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An Amazing Discovery

My journey begins

I travelled to many interesting places in my journey across the Murray–Darling Basin, from snow-capped peaks to desert sands, and flooded wetlands to rich green crops, and all the way to where the rivers meet the sea.

Along the way I learned that the Basin is a true wonder of Australia – an area 4 times the size of New Zealand that contains an amazingly diverse range of landscapes, animals and plants. It is home to 2.3 million equally diverse people, and provides water for another million more. Often called Australia’s food bowl, the Basin supports a wide range of agriculture, but also communities, recreation and tourism.

The one thing that ties all of these things together is water (but if you ask me, 'love' sounds heaps better). The rivers of the Basin provide the energy to drive turbines that give us electricity, they provide water for farming and for towns. They give us places to relax and go fishing, skiing, or holiday on a houseboat. Water makes life possible.

The mountains

This is where I started, dumped in the snow. It turns out that the whole eastern side of the Murray–Darling Basin is a big mountain range.

It starts in eastern Victoria, and goes all the way up to Queensland. That’s 2,000 km of mountains! Glad I didn’t have to walk that far. Around the border of Victoria and New South Wales is Mount Kosciusko, Australia's highest peak and the source of the Murray River. In winter this area is covered in thick snow, which is great for skiing and snowboarding (and epic snowball fights). When the snow melts, it flows into the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme, generating electricity for millions of people.

This area is where you will find the largest dams in the Murray–Darling Basin – the Hume and Dartmouth. These 2 dams can store almost 2 years’ worth of rain to be used by towns and thousands of farmers who rely on a steady supply of water.

Discover the Basin's geography

The desert

While the mountains were lush and green, most of the Murray–Darling Basin is flat and doesn't get much rain. Surprisingly, millions of years ago some of these areas were once part of a giant inland sea, which slowly dried out into sandy, salty desert areas that are hotter than a fresh pizza, but far less delicious. Trust me, I ate a lot of sand when that prehistoric wombat almost flattened me.

One of the most amazing desert landscapes is Lake Mungo, which is about a hundred k's north of Mildura. This area is a natural museum of geological and Aboriginal history, dating back to the dreamtime when Ngurunderi chased Ponde the giant Murray Cod across the country carving deep rivers through the landscape. In the Mungo area scientists have found the remains of ancient humans, and many species of huge animals called megafauna. Some of these animals were as big as a bus!

Discover the Basin's ancient geology

The wetlands

It’s a good thing I found myself in the middle of a wetland (#notaswamp) because the desert heat was really getting to me. Did you know that there are more than thirty thousand wetlands in the Murray–Darling Basin?

That's a lot, and each one of them is a habitat for birds, fish, insects and other native animals. Some of the birds fly to these wetlands from the other side of the world to breed. Wetlands aren’t full of water all the time, and as they dry out, water goes back into the rivers, taking all sorts of nutrients, and baby fish and insects with it. Mighty river red gum trees line the edges of many wetlands, and the oldest have stood there since before your grandparents were born.

Wetlands are also important for people. They are places you can visit to relax and go camping fishing, canoeing, or simply to enjoy the sounds of native birds. Aborigines have used them as a source of food and water, as well as cultural and spiritual connection for thousands of years.

Discover the wetlands

Farming country

So besides lots of really cool nature stuff, the Murray–Darling Basin plays another important role for people and the economy – farming. Farms in the Basin provide us with many different foods like oranges, apples, nuts, rice, wheat, meat and milk. There’s fibre crops like cotton, sheep to give us wool, and cows for leather.

Most farming is centred around the southern areas of the Basin, because that’s where most of the water is found. Up in the north there’s less water, so farming is a bit different. Cotton is common, but there’s also a whole range of different crops, from watermelons to womboks – which I learned is a Chinese cabbage!

Farming is important because it helps communities survive and grow, but they need water, and lots of it. Over the past 100 years we’ve allowed too much water to be taken from the rivers, and so we need to find new ways of using water to make sure there’s enough to go around in the future.

Discover the agriculture

Northern Basin Southern Basin

To the sea

All of the rivers in the Murray–Darling Basin flow towards one place, the Southern Ocean. This area is known as the Coorong, a lagoon separated from the ocean by sand dunes.

Before the Murray River reaches the Coorong and ocean, it passes through lakes Alexandrina and Albert. These lakes were once part of a salt water estuary until five walls were built to keep the fresh water in, and the salt water out.

These walls are called barrages, and the fresh water they help contain is used for farming, fishing, and sailing. The trade-off is that holding the fresh water behind the barrages means that there’s less water flowing out through the Murray mouth, which has now filled with sand. So we have to use dredges to link the Coorong to the sea, which helps the water flow and stop the Coorong lagoon from becoming too salty.

Discover the barrages

Activity inspiration

Create a travel itinerary / brochure

A creative project to undertake individually or as a class: make a guidebook based around your own itinerary of the Basin. Includes some suggested themes/approaches.

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Basin sticker mapping

After studying a map of the Basin students make their own map – with stickers!

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Education downloads

These educational posters, maps, and more are available to download or order free of charge.

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Updated: 16 Jan 2023