By Marc Llewellyn
It is late afternoon on the legendary Murray River in South Australia and we have already made several red-faced attempts to nose our giant houseboat into a grassy clearing among the gumtrees.
Finally we manage to tie our two-storey home on the riverbank next to the Proud Mary, a regal paddleboat that offers tours along Australia’s equivalent to the Mississippi.
That evening we warm up the front-deck barbecue on our houseboat and cook some of our pre-ordered provisions, before watching the sun sink into a horizon as red as blood orange juice.
Soon a troupe of black swans appear alongside and croon for scraps as the expanding rings made by feeding fish vanish into inky river darkness.
That night the Milky Way is more dramatic than any of us can remember and the constellations stand out in vivid clusters. Then dawn cracks open on another hot and blissful day on Australia’s most iconic waterway.
From its source in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, the Murray River flows for more than 2500km, making it Australia’s longest river.
After its long meandering journey through the interior, it pours into Lake Alexandrina and the smaller Lake Albert, before seeping into the saltwater lagoons of the Coorong. Finally, it empties through the Murray Mouth and into the Southern Ocean.
We picked up the river in Mannum, a river port just over an hour by car from Adelaide. The MS Murray Princess, the largest inland paddle steamer in the southern hemisphere, offers multi-day cruises from here if a houseboat isn’t for you.
For a historical perspective of life on the river it is worth dropping into the Mannum Dock Museum. As well as featuring the only existing floating dock built in Australia, you can clamber around the PS Marion, a restored steamer built in 1897.
We had hired our houseboat and pre-booked some supplies from Unforgettable Houseboats. The company has a dozen or so impressive luxury houseboats, the smallest with two bedrooms, the largest with six, plus a living area and kitchen.
None of us had a boat licence, because you don’t need one on the Murray. A driving licence is good enough.
The boat’s owner steered us into the middle of the wide brown river and after a short steering lesson we were on our own. We all soon got used to manoeuvring the bulky craft, despite our early nerves.
As we meandered upriver, fleets of ducks parted upon our approach. Herons and cormorants clung to the arms of skeletal eucalypts. Darters and egrets hunted on the muddy shoreline, and harriers and sea eagles patrolled the sky.
Ochre hues of Big Bend from your Murray Houseboat
Sometimes we passed swamps, then small settlements with private houseboats tied up at their pontoons, then forests that gave way to sand banks dotted with wide-eyed pelicans.
The fertile soils of the Murray River plains grow everything from almonds and apricots to grapes and olives, and we saw several of these orchards and vineyards as we slipped quietly by.
Then came the dramatic riverside cliffs that towered alongside a sweep in the river called Big Bend. They were tall ochre sandstone rock faces that cast red reflections into the water as we sailed peacefully through the canyon of water they had created.
After pulling up for the night we watched swallows darting for flies across the surface of the river before returning to their nesting holes in the steep rock face. We picked out owls with our torches, and night herons and wombats among the river gums and willows.
Onwards we journeyed, to Swan Reach, and its riverside pub. If you feel like stretching your legs a bit more, you could head to the Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, close to Swan Reach. A rock shelter here is painted with layers of Aboriginal art that stretches back at least 5000 years.
Exploration by kayak
The river was calling us like a siren and we were soon nosing into Blanchetown, known for its massed clusters of pelicans and the southern hairy-nosed wombats that come to drink at the water’s edge. It is also the site of the oldest lock and weir on the Murray, which was constructed in 1922 to improve navigation up and down the river.
On the return trip to Mannum we saw the river at a different angle. We stopped to launch our onboard kayak to explore secluded lagoons and inlets. We dropped a couple of fishing lines, but missed out on a monster Murray cod. Up came a catfish and a couple of bream instead.
With time up our sleeves we kept on travelling down river, to Murray Bridge, the largest town on the South Australian stretch of this great waterway. It takes about an hour to drive to this sprawling rural centre from Adelaide.
Murray Bridge is the home port of the gorgeous Proud Mary. A two-night cruise on this vessel takes you upstream to just beyond Mannum and back, and a five-night wildlife expedition cruise heads upstream to Blanchetown before returning.
You can also board the Captain Proud here, a paddleboat with wheels on either side. It casts off for lunch cruises, morning and afternoon tea cruises, and dinner cruises too. You can also hire privately-owned houseboats from the Riverglen Marina.
House boaters with more time could continue further down river, to Tailem Bend, and the nearby Old Tailem Town Pioneer Village. Here you can find around 110 historic buildings dating from 1870. Many of them were transported in one piece from their original locations, while others were taken apart bit by bit and rebuilt here.
Gateway to the Fleurieu
Keep puttering south and soon you will find yourself at Wellington, the gateway to the Fleurieu Peninsula, an area of South Australia known for its secluded beaches, roaring surf, wine tasting, seafood and national parks.
Wellington edges up to the junction of the Murray as it flows into Lake Alexandrina. It has a pleasant waterside caravan park and plenty of curious pelicans. The Wellington Hotel, licenced in 1848, is one of the oldest pubs in South Australia. Stop for a seafood platter lunch and enjoy the panoramic views of the river.
Sail further south still and you arrive at Meningie, on the tranquil waters of Lake Albert. The lake is perfect for fishing, swimming, kayaking and bird watching. Ring ahead to visit Coorong Wild Seafood while you are here, and pick up some smoked mullet or carp, or fresh fish for your barbecue.
Meningie is the closest township to the Coorong National Park, one of the most breathtaking national parks in Australia. This vast wetland ecosystem is home to more than 240 species of birds that spend their time wandering the secluded ocean beaches, estuaries, and a series of long saline lagoons that are separated from the ocean by a long strip of sand dunes.
You might not make it all the way to the mouth end of the Murray on your houseboat, but there is so much to see and do on land that you will want to stick around.
As for us, we were blasting our horn way before we wanted to, waiting for the boat’s owner to steer us back into port again.
Information on the coast and inland of the wonderful Fleurieu Peninsula.
Want to see sea lions basking on pristine white beaches, koalas dozing in lofty eucalypts, and pelicans soaring over shimmering lagoons, and so much more? Then head to nearby Kangaroo Island.
International carriers flying directly into Adelaide, include Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Qatar Airways begin direct flights from 3 May.
Regional Express has flights from Adelaide to Kingscote on Kangaroo Island, and Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula.
Find most major hire car companies at Adelaide Airport.