Goolwa, South Australia: Wildlife and bird-watching along Australia's Murray River

The Murray doesn't look quite so mighty as it wheezes and hobbles its way to the end of its long, eternally hampered journey. The final obstacle is the Goolwa Barrage, one of five barriers designed to separate the river and lakes that provide much of South Australia's precious drinking water from the onrushing Southern Ocean.

Only one gate of the Barrage's 128 is open, and what's coming through is barely more than a trickle from a leaky tap. But the seals gleefully flopping about on the other side don't seem to mind – enough fish are being washed through for them to guzzle on.

This is all seen from the lock in the Barrage, which the Spirit of the Coorong cruise boat passes patiently through on its way to one of the most languidly magical parts of Australia. The Coorong is a narrow lagoon stretching 140 kilometres, flanked by sand dune peninsulas and islands. The Mouth of the Murray, a bewilderingly tiny gap currently kept alive by dredging machines, is where the freshwater theoretically leaves and the waves shunt in plenty of seawater.

For some aboard the Spirit of the Coorong, the Mouth of the Murray is what they've come to see – the end-point of Australia's lifeblood river system. But for most others, it's the birds.

Obsessive twitchers will be here to catch a glimpse of the red-necked avocet, which you'd be extraordinarily lucky to find anywhere else. But the rare prize has got plenty of company. The migratory wading birds – most numerously, the sandpipers - have just arrived after their epic journey from Siberia.

They hang out on the sand flats, pecking away at goodies just beneath the surface. These are the good times for them – a chance to dodge the fierce northern winter and get plump.

It's the locals, however, who provide the greatest entertainment. The much-beloved pelicans are the emblems of the Coorong and about 20 of them are spotted along a sand bank near the Mouth of the Murray, half-marching, half-waddling, seeming quite proud of themselves. .

Elsewhere, their compadres are clumsily flapping away with gusto as they take off. But that oafish departure turns to streamlined, dive bomber-esque gliding once they're in flight.

Skipper Bain Pedler pulls his craft over at Barkers Knoll on the Younghusband Peninsula. It's a gorgeous spot that's absolutely nightmarish to reach by 4WD. But that doesn't stop the boats coming. "It can be angle parking here in the summer," he says.

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It's one of the best spots to go for a walk, too – a 1.5 kilometres return track through the dunes leads to the crashing waves of the Southern Ocean. On the way, there's a crater-like midden of shells. It was a cooking site for the local Narrandjeri people, who would use one big fire as the most efficient way of managing scant firewood.

Trees may be in short supply on the dunes, but other useful plants aren't. The crew pluck bush spinach – salty and rather moreish to taste – and native lavender, a highly effective mosquito repellent – en route to the wild, horizon-spanning beach.

The cruise does a good job on the educational front. There are stories about the cockle-picking industry, grandfathered-in beach huts and, in one instance, a possibly tall tale about a hovercraft ruined by spooked, stampeding cows. But while the cruise picks up the Coorong's melody, tackling the lagoon system by kayak captures the rhythm.

Canoe the Coorong started as a university project for Brenton Carle, whose unashamed love for taking people out on the water shines through. What starts as a leisurely paddle from Hindmarsh Island slowly morphs into something more than just getting around. Entranced by the sandpipers on the flats, the strutting pelicans or gulls diving down for fish, everything slows to a gentle glide. Any sense of urgency disappears. The Coorong is a place for drifting.

Landing points on the Younghusband Peninsula can be picked more on a whim, with beauty taking precedence over adequate mooring. As kayaks are lugged up the beach to stop them floating away, it becomes clear visitors were here earlier in the morning. The tracks in the sand belong to the emus that like to think they're boss in these parts.

Once over the dunes and on to the beach, there's a crash course in cockling. As the waves roll in, Carle leads his eager amateurs in a shuffling dance on the wet sand. Shift your feet side-to-side, and there's a good chance of feeling something with them. Keep hold with your toes as the water washes the sand away, and the cockle is there to pick up.

Slowness is deliberately built into the trip. There's time to just walk along the beach, lost in thought. Lunch is the mulloway fish Brenton catches with a rod and line from his kayak, flavoured with the bush spinach and samphire plucked from the dunes. The sun overhead, and the breeze blowing down the lagoon, complete the idyll.

That breeze isn't quite so appreciated when it comes to the journey back. The morning's peaceful glide is replaced with some muscular paddle work into the headwind and choppy water. But something strange has happened. Where earlier this would have been met with groans and grumbling, is now embraced with relish. Every stroke digging into the water feels like an extra root put into this most entrancing of environments. The Coorong's pulse has quickened a little, and the rhythm has become more complicated, but the bobbing kayak nose is unmistakably keeping time.

FIVE MORE HIGHLIGHTS IN THE AREA

THE COCKLE TRAIN

Goolwa was home to Australia's first iron railway, and old-fashioned steam train trips can still be taken to nearby Victor Harbor. There are several departures per week. See steamrangerheritagerailway.org

MONARTO SAFARI PARK

The closest you're going to get to an African-style safari in Australia, this 1500-hectare open-plain zoo offers rides to see cheetahs, zebras, lions and more. See monartosafari.com.au

RIVER CRUISING

Spirit Australia Cruises offers multi-day cruises up the Murray from Goolwa. The seven day, six night cruise to Mildura just over the Victorian border takes in locks, historical talks and wineries. It costs $3,120, including overnight accommodation en route. See spiritaustraliacruises.com.au

BIG BEND BY NIGHT

Big Bend, a farm turned tourism business near Swan Reach, offers a range of tours and experiences – from shearing shows to three-course dinners on the banks of the Murray, surrounded by native wildlife. See bigbend.com.au

OLD TAILEM TOWN

This pioneer village has transported and reconstructed dozens of buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century – the glory years of the Murray's riverboat trade. It's just outside Tailem Bend. See oldtailemtown.com.au

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/south-australia

southaustralia.com

FLY

Virgin Australia and Qantas both fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Adelaide. Goolwa is about 90 minutes' drive away. See virginaustralia.com and qantas.com.au

STAY

Beach Huts Middleton offers gorgeously colourful, spacious beach hut accommodation – all named in honour of one of Australia's iconic beaches. Prices start at $177 per night. See beachhuts.com.au

TOUR

The 3.5 hour afternoon Discovery cruise on the Spirit of the Coorong costs $99, including lunch. See spiritofthecoorong.com.au

Canoe the Coorong's six-hour kayaking tour, including morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, costs $135. A car is pretty much essential to get to the start point on Hindmarsh Island. See canoethecoorong.com

David Whitley was a guest of Tourism Australia and the South Australian Tourism Commission.

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