Carved into the side of a tree is the number "258". It's a mileage marker from the Murray River's old paddlesteamer days, indicating the distance downstream from Albury. Today, it serves as a remnant of the past in an area that is moving well away from the era of huffing steamers transporting lumber.
The mileage marker tree also strikes as the only thing even vaguely approaching a landmark. The walking trails in the Murray Valley National Park are very much ones where you hope the maps are accurate, because there's little way of distinguishing where precisely you are otherwise.
All around are river red gums, the higher reaches of their trunks dappled white and grey, but the lower sections are always slightly darker and soggier-looking. It's a reminder that these river reds go against the usual behaviours and desires of their cousins in the eucalyptus family. For them, it is not fire that spreads and renews life, but water. They thrive on sporadic floods, with the black, scar-like water lines indicating just how high the drink has got in the past.
The horizon is filled with the elegant, spindly and more than a little eerie trunks, reaching for a sky semi-obscured by the canopy. Only the occasional frantically darting emu or effortlessly bouncing kangaroo spoils the peace.
The Murray Valley National Park was declared in 2010, and was largely siphoned off as a way of protecting the vast tracts of river red gums that grow in the area. But in among the reliably entrancing forests are a few little wildlife havens.
The Reed Beds Bird Hide looks out onto one of them, a wetland that plays host to copious bird life, and floods then dries in cycles that are crucial for replenishing the vegetation.
As part of the efforts to make things a bit more National Park-y, the boardwalk up to the bird hide has been adorned with spinnable circular images of the birds that can regularly be found there. Turn them round, and the bird's call is played. The white-faced heron, it seems, sounds a little like a cawing seagull. The Australian bittern has a deep, bassy coo. And the eastern great egret sounds like a motorbike attempting to start on a cold morning.
The hide itself looks out onto the wetland proper, where the waters are retreating. It's in a drying phase, and the permanent pool is accompanied by only a few outlying puddles. Elsewhere the moss-like starwort muscles in among the beds of giant rushes. Pelicans float on the water, while musk ducks and egrets poke around inquisitively.
The water isn't just for the birds, though, and Kingfisher Cruises offers a chance for mobile wildlife spotting from its launch point at Barmah. The endearingly simple boat trip heads along the Murray in the area where it's at its least massive and mighty. The Narrows is the narrowest part of the Murray between Albury and the sea, with the banks generally being 27 metres to 30 metres apart. The stretch acts as a bottleneck, with the water pushing through considerably faster than elsewhere.
This bottleneck is part of the reason for the surrounding river red gum forest. Once the water flows upstream get too much, the Narrows doesn't just flood – it floods spectacularly. At peak, the river can spill out over the lakes and wetlands, essentially becoming 25kilometres wide.
But under ordinary conditions, the manageable size makes it the perfect place for spotting birds. A snake-necked darter stands on a low branch, its wings out. They're not waterproofed, so it has to hang them out to dry. Spoonbills cluster in a tree. And, close by, a tawny frogmouth and an azure kingfisher conduct lone vigils.
This may not be nature at its most raw and visceral. Lions tearing into wildebeest on the Serengeti, it is not. But there's a strong shout for it being nature at its most lulling and dreamily enjoyable.
The nearest sizable towns to the Murray Valley National Park are Echuca and Moama (to the south) and Deniliquin to the north. It's a 746-kilometre drive from Sydney or 257 kilometres from Melbourne. The nearest airport served by scheduled flights is Albury, 244 kilometres away. Regional Express flies to Albury from Sydney and Melbourne. See rex.com.au
The newly opened Moira Station offers a spectacular country stay, with properly lavish, sprawling "quarters" that have full kitchens, character-packed furnishing and big private outdoor decks with top-end barbecue facilities. The bedroom skylights allowing the option of sleeping under the starry skies are superb, too. Prices start at $350 a night. See moirastation.com.au
Kingfisher Cruises runs nature-focused two-hour boat trips from Barmah, costing $37.50 per adult. See kingfishercruises.com.au
David Whitley was a guest of Destination New South Wales.
BEYOND THE NATIONAL PARK: FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO AROUND THE MURRAY VALLEY
Murray River Paddlesteamers offers sunset dinner cruises along the Murray from Echuca, aboard the PS Emmylou, for $110. See murrayriverpaddlesteamers.com.au
2. MOUNTAIN BIKE
Near Moama, a specially designed mountain biking trail has been merged into the forest. The Five Mile trail includes drops, bridges and wall rides, and has been carefully calibrated to appeal to all levels of expertise.
3. BACKROADS TRAIL
Heading inland from the Murray, a collection of local food and drink producers have combined to form a driving trail. These include wineries and a mead-maker. And if you call ahead, tasting sessions can be organised. See echucamoama.com/backroads-trail
4. UTE MUSTER
The Deniliquin Ute Muster has evolved from a meeting of ute lovers into a country music and rural Australiana festival; September 29-30 in 2017. See deniutemuster.com.au
5. WINE TASTING
There are several wineries with open-to-the-public cellar doors around Echuca and Moama. If limiting it to just one, then Morrison's in Moama has a fabulous and inventive restaurant on-site. See morrisons.net.au