The Murray River nurtures communities, grows food and sustains an Australia keen to make the most of a dry climate.

As new laws set out how the country’s largest river network is to be shared, reporters Nathan Morris and Kath Sullivan seek a snapshot of life on the river.

For a moment Uncle Derek Walker is distracted.

Hindmarsh Island in South Australia is gently windswept under a blue, mid-November sky and the Ngarrindjeri elder is looking south from Sugars Beach.

“There’s a seal, just put his flipper up,” he says.

Derek Walker says greater access to water will create opportunities for his community.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The seal lingers in the mouth of Australia’s longest river — the Murray — at a spot Walker and the Ngarrindjeri people call the “meeting of the waters”.

“The water that goes through here comes from the top of the end of the Murray-Darling Basin, which starts in Queensland, comes down through New South Wales, Victoria and ends up here,” Walker explains.

He pauses, and then:

“A fair bit is taken out along the way.”

Where Walker stands is more than 1,500 kilometres from the top of the Murray-Darling Basin and 2500 kilometres from headwaters of the Murray, near Mount Kosciuszko.

In between the creeks and the rivers, the channels and the billabongs provide a home for native species, water for drinking and farming, and cultural and spiritual connection.

It is water for washing, fishing and playing — for living and livelihoods.

It is a resource Walker believes must be better shared.

“If you understand, we had free and open access to the water system for millennia, which enabled us to thrive and grow. Then we had no access, we had no opportunity and so those lack of opportunities, or the removal of opportunity to access fresh water … fresh water is a basic human right,” he says.

Across the basin, less than 1 per cent of water entitlements are owned by Aboriginal people. In comparison, about 11 per cent of water entitlements are held by foreign-owned companies.

Walker believes greater access to fresh water will provide more opportunities for his community to work together and prosper.

The Murray meets the sea at Sugars Beach, Hindmarsh Island.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Over the course of a morning, he speaks of floods and droughts, carting fresh water, algal blooms, fishing, children swimming, families coming together and, the man on Australia’s $50 note — David Unaipon — who grew up at nearby Raukkan.

Restless flies zoom about Walker’s face.

“It’s not just nice; it’s a beautiful spot and it’s home,” he says.

“It is like nothing else. I walk on this country, and I understand that generationally, we’re not talking a couple of generations, we’re talking hundreds of generations of our people, walked here.

“The DNA of our mob are in this country … it solicits an emotional response from me, really.”

Grapes of worth

Simi Gill is the first member of her family to be born in Australia.

The winegrape grower has returned from Diwali celebrations in Adelaide to her family’s home at Barmera in the state’s Riverland.

Simi Gill is a second-generation wine grape grower in South Australia’s Riverland region.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

An old Dodge marks the driveway and the house is flanked by a Hills hoist.

The soil is red, the vines laden with foliage and fruit that is almost worthless.

“It is very sad to see,” Gill says.

“Look how beautiful these grapes are, the greenery in the Riverland … yet there’s no value for the vineyards and the grapes themselves.”

In a white ute she drives through vines, some of which her father planted about 40 years ago, after migrating from Punjab.

Wine grape growers have received low prices for grapes since China imposed tariffs on Australian wine since 2020.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Simi Gill helps run her family’s vineyard with her mother and brother.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The Gill family vineyard near Barmera in South Australia’s Riverland.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Irrigation water from the Murray has helped bring these plants to life, but a political stoush between Canberra and Beijing means their fruit won’t be worth picking when harvest time arrives.

According to Gill, before China imposed tariffs on Australian wine, the shiraz and cab sav grapes might earn $650 a tonne. This year, the third since the tariffs were applied, the price could be as low as $120.

“A lot of the farmers, I would say the majority of the farmers, had to the put the grapes on the floor,” she says.

Kind weather and cruel markets mean stainless-steel tanks across the region are full.

Large sheds and wine tanks dot South Australia’s Riverland region.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The cooperative Gill’s farm supplies cannot handle any more grapes.

Tanks across South Australia’s Riverland are full following years of crippling tariffs applied to red wine by China.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

“Our farmers are starting to begin to feel numb,” Gill says of her community.

