Leonie Coombes savours a so­journ on the Murray in pad­dle-steamer heaven

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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

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