Murray River travel guide: An epic journey from Wentworth to Albury Wodonga

On my first morning on the Murray I awake to see, as I peek from the window of my houseboat, that God has chosen to smear her lipstick across the sky above me..

Dawn, after all, has manifested itself as a long smudge of pink, more or less the colour of galah plumage, tucked behind a perfectly silhouetted outline of river red gums spread beside a cappuccino-coloured waterway.

As the sun prepares to hoist itself aloft, hundreds, maybe thousands, of cacophonous cockatoos, nature's high decibel alarm clocks in these parts, are squawking louder than a mob of insurrectionists.

Then, as I turn away from the spectacle outside, there's a voluble plop followed by a splash on the surface of the river, only a few metres from the houseboat.

It's a pelican that's landed on the river and is now obliviously gliding by atop the water with all of the grace of a black swan, albeit with that preposterously long beak.

All of this natural aquatic pageantry reveals itself with my houseboat not even moving along the river but tethered by rope to a grassy bank of it.

It's a magnificent beginning to a meander along the Murray between Mildura and Albury Wodonga, a distance of more than 700 kilometres by road and a journey which, I can pleasingly report, I intend to stretch out for more than a week.

It'll be an opportunity to try and experience and enjoy the world's 16th longest river and one of only a few without any major cities along its route, separate from the controversies over the resource-management of its precious, life-giving water that have rendered it with an image of a river under siege.

However, this trip is a mere snapshot of a river that extends more than 2500 kilometres, passing through three states, ignoring modern-day, pandemic-induced border closures and community lockdowns.

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The river's source is far from here; deep in the Snowy Mountains at Forest Hill, Victoria, at an altitude of 1430 metres. A cairn, if you can locate it, marks the spot.

From there the river continues to the so-called Murray Mouth in South Australia where it empties into the Southern Ocean.

I'll be travelling through NSW and Victoria, moving up-river and dipping in and out of each state as I chart the course of the river in a quest to see how mighty the so-called mighty Murray really is up close.

DAYS ONE AND TWO, WENTWORTH TO SWAN HILL (250km)

Pelicans in the Murray River near Junction Island, Wentworth.  
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Photo: supplied

Junction Island, Wentworth. Photo: Visit Victoria

The sleepy river town of Wentworth - well it is on this Sunday of my visit - is a half-hour or so over the border from Mildura.

I've just spent a warm night in a houseboat at Wentworth, which is the point at which the Murray and Darling rivers meet.

From Junction Island, not far from the mooring, it's possible, after a walk through bushland, passing between native reeds, known to traditional owners as cumbungi, to view the confluence of the nation's two most important rivers.

There, I pause to imagine the 19th century heydays when a plethora of paddlesteamers plied the waterways in pursuit of trade.

Nowadays a thunderous speed boat towing water skiers is a more likely sight.

But there's not much time to linger on Junction Island as I have a journey, and a lot of river, and road, ahead.

On the three hour drive to Swan Hill I pass through patchwork countryside dominated by extensive orchards, thanks to irrigation drawn from the Murray.

The passing landscape is quite the study in contrasts: lush as an English county cricket field on one side of the road, it's as dry, as well, an Australian outback footy oval on the other where the irrigation channels and pipes haven't been directed.

By the time I reach Swan Hill, I discover that I'm alongside, not the Murray River exactly, but the Little Murray River. It's an anabranch, or a stream that leaves the river and re-enters further along the course of big brother Murray.

Home tonight is a neat, snug and well-equipped cabin at the Big4 Riverside Holiday Park. It's splendidly set right beside the river, little as it may be, and replete with its own verandah.

It's a short walk from here to the Pioneer Settlement's Heartbeat of the Murray show, a charming and engaging Sovereign Hill-like recreation of the old river in its rollicking paddlesteamer era days.

It's a long way from here to Hong Kong, but this is one place in Australia where you can witness the staggering digital artistry of Laser Vision, the Australian company responsible for Hong Kong's nightly Symphony of Lights which utilises the city's skyscrapers as its canvas.

Swan Hills' Heartbeat of the Murray, which has to rank as one of the country's best kept tourism secrets, is a 360-degree multi-media spectacle, with choreographed laser images telling the story of the Swan Hill region from Indigenous days to European times. The images are directed on to a wall of powerfully-pumped shafts of water from the river itself that create a cinema-like screen.

