In winter it is worth heading north to see the bird life along the NSW border. Our drive begins in Gunbower, the town tucked between Kow Swamp, where anthropologists found 13,000-year-old fossilised human bones in the late-1960s, and Gunbower Creek, a section of the Murray that creates Australia’s largest inland island. And about 11km northwest we turn off the Murray Valley Highway onto O’Reilly’s Road, which crosses the creek to Gunbower Island.
This all-sealed detour takes us along lengths of creek where waterbirds perch in river gums while black kites wheel overhead. There are plenty of places to park and enjoy the scenery. Then it’s onto the highway in Cohuna from where we could do another 38km loop in Gunbower State Forest (brochure from Cohuna visitor information centre).
In Cohuna we lunch on Cohuna burgers from The Bower Tavern, tucking into double wagyu patties at a footpath table facing Gunbower Creek. The oversize Murray cod sculpture on the far bank is one of the 36 fish sculptures that were installed on the Yarra River for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Now it’s up Cohuna-Koondrook Road to the historic timber-milling town of Koondrook, where we stretch our legs on the Redgum Statue River Walk. Strolling towards the Meccano-like 1904 Koondrook Barham Bridge spanning the Murray we pass several sculptures: a wedge-tailed eagle, aboriginal stockman William Nkuppa Sampson, golfer Stuart Appleby, Alexander Arbuthnot and a dozen more “locals” made by chainsaw carver Kevin Guilders.
Arbuthnot Sawmills has operated in Koondrook since 1889 and the “Forest to Furniture Tour” (10.30am and 2pm weekdays) gives a perspective on the milling process.
Staying on back roads, we continue northwest through the hamlet of Murrabit, which on the first Saturday of each month has more than 200 market stalls. Then we dogleg on good unsealed roads to Lake Boga.
Pelicans and a lone fisher in a tinny have this broad disc of water to themselves. After the Japanese bombed Darwin and Broome in 1942, the RAAF established the No. 1 Flying Boat Repair and Service Depot at Lake Boga. The Lake Boga Flying Boat Museum honours the men and women who worked on the planes and in the communications bunker (open to the public) and the humour that sustained them. Asked by investigators what he did as the officers’ mess burned down, one replied: “Saved the beer, Sir.” The museum has a Catalina A24-30.
From Lake Boga we head south on the highway, pulling off 9km before Kerang at Middle (Reedy) Lake Ibis Rookery. One of more than a dozen lakes on the junction of the Loddon, Avoca and Murray floodplains, this is the breeding ground for more than 20,000 straw-necked, glossy and white ibis that nest on lignum and reeds spring to autumn.
We drive south to Pyramid Hill, named after a pyramid-shaped granite hill and home to an excellent butcher. Then it’s northeast to Mount Hope.
An even more impressive granite pile than its pointier neighbour, Hope is a scenic lookout with a lattice of easy foot-worn trails to the top. Northeast is kidney-bean shaped Kow Swamp and the Murray River, south is Terrick Terrick National Park. On the plains behind sits Mount Hope Station (private), where Burke and Wills camped on 1 September 1860. Wills and two others climbed Mount Hope before the Bourke and Wills expedition resumed its trek to fame and tragedy.
For more Melanie Ball walks, cycles and drives, see royalauto.com.au.