Life is but a stream

Sue Williams takes a drive along the mighty Murray on its stately journey to the sea.

Standing on the grassy banks of the Murray-Darling river system, looking across the huge expanse of silver water and the ghostly trees jutting up through the surface, a drive following its route somehow seems an Australian rite of passage.

After all, as the third-longest navigable river in the world - only the Nile and Amazon beat it - and with farms along its length producing a third of the nation's food, it's one of our most important resources.

Renmark, in South Australia's Riverland, where the mighty Murray sweeps across from NSW and Victoria, is the perfect place to start.

Here, at the oldest settlement on the Murray, 250 kilometres north-east of Adelaide, the river is stunning, meandering past steep, burnished red cliffs, towering river red gums and breathtaking limestone gorges, and through picturesque vineyards, lush orchards and shady citrus groves.

There's so much animal life here and the scenery is so relaxing.

First stop is Ruston's Roses, Australia's largest rose garden - and one of the largest in the world - and home to the 4000-variety National Rose Collection. Stroll past thousands of multicoloured rose bushes that light up the land and scent the air for kilometres around. There's a cafe for lunch and morning and afternoon teas.

Nearby, close to the township of McLaren Vale, the 125-year-old winery Angove, one of only a small band of large Australian wine companies that remain family-owned and operated, is part of a region that grows 25 per cent of the country's grape crop.

"The warm, dry region is very good for grapes because there's so little disease, and it's very good for organics," says Victoria Angove, the fifth generation of the winemaking family, standing on the edge of a quiet billabong that laps one of the picturesque vineyards.

Taste their wines - don't miss the multi-award-winning grenache shiraz rosé - at the cellar door to discover why they're Australia's ninth-biggest wine exporter.

Further on, where golden limestone cliffs begin to hug the sides of the Murray, streams spread out to create magnificent native wetlands. At Kingston-on-Murray, Banrock Station's wine centre is set on the edge of the carefully restored, internationally listed wetlands, floodplain and protected mallee ecosystem.

Visitors taste the wines, have a lunch showcasing local produce and can then take a hike along the extensive boardwalk erected across the spectacular floodplain or a variety of trails through the wetlands to the deafening serenade of birdsong and frog song.

Part-proceeds from every bottle and cask of Banrock Station wine sold in Australia are donated to Landcare projects around the country, and the 1700-hectare site, a former grazing property, has had a small section planted with vines, but the rest gradually returned to its natural state.

At Mannum, set on the broad reaches of the Lower Murray in the Murraylands, Lee-Anne Flanagan operates the Unforgettable Houseboats company.

It's a perfect point to take a cruise along the river, which is a wide stretch of blue against the cliffs that change from cream to burnished ochre, according to the light. "It's just stunning, a great stretch of water, which is at one of its widest and deepest points here," she says, watching it meander by as she shields her eyes against the sun.

"There's so much birdlife and animal life here, and the scenery is so relaxing,"

The end of this line for the Murray River is at the town of Goolwa, 80 kilometres south of Adelaide where the river finally meets the sea. Here, the perfect base for exploring the river is the deluxe boutique hotel The Australasian, originally an 1858 boarding house for single men who worked on the river.

Only when she started the painstaking six-year renovation did co-owner Juliet Michell, who moved there from Adelaide, discover her great-grandfather worked with the River Murray Commission there.

"The river makes Goolwa a very important place and we wanted to create a destination in itself for people to come and appreciate the river," Michell says.

Overlooking the river and the wharf, the hotel is decorated with gorgeous Japanese antiques and fabrics alongside contemporary Australian styles, and has a restaurant serving Asian-infused modern Australian dishes.

But the main focus is always the river itself, flowing along quietly outside as it meets the yawning entrance of the sea.

"We love people discovering how beautiful the river is here," Michell says.

"It's the lifeblood of our country."

See + do

Ruston's Roses, Moorna Street, Renmark. Open seven days. (08) 8586 6191,
Angove Family Winemakers — cellar door, 117 Chalk Hill Road, McLaren Vale. Open daily, 10am-5pm, (08) 8323 6900
Banrock Station — Wine & Wetland Centre, Holmes Road, Kingston-on-Murray. (08) 8583 0299,

Trip notes

Getting there

Fly to Adelaide and pick up a rental car for the three-hour drive to Renmark.

Staying there

Renmark — Wilkadene Homestead and Cottage, Wilkinson Road, Murtho via Renmark. 1800 422 683,
Kingston-on-Murray — Riverfront Retreat, Kingston-on-Murray. (08) 8588 1212,
Mannum — Mannum Motel, corner Cliff and Randell streets, Mannum. (08) 8569 1808,
Goolwa — The Australasian, 1 Porter Street, Goolwa. (08) 8555 1088,
Unforgettable Houseboats — 69 River Lane, Mannum. 1300 761 721, There's a range of different houseboats available and itineraries can be individually drawn up for customers.