Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 8, 2020

Rivers, The Lifeblood of Australia, by Ian Hoskins

When I was a girl, I learned the geography of my home state with a plastic template and a box of coloured pencils.  One of the few teachers I remember from my peripatetic education was the redoubtable Mrs Sheedy, who set us the task of marking railway routes and rivers on the maps we made with the template. Woe betide you if you couldn’t mark them in the correct places without an atlas when it was time for testing.  So I grew up knowing where these features were, but also with the assumption that rivers were like railway lines, fixed and immutable.

Which, as we in Australia know, is far from the case.

Ian Hoskins begins this fascinating book with the story of an old atlas of Australia that is a revelation to him:

Most numerous of all are the thousands of thin blue lines—tremulous, organic and almost wriggling across the pages.  These are waterways of various sizes, some of them feeding into lakes, others emptying into the sea, many petering out soon after they begin.  There are hundreds of ‘swamps’ that today we would call wetlands.  Some of these have no doubt disappeared in the past 50 years with agricultural reclamation and climate change.  It is a revelation to see that the driest inhabited continent on the planet is literally covered with water, or at least its traces.  The creeks are too numerous to count and, it would seem, too numerous to name.  The rivers are identified, but there are many that are unfamiliar to me.  The atlas distinguishes between ‘perennial’ and ‘non-perennial’ rivers and streams, with the latter being far more abundant.  So the many lines and swamps represent potential, rather than actual ever-present water.  (p.5)

To reinforce the point, this text is accompanied by a full page colour photo in marked contrast to the beautiful one on the front cover, of the bone dry salt pan that we know as Lake Eyre/Kata Thanda, typifying the character of Australia’s inland as a parched, dead centre.  Hoskins reminds us that it’s also the end point for water from Queensland’s Channel Country and is periodically transformed into an inland sea.  But that aberration is never going to replace the image of a lake that isn’t a lake in my mind.  To me it’s the place where Donald Campbell set his world land speed record in 1964. We watched the newsreel on TV (click the link) and were awed by the desolation of the landscape.

The chapter goes on to reshape ideas about Australia’s rivers in other ways.  Hoskins tells us about the 1971 Ramsay convention, the first modern treaty to protect the interconnected wetlands of the world… and there are cases in international courts that signal that the intrinsic right to exist has been extended from animals to plants, and on to landforms and ecosystems.  He quotes the memoir in which the author Jill Ker Conway describes how her parents’ property was transformed from a patch of red dust into an Edenic garden as seeds lying dormant in the soil sprang into life.  River water also carries seeds along, spreading species—some of which are not always welcome. Willow trees romanticised in English art and poetry are weeds here, where they colonise kilometres of riverbank.

As you may remember from my review of Margaret Simon’s Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River, The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin removing water from the upper reaches of a river impacts badly on base flows needed downstream for human use and for habitat maintenance.  Hoskins describes the ideological gulf as much as the geographic divide, linking it to the historical struggle to manage the political and ecological implications of a resource that is at once indispensable, dynamic, disrespectful of human-made boundaries, and vulnerable.  

As you would expect, this first chapter covers the pre-settlement period when Indigenous people lived in harmony with the land; the ways in which early settlement emerged around waterways (that often turned out not to be permanent); and how agriculture and urban life changed hydrology in populated areas.  Readers may know some or all of this already, but Hoskins wears his expertise lightly and he writes beautifully.  As with other books I’ve had from the NLA, the book is prolifically illustrated with images from their collections, which makes the book a real pleasure to read.

From the introduction, chapters then cover the major waterways of Australia:

  • The Clarence, a transitional river
  • The Murray, a contested river
  • The Yarra, an urban river
  • The Channel Country, rivers of history
  • The Ord, dreams of northern water
  • The Molonglo, the river that became a lake
  • The Snowy, river of conflicted legend
  • The South and East Alligator Rivers, and
  • The Franklin, the meaning of wilderness.