“It’s so stressful, it is the worst time farmers are experiencing. How much can you talk about this situation when you don’t really see what to do and how to do it, or where the support is coming from?”

Irrigation, electricity, fertiliser, pest control, bank loans, the supermarket: as the bills pile up, watering of the vines must continue.

At this time of year, the water is on for up to four hours per day; at other times it could be longer.

“We are struggling to meet those bills, massive bills, bank loans to keep these vineyards alive,” Gill says.

“I feel like all of Australia is not aware of what’s actually happening … [with] the sustainability of this industry.”

The federal government is confident China will soon remove its tariffs from Australian wine.

Pipe and watering systems run down the rows of vines and are remotely controlled.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The price of wine grapes has plummeted since Beijing imposed tariffs on Australian wine.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

In the meantime, a decision made in Canberra earlier this month allowing the Commonwealth to purchase more water from farmers to boost the environment could provide Gill with a new option.

“If there is a very good buyback scheme, and good value, we could use it on our loans, we could use it to reduce our bills,” she says.

“It could definitely work for people who have the water to sell, that potentially the government wants to buy … but then again, are we going to have enough water to irrigate our farms is another big question. Will there be enough water to go to everyone?”


A couple sits by the river in the late afternoon light. She threads a live worm, wriggling, onto a hook. He lights another smoke. A goanna skates up a hollowed-out tree.

Two rivers meet

At Wentworth in New South Wales, the Murray and Darling Rivers meet.


The Darling is a milky colour, the Murray slightly clearer and darker, the pelicans are plentiful.

A sign in the park on Cadell Street says it was here in January, 1830 that Captain Charles Sturt planted a flagpole waving the Union Jack to three loud cheers of his fellow expeditioners.

Having travelled up the “capacious river” by whaleboat to the junction, Sturt named the Murray after British secretary of colonies Sir George Murray, a Scot whose online biography suggests he never set foot on Australian soil.

A sign at Wentworth depicts an illustration by Charles Sturt.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

A drawing of paddle steamers at the junction of the Darling and Murray rivers at Wentworth, NSW.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

A map shows large sections of the Murray-Darling Basin in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Rowers of all ages and skill make up the Wentworth rowing club.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Bec Marshall instructs the Wentworth rowers via megaphone from a boat.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Almost 200 years later, a gaggle of school kids and their mums are now using the waterways as a playground.

It’s midweek, and the Wentworth Rowing Club is back at training after a successful meet at the Dimboola regatta over the weekend, the club’s first since the pandemic.

Through a megaphone, rowers are reminded to look where they’re going.


In the late part of the day, blisters are bandaged, someone gets called a “dingbat”, a drink bottle is forgotten and for the most part everyone keeps dry.

The club, whose members are aged 10 to 70-something, prides itself on being the only rowing club in Australia to train on two rivers.

“I love both the rivers, but I think probably from a rowing point of view I like the Darling more; I feel a little bit safer on it,” says Bec Marshall, the club captain, coach and the voice behind the megaphone.

“But they’re both beautiful rivers.”

The river was a big drawcard for Bec Marshall when she moved from Melbourne to Wentworth.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Marshall is sidelined due to a hip injury.

The rivers and the rowing brought her to the region from Melbourne just four years ago. Already she’s entrenched.

Her passion for her community, the sport and this place is clear.

“I love the peacefulness. I love the view; I just love it,” Marshall says.

“I love how calming it is. And I feel so lucky to be able to have this on my doorstep.”


The roadsides are thick with nut plantations, soldier settler blocks a relic of the past.

A flyer promoting a farmer field day says within five years this patch of Australia will produce more than 200,000 tonnes of almonds.

That’s a trade worth more than $1 billion a year.

Almond orchards across the Sunraysia and Mallee regions rely on irrigation from the Murray-Darling Basin.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

In 2002, Australia’s almond industry produced 7,000 tonnes of nuts.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

For an old man sitting on his houseboat it is difficult to comprehend.

“How many almonds are we going to eat?”

Real connection

At Barham in NSW, Lauren Mathers has a home filled with beautiful chaos.

The farmhouse is about 1km as the crow flies from the river. Its veranda overflows with puppies and a basket of boots topped with roller skates.

