When Marc Nieuwenhuys dipped his paddle into the Murray River for the first time on his 2,400km journey, there was no moment of revelation or peace.
“It took a couple of weeks for anything to happen in that way really,” Marc chuckles. “There was such a big build-up, I had been so busy and the preparation for my trip had been so epic. When I had made that instant decision to paddle the length of the river, my life took on enormous changes at once.”
With broad shoulders, strong features and a warm and inviting way of talking, Marc seems like a man rarely bothered. But our assumptions betray us, as is reflected in Australia’s alarming mental health figures for men.
The leading cause of death in Australia for those aged between 15 and 44 is suicide, and 75% of suicides are men. In New Zealand, 68% of suicides in 2019 were men, and the number of suicides in the country reached its highest point that year. Those that seem the strongest are often those who are in the most need of a life-saving conversation.
In the NSW town of Bringenbrong in late August of 2019, even though the crisp alpine air was filling Marc’s lungs, he was on a heavy dose of antidepressants right up until he pushed his kayak out from the banks of the Murray River. Until this point, he had been battling severe depression for years. Prior to his life-changing journey, Marc had always enjoyed getting outdoors, but for an ironic reason that sometimes fed his illness.
“I enjoyed getting away. I enjoyed it because it isolated me but in a way that depression feeds on and enjoys. The decision to paddle solo for the length of the Murray wasn’t something I planned. I just saw a sign on the river one day that said there were 2,186km until where the river meets the sea. It just clicked. I was looking for something to change. So I told my mates that I was going to paddle it.”
Why do we reach for physical feats when our minds are in pain? Marc admits that he had no idea what it would be like to paddle a distance equivalent to that between Melbourne and Sydney more than three times over. On a still day, you might travel about two metres per stroke of the paddle. That means Mark dipped his paddle into the burnt umber of the Murray at least 1.2 million times along his journey.
“I think being physical removes the ability of your brain to think about a lot of stuff. When you’re suffering, you’re not getting vital things like endorphins and adrenaline, so getting outdoors is a huge thing. I think it’s a combination of being challenged plus the fact that you are in control. Putting a challenge in front of you…putting it in front of me, well, that meant I took the decision to make it happen. It was a step forward for me to take control of things for once.”
Connecting with water, land and life
As if the challenge Marc set himself wasn’t gargantuan in and of itself, he added one more for kicks. He made it a rule that he could never leave sight of the river throughout his journey. No quick visits to the shops, no cheat days in a hotel. He wanted to connect first with the river so that he could connect in other ways.
“I took it a little too seriously. One night I needed some firewood but stopped myself from collecting a particularly nice looking branch of wood because by doing so I would have lost sight of the river.”
This connection with the river was vital for Marc’s survival, and it was a connection that grew as he paddled.
“The river was giving me something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Once I got on it, a whole lot of things changed. Every morning I would get butterflies of excitement knowing I was about to get back onto the water. Maybe it was about getting an understanding of this volume of water that is doing so much in Australia. It’s not just a river, it’s an incredible beast. I had some serious conditions to contend with but the river never changed. It was always doing its thing.
“The most amazing thing I thought was wow, this has always been here, the river has always been doing this and it is free. By the time I got to the end of my journey, I felt sad that we aren’t just letting it be a river. I avoided the politics of how we manage the river, as it is so complicated, but seeing giant walls stopping the seawater from coming upstream felt like it wasn’t functioning as it’s supposed to. I hope one day we let the river be a river.”
When I ask him whether or not a connection to land or people is more important for mental health, Marc admits that his connection to the river was required before he could let other connections form.
“Connecting with people has been life-changing, but I wouldn’t have gotten that connection if I hadn’t had that connection with the river first. When you are away from the concrete, paddling 107 days and living out of a kayak, well, you just appreciate how complicated we have made our lives. We’re still battling for the same things we did 200 years ago. Food, water, shelter. But we have now made it so much more complicated.”
According to men’s health organisation Movember, 70% of men say their friends can rely on them for support, but only 48% say that they rely on their friends and are too hesitant to reach out for help. After talking to countless people along the river, and experiencing a clear desire from everyone for deeper connections, Marc has a theory about why we fail to reach out.
“I have an idea about the stigma around mental health. I think I created it, or at least my depression created it because it doesn’t want you to talk about it because then you start recovering. All I received along my journey was kindness, love and support. I stumbled across a group of over 20 young men enjoying a buck’s party one night by the river. They invited me over and I just started talking about the importance of opening up...and they did! Right in the middle of their buck’s party. We have this thin wall that we have put up to stop ourselves, but the moment you start the conversation it all pours out.”
A new way of life
In the first chapter of the book Marc is currently writing about his experience, he perfectly describes what it feels like to allow depression to creep its way in. Anyone who has experienced depression will relate to the cushioning, comfortable feeling it provides, for a while.
The black hole opens up and swallows you whole.
It's comforting, black, sadness pillows, slowly cushioning you down to the bottom.
That familiar bottom.
It's safe there.
And that's where I stay. All day.
“I have become an extremely conscious thinker,” Marc tells me. “I think about everything I do. It’s exhausting, but it has changed my life. I’m really conscious of what’s happening around me and how my brain may at times want to lean towards old ways of allowing depression in, so I have to be one step ahead of it. Being a conscious thinker. When I began my journey I was on a double max dose of antidepressants. I take nothing now.”
Finished with his first epic adventure, Marc and his wife Natalie are on the biggest adventure yet, and one that doesn’t have a clear finish line.
Quitting his job, Marc now works on the refurbishment of a houseboat he and Natalie bought with the intention of using it to travel up the Murray to speak with communities, research and learn about what affects them in particular, and connect communities with relevant health services.
“In the end, I just want to be a guy who you can have a beer with and talk. Talk about anything but, more than anything, connect.”
Beyond this, Marc is also working with partners in the development of a major project to connect people with mental health services more easily – a project that could potentially revolutionise how services are accessed across the nation.
Listening to him talk, it is clear that the split-second decision all those months ago to get in a kayak and just paddle has not only changed Marc’s life but those he meets every day. And as he and Natalie strive every day to make simple connections that light up flames within previously dark places, the river continues to flow towards the sea.