The Murray, Lakes and Coorong Experience

It all started pleasantly enough. There we were, gently cruising down the Murray River in a million-dollar houseboat when someone spotted a cluster of pelicans on the water’s edge.

Our captain, who had never steered a boat before, let alone one bigger than his own home, brought us in close to the bank for a better look.

It was then that we heard a sickening slush as we slid into the mud in the shallows. It soon became obvious that we were stuck fast, and listing at an angle.

Thanks to a call on our onboard emergency phone, our saviour arrived half an hour later. It was Mark Flanagan, who managed the Unforgettable Houseboats fleet out of Mannum in South Australia, with his wife Lee-Anne.

“Don’t worry,” Mark said in his laconic drawl. “We’ll soon get you loose. We just had one boat come in with a front window smashed in. They’d managed to sail it into a tree! That’s what I call soft adventure at its best.”

Using our boat’s two powerful engines and our own weight as moveable ballast, Mark finally freed us, and we were soon in the centre of the wide brown river again. He gave us a wave as he sped away in his tinny, leaving us alone once more in our floating mansion.

Oh, the mighty Murray River. It is to Australia what the Mississippi is to the USA, and it even comes with paddle steamers.

From its source in the Snowy Mountains in NSW, the Murray River flows 2520km to the Southern Ocean in South Australia. Along the way it passes historic towns, orchards, vineyards and farms, and provides a watery habitat for a raft of wildlife.

As it gently flows southwards towards the Murray Mouth, Australia’s longest river spreads out into important wetlands and floodplains edged by open plains, eucalypt forests and farmland.

Wombats and kangaroos sip from its edges, ibis and cormorants cling to overhanging red gum branches, squadrons of ducks and wading birds go about their business, and sea eagles patrol the skies.

Meanwhile, houseboats and paddleboats make their way leisurely up and down the wide brown river, past banks of willows and impressive ochre-coloured sandstone cliffs. Beneath its surface swim Murray cod, bream, perch and redfin.

The river bends and meanders until it pours into Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, the haunts of majestic fleets of pelicans.

Then the Murray seeps into the Coorong, with its spectacular saltwater lagoons sheltered by the ocean by the sweeping, rolling sand dunes of the Younghusband Peninsula. Finally, it empties through the Murray Mouth and into the ocean.

Take to the water

Getting around the area (which is just 90 minutes or so south of Adelaide) is best done by car, but for a fuller experience you should take to the water.

You could start off at Murray Bridge, the largest town on the South Australian stretch of the Murray River, and cruise past towering sandstone cliffs on the Captain Proud.

The boat is powered by paddle wheels on either side and has a lovely period-style dining area and bar. It departs Murray Bridge daily for three-hour lunch cruises, while Saturday evenings in summer see a three-hour dinner cruise too.

For a longer cruise, book a berth aboard the gorgeous Proud Mary for a two-night or five-night river exploration tour leaving Murray Bridge.

These cruises give you the opportunity to really feel the spirit of the Murray.

In the evenings the Proud Mary’s powerful floodlights illuminate the shore, with its owls and night herons in the river gums and willows. During the day, the boat passes huge lagoons teeming with birdlife.

The five-day option gets as far as Swan Reach and ‘Big Bend’, which has the tallest cliffs along the entire length of the Murray River.

Lunch cruises on Proud Mary, from Mannum and nearby Mypolonga, are available too.

You can also cruise from Mannum on the four-storey high MS Murray Princess, the largest inland paddle steamer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Three-night, four-night and seven-night cruises can transport you along the river. You can watch the ever-changing scenery from spacious outdoor areas, while onshore tours give you the chance to stretch your legs, taste local food and wine, and search for wildlife.

If you fancy the idea of being the captain yourself and being able to explore the Murray River at your own pace then opt for a self-drive houseboat.

You don’t need a boat licence, because they are not required on the Murray. You just need to be over 18 and have a car driver’s license.

You can hire a range of houseboats from Riverglen Marina, near Murray Bridge, or from Unforgettable Houseboats, which operates out of Mannum.

