Proud Murray keeps on turning: Paddle steamer journey is a trip back in time

Moama to Barmah and back takes an hour by car, but six days on the river, which was plenty of time for Karl Quinn and his fellow crewmates to imagine themselves in a different era.

The journey from Moama to Barmah takes less than half an hour by car, but it's a three-day journey in a paddle steamer along the Murray. Time moves slowly on one of these old-fangled river boats, but then, that's precisely the point.

I'm working my passage on the PS Barmah, a 55-foot (16.8-metre) paddle steamer owned by my architect friend, Drew, on a journey he expects to take a week, but to be honest, he's not sure how long it will take or how much wood we'll need to make it, because although he has had the boat for 20 years, this is the first time he has travelled this far.

The Barmah is going back to Barmah, where it was built. It's 52 kilometres upstream from Echuca, once the busiest inland port in the world, with hundreds of steamers moving goods – wheat, wool and timber especially – along the shallow, muddy waterway that links three states.

It's not very far really, and yet it is. Time seems to contract and distance to stretch on a paddle steamer.

Drew and his cousin, Charles, have dreamt about this trip since long before there was a boat to make it in. Drew grew up on an orchard in Kyabram, and Charles in seaside Mornington. They spent holidays together as children, and fantasised about one day being like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, building a raft and floating down that ol' man river in search of adventure.

Now, with a ragtag crew rounded up – Drew in the engine room, Charles behind the wheel, Drew's partner, Jenni, as first mate and me and another friend, Colin, as deckhands – the time is finally right.

Charles has insisted we all dress for dinner each night. "Bring some period clothes," he tells us by email the day before we set off. Not all of us have 100-year-old suits hanging in the closet, but we do our best. Waistcoats and hats are mandatory, even in steerage.

"A week is a long time on the river," Jenni says ominously as we set off. "A lot can happen when you're on a boat, and it usually does." It turns out she's right, although what constitutes a lot is a fluid concept.

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The PS Barmah, moored at Barmah, where it was built in 1975.

Most of the time, nothing much happens, or rather, the same thing happens over and over again. Drew starts each day by slowly stoking the 100-year-old engine into life, feeding it chunks of red gum and litres of river water over a couple of hours and nursing the steam gauge up to 40 pounds per square inch. Once there, we can set off, while he monitors the vital signs, running around with his little brass oil can like Casey Jones, twisting and tweaking valves to keep the pressure at the optimum level.

In the wheelhouse up above, Charles wrestles with the oversized wooden-spoked wheel. He's dressed like a 19th-century riverboat captain – waistcoat, white shirt, black jacket, straw hat – and he does his best to keep his eyes on submerged logs and shallow water (grounding a paddle steamer is a real risk). More impressively, he keeps his bladder in check for seven hours at a stretch.

My job is all about take-off and landing. When we pull in to shore, I have to jump into the water with a rope in hand, and run to the nearest tree to tie us off. That would be all well and good if I knew anything about knots, but since I left the Cubs just as it was about to get interesting, I don't.

My first knot is the stuff of which any granny would be proud: it's impossible to undo – not so bad when you're tying up for the night, but a real problem when you're setting off the next day. After I nearly get left behind, I vow to work on my technique.

After I end up on my backside in the mud for the third time, I also vow to work on my entry technique too. On the upside, I've learnt that a pratfall is just as good for a laugh today as it was a century ago.

Dusk on the Murray, somewhere between Moama and Barmah.

But there is one moment when things really do happen, and fast. We're attempting to pull in to shore for the night when the boat, which has no reverse gear, gets caught in backwater that pushes us towards a fallen tree. For once, the usually unflappable Drew looks seriously worried. He and Charles bark orders and counter-orders at each other through the brass communications tube that connects the engine room to the wheelhouse.

Colin and I grab the four-metre-long red-gum stripling that serves as barge pole, and push against the fallen trunk, which threatens to pierce the hull. We heave and strain as Charles turns the boat fiercely to starboard. Drew backs off the steam and then, when we're clear, gives it everything, and suddenly we're OK.

All this takes maybe two minutes, but that's plenty of time for the picture of a stricken boat marooned in the middle of nowhere to take shape in everyone's mind.

