A note on sources

… of the Murray River

Cartographers inscribe maps as if the geographic features the Australian explorers stumbled upon were already there, as if rivers flowed waiting for the Europeans to name them. But to recognise a river as a discrete, nameable geographical entity is a cultural not a natural expression. There is no such thing as a ‘river’ until we recognise it as such and place it in the named and identified category of river.

—Peter Read The Meaning of Lost Places Cambridge, 1996, pp.3–4



There’s no universal convention about what constitutes a river, tho they may be like storms and battles—you don’t really know where or when they start or end, but you know when you’re in one. For the moment, let’s accept my Mac’s New Oxford American Dictionary definition of a river as a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another such stream, and set aside questions about what a channel might be, or whether any number of Australian rivers which appear to be predominantly dry are ‘really’ rivers &c.

Let’s instead ask What is the source of a river? And How do we know—and can we know—when we’re at the source of a river?

Towards Answering

There are many ways of defining the source of a river. These definitions, like the definitions of other geographic/geological features such as continents, mountains, and so on, are subject to history, convention, and usage.

For example

The ‘source’ of a river is often referred to as where it rises: the Thames Rivers Trust says authoritatively that The Thames rises in the Cotswolds Hill at Thameshead in the West of England (http://thamesriverstrust.org.uk/facts-and-figures/).

Sometimes, or often, a river is said to come from a spring or to spring from somewhere: Elliott Coues wrote in the 19C that The Mississippi springs from the ground under a hill which I call the Verumontanum (‘Historico-Geographical Notes on the Mississippi River, from Cass Lake to Lake Itasca’, The Annals of Iowa 2 (1895), 20–31, http://ir.uiowa.edu/annals-of-iowa/vol2/iss1/3).


Source, rises, spring (noun and verb): these words are closely related and near synonyms.

Source, the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary (http://etymonline.com) tells me, comes from Old French sourse ‘a rising, beginning, fountainhead of a river or stream’ (12c.), fem. noun taken from past participle of sourdre ‘to rise, spring up,’  from Latin surgere ‘to rise’.

Surge, too, comes from surgere.

Rise, of course, has the sense of up and, in Old German, of flow.

Spring, as a verb has the sense of to leap, burst forth, fly up, spread, grow and as a noun is based on the notion of the water ‘bursting forth’ from the ground and is cognate with Middle High Germanic leap, jump, source of water.

Another way of referring to the beginning—and don’t get me started on beginning—of a river is to talk about its headwaters. This again has the sense of up, as in the top or uppermost part of the body. The water below the headwaters, you might infer from this term, is the body of the river. Its mouth, so to speak, would be its feet.

(BTW, remember the Thames Rivers Trust’s proclamation, The Thames rises in the Cotswolds Hill at Thameshead? Note the tautology: the Thames rises, ie its head is, at a place called—yes—Thameshead.)

So, again: source, rises, spring are closely related, they all have the sense of something coming ‘up’, and they somehow define each other: a spring rises as the source of a river. Headwaters, too, implies something up. Rise, rise, rise. Up, up, up. But what and how up? Water, remember, flows downhill.

More up

In geological convention, the headwaters or source of a river are/is the farthermost place in the river from its estuary as measured along the course of the river. The distance from estuary to source gives the length of the river. This distance is independent of the name of the river or stream. So, again, the Thames Rivers Trust can say authoritatively, the Thames is 215 miles in length from source to sea. Geoscience Australia tells us Australia’s longest single river is the River Murray at 2508 kilometres (tho it qualifies this by adding if the longest tributaries of the Darling River, the Culgoa, Balonne and Condamine, are taken into account its total length increases to 2740 kilometres; see http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/geographic-information/landforms/longest-rivers).

But note that this definition of a river source, or headwaters, is purely for cartographic and geological purposes. River sources are, at least in some sense, culturally constructed. They don’t necessarily reflect a fact but a convention. The river source, which is related to the river’s length, is not an easily  observable phenomenon like, say, the moon.

The moon is up

The moon is up there or, perhaps, out there. It’s a thing we can look at and separate from other things. It’s obvious: most people agree that there’s something we can call the moon, luna, or whatever, up there. Of course, when it appears to change shape, disappears and reappears, things get more complicated. Let alone what happens when we think about what the moon might be made of, or how it stays there. Or what it means. Or whether it’s really up there. Whatever there might be. But we can probably agree that, fairly regularly, something appears in the sky or space, or against the dark background of the night sky, or on a black velvet billiard table suspended somehow above us, and that it is often more or less round or at least curved, and that it travels, or appears to travel, along a predictable arc. River headwaters, sources, risings, on the other hand, can be multiple and not obvious.

