WHERE THE RIVER RUNS
Leonie Coombes savours a sojourn on the Murray in paddle-steamer heaven
THE Murray River has its ups and downs but is far from dry. Despite the drought, long reaches remain navigable. All kinds of boats are available for hire and atmospheric restaurants beckon river travellers.
The old port town of Echuca stands out as a place to dip a toe in the Murray. It’s in Victoria but has a twin town, Moama, across the river in NSW. Touristy Echuca is home to many ageing paddle-steamers moored at the historic wharf. This towering structure, built in 1865, looks like a dodgy handyman project. It has three loading levels to accommodate fluctuations in the Murray. A measurement stick on the wharf shows the devastating heights the river reached in 1956 and 1993, swallowing landmarks and submerging the plains for weeks. Scientists calculate a much bigger flood occurred in about 1750, and it could recur.
The water is about 10m deep. That’s normal these days, and it’s more than enough for fishing, skiing or messing about in boats. Paddle-steamers have a draught of only 1m and houseboats sit even higher. These floating homes are the most comfortable way to explore the region.
The company, Luxury on the Murray, is based at Moama. It has a small flotilla of houseboats for people seeking more than a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn experience. On board Luxury 5, comparisons with slick city apartments are favourable. Glossy, state-of-the-art kitchen, LCD television and plush sofas ease the transition from landlubber to water rat. Four compact double bedrooms with ensuites and wall TVs ensure privacy. Upstairs there is a heated jacuzzi, sound system and barbecue. A washer and dryer are also tucked away. Not provided are food, wine, toiletries or a rudimentary sense of direction. But when left or right is the only option, it is hard to go wrong.
David Grubb, owner of the houseboats, gives our small group a clear briefing on how to drive the twin outboards and work the generator, which is assisted by a power inverter. We soon catch on. A back-to-base radio provides 24-hour assistance. There is only one bloke in our bunch of novices and he is no more mechanically able than the females on board. It is a house, so we women assume control. Some of us have felt adrift in domesticity before, but this time it’s for real.
The wheel is inside, by a wide window. We expect our houseboat to exhibit the agility of a wet shoebox, but it is easy to drive. Bumping into other craft is nigh on impossible when visibility is so good and other houseboats are plodding just as slowly. Occasionally hoons in speedboats whip past and we steady our drinks. That’s the work done.
Except, that is, for resolving which way to go. Both ways win. From Echuca we head upstream for the Goulburn River junction just a couple of hours away, then turn around and go downstream. It is 100km to Torrumbarry Weir and beyond these rustic perimeters progress is only possible in smaller boats. We never make it to the weir, deciding the journey matters more than the destination.
Houseboats can be moored almost anywhere by securing the vessel to a couple of stout trees. We do, and the Murray casts its lazy spell. Families of wood ducks float at our doorstep, honking quietly. Cockatoos, corellas and crows shatter the silence while eagles circle. An occasional fish leaps and lizards sun themselves. In the warm jacuzzi we feel a primordial connection to this disparate wildlife, but perhaps that’s the cocktail-hour sangria.
At sunset the tranquillity of the bush envelops us. Almost. Test cricket fills the screen and Australia is in trouble. The Murray has its problems, too, but no one would guess on a starry evening when cicadas sing, frogs croak and tides turn silently.
One night it rains and the ducks step up their soft conversations. These gentle sounds are almost too good to sleep through. But the beds on Luxury 5 are as downy as ducks and we drift off.
By day we read, revel in the passing scenery and share a few laughs. Boats named Wine Down, Slakaz and Overdraught tell their own story. But barbecue boats are the most amusing craft: outboard-powered rafts no bigger than picnic tables, they consist of a couple of benches and a barbie under a canopy. Only Australians could have contrived such an improbable way to cook a few chops. Cooking slips off our agenda because it is easier to nose into the riverbank at places such as Morrison’s Winery.
This high-set establishment offers exceptional food and wine. While devouring a warm salad of Tasmanian scallops with citrus dressing, washed down with a fruity sauvignon blanc, one can reflect on the joys of boating and cooking without doing either.
Luxury 5 becomes a springboard for forays ashore as we set out to discover the culinary delights of Echuca. Quality restaurants are a feature of this town and Oscar W, located high on the wharf, is an appropriate place to start. Its atmosphere is enhanced by recycled timber, sandstock bricks and a bird’seye view of paddle-steamers. The degustation menu is innovative and delicious.
More casual is the 19th-century Star Hotel. A dark, dank underground bar and escape tunnel were recently rediscovered here during renovations. This inhospitable venue hosted illegal drinking when the pub lost its licence more than 100 years ago. Nowadays the Star serves food and wine in a more convivial setting well above ground.
The inhabitants of Echuca have a talent for recycling buildings. The 1881 former flour mill now occupied by Ceres Restaurant defies the usual rustic cliches with massive chandeliers and grand mirrors. Homemade pasta and seafood fresh from Melbourne confirm our disinclination to cook for ourselves on Luxury 5.
Ceres also caters for lunch and dinner cruises on Emmylou, a 1980-built paddle steamer with an old heart: its engine is pushing a century. We are on board at sunset, a mellow event made better by chilled wine, sophisticated food and churning water for atmosphere. Dinner on Emmylou becomes a trip highlight.
Most of the paddle-steamers in Echuca are old. Some are undergoing lavish restoration but most are gently employed on river tours, missing not at all the days when the wharf was four times longer and steam-powered cranes lifted bales of wool on to their groaning decks. Some are lucky to be afloat. Adelaide, launched at Echuca in 1866, towed barges laden with red gum to the Echuca sawmill for 90 years. Then, in 1963, it was hauled to a public park. In 1985 a fully restored Adelaide was recommissioned by Prince Charles, becoming the world’s oldest operating wooden paddle-steamer. Adelaide knew one day her prince would come.
Then there is Pevensey. Built as a barge in 1910 but turned into a paddlesteamer a year later, this wool-carrier was destined for stardom. Renamed Philadelphia for the 1982 TV series All the Rivers Run based on Nancy Cato’s book, Pevensey now shares its knockabout charm with daytrippers.
The Port Precinct in Echuca provides other diversions besides paddlesteamers. Original buildings house gift shops, cafes and wine cellars. Sharps Penny Arcade rolls silent movies featuring long-dead stars while periodcostumed guides haunt the tourist-filled streets. The good old days are Echuca’s stock in trade.
Nostalgic types might feel emotional at the Holden Museum, where every model up to the Commodore is on display. A 1998 photo shows former prime minister John Howard posing beside the historic FX Holden. Now they have both been superseded, but thanks to chrome, the shine has gone off only one of them.
When the olden days wear thin, there is always the river. What a joy to buy decent wines and delicacies from local providores, load them aboard a houseboat moored within walking distance, and cast off. Cruising along, we are shielded from the plight of red gums and box gums on the plains. These are the trees most visibly affected by drought, because periodic flooding is essential to their survival. Hopefully things will ease and there will be a reversal in the river’s fortunes.
Whatever lies around the bend for the mighty Murray will not be altered by staying away. Go where the river runs. Do it soon. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Tourism NSW and Tourism Victoria. www.tourism.nsw.gov.au www.visitvictoria.com www.visitmurray.com.au www.echucamoama.com www.luxuryonthemurray.com.au www.portofechuca.com.au www.emmylou.com.au
Go with the flow: Clockwise from top left, the relatively young Emmylou offers lunch and dinner cruises; Pevensey once starred in the TV series AlltheRiversRun and now takes daytrippers; the wharf at Echuca was built on three levels to cope with fluctuations in the water level