Chickens range at Barham, New South Wales.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Berkshire pigs are raised free range at Lauren Mathers’ farm near Barham in NSW. (ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Maremma pups at Lauren Mathers’ farm at Barham, NSW.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The Mathers kids riding to catch the school bus.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The kids have ridden their bikes down the lane to meet the school bus after showing off a rescued magpie they’ve nicknamed Swoop.

Mathers is recalibrating with a coffee, having baked Christmas hams into the early hours of the morning.

Her husband Lachy is away working on the grain harvest and it’s a hectic time of the year on the free-range pig and chicken farm.

Not to mention at the wine bar, co-owned by the family, in town.

You get the sense Mathers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Free-range pork and chicken farmer Lauren Mathers loves coming home to Barham, NSW.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

“After a busy day, especially coming into summer, we know that we’ve got the river,” she says.

“We just work like dogs and then take the kids out on the river, light the barbecue up and have dinner and a swim, catch the fish, it’s pretty awesome,” she says.

“You know you can leave the kids down the street, and you know they’ll be looked out for. You can leave your wallet down the street, and someone will ring and say you’ve left your wallet … there’s no money in it, but we’ve found it.”

The home’s roof is covered with solar panels, the internet and phone reception boosted by Elon Musk’s game-changing Starlink.

Lauren Mathers, and her maremma Roxy, head off to inspect the chickens and pigs on her Barham farm.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

For Mathers, who grew up on the river at Barham, living and working here is a no-brainer.

She talks of thousands of years of culture here on Barapa Barapa country and a community that looks out for each other.

“I can’t really explain it but it’s real connection,” Mathers says.

“When we go away, we always feel that pull … when we get back it’s like, you know, ‘We’re here, home’, as soon as you cross that bridge.”

Before she can elaborate, a dog walks past eating something it shouldn’t and Mathers is on her feet, off to discipline the four-legged thief.


A voice cuts through the night. “You foul-mouthed mongrels, you wouldn’t talk to your wives that way, now get to bed,” it says. A pair of old drunks are put in their place. In the privacy of their individual hotel rooms, guests rejoice, thankful to the stranger for restoring the peace.

The Dunghala

It is less than two hours by car from Barham to Barmah, NSW: home to the world’s largest red gum forest and the most narrow section of the river.

Here the river is known as Dunghala.

A few blocks from the river, Yorta Yorta elder Leon Atkinson helps to move a trailer on the front lawn at Kay Briggs’ home.

Briggs is a Wemba Wemba woman who grew up at nearby Echuca.

Kaye Briggs says too much greed has changed the river, Dunghala.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

She has brought together Atkinson and Yorta Yorta elder Rochelle Patten for a cuppa.

In the shade of a tree, a table is laid out with fresh scones and quandong jam made from Briggs’ tree.

Somebody mentions something about how you’re either born a “river person” or “beach person”.

Atkinson recalls a trip to the coast with his grandkids who took one look at the ocean and asked him, “Where’s the other bank, Pop?”

Leon Atkinson grew up on the river at Barmah, Victoria.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Conversation turns to the health of the river system.

“I wouldn’t swim in it,” Patten says.

“The fish are different; you cook a fish and their flesh is mushy, it’s not in layers anymore.”

At Barmah, Rochelle Patten believes the river can be better managed.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

She’d prefer that people use canoes rather than speedboats to see the river.

Atkinson says the banks are eroding.

Last year there was a flood so grand it forced water upstream.

“It flowed backwards … it was definitely one in 100,” Atkinson says.

“Unlike Rochelle I’d swim in it, because it’s flowing and flowing water is good.”

For Briggs there has been too much intervention in the way the river runs.


“I can remember as a kid going swimming under the Moama bridge, and my sister dived for big mussels. She wouldn’t come up for a long time, and under the water you could see clearly it was that clean!

“Over the years Mum would say, ‘Go on Kaye, you stand in that mud long enough the leeches will come up and get you’.

“Well there are no more leeches anymore, the shrimps are going and they’re the filters of the river.”

Swatting a fly, Briggs explains how once the river would run high only in the winter but now demand for water downstream means it can run high at all times of the year.

