Part 5: The Conquerors

Graham Middleton will always be known as the swimmer who conquered the murray.
Graham Middleton will always be known as the swimmer who conquered the murray.

GRAHAM Middleton conquered the Murray River as no other human had.

On November 30, 1991 he dived from a boat into the cold, clear waters of the Murray River where it is joined by the Swampy Plains river.

The next year, after 138 days of incredible endurance and commitment, he climbed from the wave-lashed water of Lake Alexandrina at Wellington in South Australia.

He had become the first person in history to swim the length of Australia’s greatest river.

In the process he raised $100,000 for cancer research and that feat made Graham Middleton the first individual in Australia to raise $100,000 for the cause.

In the weeks and months after his swim ended, donations continued to roll in, with the final total topping $200,000.

Mr Middleton was a semi-retired motor dealer and bus proprietor at Corryong when he embarked on his epic journey of 2365km.

His motivation was to raise money to help children with cancer.

He started his swim on Saturday, November 30, just upstream of the Bring-enbrong bridge.

Hundreds of Corryong and district residents were there to see the start.

Even world boxing champion Jeff Fenech arrived, via helicopter, to wish him well.

Fenech, who was a supporter of the Anti-Cancer Council, said the swim would make boxing look easy.

Mr Middleton made the most of the fast flowing upper reaches of the river, making it to Noreuil Park about 3.15pm on December 9, 1991.

The further he swam, the harder it got, with little or no current in the lower reaches, combined with headwinds, slowing his progress.

In all, he swam every day for 138 days, averaging 17km a day.

Graham Middleton died suddenly on October 27, 1995.

He was at Lakes Entrance in his role as a commissioner with Towong Council.

He will always be remembered as the swimmer who conquered the Mighty Murray.

Adventurous spirit led to journey of a lifetime

I FIRST saw Eric de Red on a wet, miserable day in early September 1979.

We found him sheltering from the weather on the river bank somewhere between Bundalong and Corowa.

The Viking nomad-adventurer was huddled under a hoochie attached to his little aluminium boat that was turned on its side to provide added protection.

He had a fire going, cooking some Murray crayfish he had caught.

Eric de Red was apparently a name he assumed on a whim; a name more fitting of his adventurous spirit and far more romantic than his birth name of Eero Elias Elomaa.

He was born in Turku, Finland, on July 18, 1915.

When we found him he was rowing, yes, rowing, his little aluminium boat up the Murray River.

His love affair with our greatest river started in Albury in October 1975, the same time one of the biggest floods in Albury’s history was surging downriver.

He bought his 3m aluminium boat from Phillips Marine and literally surfed his way right down to Wellington, where the Murray flows into Lake Alexandrina.

He told me he had then turned around and rowed 482km upstream to Loxton where he lived for the next four years.

In May 1979 he started his epic journey up the Murray River, eventually reaching the junction of the Murray and Swampy Plains rivers, where he called it quits.

In the meantime he had fallen in love with the Upper Murray where he was befriended by many, including Dr David Hunt, who lived on Redbank near Walwa.

Their friendship was such that Dr Hunt invited Mr de Red to build his own house on the property.

De Red promptly set about building a stone cottage.

He lived there until he passed away on April 1, 1987.

In all, Eric de Red rowed the length of the Murray River three times, once the hard way and twice by riding the currents to Lake Alexandrina.

He could easily have called himself Eric the Conqueror.

Mates go for a cruise but Tammy does it tough

MARATHON swimmer Tammy van Wisse did it the hard way, while Beechworth mates Tom O’Toole and Keith McIntosh did a shortened version the easy way.

Mr O’Toole, founder of the Beechworth Bakery and a motivational speaker, and Mr McIntosh, a retired baker and psychiatric nurse, left Noreuil Park on December 28, 2005.

Their goal was to reach Goolwa, where the Murray River spills into the Southern Ocean, in three weeks.

They made their journey on a craft created from two bathtubs, three pontoons made from recycled bottles and a wooden slat desk.

They had the luxury of a 15hp four-stroke outboard engine to power them down the river.

By January 3, they were nearing Swan Hill.

Their ultimate goal of reaching Goolwa proved beyond them, mainly because waves whipped up on Lake Alexandrina threatened to swamp their unusual craft.

Their journey might not have covered the same distance, or presented the same challenges and physical demands such as those endured by Eric de Red or Graham Middleton, but in their own inimitable way Tom O’Toole and Keith McIntosh conquered the Mighty Murray.

Tammy van Wisse swam much of the Murray River from November 5, 2000 to the mouth at Goolwa on February 18, 2001.

But just where she started her swim is unclear.

Media reports and websites, including her own, say she started from Corryong, which is, of course, physically impossible given Corryong sits several kilometres from the river.

Her website lists the swim as covering 2438km, yet the first man to swim the river from Bringenbrong to Wellington at Lake Alexandrina, Corryong’s Graham Middleton, swam 2365km.

Regardless, van Wisse was the first, and so far the only person, to swim from the upper reaches right to the mouth at Goolwa.

And she did the swim in an amazing 106 days.

She conquered our Mighty Murray in a way no other mere mortal has.

“I have been through the pain barrier many times on marathon swims, but swimming the Murray was different from anything I’ve ever done before,” she said.

“I was in the water for 106 consecutive days. The last month was very tough. There were three weeks where the temperature was over 40 degrees.

“It was hard to sleep and I was tired and it affected my swimming.

“When I started the swim in Corryong on November 5, I was swimming in snow-melt from the Snowy Mountains. The water was very cold but it was clear and I could see my hands in the water.

“As I swam further down the river the water became darker, milkier and saltier, testimony to the Murray’s increasing salinity problems.”