Mountains are up

Part of the problem is that it’s harder to conceive of, or apprehend, a river in it’s entirety than it (apparently) is to apprehend the moon. Similarly, a mountain often—but not always—may be more directly, immediately, and comprehensively apprehended, observed, than a river. A mountain appears as some large part of the earth sticking up ‘out’ of the ground and sometimes we can stand back and get a look at one. Or we experience ourselves walking/climbing uphill longer than usual until we find ourselves on top of what we now realise is a very big heap of rock and dirt and, perhaps, snow and ice.

But a mountain, too, is a culturally constructed artefact recognised and described thru convention— as my dictionary has it, a large natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising abruptly from the surrounding level; a large steep hill. Note that the adjectives large, abruptly, steep in the Oxford definition above require interpretation—they’re not unequivocal or incontestable descriptors. In the USA, to qualify as a mountain a hill or peak must be 1000ft above mean sea level. In the UK it must be 600m (c.1969ft) above sea level. Yet in both the USA and the UK there are ‘mountains’, or at least places named or accepted as mountains, lower than 1000ft and 600m respectively. In Australia, Mount Wycheproof is 148m and Mt Cooper in outer Melbourne is 137m above sea level.

Remember too that mountains can be hard to see or apprehend. One is not always sure which mountain one is on, you really only know once you’ve got far along or even to the top—rather like the Australian colonial explorers who weren’t entirely sure whether the River Darling and the River Murray were one or two rivers until they’d traveled along them. It can be easier to know you’re on the earth and not the moon than on a particular mountain, or in a particular river.

There is a geological convention about how mountain peaks can be distinguished from each other, and for determining their relationships to each other. This is called topographic prominence or prime factor. I’m not going to write about that. Yet.

While I’m at it

Most of our world maps and globes show seven continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Australia. This seems natural and obvious. But not when you realise some cultures don’t think of the world that way. Some divide the world into six continents—joining Europe to Asia to make Eurasia. Some cultures—including, until relatively recently, that of the USA—viewed North and South America as a single continent, the Americas. If, again, you follow the Oxford New American Dictionary definition of continent’— any of the world’s main continuous expanses of land—and you ignore the Suez and Panama canals, then you get four continents: Afro-Eurasia, the Americas, Antarctica, Australia. This comes closest to how geologists might define continents, which is by linking them to tectonic plates. This gives you seven, Africa, Eurasia, North America, South America, Pacific, Indo-Australia, Antarctica. But …


The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) states that the ‘River Murray rises near Mount Kosciuszko in the Australian Alps’. An MDBA profile of the Upper Murray elevation identifies this rising, the headwaters, of Limestone Creek as the ultimate source of the Murray. These are in Victoria at an altitude of c.1150m, around 26km EbS of Benambra, 66km ESE of Falls Creek, and 27km SW of Indi Springs—which I’ll come back to later. Google Maps shows the Limestone Creek headwaters at latitude -36.944304, longitude147.982225 (see the notes on coordinates in WalkingSlowlyDownhill; or go to a reputable encyclopædia). The Australian Government Geoscience 1:250,000 ‘Tallangatta’ map shows them around -36.99337, 148.00482. If you look at that map, and at satellite views of the area, you’ll see that within 3–4 kilometres there’re a number of short unnamed creeks running into Limestone Creek. Depending on rainfall and the time of the year, any of them could be the headwaters of Limestone Creek, and presumably the farthermost point from the mouth of the water course we call the Murray River. Good luck finding the ‘right’ one. Close by to here is Forlorn Hope Plain.

(If you keep looking, you’ll also see creeks that don’t flow into Limestone Creek—or, at least, not immediately. Some of those creeks flow more or less northwards towards Khancoban, Albury, and the Murray; others run more or less southwards towards Orbost and the Snowy River.)

Indi Springs

These are, as I mentioned, around 27km more or less NW of the Limestone Creek headwaters. Geoscience Australia places them at -36.795972, 148.194861. This is in an area known as Forest Hill and or Cowombat Flat(s) and is very close to, or is, the northern and western most point of the Black-Allan line, the straight section of the border between Victoria and NSW. If you’ve got a 4WD you can drive to within c.8km of there and walk ESE to it. If you’re more adventurous you can walk c.35km to it by heading SbW from Dead Horse Gap on the Alpine Way, just outside Thredbo. Or you could walk all the way through the Alps from Moe.

