway. We passed an occasional Federation farmhouse; perhaps one every ten or twenty or fifty kilometres. These were neatly fenced as if to keep out the emptiness. Inside the neat fences were trees, shrubs, lush lawns, clotheslines partly visible in the backyard, and scattered toys. These interruptions of green looked like they had been lifted block-whole from a street in Camberwell and transplanted on the moon. The morning wore on. We passed some abandoned, ghostly houses whose residents had long gone, the buildings left to fall into disrepair. But the belladonna lilies and the freesias keep coming up decades later where the garden beds once were. You drive past and wonder who planted them and whether they knew the bulbs would outlive them and the house, and then the whole vision disappears into the distance.
It is so quiet out here out here that you occasionally get the finger from a passing local farmer. Not the rude finger of the city, but a forefinger raised from his steering wheel in greeting. We had left the plain behind, and now the road curved gently as it climbed budding hills that seem to part like curtains to reveal long vistas. A purple haze on the horizon looked like low cloud, grew larger, came closer, and turned into a row of hills that soon became a low mountain range, still purple. Take a photo and you've got a Namatjira painting. When I was growing up we had one on the lounge room wall, soft mauve watercolour mountains and not a dot in sight. The hoi polloi working classes had Namatjira prints on their poky walls, while the literati scattered their houses with Nolans and Boyds. I used to wonder why mum took the Namatjira off the wall and hid it when her rich friends from Kew came over.
Then the purple mountains receded and we dropped slowly down into irrigation territory again, having returned to the river via a triangular journey into the vastness of rural South Australia. Now there were trees everywhere, not gums any more but deciduous trees with medium size trunks and pretty canopies, all ordered into a thousand orchards. That's a thousand orchards, not a thousand trees. There must have been literally millions of them: almond trees.
Destination summary: Renmark processed 85,000 tonnes of almonds last year, a figure expected to rise to 135,000 tonnes within eight years, with 9000 new products on supermarket shelves worldwide having almonds as an ingredient. (Source: Almondco)
Accommodation summary: Paringa caravan park, full of noisy European backpackers in for the picking season.
Day Five in a phrase: Warning, contains nuts.