See: murraydarling-houseboats.com; big4.com.au; pioneersettlement.com.au; visitnsw.com

DAYS THREE TO FIVE, SWAN HILL TO PERRICOOTA STATION (160km)

FAB66H The P.S. Emmylou is a Murray River paddlesteamer, driven by a completely restored 1906 steam engine. Echuca Victoria Australia 
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Photos: Alamy

The PS Emmylou. Photo: Alamy

Today I have a rendezvous with the PS Emmylou (with the PS, you guessed it, standing for "paddle steamer") which I'll board at the wharf beside Perricoota Station

The Australian TV mini-series, All The Rivers Runs, based on the eponymous classic novel by Nancy Cato, was shot, in part, here.

Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the series in 2023, the new owners of Perricoota Station, with its three kilometres of river frontage, have poured a fortune into faithfully and tastefully restoring the station, including the old worker's quarters near the wharf.

One of those buildings is the reborn below-ground meat-locker where you can now sleep in complete comfort at a level where the meat itself was kept cool. Sirloin never had it as good as this.

But my main purpose for being here is the PS Emmylou, billed as the world's only cruising wood-fired paddle steamer, now transformed into a floating boutique-style hotel.

I'm one of not more than a few dozen or so other passengers aboard who, with such relatively tight spaces aboard the vessel, can't help but get to know each other. The excellent and generous portioned cuisine, cooked by a jovial lone onboard chef, adds to the riverbourne conviviality.

Away from the communal central saloon, where drinks are poured and meals are cooked and served, I notice an unusual flag attached to the bow, a little Huck Finn-like, flying from a spindly tree trunk (or is it a long branch?).

It turns out that it's the official Murray River flag, traditionally flown by paddle steamers and other vessels on the river system.

Until this voyage aboard the PS Emmylou it never quite occurred to me how naturally stunning the Murray could be. Huddled gums unfurl on either side of the river as the paddle steamer chugs by, like a giant, carefully unrolled Arthur Streeton canvas.

Later, to complete the panorama, a red-bellied black snake-cum-champion swimmer crosses the river from one bank to the other. On its watery, rather heroic cross-Murray passage, I wince at the thought of a speedboat appearing from nowhere.

My all-too-brief one night interlude on the PS Emmylou (I've gatecrashed a six-night cruise), is punctuated by excursions including to one of the narrowest, sections of the Murray River, a naturally-occurring feature known as the Barmah Choke.

It runs through the tranquil, speedboat-free Barmah–Millewa Forest, near the Victorian town, and restricts the flow of water along the river. It's here that I board another vessel, the MS Kingfisher, for a tour of the World Heritage-listed wetland.

Strangled as the river may be, it's a haven for wildlife, particularly all manner of birds. Even the skipper of the vessel is surprised to spot a sleeping koala high in a tall gum above the river as two still fluffy black swan cygnets duck, as it were, in and out of tangled reeds by the bank, perturbed by the slow moving, low-slung boat.

More: psemmyloucruises.com; perricoota station.com.au; kingfishercruises.com.au; visitnsw.com.au

DAYS FIVE TO SIX, PERRICOOTA STATION TO ECHUCA/MOAMA (25km)

Paddle steamers docked on the Murray River in Echuca-Moama. 
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Photos: supplied

Paddle steamers docked on the Murray River in Echuca-Moama. Photo: DEE KRAMER

Back on the bitumen and off the water, for now, as I trace my journey beside the Murray, I've been overcome with a frisson of daring, weaving in and out of border-closure and lockdown-prone NSW and Victoria, as the route dictates. I'll never not appreciate a state line again.

There's an ever-moving map on the GPS screen beside the steering wheel of my Mitsubishi Outlander and even when I can't physically sight the river from the vehicle, the Murray has become my constant companion on this solo trip, as its (utterly misleadingly) blue representation on the display appears and disappears teasingly before me.

Although I've been criss-crossing by road in and out of NSW and Victoria, wherever I pass over a bridge above the Murray below I know I'm in NSW due to the pragmatism by colonial geographers.

As author Ian Hoskins explains in his recent book, Rivers: The Lifeblood of Australia, the 1855 New South Wales Constitution Act placed the colonial era border on the southern bank of the Murray. It meant that the river itself was in NSW with Victoria beginning on the opposite shoreline.

As it turns out, the best view of the definitive river port of Echuca, Victoria, is not from Echuca itself but from the scrubby parklands belonging to the more prosaic Moama, itself on the opposite NSW side.

