Published in Australian Geographic, Nov 2018

Photo credit: Ricky French

To commemorate this year’s 50th anniversary of the Murray Marathon (now called the Massive Murray Paddle), event founder Mark Thornthwaite has published a revised edition of his 1969 account of the first race. Ricky French looks back on that first race and forward to November’s golden jubilee.

6am on the Murray, December 1969. 21 year-old Mark Thornthwaite slips into a kayak and pushes off from a boat ramp at Picnic Point, at the edge of the Barmah Forest, 40 kilometres north-east of Echuca. It’s day three of the first ever Murray River Canoe Marathon. His boat is a double but his partner has already dropped out and gone home, lasting less than half of the planned 250 miles stretch from Yarrawonga to Swan Hill, leaving Thornthwaite to paddle alone between the silent river red gums in the eerie, drowned forest.

Birds scatter as he navigates his kayak round the bends and the submerged logs. The occasional fish jumps out of the water, as though keen to get a close-up squiz of the madness. No one knew the pain that lay ahead when the boats set off from Yarrawonga two days earlier. There was a countdown from ten to one, and when the gun was fired the competitors may well have been setting course for the moon.

Thornthwaite founded the event as a fundraiser for the Red Cross, somehow convincing nine other young men, including 16 year-old Philip Ball, to attempt what was believed to be the longest canoe race in the world. By the end of the third day four of the seven boats would be out of the race.

Just past the Barmah bridge the fleet hit a storm. Driving rain and fierce headwinds whip the river into a mean chop, crashing over their laps, the paddlers’ most gruelling exertions doing little more than holding their kayaks in place, as though on a cruel, watery treadmill. Thornthwaite’s shoulder gives out. Exhausted and in crippling pain he nurses his kayak to the river’s edge where a support crew haul him out and begin first aid. He arrives in Echuca on the back of the rescue boat, his arm in a makeshift sling. Two days later Ball wins the race, slipping into Swan Hill in a time of 45 hours, 36 minutes and 20 seconds.

The ten young men didn’t know it at the time but they’d just started something special; an endurance event that would endure beyond anyone’s expectations. A group of trailblazers turning their arms like windmills for five days, scooping the Murray behind them one stroke at a time, spurred on by camaraderie, bonded by blisters.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that first race. Over 400 paddlers will line up at Yarrawonga on November 19 and follow the same course that Thornthwaite and co pioneered back in 1969. Many teams enter as a relay, changing paddlers at checkpoints, while others opt to endure the whole distance solo. The fastest paddlers will complete the course in around 30 hours.

Participation is just as important as recording a time, and the event is still run as a charity fundraiser, with competitors now nominating benefactors of their choice and gathering sponsors. In 2017 the event raised $181,000.

Now aged 70, Thornthwaite will be back, aiming to finish what he started and paddle the entire 404 kilometres.

“I’m humbled by the feats of others, people like Bill Robinson who will be paddling his 29th consecutive marathon, and the Dungulayin Mileka team (made up of at-risk Aboriginal teenagers paired with police officers, part of long-running program to grow positive bonds between the two groups). I’m also just so humbled that it’s still going.”

For more information, to enter, or to purchase a copy of The Story of the First Murray River Canoe Marathon 1969 go to

All proceeds from book sales will be donated to the New Hope Education Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.