“I remember the floods coming in the cooler months and by September it was receding, and we knew as a kid it was getting ready [for us] to go swimming at the sandy beach, but now all these other interventions, the different lochs have been put in, there’s so much control.”

Atkinson’s Jack Russell sits at his feet waiting for a scone crumb or a pat.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Atkinson’s Jack Russell stirs as memories turn to a time when nearby floodplains filled with brolgas and frogs.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Briggs says.

Patten is softly spoken as she chimes in: “They don’t put anything aside for the animals”.

It’s not clear if she means water or money.

She says the area used to be full of birds. Atkinson says the yabbies have died right off.


“You’ve got to worry about the health of the river. I mean, that’s not just our lifeline. That’s everybody’s lifeline: the river, and the forest,” Briggs says.

“Trees give off oxygen … for everything and we don’t get any power to look after it.”

In the forest, Atkinson says, there are four trees to each hectare that are more than 400 years old.

He can also see the need for the water downstream and hopes farmers will make the most of the high flows, putting water into dams for when the next dry comes.

“Surely all this is not just going into the ocean, that’s a waste,” he says.

Patten and Aktinson making a cuppa and scone.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

A sprinkler moves back and forward on a small patch of lawn and talk turns to those upstream.

Questions are asked about Cubbie Station, the largest irrigation property in the system.

What crops should the water be used to grow? How did those fish in the Darling die? Can tourism work without damaging the river? What could cultural water mean for a region like this?

“It’s still very confusing in a lot of Indig [Indigenous] heads how cultural water works,” Atkinson says.

Kaye, Leon and Rochelle drink cups and tea and chat about how the Murray River at Barmah has changed over their lives.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

He suggests one example might be at Lake Victoria, in western NSW, where skeletal remains are exposed when the water level drops.

“Cultural water would work well in there to raise the level in that lake and keep the skeletal remains covered and protected and out of sight and out of the elements,” he says.

It’s getting hot and the sun is high in the sky.

Rochelle Patten believes the Murray can be better managed and shared.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Yorta Yorta elder Rochelle Patten and Wemba Wemba woman Kaye Briggs walk beside the river at Barmah, NSW.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Briggs says the water must be shared.

“But because of colonisation and the way we live on the river now, it’s so greedy,” she says.

“Somehow we got to try and manage it a bit a bit better and be more accountable.”

It is Patten who has the last word.

“We can do better, we can try, I don’t think there’s anyone trying.”


There’s an Irishman at the next table. Over a counter meal  he shares a tip. The horse is to run on a soft track, interstate. The mind fills with grand plans for the winnings. When the race comes around, the horse doesn’t run.

After irrigation

At Strathmerton in Victoria, behind an irrigation channel and a dairy factory, is a cactus garden so grand it attracts 30,000 tourists a year.

When John Hall grew up here it was an irrigated zucchini and yellow squash farm.

“If you’re on the conveyor belt, cutting the ends off the zucchinis for the market, you’d dream about it,” Hall says.

John Hall fears more farmers will leave the region.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

He clearly prefers the tourism business.

As well as marketing the brightly coloured Cactus Country, Hall owns and operates an accommodation business nearby.

He also works at the local shire.

Cacti from around the world are now grown on the former vegetable farm.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Several fashion brands have used the cactus garden to film for various catalogues.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

An irrigation channel by the cactus farm at Strathmerton in northern Victoria.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Hall has seen a big shift not only at this property, but across the region where there’s now less water used for farming.

“There used to be like 150 dairy farms between here and Numurkah, which is only like 20 minutes away. There’s probably only three or four now,” he says.

He admits there are several reasons for the consolidation, but believes chief among them is an earlier round of Commonwealth water buybacks and the fact that water, once tied to the farms, is now traded away from the area — most often downstream to farmers who can afford to pay the highest price.

“People have had to change industries,” Hall says.

“You can imagine that’s quite challenging from a mental health and an emotional perspective.”

John Hall says the climate in northern Victoria is well suited to growing cactus.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

While his business appears to be thriving, he worries about the health of the region, if irrigated agriculture were to be reduced.

“I think the question we should ask is more around: ‘What place does water have in our communities? And what place does water have for Australia?’

“How should we best use the water that flows down the Murray River? I think that would be a really good debate to have, because I don’t believe it being a tradable commodity is actually good for Australia or Australian people.”

