Greg Wood knows the Cohuna Lagoon and its wildlife.
The life-time resident of the border town recently retired and is putting his knowledge to good use. But it's not your normal bird-watching - this is done with a paddle in hand.
"Watch out for deposits," he cheekily told me I took the kayak under the stark remains of a gum tree for a close-up look at a pelican.That early autumn day we saw more than 35 species of bird life on the lagoon - part of the Gunbower Creek - from pink-eared ducks to birds of prey and elegant spoonbills."You'd also get parrots in the spring," Mr Wood said.
I love paddling. The freedom to roam, the access to spots you can't get to in any other way, the unique views of nature. "It's magic" was a phrase often repeated by the members of our paddling group.
The mighty Murray is popular, but the tributaries off it are often near empty. They are, however, extraordinary. Cathedral-like forests frame fast-flowing waters on the Edward River north of Moama, tree-fringed and snagged waters are home to birds and cod of the catchable kind (not the one that got away tales) on the Gunbower Creek around Cohuna. It's easy to fall in love with these waters.
Shannon O'Brien is passionate about the area and paddling. The owner of Sydney Harbour Kayaks and operator of the Massive Murray Paddle bought a cottage in Cohuna and moved in part of his fleet of kayaks.
"The demographic of paddling is older," he said. "The average age is 47. Of the 600 paddlers on the Massive Murray Paddle, 45 per cent were in that age bracket."
Many older paddlers had average incomes of $110,000 and wanted to travel to new destinations, he said. If they liked what the found repeat visits were likely - and the waterways around Cohuna and Echuca have endless exploration possibilities.
The river has some of the best paddling in the world- Mark Francis, CEO, Murray Regional Tourism
"I put a hundred hours in when the forest was flooded, mapping it," Mr O'Brien said. He found the water wasn't black but crystal clear and the nutrients were feeding a burgeoning Murray Cod population. "There are tonnes (of cod) in the area. With new breeding it is much healthier."
The Murray is already a recognised tourist destination, with 6.1 million visitors spending $1.8 billion in the region last year. For rural towns along its length hit by declining populations and hard times for agriculture, the lure of nature tourism can offer diversification into accommodation, food and and "experiences" for tourists.
Murray Regional Tourism CEO, Mark Francis, said, in a world-first, a $26million multi-discipline adventure trail was planned that would stretch 11000 kilometres along the Murray. People could complete it on foot, bike, boat - or a combination of all three.
"The river has some of the best paddling in the world," he said. "The longer term vision is an adventure trail that starts in Albury-Wodonga and stretches to Mildura-Wentworth."
Land sections near Corowa and Mildura have started to connect up the trail and $500,000 in funding has been allocated for a detailed design of the Koondrook/Barham to Barmah stage - the central part of the river around Echuca in which you find the Edward River, Gunbower Creek and Barmah Lakes.
He points out many people already paddle the Murray from end to end, but this trail would open up the area to the reach of "soft adventurers" - those who love nature but might "not be jumping off cliffs".
Part of this patch is the Edward River, which flows away from the Murray into southern New South Wales. It's not well known, which means those who find it are in for a treat. Gums - which stand like sentinels, stretching out from both banks of the river - tower above as you navigate the snags of the channel. You'll get friendly shouted greetings from the campers who have found choice spots on the riverbank, but other than that the silence is rarely broken.
It's another world. "I was out there once pre-sunrise. It's very special," Mr Francis said.
Mr Francis said the trail should gain steam over the next five years. That work includes liaising with operators to provide experiences to keep it sustainable, such as new events.
"Take the Corowa to Mulwala section, once that 42km is done then that's a marathon," he said. This year the inaugural Black Swan paddling race was held over 47km on the Gunbower. It introduced more people to the area, adding to the thousands of competitors and support crew who already come in for events like the Southern80 and the Massive Murray Paddle.
The potential of paddling visitors, and the links to nature tourism, are being taken seriously. The Edward River is home to Australia's first all-abilities kayak launcher - a collaborative effort to open up paddling in an area where, as Rob Asplin from River Country Adventours said, he used to launch kayaks off the root of a tree.
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"I told a few people it would be great to have a decent launch spot," he said.
Fast forward and the kayak launcher, made from recycled material, sits on the river bank at the Edward River Bridge Campground outside Mathoura.
"It helps people to paddle, some have never been on the water," Mr Asplin said.
The launcher is easy to use. The kayak or canoe is lowered into a metal cradle and you step or lower yourself in (no tipping, no wet feet). Rails along each side allow you to pull yourself into the water and you're off. To get out, you reverse the onboarding manoeuvre.
It has been a hit. Mr O'Brien would like to see more of them along waterways of the Murray to open up access for paddlers. "Imagine what you could do with $6 million on the water," he said, referring to funding recently spent on biking in the area.
What these hidden gems of the Murray offer people are immersive experiences - to sleep amongst the forest (upmarket glamping in yurts, anybody), to get out on the water. It is what people are now seeking, Jenny Green, from the Moama on Murray Resort, said.
"People don't just go away on holiday any more, they are looking for something to really feel. They are not just ticking off things," she said. "Nature tourism is growing. And this is a beautiful part of the river. The red gums, the Barmah Forest."
Ms Green said the arrival of direct flights to Bendigo from Sydney would hopefully boost the visibility of the wider area - with initial visits to Bendigo leading to forays to Echuca and the Murray. She said people were looking for new destinations to take overseas visitors, particularly those with relatives visiting from Asia.
"We need to get the word out to people," she said. "There's lots of potential still to be unlocked."
There is a way to go before paddling and nature tourism reach their potential here, but operators are in for the long haul.
James Whelan, from the Long Paddock Food Store in Koondrook, said there were plenty of visitors to the area - Probus clubs, golfers, campers - but not yet from nature tourism. "The numbers that attend the area and its forests have done for many years," he said. "More people will visit in time."
The author was a guest of Murray Regional Tourism.
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