From Indi Springs a soak becomes a creek becomes a riverlet becomes a river that flows WSW and then north. On many maps, and by many people living nearby, this water course is called the Indi River. However, on most and especially on the Geoscience maps it’s called the Murray River. As well as telling us who Black and Allan were, Wikipedia says this about the Black-Allan line and Indi Springs: The line stretches north-west from Cape Howe on the Tasman Sea to Indi Springs, the headwaters of the Murray River (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-Allan_Line). Aha, you say, it’s incontrovertible, Indi Springs are the source of the Murray.


And no.

The Black-Allan Line

In 1842 the UK Parliament passed the NSW Constitution Act which states (in old fashioned but clear handwriting) that the boundary of the district of Port Phillip on the north and north east shall be a straight line drawn from Cape How [sic] to the nearest source of the river Murray (New South Wales Constitution Act 1842 (UK); http://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/scan-sid-315.html#). Subsequent Acts of Parliament adopted this definition, as did the Draft Proclamation of the Black-Allan Line, 1873, where it is deemed expedient to determine and set out the true boundary of the said Colonies of New South Wales and Victoria from Cape Howe to the nearest Source of the river Murray (Nadia Albert, Surveying the Black-Allan Line, On behalf of the Office of the Surveyor General, Victoria, 2003, Appendix C; http://www.dtpli.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/217783/Surveying_the_Black-Allan_Line.pdf). Thus what Indi Springs are—or, rather, what they represent, are/is the nearest source of the river Murray to Cape Howe, the easternmost point in what is now Victoria.


In the 1850s it became increasingly important for the colony of Victoria to survey its interior and its boundaries. After debate about the best method for this, and some false starts, the Colony conducted a trigonometric survey during which a number of surveyors tried to establish and measure the line from Cape Howe to the ‘nearest source’ of the Murray. Finding this place was difficult. Nadia Albert writes that from 1854 to 1851, Thomas Scott Townsend, surveyed the land of the counties of the King and Murray Rivers. She writes that here, in exceptionally difficult terrain with slopes over 45 degrees and in which even today, equipped with 4WDs to carry supplies, five kilometres is a reasonable day’s hike, Townsend investigated every water channel and every minutest bend of the range … so as to leave no doubt as the particular source sought for (pp.6–7; she is citing a speech by R I Grenfell). After determining the ‘particular source’ Townsend was, thru a mixture of extrapolation and exploration, able to determine the direction and location of Cape Howe. Nadia Albert reports that, tho most of the personal information about Townsend is hearsay, it has been suggested that he may have developed ‘acute insanity’ in his later years (p.6).

Close …

After considerable argy-bargy between the colonies of NSW and Victoria, and more surveying expeditions, the Alexanders Black and Allan (they shared a forename) with the assistance of other surveyors spent from November 1869 until January 1871 surveying, pegging out, and constructing cairns to indicate the line from Cape Howe to the ‘nearest source’ of the Murray. It cost £4882 7s 11p to do this, even tho they supplied their own clothing, footwear, and bedding. Depending on how you calculate it (real price, labor value, income value, &c), that’s somewhere between $750,000 and $13,000,000 in today’s money. Whatever the correct figure, it was worth it because despite working under extreme conditions in extraordinarily difficult terrain and with primitive equipment (they measured the distance in chains—literally) their survey was remarkably accurate: after traversing 110 miles (c.180km) to Cape Howe their line was 17 inches (c.43cm) from the Cape Howe cairn (Gerard Carney, ‘The Story behind the Land Borders of the Australian States—A Legal and Historical Overview’, Public Lecture Series, High Court of Australia, 2013, p.20; http://www.hcourt.gov.au/assets/publications/speeches/lecture-series/Carney_lecture.pdf). That’s an error of c.2.4mm per kilometre, a ratio of 1 to 416,667.

… but no cigar

Despite all the labor and the fact that it is the official border between Victoria and NSW, the Black-Allan line wasn’t officially proclaimed until 2006 because the Attorney’s General of NSW and Victoria couldn’t agree on the wording: nothing concerning any borders is straightforward (David Taylor, ‘Changing State Borders’ Atlas of New South Wales, NSW Government, n.d; http://atlas.nsw.gov.au/public/nsw/home/topic/article/changing-state-borders.html; and see Daniel Lewis, ‘Finally a state border, if only a 130 years late’ Sydney Morning Herald 16/02/2006 http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/finally-a-state-border-if-only-130-years-late/2006/02/15/1139890807125.html). The Black-Allan line is a series of cairns and other survey marks that together made possible the survey of the NSW-Victorian state border (Albert, p.2).

