Murrumbidgee River Tour
Through bright green landscapes, alongside brown waters and under mostly grey skies, the Murrumbidgee River Tour took place in mid September at a time of flood in the Riverina. Some eighteen of us from the Northern Rivers, the Hunter, Sydney, the Liverpool Plain, Canberra, Melbourne and the Riverina itself made our way from Wagga Wagga to the source of the Murrumbidgee River in the Snowy Mountains, then followed its course to the confluence with the Murray, followed by a day trip to the Lachlan Valley. We visited towns and regional cities, churches, farms, a national park, museums and historic homes, agricultural factories (a cotton gin, an olive oil processing plant), a safari park and more. We saw majestic River Red Gums, full billabongs and swollen rivers and creeks, the Riverina Highlands and the immense horizons of the surreally flat Hay Plains.
This was not simply about sight seeing. It was a third in a series of tours in the Murray Darling Basin, following a Murray River Tour in 2014 and a Darling River Tour in 2015. The tours form part of the Uniting Church’s vision to be a transforming presence for the common good in the Murray Darling Basin. On the back of the millennium drought and the adoption of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, our Synod articulated a vision of both pastoral care for the people and a prophetic voice for the reconciliation and renewal of creation.
And so our tour group aimed to experience the Murrumbidgee and connect with its ecosystems, learn about life in the Basin and the agricultural and other industries there, meet people who call the Murrumbidgee area home and connect with churches along the way, hear perspectives about water use and other complex issues from landholders, scientists, traditional owners and others, reflect on who we are in creation, and witness the mission of God in the Basin.
In the space of nine days, we received tremendous hospitality from as many Uniting Churches: Wagga Wagga, Tumut, Narrandera, Coleambally, Hay, Griffith, Gunbar, Hillston and Coolamon. We shared together over meals, worship, forums, presentations, performances and singing. From the vibrant multiculturalism of Griffith, where a choir sang “O for a thousand tongues” in no fewer than six languages, to the signs of reconciliation with traditional owners at Narrandera, and to the deepening ecumenism in Hillston, we learned of the ministries of these mostly lay-led churches. Our Moderator reminded us of our interconnectedness across the diverse Synod of NSW and ACT. One day we were privileged to visit ErinEarth, a ministry of the Presentation Sisters in Wagga Wagga, and another to be joined by the Anglican Bishop of the Riverina, Rob Gillion.
Our daily devotions in the bus – with thanks to the Rev. Dr Roger Webb – were also times of discussion, which became deeper as the days passed. Some evenings we paused to ask ourselves: What are we seeing? What are we learning? How are we being challenged? Where are we witnessing reconciliation and renewal? Where is God at work?
We heard many voices along the way. Particularly penetrating for me were the voices of irrigators; strong, proud people, committed to their local communities. Some angry and resistant to water reform, some accepting and grasping opportunities that had opened up for them, a few speaking of benefits of returning water to the rivers. As I listened in the Riverina – as in my own community – I wondered: Whose voices am I not hearing? Whose stories do I need to search to find? Towards the end of the tour we were introduced to the work of Bruce Pascoe, who in his book Dark Emu presents compelling evidence that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists, and settled in large numbers in the Basin. And what of the voices of the rivers? What might they say to us – if we dare listen?
September 2017’s tour will be from the Murray Darling Junction to the mouth of the Murray in South Australia.