The press release categorises the book as History/Travel, and it is, but I think it will appeal to a certain kind of traveller.  Not the kind of traveller who merely pulls up at a caravan park, deposits the children at the playground, opens a beer and commences the fishing which if all goes well, provides dinner for the BBQ.  And then moves on, none the wiser about the stories of the places visited.  This is a book for travellers who relish knowing the human and geographical history of the places they visit.  The story of the Clarence, for example, is full of interesting snippets about the days of steamer trade in the days when most of NSW’s fish came from estuaries, rather than the deep sea via ocean-going trawlers.  There’s a magnificent 1920s aerial photo of the training walls built to create a stable channel near the mouth of the river, because  Grafton, in 1862, thought of itself as a ‘future London’, and the Clarence as a tameable Thames.  But the river was recalcitrant, hampering the completion of a rail link between Sydney and Brisbane, and until the Grafton Bridge was completed in 1932, locomotives were ferried across the river on barges.  The bridge had a moveable midsection that allowed passage to large ships, but this drawbridge was dismantled in 1969 because the city had long since ceased to be a major port.

Trophy killers feature in the chapter about The Murray, and the photos include two massive Murray Cods and the proud fishermen who caught them.  There is no doubt that the Murray Cod is a delicious fish, ‘the fish as Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon wrote in the 1920s, ‘none like it in freshwater lake or river, or salt lake or sea’.  But as Hoskins says, overfishing means there is less chance of catching one these days.

Writing in the early 1950s, T C Roughley, Superintendent of New South Wales fisheries, described earlier fishing practices as a ‘ruthless slaughter’.  Regulations were introduced, but were often flouted or unenforced so that the rivers were ‘fished without discrimination, without thought for the future.’  Cod was not the only fish affected.  The freshwater catfish population fell, and that of the trout cod—only recognised as a separate species in the 1970s—crashed.  (p.67)

The recreational fisherman has a lot to answer for, IMO.

The cod, of course, is not the only cause for grief along the ‘mighty Murray’.

Ngarrindjeri country is at one end of a string of territories along the Murray. There were the lands of the Meru, Barkindji, Latje Latje, Kureinji, Dadi Dadi, Madi Madi, Wadi Wadi, Wemba Wemba, Baraba Baraba, Yorta Yorta, Ngurraiillam, Waveroo, Jaitmatang and the Ngarigo in the mountains where the river begins to flow. Common to most was a distinctive canoe culture which reflected the usually modest water flow and the prevalence of the red gum along the floodplain river.  (p. 73)

Some of these tribal names are familiar to us because we have heard about land rights claims, but others are not.  I wonder if Mildura has signage to show that the Murray’s first ferryman was an Aboriginal man known as ‘Merriman’, an example of the adaptability of Indigenous people in the face of dramatic change?

This review gives just a hint of the treasures within Rivers, the Lifeblood of Australia.  It’s a lovely book, thoughtful and wise and full of interesting aspects of our history.  It would have made a beaut Father’s Day present but its release date is not till October 1st.  It’s the kind of book that makes a perfect gift for all kinds of people, especially now when our travel options are so limited.

Author: Ian Hoskins
Title: Rivers, The Lifeblood of Australia
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9780642279569. hbk., 316 pages
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing, via Scott Eathorne at Quikmark Media

Available from Fishpond, (Rivers), or your favourite indie bookshop.  Please support the revival of the Australian economy and buy it from an Australian supplier.



  1. This looks like a lovely book – particularly for someone who far prefers rivers to seas! I enjoyed reading some of the chapter titles and think about my own relationship with many of those rivers – the Snowy, the Molonglo, the South and East Alligator Rivers, the Ord. In fact, I’ve seen all of those rivers listed (except I’m not sure about the Franklin though I’ve been on the Gordon into which it flows, and I’ve only seen some of the Channel Country Rivers.) I am keen to do what some friends did recently and go out west and explore more of the Darling.


    • I haven’t travelled as much as you have on the back roads, but I’m very fond of some rivers. The Hawkesbury doesn’t get a chapter, but it’s one I’d love to explore, maybe in a houseboat:)


      • I’ve done a Hawkesbury River houseboat holiday, when I was about 17 A family holiday, and very memorable – partly for the beauty of the river! Five nights. It is a stunning river Isn’t it.


        • Beautiful…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Did you see that film The oysterfarmer. Nice as I recollect, though not amazing, but the river! Worth seeing the film just for it.


            • No… in fact, I’ve never heard of it. I’m really slack about keeping up with film.


  2. Sounds like a wonderful book. For myself, the only river I “saw” in Australia is the Todd in Alice Springs where people take pride in actually having been there on an occasion when it was flowing!


    • No, not so, you saw our Yarra, the slow lazy river that you crossed over on the way to our lunch at the arts centre:) That was such a lovely day!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh of course! And yes, that was a wonderful day.