The point

Indi Springs are not ‘the’ source of the Murray River. They are the closest ‘source’, ie tributary, of the Murray River to Cape Howe.


The Murray River forms the larger part of the boundary between NSW and Victoria. South and west of the high water mark of the river is Victoria, the water is in NSW, more or less. There’s been much argument about what that means (see Guidelines for the Determination of the State Border between New South Wales and Victoria along the Murray River 1993; http://www.dtpli.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/217851/NSW-VIC_Border_Determination.pdf).  But the Indi Springs ‘source’, and thus the Murray, is determined by the survey, not the other way round.

By the way

In 1911 it was argued by some in the Riverina District of NSW … that the Murray’s nearest source [to Cape Howe] was in fact the source of the Murrumbidgee River (Carney p.23).


Other parts of the MDBA website identify the Cobungra/Mitta Mitta (altitude c.1000m; near Mt Hotham, Vic), Geehi, Tooma, and Kiewa (c.1600m; near Bogong High Plains, Vic) rivers as sources of the Murray. All of them flow into what we now call the Murray River.


The highest listed tributary of the Murray is Swampy Plain River which rises 2–400m SSE of Mt Kosciuszko (-36.455981, 148.263333; altitude 2228m). This point, which Geoscience maps mark at -36.45890, 148.26639, is c.38km NbE from Indi Springs and c.65km NNE from Limestone Creek. Swampy Plain River joins the Geehi River c.10km NW of Mt Kosciusko and downstream from where Limestone Creek joins the Murray. There are numerous creeks—eg, Wilkinsons Creek—rising nearly as close to Mt Kosciusko and as high as Swampy Plain River. At some times and in some weather they may be higher than Swampy Plain River.

What’s in a name?

‘The’ ‘Murray’ ‘River’ is a construction of science and colonialism—which are related. There was no Murray River prior to European invasion and the subsequent (re-)naming of geographical features. Just as there was no ‘Australia’, nor any ‘Aboriginals’. Parts of Australia were given various names by the original inhabitants, just as the original inhabitants called themselves by various names.

The names of ‘things’, places, and people reflect and are determined by the cultures that ‘use’ or ‘own’ them. Even now, many maps and local people nominate the upper reaches of the Murray River as the Indi River. (And note that even the MDBA refers sometimes to the ‘River Murray’ and at others to the ‘Murray River’. Is there a difference?)

There is no source

Equally, there is no ultimate ‘source’ of the Murray River, or indeed any river. If water comes from the ground at a spring, that water may have flowed through rocks from a higher elevation, or have been forced by pressure from a lower elevation. If water doesn’t come from a spring, it may gather in a declivity near the top of a mountain and then flow enough to form a creek or small river that gathers more water as it flows downhill thus becoming a larger river. The ‘original’ water in the declivity—like the water in the spring—came from the sky, and in turn from the sea. The ultimate ‘sources’ of river water are sea and sky. The ultimate sources of sea water are land, rivers, and the sky. The sources of sky water are land, rivers, and the sea. Such is the hydrosphere.

We could take any point on ‘the Murray River’ as its ‘source’: the mouth of the Murray—where fresh water meets the sea—would be as logical a starting point as the mountains. (And the meeting point of fresh and salt water is also and in any case indeterminate and variable.)

Alfred Korzybski

The references here to sources—geographic, hydrographic, literary, statistical—direct us to places that are as much fantasy as fact; imagination as location. They provide only the illusion of solidity, definitiveness. They tell us nothing about the experience of the places to which they refer us.

From the top

Hydrographers identify the ridge line running SW from Mt Kosciusko to Dead Horse Gap near the Alpine Way (-36.5152, 148.2512) as the demarcator of the Snowy and Murray river watersheds—on the southern/eastern side the water that isn’t evaporated, or stored and redirected by the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, flows, ultimately, into the sea via the Snowy River at Marlo, Victoria; on the northern/western side the water that isn’t evaporated or redirected onto farmland flows into the sea via the Murray on the Coorong and Lake Alexandrina.

Turning & turning

Like storms and battles, rivers are events.