Egrets? I've seen a few...

New life ... river red gums line the national park's waterway.
New life ... river red gums line the national park's waterway. 

Paul Chai casts a line amid Murray River red gums in one of the state's newest national parks.

It's parma and pot night at the Pastoral Hotel in Mathoura and the front bar is crowded with drinkers who are being eyed by a giant, stuffed Murray cod mounted on the wall. In the dark-wood-clad back dining room, The Oaks, I'm handed a "timbercutter parma", piled high with bacon, mushrooms and onions, and doused in pepper gravy and barbecue sauce.

It's appropriately named - a parmigiana dish so big I might need an axe to finish it, but also because it appears on the last night of our visit to Murray Valley National Park, which was, until recently, forestry country.

I have come with the family - my wife and two boys aged one and four - to one of the state's newest national parks. Opened officially in July, it was created to protect the stands of river red gums that line the banks of the Murray, once prized in these parts as railway sleepers. We've also come for the park's remarkably diverse birdlife, much of it dwelling among the thick beds of reeds in the wetlands.

The people who live in Mathoura have a connection to the surrounding forest through the generations who worked it. Most have affection for the forest and a few think it should still be used for logging, but almost nobody is ambivalent about their environment.

Gary Duggan is from a forestry family. He owns the Gulpa Creek Tourist Park, where we settle into a remarkable cabin that hangs vertiginously over the steep bank of the creek. His father and grandfather used to be sleeper cutters in what was then the Barmah-Millewa state forest, a small portion of which remains open to logging.

"My dad used to take me out into the forest and work me too hard," Duggan says. "And then, at the end of the day, he used to say, 'See, there are better jobs than this one."'

Duggan bought the park eight years ago, later adding a cafe and restaurant. Located on the creek and at the entrance to the Gulpa Creek Walk, Duggan's park is a perfectly placed base from which to explore the national park.

After unpacking our gear and watching water hens picking through the reeds below us, we head off for a walk. The first thing we notice is cow pats. It's an odd sight for a national park; as Duggan tells me later, the park is so new there are still a few pastoral leases yet to run out.

We wander past regeneration work, designed to repair some of the damage from extensive logging, and we pass one of the last ringbarked trees designated for felling, which now stands as a reminder of times gone by. It is a majestic tree, a huge tangle of dead branches reaching skyward, likely ringbarked because its canopy was too wide; killing it would have allowed smaller, straighter gums - which made better sleepers - to grow.

The walk meanders over a number of small, wooden bridges - I try to convince the children these shelter trolls - and past an Aboriginal hearth site with shell middens underfoot.

But we have to stop before the end of the walk. Recent rain means the walk is flooded towards its end.

In the afternoon I take to the water by kayak, one of the best ways to sneak up on birds. I enter just downriver from our cabin and paddle along Gulpa Creek, hoping to find reed beds, where Duggan says birds like to congregate. It's a long but wonderfully tranquil trip, gliding by emus that strut along the bank. Ahead, water strider bugs are doing some gliding of their own.

As Duggan promised, there's an explosion of birdlife when I approach a reed bed: night herons, spoonbills, black swans, dark- and light-coloured ibis, egrets and (I discover later with the aid of a book) the swift-sounding Australasian darter.

The first half of the return journey is almost preternaturally quiet, disturbed only by the occasional gulping call of the charmingly named eastern pobblebonk frog.

But as I paddle past one of the still-active mills in the area, the air is full of sounds of the past: the buzz of a sawmill, the rumble of a truck piled high with timber.

The next morning my wife wakes early and jogs along the Gulpa Creek Walk. The children and I drive into town for a look around, grabbing coffee and pastries from the Two Rose Cafe and Bakery, housed in a historic sandstone building.

Besides its history, the appeal of the Murray Valley is that it still feels relatively undiscovered.

For the afternoon, we've organised a sunset fishing expedition at the point where the Edwards River spills into its bigger sister, the Murray. River red gums crowd the bank and glow in the reflected sunset. Small grey kangaroos graze along the shore. We find a quiet elbow of the Murray, secure the boat to a low-lying gum bough and throw in a line.

It's beautiful out on the water. I have visions of catching fish for dinner; instead I catch snags and the kids, before they fall in.

At least, it will be parma and pot night tonight.

Paul Chai travelled courtesy of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Murray Valley National Park is an eight-hour drive from Sydney and about two hours' drive north-west of Albury-Wodonga. Virgin Australia and Regional Express fly to Albury.

Staying there

The Gulpa Retreat Tourist Park has 24 campsites by the creek. A cabin with two bedrooms sleeps up to five people and costs $105 a night. The cafe is open from Tuesday to Saturday for lunch.

Phone (03) 5884 3270; see gulparetreat.hopout.com.au.

National parks campsites are on the Murray and Edwards rivers.

In Mathoura, Charleston House is a former pub converted to a bed and breakfast, with four double rooms from $60 a night. 20 Livingstone Street; phone (03) 5884 3536.

Kayaking there Gondwana Canoe Hire has kayaks for $45 a half-day at Moira Lakes Road, Barmah. Phone (03) 5869 3347; see barmahcanoehire.com.

Eating there

Take your appetite and order a parma at the Pastoral Hotel, Livingstone Street, Mathoura; phone (03) 5884 3201. Two Rose Cafe and Bakery has good coffee and freshly baked pastries. 29A Livingstone Street; phone (03) 5884 3219.

More information

Murray Valley National Park, phone (03) 5483 9100; see environment.nsw.gov.au.

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