Unforgettable Houseboats has a dozen or so impressive luxury houseboats, among them a two-storey-high vessel with six bedrooms, a jacuzzi, five bathrooms, a couple of kayaks and a huge living area with a full kitchen.

After long leisurely days of motoring past herons and cormorants clinging like fruit to the arms of skeletal eucalypts, and shellducks and teals bobbing on the surface, you can manoeuvre your houseboat towards the bank to tie up for the night, and toast the silhouettes of black swans as the sun goes down.

Unwind the mind while exploring the past

Back in Mannum you could relax on the Pretoria Hotel’s lawn and enjoy lunch with more sweeping views of the Murray River, before exploring the Mannum Dock Museum.

There is a fascinating display relating to the area’s river history here, and the museum boasts the only existing floating dock built in Australia. It is also home to the historic PS Marion, a fully-restored steamer built in 1897.

Check the museum’s website for the dates of its short cruises aboard the PS Marion, which occur throughout the year.

Further south, Cruise the Coorong operates three-hour and all-day cruises around the lower Murray River, Lakes and Coorong. Get up close to a seal colony, dig for cockles, go on a bush tucker walk, and pass through some of the river’s many locks.

Navigating the Murray River wouldn’t be possible without the series of locks and weirs dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. Six locks in South Australia are still in use today, along with 11 ferry crossings running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you want to put some elbow grease into your cruising, then Canoe the Coorong might be the answer.

Calm your mind on a one-day tour of the Coorong and Murray Mouth by kayak, or venture into this timeless wilderness on a Sunset Paddle. A four-day expedition tour explores the Coorong’s entire length.

There are beautiful campsites in the Coorong, though you do need a permit.

Increase your spiritual awareness by visiting Camp Coorong, where you can learn about local Aboriginal culture and beliefs through lessons, and walking tours of the Coorong.

Whether from an Aboriginal perspective or a European one, the Murray River, Lakes and Coorong have long played an important role in the history of Australia.

In Mannum visit the historic riverside Hotel Mannum for a sense of 19th Century European settlement. This pub was built in 1869.  In Wellington, on Lake Alexandrina, eat and stay at The Wellington Hotel, licenced in 1848.

Wellington itself is just one of several pleasant country towns in the region. Fronting onto the shallow waters of Lake Alexandrina, its waterside caravan park and flotilla of pelicans make it is a great place for a family holiday. Nearby is lovely Meningie, located on the tranquil waters of Lake Albert.

For more history, head to Old Tailem Town Pioneer Village, just north of Tailem Bend, and inspect around 110 historic buildings that come complete with authentic-era furnishings.

Many of them were transported in one piece from their original locations from all over South Australia, while others were taken apart plank by plank and rebuilt on site. Food for thought.

From fruit to fromage

Talking of food. The waters of the Murray River have long irrigated farmland around its edges and today the fertile soil of the river plains grow everything from almonds and apricots to grapes and olives.

Much of this produce finds its way to local stores and restaurants, as well as being sent across Australia and beyond. Try some local apricots dipped in chocolate at Aussie Apricots in Mypolonga, or some fruity olive oil and thick olive paste tapenade at The Big Olive, at Tailem Bend.

Wine lovers should drop into the cellar door at Willow Point Wines, near Murray Bridge, or call ahead and pick up some cockles or smoked local carp from Coorong Wild Seafood in Meningie.

Local food is available in many of the region’s pubs and restaurants too, from Coorong mullet in the Hotel Mannum to the famed Coorong Angus beef cooked up at the Meningie Cheese Factory Restaurant, in Meningie.

If you happen to find yourself in Murray Bridge on a Saturday morning don’t miss the farmer’s market, for fresh local produce and a country breakfast.

Whether you want to relax on a leisurely houseboat holiday, experience Indigenous and culture and history, see wildlife up close, visit historic towns, eat delicious local food, or just simply relax, the River Murray, Lakes and Coorong is the place to be.

Marc Llewellyn - Published March 2016
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