The canoe slips gently from the ramp into Serpentine Creek ripples. Outdoor education graduate Kerrie Jennings is on rudder duty at the back. She’s also tasked with calling instructions to a paddler who’s not been in a canoe since Wet Wet Wet was in the charts. High school camp, 1994.
I’m assured this is an all-abilities activity. In the last three weeks alone three primary school groups have explored this place, thanks to a new dedicated canoe trail mapped out by La Trobe Outdoor Education lecturer Chris Townsend and a passionate group of students.
Today’s task is to showcase the trail to some inexperienced paddlers, plus place six bright yellow buoys at points of interest along the creek. Part of the trail’s purpose is to share the historic and ecological stories of this place, via an annotated trail map that can also be read by E-devices. Marker buoys are situated at the points of interest and can be found via the map, or GPS.
“There’s so much history here; Indigenous, settlement and natural history,” Kerrie says. “Learning about it just gives you that feeling of being in nature, of slowing down and taking the time to take notice of things. It’s a special place.”
Kerrie and her fellow students liaised with the Indigenous Dja Dja Wurrung Association and Loddon historian Paul Haw, plus considered interpretation theories in choosing what to share with paddlers. Stop one being Durham Ox Inn.
From the water the 1850s red-brick inn seems cushioned in a bed of red-seeded reeds. It’s believed to have been a meeting point for a Bourke and Wills search party in 1862.
“You could put a hundred points of interest on this place,” Chris says. “We’ve chosen six. One of the secrets of good interpretation is not to give people the answers, but to give them something to think about. The experience should help a visitor train their eye on what to look out for.”
The experience is also about encouraging safe nature tourism for the growing number of people buying canoes and kayaks.
“Canoe and kayak ownership in Australia has gone up by 250 per cent in the last ten years,” Chris says. “The majority of people explore on their own but a canoe trail can take some of the guess work out so people can have a safe experience.
“I wrote my thesis on canoe trail development in Australia; where they were developed, how, and what sort of features were put in place. We’re in the process of developing 11 trails at the moment and this is number five. Plus, we’ve got three more to go on this river system.”
Chris’ original interest came after a visit to the Murray River at Barmah, where he saw many kayaks and very little action.
“There were nine four-wheel drives there with kayaks on the roof that weekend, but only two hit the water, and only for a matter of minutes,” he says. “I thought, what a shame. What would you need to do to suggest people go a bit further and safely explore what they don’t know?”
The La Trobe crew has worked closely with the Loddon Shire to get the infrastructure in place here, which includes an all-abilities canoe ramp, signs, buoys and online resources. Students took the photographs and researched the stories. La Trobe graphic design alumnus Ben Gosling designed the signs. The rest is thanks to Mother Nature.
Stop two on the trail is at a scar tree, a tall trunk marked with the distinctive oval ‘scar’ left by the Indigenous practice of removing the bark, yet preserving the tree. The Loddon Valley’s waterways feature the country’s largest collection.
Historian Paul explains; “These trees died before 1900, which was when the settlers damned the creeks up for permanent water and drowned the trees. Some of these scars were made before Captain Cook’s arrival. When the bark was taken the Aboriginals had no comprehension they were about to be taken over by another civilisation.”
Paul says the red gum bark was used for many purposes, including carrying babies, as frames for drying possum skins and for making canoes. We paddle north-ward to find an example of the latter, but the weather has other plans. A gust whips up and the sky turns dirt brown.
A growing headwind on the journey back doesn’t stop Kerrie noticing and naming the circling birds above. Chris says apart from Barmah in the breeding season, he’s never seen more birdlife than here. Today black kites and whistling kites appear dark against coffee clouds.
And then comes the nankeen night heron. Not usually seen until twilight, it’s a rare treat for this lucky paddler. “Once you start to learn about the environment you begin to realise just how distanced from it we are in day-to-day life,” Kerrie says. “And it’s so important to get back to it.”
The Serpentine Creek Canoe Trail was developed with the assistance of the Loddon Shire Council, the State Government and Dja Dja Wurrung.
You’ll find the trail, an hour’s drive from Bendigo, via this Google map https://www.google.com.au/maps/dir//-36.124647,143.9145094/@-36.1245237,143.9140122,18z