No hurry on the Murray

There’s water in it and no red lights, finds David Fallick as he explores this mighty river.

As we moved into an increasingly threatening summer and the mercury inexorably climbed, I found myself experiencing mixed feelings about the imminent trip to the Murraylands and Riverland. The prospect of exploring these regions was exciting but 40°C-plus days are not my preferred touring weather.

The early morning flight from Tullamarine to Mildura took only two hours but it could have transported us to another country. As we increasingly dwell in conurbations around the coastal strip of this vast continent, sadly, fewer and fewer of us have any direct connection with the hinterland and, hence, appreciation of just how blessed we are with wide open spaces, unpolluted air and the diverse range of fauna and flora.

Contrary to all the media reports over recent years, the welcome at Mildura was warm, sunny, fresh and GREEN. And there had been RAIN! We collected our luggage and rental car, with a fraction of the normal big-city frustrations, and headed west towards South Australia and Renmark. What a pleasure to hit the open road, far from the madding crowd and, inevitably, with thoughts of Toad of Toad Hall.

Our destination, however, is the mighty Murray and our lunch stop-over at Ruston’s Rose Gardens in Renmark affords us our first sightings and the reassurance that there is quite a volume of water, helping to sustain a great range of industry. Then we’re back, heading west down the long straight stretches of the excellent Sturt Highway to Kingston on Murray where, at Banrock Station, it’s all conservation and water, rather than wine. Of course there’s no shortage of fine wine, but we’re here to enjoy a guided tour (by Kate Thorn, the Conservation and Wetland Manager) of the magnificent wetlands which have been established in the middle of this otherwise dry environment. Our stay is so illuminating and informative (school groups regularly tour) that we’re now late for our overnight stop at Blanchetown, 75 km south-west along the Sturt Highway. We have, in effect, cut the corner and stolen a march on the Murray as it winds serpentine-like, to Cadell before turning virtually due south to re-join us at Blanchetown.

It’s dark by the time we arrive at Portee Station, a genuine piece of colonial architecture dating from 1873. There’s time for a sortie in ‘the Rocket’ around the property’s air-strip, on ‘wombat patrol’. Sadly, they are somewhat reticent on this particular night. Later, over an excellent home-cooked roast, we learn more of the history of this 20,000 hectare sheep property, including the numerous ‘record’ floods! The homestead has been tastefully restored and updated, so, lacking for no creature comforts, we can drift off to the accompaniment of the night critters including deep-throated frogs – a reminder that the station takes its name from Portee Creek, a tributary of the Murray.

Murray River Cruising on a boatNext morning before breakfast, with the air like a tonic, our host drives us to the main river where, to our surprise, there are great, unspoiled sandy beaches and clear waters gently lapping in the subtle breeze. We learn a lot of the history of the neighbouring properties, the first settlers, their successes and failures. Returning along the rutted, riverside track to a hearty breakfast at the homestead, there’s a wealth of wildlife to photograph and even a couple ‘canoe trees’ – reminders of the Aboriginal inhabitants.

At Swan Reach, some 30 km due south of Portee Station, after crossing the Murray by punt, we leave our car and board the PS Murray Princess. It’s a four-day cruise (alternatively you can take seven days) up river from Mannum to Blanchetown and back. This is the ideal way to travel through the Murraylands. The river acts as an alternative slow highway, you can travel at a leisurely pace, soaking up the spectacular surroundings while someone else does the navigating and driving. This leaves the traveller free to indulge in reading, photography, bird-watching; all very relaxing. And, unlike conventional ocean-cruising, there’s always something happening on both of the riverbanks.

There is also a diverse range of sidetrips, usually a short walk from the mooring, although longer excursions, to Adelaide and the wine regions of the Barossa Valley, can be arranged. On our relatively short cruise, the activities included a visit to Sunnydale, a sheep property turned rural theatre, where the family puts on a Woolshed Show including a wager on a ‘sheep race’ (your correspondent lost a packet!) and a visit to the neighbouring Native Wildlife Shelter. This was followed by a bush BBQ, catered by the PS Murray Princess’ crew, on the riverbank above where we’d tied up for the night. A huge amount of fun for passengers and crew, especially when the two-up games were rudely interrupted by a spectacular thunderstorm.

Next day, after a substantial breakfast in the ship’s dining room, a totally different excursion ashore, to the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve. An easy boardwalk and climb takes in a fascinating succession of cliff paintings, artefacts and the spectacular panorama from the cliff tops. Our local guides are a mine of knowledge and the paintings and jewellery on sale can provide a vivid reminder of your visit.

The afternoon brings warm rain and the opportunity for a speed boat ride in one of the PS Murray Princess’ tinnies and rare photo opportunities as we circle the ship, including close-ups of the ship’s stern paddlewheel in action. That night, at the mooring, after the Captain’s Farewell Buffet Dinner and review, the ship’s floodlights attract flotillas of stately pelicans, gliding on the river, and a wonderful array of fish.

As we dock in Mannum the next morning, relaxed, refreshed and with our flat city batteries recharged, one can only conclude that this is the very best way to tour the Murraylands.

More Information
David’s trip was organised by the South Australian Tourism Commission and its regional offices in the Riverland and Murraylands.

The PS Murray Princess cruises (fourday and seven-day) can be booked through Captain Cook Cruises in Mannum.
Ph (08) 8569 2511

Budget Car Rental provided a vehicle at Mildura Airport.
Ph 1300 362 848

Banrock Station Wine and Wetland Centre is open daily except Good Friday, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
Ph (08) 8583 0299

Ruston’s Roses, Australia’s largest rose garden, is a fantastic tourist attraction for the garden lover and classic car enthusiast.
Ph (08) 8586 6191

QantasLink, Australia’s largest regional airline, provides flight services between Melbourne and Mildura on a daily basis.

Written by David Fallick