From here beside the river, where you'll also find Moama Beach, the full extent of Echuca's magnificent timber paddle steamer wharf, presents itself in all of its robust romantic All The River Run time-frozen glory.

Elsewhere, hidden in native scrub by a bank on another stretch of the Murray in Moama, is Talo Retreat, which really is something different. Part of the Moama on the Murray Resort, it consists of spacious luxury glamping-style yurts in an idyllic natural riverside bush setting.

Before retiring for the night in my tent, sorry yurt (that's about four times bigger than my cabin on the PS Emmylou), I spot something on the bedside table next to me.

It's a pair of ear-plugs offered to guests who may wish to sleep in to help counter the type of yellow-crested dawn chorus that I encountered beside the river in Wentworth.

But I leave them in their sterilised packet. To me the raucous sound of those larrikin cockatoos at daybreak has become the soundtrack of the Murray, as soothing and reassuring as the blast of a whistle on a paddle steamer as it negotiates each tight bend in the river.

More: taloretreat.com.au; moamaonthemurray.com.au; visitnsw.com.au

DAY SIX, ECHUCA-MOAMA TO MULWALA-YARRAWONGA (137km)

R3JG40 Sunrise Lake Mulwala NSW Australia 
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Lake Mulwala, NSW

Photo: Alamy

Lake Mulwala. Photo: Alamy

After I leave Moama, my highway draws me away from the river again, this time to the surprisingly expansive Lake Mulwala, with bustling Yarrawonga, Victoria, on one side of it and not-so-bustling Mulwala, NSW on the other.

This is, in fact, an important part of the Murray. The lake, man-made and constructed to deliver irrigation for agriculture in the surrounding farmlands, is studded with the remnants of haunting, lifeless river red gums drowned by the release of water across the plains when the weir that formed the lake was finally completed in 1989.

The water from the Murray is directed here via two major channels, the Yarrawonga Main Channel and the Mulwala Canal, the largest irrigation channel in the Southern Hemisphere.

Tonight my accommodation is at another holiday park, DC by the Lake, with my spacious comfortable cabin a short distance across the lawns to the waters' edge.

Lake Mulwala, along with being an important benefit for agriculture, is not surprisingly a popular playground for locals on either side of its surrounding banks, including fishers in search of the elusive murray cod.

More: dconthelake.com.au; visitnsw.com

Murray River map for Anthony Dennis Traveller feature updated version

DAYS SEVEN AND EIGHT, MULWALA TO ALBURY WODONGA (97km)

(Photo Mark Anderson)
CIRCA 1928 a hotel in the former Commonwealth Bank building in Dean Street, Albury. - in the The Dean Suite .

A suite at the CIRCA 1928 hotel. Photo: Mark Anderson

From Mulwala, I make a sweep across the Riverina Highway, passing through border towns such as the characterful Corowa, NSW, known as the birthplace of Federation and originally inhabited by the Bangerang people. Here I'm properly reunited with the Murray..

In the farming country outside of town stood the now long-gone shearing shed at Brocklesby Station on which the artist Tom Roberts based his classic 1890 Australian painting, Shearing the Rams.

After a week on the road, and the river, I've finally made it to my ultimate destination, Albury Wodonga, coinciding with border barriers being erected again after the emergence of another cluster in Sydney (happily, at least at the time of writing, the blockades are down again, meaning this journey can now be fully replicated).

Albury Wodonga's a place I've passed through but never really stopped in long enough to get to know. It ends up being, if not quite a revelation then at least one extremely pleasant surprise, beginning with my accommodation here, by far the most luxurious of the trip.

My final two nights, after all, are swathed in comfort at CIRCA 1928, Albury's unlikely luxury boutique hotel.

It's built inside an erstwhile Dean Street Art Deco bank, with its quartet of tall and striking ionic-like columns. It opened a year and a half ago and in 2021, every large Australian town needs a CIRCA 1928.

A perfect companion to this hotel, with its bold, art-themed rooms and public spaces, is MAMA (Murray Art Museum Albury).

MAMA is set on the same street as CIRCA 1928 and it's surely one of the best located and for that matter, best regional art galleries in the land. Its mission statement says it all:  "We are small enough to take risks, and large enough to bring you some of the best art from across Australia and internationally." 

I end my journey along Australia's longest river back beside ol' man Murray itself, at an al fresco table at Albury Wodonga's best located, and most-loved cafe, the Riverdeck. It's set amid the gloriously shaded lawns of Noreuil Park, one of Albury Wodonga's many hidden secrets.