Political disconnect 

Evan Ryan has witnessed several trees fall into the Murray River where he irrigates at Yarrawonga, VIC.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Evan Ryan says the current system of water management isn’t working.

“It’s so wound up now in toxic politics and party lines, that it’s lost its way,” he says.

The fifth-generation farmer at Yarrawonga in Victoria will harvest crops of wheat, canola, oaten hay and adzuki beans this year.

His family has farmed this land since the 1860s and this week the paddocks are golden.

Most of the crops are grown with water pumped directly from the Murray River, where Ryan sees increasing algal blooms and what he describes as accelerated bank erosion.


“There’ll be no rain, and there’ll be a massive rise in river height, and then a drop and when that occurs continually, week after week, through the season, the bank gets wet up, and then the water drops, the bank falls in.

“Then it gets washed away with a high flow, and then it goes up.”

Ryan says he has seen the erosion cause several large gum trees to fall into the river over the past decade.

Unlike Gill, whose grapevines require water day in, day out for decades, Ryan’s crops are planted annually, according to the availability of water in the system.

From the cool shade of a work shed, he explains his frustrations about the management of the rivers and channels.

“We’re seeing a disconnection between here and the end of the river where they want fresh water flowing out, and there’s a disconnection between us and Canberra, where a lot of the decision making [is],” he says.

“A lot of the control is now taken from the regional areas to Canberra, and they’re being told when to release water, and how much.

“They’re not really utilising the local knowledge that they used to in the past.”

A few years ago, with assistance from a Commonwealth grant, Ryan upgraded the farm’s irrigation infrastructure, putting pipes underground to negate evaporation from outdated open channels.


The result means on the farm not a drop is wasted.

The water that is saved is shared with the Commonwealth to boost environmental flows.


Across the basin the federal government says more water is needed for the environment, and recent changes to the law will allow the Commonwealth to buy more water from farmers to meet that need.

It means water that was used to grow food and fibre is no longer available for farming.

Ryan fears what that could look like, where he lives.

“The shire that we’re in, Moira, is absolutely reliant on irrigated agriculture, for jobs, for growth, for schools, for health care, for everything,” he says.

“[If] you take that away, you’re going to kill the community.”

He believes there are better ways to help the environment such as improved engineering measures and better-timed flows.

“They’re just looking at getting water and shoving it down the river,” Ryan says.

“But unfortunately, it seems that the political landscape at the moment is focused on numbers of gigalitres getting to the end of the river, which really is such a crude measure of river health and effectiveness.

“I don’t think anyone can uphold that is best practice.”


The dual-lane Hume is laden with trucks before the turn-off. Not far from here Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Prince William stayed in 1983. The road is narrow. The drive is picture-postcard material. Fat cattle roam sweeping hills. 

Peaceful pub

Almost 2,000km and five days after a seal waves at Derek Walker at the mouth of the river, Peter Wilson is leaning on the back of a ute in front of the Bridge Hotel at Jingellic, NSW.

“This is the pristine end of the Murray,” Wilson says.

He is a publican, fisherman, farmer and perhaps the best advocate for this region.

Publican Peter Wilson says people visit Jingellic, in NSW, to relax.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The river is wide and clear with little rapids glistening along the way.

The pub will soon turn 100 and takes in a spectacular view.


There are campers in the foreground, Victoria and its mountains on the horizon and Australia’s longest river in between.

Kayakers emerge from the river and almost step straight into the beer garden, which is shaded by grand old trees.

“It’s just beautiful. The people are incredible, the climate is beautiful … nine times out of 10 it’s the best place in the world to live,” Wilson says.

“If you want peace and paradise this is the part of the world you come to.”

Wilson has been here for 20 years, enough time to see several floods and one mega-fire.

He says he has worked in volatile pubs before but somehow Jingellic has a calming effect, and in this place, everyone manages to get along.

“Everyone comes here to relax, and they do,” he says.

Proof the river doesn’t always divide, but sometimes unites.



Words: Kath Sullivan

Reporting: Kath Sullivan and Nathan Morris

Photos and video: Nathan Morris

Digital production: Nathan Morris

Posted , updated