        • One day, you’ll be returning the favour and showing me round in Canada!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I cross the Darling every now and then, at Wilcannia. The only rational reaction is to weep, it’s just a drain for runoff from the cotton farms. My favourite bridge is at Paringa, near Renmark on the Murray. It has a lift up centre for paddle steamers, a rail line down the centre and two very narrow roadways on cantilevers out from the centre on either side for cars and trucks. Though the bridges at Tooleybuc and Swan Hill are similarly ancient.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Photo next time you pass it, please Bill!


      • I can second the loveliness of the bridge at Tooleybuc. I used to love the old bridges spanning the northern rivers in NSW, but the freeway bypasses them all now.


        • Yes, I think that’s why we loved Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection so much!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. My favourite rivers are the Tasmanian rivers: the North Esk; the South Esk; the Nile; the Derwent; the Tamar; the Meander; the Macquarie; the Mersey; the Leven; and (of course) the Gordon. And now I feel ‘homesick’. I like the Murrumbidgee and the Snowy (up near the headwaters). But here on the mainland, I prefer the ocean.


    • Tassie certainly has some of the most beautiful rivers in the country, I find it hard to be fond of rivers up north where a crocodile might turn up uninvited…
      But even the much maligned Yarra is beautiful on the other side of the falls and up in the Dandenongs where the source is. When The Spouse and I were courting he had a flat on the Yarra at Hawthorn, and it was a lovely spot to take a walk. Admittedly the chapter about the Yarra is a bit of a tale of woe, but The Yarra Trail, as the book will tell you, extends for 40 km from the CBD out past Templestowe, thanks to the foresight of Parks Victoria who bought what had once been John Batman’s orchard, but IMO there isn’t enough about the lovely places beyond the city which are graced by the Yarra upstream.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha Lisa … you made me laugh re the crocodiles! I’ve been near and on (in a boat) many northern rivers and seen crocodiles on the banks but have always felt safe. You do have to be careful.

        A favourite little river of mine is the Thredbo River.

        Rivers are always nice near their source because they are fresher and faster there, aren’t they.


        • We did an eco-trip to the Daintree River and saw plenty of huge crocs… and shortly after we were there a croc overturned a boat…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh well, you can be run over by a bus outside your house too! Crocs can attack and turn over small boats, that’s very true.


            • You have to be trying hard to get run over by a bus…

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this exciting and energising review. Living in south west Vic, I see the misery suffered by the Wimmera and I hear the stunning ‘stories’ told by locals as to why its small tributaries seems mostly dry. This book is a must read for me. Thank you.


    • Hello Kate, and welcome! I’ve never forgotten flying over the Wimmera in a light plane and having a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of the landscape. It was in late August, so I’m guessing it would be even drier now.
      Are you anywhere near the art silo trail? That is such a clever initiative for small town tourism.


      • Oh, that does sound magic. In places, like Horsham and Dimboola, the Wimmera is vibrant but in so many of its attenuated tributaries, it is almost if not totally gone. Many creeks around Ararat, Willaura, across to Elmhurst and Avoca, are dry beds, or at best slightly marshy. So sad. And avoidable.
        Yes, the silo trail is lovely and much can be learned. I hope everyone will come when we are FINALLY out of lockdown. 🤦‍♀️
        Thanks again for book rec.


        • Well, Kate, I hope that publicising this book will help to bring the visitors. We certainly have plans to get out and about!
          It won’t be long… Melburnians know what we have to do, and despite all the gloom and doom and hysteria in the media*, the vast majority of us are doing the right thing and the numbers are trending the right way. Sad as it is, the case of Colac being so badly infected by just one person has shown us all how careful everybody needs to be even when we think there’s no virus in a particular place. We will get there, and we will bounce back to being the powerhouse state once again!
          *Here’s just one example of a good side effect of the lockdown being underreported: research has shown that some (mainly young) people are drinking more while others are drinking less, but also that the use of so-called party drugs has declined markedly. because people aren’t clubbing. The ABC report noted this, but didn’t join the dots to note that this must mean there are fewer drug overdoses and drug deaths. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if young people learned from this experience that they can do without illegal drugs!


  6. What a lovely undertaking. Growing up in America the great Mississippi river was the river we all read about and wanted to float down. It has taken me awhile to learn the rivers of Australia. Lots of life around our Derwent River especially as it goes up into the Derwent Valley. So beautiful. Sounds a wonderful book.


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