From here you can wander back into town, mostly along the river, through the park and then across to the city's small but splendid botanic gardens - another unexpected gem - at the top of Dean Street, Albury's lengthy main thoroughfare lined with historic buildings.

After a week on the road and, at times, the water, it's been quite the journey but, even so, there is, in reality, a few thousand or so kilometres, as the cocky flies, of the river to still one day savour. Mighty Murray. Mighty good.

More: riverdeckcafe.com.au; circahotels.com.au; mamalbury.com.auvisitnsw.com.au; visitalburywodonga.com

Traveller editor Anthony Dennis toured the Murray River between Mildura and Albury Wodonga as a guest of Destination NSW. There are regular direct flights between Sydney and Mildura, Melbourne and Mildura, Sydney and Albury Wodonga and Melbourne and Albury Wodonga See qantas.com

TEN MORE THINGS TO DO AND SEE ALONG THE MURRAY

TAKE THE INDIGENOUS SCULPTURE WALK, ALBURY WODONGA

Here's one sure way to connect with a serene stretch of the river and Indigenous art in the form of a fixed sculpture walk. The Wagirra Trail and Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk follows the riverbank for 15 kilometres but you can tackle as much as the flat trail as you desire. See visitalburywodonga.com; visitnsw.com

CATCH A MURRAY COD ON LAKE MULWALA

Jack Hocking, an enterprising young Yarrawonga lad with a family fishing pedigree, runs Lake Mulwala Sports Fishing. He's available for expert guided fishing trips on the lake, even for novices, and can collect you from the jetty at DC on the Lake (see above). See lakemulwalasportfishing.com.au

SAMPLE THE DROPS AT THE MURRAY-SIDE TRENTHAM ESTATE

It's hard to imagine a better located or more attractive winery and cellar door than this one plonked right beside the Murray, an easy 20 minutes from Mildura. Sample the label's drops and tuck into a grazing plate at an outdoor table in the riverside garden or opt for a meal in the restaurant. See trenthamestate.com.au

MEET THE BORDER TOWN LOCALS AT MOAMA'S THREE BLACK SHEEP CAFE

Echuca across the river has no shortage of cafes but its sister border town, Moama, is more relaxed and genuine. And this modern cafe, run by an expat Swede, on Perricoota Road on the edge of town, a fine way to mix it up with the locals rather than just other tourists. No website.

HIT THE ROAD WITH MURRAY OFFROAD ADVENTURES, MILDURA

A cluey Mildura-based husband and wife team operate this award-winning company which offers tours of their fascinating region including the Perry Sandhills, near Wentworth, as well as national parks and wineries. See murrayoffroadadventures.com.au

TUCK INTO LUNCH THE TEN MILE RESTAURANT AND STORE, HOLBROOK

This country destination eatery, set inside a former century-old mechanic shop, is the perfect excuse for an easy side-trip from Albury Wodonga. Follow a fine feed in the restaurant with a peruse of the in-house shop showcasing local produce and nifty homewares. See thetenmile.com.au

NIP INTO COROWA WHISKY & CHOCOLATE

Whisky. (Photo Mark Anderson)
Corowa Distilling Co head distiller Beau Schilg. Photo by Mark Anderson

Photo: Mark Anderson

Set inside a sensitively-restored flour mill from the 1920s, a nip under 45 minutes northwest of Albury, artisan whisky vies for attention with handmade chocolate. Mull over which one wins the day at the beaut cafe serving breakfast and lunch. See corowawhisky.com.au

EXPLORE THE HISTORIC OLD WENTWORTH GAOL

Its former inmates wouldn't agree but NSW is blessed with well-preserved 19th century prisons including this museum. Built to handle local paddle steamer-era miscreants, the jail was designed by colonial architect James Barnett. See visitwentworth.com.au

SLIP INTO STEFANO'S RESTAURANT CAFE AND PRESERVES, MILDURA

When we think of the celebrated veteran regional chef Stefano de Pieri we tend to think of his lauded Italian restaurant. But his excellent Italian-style cafe could be as good a fit in Carlton and Leichhardt as it right in the heart of Mildura. See stefano.com.au

DIVE INTO THE HOLBROOK SUBMARINE MUSEUM

The sea's hours away but that didn't deter a submarine being planted by locals in this town's main park along with a related museum. It's all explained by the fact that during World War One, Holbrook changed its name from the then "Germanton" to "Holbrook" , the surname of an heroic British submarine commander. See holbrooksubmarine.com.au

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