Float­ing along the Mur­ray River in amphibious Jeeps is an off-road ad­ven­ture like no other, writes Mitch Hol­land

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOS MITCH HOL­LAND

How cool are th­ese? Pro­duced in Ford’s River Rouge fac­tory in Michi­gan, USA, the GPA is ba­si­cally an amphibious ver­sion of the World War II Willys MB, or Ford GPW Jeep. It has the same en­gine and run­ning gear, but with 12-volt electrics for the ra­dio equip­ment (needed for wartime use). It also has a ma­rine pro­pel­ler driven through the gear­box, a power take off-driven Cap­stan winch on the front deck, a rudder and a very ef­fi­cient bilge pump. More than 12,700 of th­ese ve­hi­cles were built in just eight months dur­ing 1942 to 1943.

Around 150 of­fi­cially ar­rived in Aus­tralia dur­ing the war years, of which only about 20 re­main, and like many other weird and won­der­ful cars and 4x4s, there’s a hand­ful of blokes who love ’em! Th­ese blokes dis­re­gard any cries about rar­ity and value, to reg­u­larly take on a

real ad­ven­ture in the re­main­ing ve­hi­cles: cruis­ing the Mur­ray River. They reckon, out of the 20-odd ve­hi­cles, only 13 are known to take a short swim, let alone sev­eral long days in the wa­ter!

This small but ded­i­cated crew has now en­joyed six sim­i­lar trips, cov­er­ing about 1540km of the 2226km of nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter in Aus­tralia’s long­est river. That feat has been un­der­taken over eight years and I was lucky enough to be in­vited on what may be the last trip. Of the sec­tions that have not been cov­ered, most were avoided be­cause of fluc­tu­at­ing wa­ter lev­els and haz­ards in shal­low wa­ter. The haz­ards in­clude rocks, mud, sand­bars and snags, which are of­ten the sub­merged re­mains of huge river red gum trees. Th­ese fall in to the river when flood wa­ters cause ero­sion on the river banks.

At the start, our trip in­volved four GPAS and seven crew mem­bers. By the time we com­pleted the trip’s first stage, two ve­hi­cles had de­vel­oped en­gine prob­lems and their own­ers had un­for­tu­nately opted out. One con­tin­u­ally stopped be­cause of fuel va­por­i­sa­tion not un­com­mon in World War II land Jeeps, par­tic­u­larly in heavy-go­ing such as climb­ing steep hills in low-range on warm sum­mer days. This ve­hi­cle didn’t have an ad­di­tional heat ex­changer de­vice fit­ted to it like the oth­ers did. Mean­while, the other ve­hi­cle that dropped out had de­vel­oped a valve is­sue – most likely a burnt ex­haust valve on the num­bertwo cylin­der, or pos­si­bly it was a bro­ken valve spring, as the com­pres­sion test un­der­taken was not too alarm­ing.

The GPAS were all mod­i­fied in some way to im­prove the orig­i­nal Spark­man & Stephens’ de­sign and to make them more suit­able for long trips on the river. The im­por­tant mods were pres­surised axles to stop wa­ter en­try through the hub seals, the (afore­men­tioned) ad­di­tional heat ex­chang­ers to bet­ter cool the en­closed mo­tor and trans­mis­sions at the low river speeds, and an ex­tra elec­tric bilge pump to quickly re­move ex­cess wa­ter pass­ing seals of those parts that run out­side the hull (steer­ing drag link and drive shafts).

The Mur­ray River has a sys­tem of kilo­me­tre-marker signs nailed to trees about ev­ery 2km. The first part of our trip started at 1228 at a place called Bound­ary Bend and fin­ished at 1118, Lock 15, near the town of Robin­vale. That was three-and-a-half days of ad­ven­ture!

After test­ing one en­gine for a pos­si­ble prob­lem, we started the next part of our jour­ney on a short road and track of about 80km. This took us through the Hat­tah-kulkyne Na­tional Park, by­pass­ing a par­tic­u­larly bad sec­tion of the river with low wa­ter lev­els. The two re­main­ing GPAS re-en­tered the river at marker 986 on Watts Bend, Colig­nan, and then fin­ished near 832 at the junc­tion of Aus­tralia’s sec­ond long­est river, the Dar­ling River, at the town of Went­worth. We’d trav­elled for five-and-a-half days, at a steady 8-10km/h on the river. Ac­com­mo­da­tion? Like most 4x4 own­ers, we mostly camped!