Like Jenni says, stuff happens on boats, and the Barmah is no exception. Twice she has sunk, and a couple of years ago, she came perilously close again when a massive tree trunk, washed downstream in a flood, tore a hole in her bow. Modern bilge pumps and the fire brigade saved her that time.

The Murray is littered with the remains of wrecked steamers, although many of the old boats have spent their years of dereliction on dry land. Some have become guest houses, some simply quaint ruins. The Adelaide, one of the grandest working boats on the river, was a playground attraction at the Port of Echuca until it was restored and relaunched as a passenger vessel in the 1980s.

Original owner Rolly McGraw on Lady of Barmah, the diesel-powered boat that became the steam-powered Barmah.

The Barmah isn't from the golden age of steamers – the late 19th and early 20th centuries – although it looks as if it might be. It was built in Barmah in 1975, although its paddle wheels come from a 1920s vessel called the Banyula.

The original owner, Rolly McGraw, died in 1995, which is when Drew bought the steamer. He sailed the Lady of Barmah, as the boat was then called, to Moama, while the Murray was in flood. "You couldn't see the banks," Drew says, "but you could just about get a sense of where they were from the tops of the trees sticking out above the water."

He moored the boat at his parents' place in Moama, and promptly set about rebuilding it. He raised the hull by a couple of planks, added a metre-wide sponson deck to make it easier to walk around, swapped the diesel engine for a Ruston Proctor steam engine originally used to pump water from the Murray for irrigation, and demolished Rolly's rectangular box cabin, replacing it with a tiered structure that took its inspiration from the Etona​, a steamer built about 1899 for the Church of England and used as a floating church until 1912. It's still afloat, moored at Echuca, in need of a little salvation itself these days.

Almost everything on the Barmah has been recycled or salvaged. It's a fine boat, much smaller than the big steamers that take tourists on hour-long cruises from Echuca, chief among which are the Canberra, the Pevensey and the Emmylou​, the last of which Drew ran for a year or so in the 1990s, when his parents owned and operated it.

The Barmah gets admiring looks wherever it goes. People race to the riverbank and wave. They take photos. There's a whole sub-branch of trainspotting reserved just for riverboats, it seems.

As we round a bend and the Barmah Bridge comes into view, I glance at Drew. He's a man of few words, but he's even quieter than usual now.

What are you feeling?

"A whole swirl of things," he says, a dreamy look passing over his face. "A real mix of emotions, actually."

If you're expecting much more than that from Drew, I'm sorry. As I said, he's a man of few words, but I'm guessing he feels something about circles being completed, or maybe he's just worried about hitting the bridge, as so many boats do.

We pull into the spot where Rolly used to moor the Lady of Barmah, next to where the old wooden punt used to ferry passengers across the river before the bridge was built. The punt is on the bank now, a handsome structure of hardwood and peeling white paint, slowly rotting away to nothing. Heritage protection here means putting a mesh fence around this decaying corpse, but there's a certain poetry in the ruins all the same.

The old punt at Barmah is slowly rotting away.

The Barmah Hotel was an easy stagger from Rolly's boat, except on a wet night, when it was an easy slide down the muddy bank, and once we've pulled in and I've washed the mud off my backside, we head up to take a look.

In the front bar, we find a framed photo of Rolly and his boat, and a plaque in his honour "from all of his friends at Barmah town".

The publican urges us to take the plaque with us, thinking the Barmah is where it belongs, but we decline. Rolly might not recognise anyone in the pub these days, but the boat would surely be even more of a stranger to him.

But what about the river? Would Rolly recognise that?

He might be thrown by the the jet skis and the wake boats with their huge swells that damage the fragile river banks, but he would probably recognise the big, lumbering houseboats as the supercharged progeny of his humble craft.

Had he been on the river at Easter, when the noise and mess of holidaymakers was overwhelming, he might have shaken his head in disgust and headed back up the river bank to drown his sorrows at the bar, but had he been there this week in early summer, when for days at a time the Barmah was the only vessel on the water, the steady chug of her engine and rhythmic splash of her wheels the only sounds other than the raucous squawk of cockatoos, he might have felt differently. Like us, he might have felt time wasn't just moving slowly, but was briefly flowing backwards.

Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on Twitter @karlkwin

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