As men­tioned, the main prob­lems for a GPA when nav­i­gat­ing the cof­fee-coloured river were hid­den haz­ards in shal­low wa­ter – mostly sand­bars and mud, but also oc­ca­sion­ally rocks and sunken logs. Th­ese haz­ards were par­tic­u­larly preva­lent at the wa­ter’s edge, which made it dif­fi­cult at times to find ex­its for morn­ing tea, lunch or at day’s end. We did have a num­ber of con­crete launch­ing ramps to use at times, but in a lot of places none were avail­able. So it was com­mon to send one ve­hi­cle in to test the suit­abil­ity of the exit. If it failed, we’d ex­tract it then try some­where else.

Things didn’t al­ways go to plan and on one oc­ca­sion a ve­hi­cle be­came so bogged – after hit­ting a hid­den mud bar close to shore – that both re­main­ing ve­hi­cles were left bogged on the fore­shore. The sec­ond of the bogged ve­hi­cles, how­ever, had been de­lib­er­ately aimed at a tree so it could be winched out of the Mur­ray. This al­lowed it to use terra firma to snatch-tow the other ve­hi­cle out of its predica­ment.

On other oc­ca­sions, how­ever, trees were not close enough and we had to use the sec­ond GPA as a winch an­chor to re­cover the bogged ve­hi­cle. Plenty of im­prov and luck was needed, and fewer vis­its by Mur­phy and his law were al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated.

There’s al­ways mem­o­rable schemoz­zle dur­ing a 4x4 trek – es­pe­cially if the trek is ‘driv­ing’ along a river! One of th­ese sit­u­a­tions oc­curred when one of the ve­hi­cles was trav­el­ling a lit­tle to the left of cen­tre and hit a mud bank. Through its mo­men­tum it rolled over the bank, drop­ping into wa­ter not deep enough to al­low it to float, but also not shal­low enough to al­low it to gain trac­tion. Ef­fec­tively, it was bogged in the mid­dle of the river.

I was driv­ing the sec­ond ve­hi­cle at the time and re­turned to the bogged one to at­tempt a re­cov­ery by tow rope. But the rope be­came tan­gled in the pro­pel­ler as I ma­noeu­vred the ve­hi­cle in the wa­ter, try­ing to get close enough to the stranded ve­hi­cle with­out also be­com­ing bogged. With the prop use­less, I drifted down­stream un­til I got close enough to the shore to jump over­board with another rope. I swam and clam­bered ashore to tie the rope to a suit­able red gum stump. Then I hauled the ve­hi­cle to a point where I could get un­der­neath it with a knife

All in all, like most ‘off-road’ treks, it was an ex­cel­lent ex­pe­ri­ence with a bunch of good blokes

to cut the rope jam­ming the pro­pel­ler. Once the pro­pel­ler was turn­ing again, I was able to get the ve­hi­cle far­ther down­stream.

From here I had one chance to get it ashore to fin­ish re­mov­ing the re­main­ing rope from around the shaft and rudder un­der­neath. I then re­turned to the wa­ter, re-en­gaged the pro­pel­ler, and cruised up­stream to the stricken GPA (it was about an hour later by now, mind you). For­tu­nately, I got another rope to the bogged ve­hi­cle and we dragged it out of its now en­larged hole. Man­han­dling 1500kg of boat-hulled Jeep is not the same as fish­ing out a tin­nie, be­lieve me. A beer, or three, was def­i­nitely earned that day!

Our jour­ney cov­ered some re­mote ar­eas away from roads and tracks, with only the river wildlife to keep us com­pany. At other times in more ac­ces­si­ble ar­eas we passed fish­er­man and campers and amused them and their chil­dren by ex­it­ing onto sand­bars. We also cruised through some built-up ar­eas with all the trap­pings of civil­i­sa­tion. Con­ve­niently, th­ese ar­eas also had formed exit/en­try points and there was even a ma­rina at Mil­dura where we could stop, tie up out­side a cafe and en­joy a cap­puc­cino!

All in all, like most ‘off-road’ treks, it was an ex­cel­lent ex­pe­ri­ence with good blokes who have laughed about th­ese and many other predica­ments dur­ing their eight years of travel.

Okay, so it may have a lit­tle trou­ble on the change of tide. Doesn’t ap­ply to boats.

64km/h – on land!

The at­tempts at snag­ging a fish were un­suc­cess­ful.

“Any boats ramps around here?”

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