It's midnight on the Murray on a houseboat named Desire and I'm wide awake. A full moon has turned the world beyond the wall of glass beside my bed silver, flooding the landscape with so much light that I can see the flash of fish as they break the mirror-like surface of the water, the ripples they create catching moonbeams and sending them skittering across the ceiling in a mesmerising show of dancing light. I could, of course, just close the curtains, but where would be the fun in that?
As far as waterfront rooms go they don't get much better than those on the Desire, where there's nothing but pelicans and cormorants between you and the view when morning breaks. It's a new panorama every day, but this is not a cruising holiday, it's a walking one.
The Murray River Walk is a new four-day guided walk that combines hiking and houseboating along a 40 kilometre stretch of the Murray River between Renmark in South Australia and the Victorian border. While we're wandering along river banks, across flood plains and through forests of redgums, the Desire motors upriver to meet us with chilled wine and canapés at the end of each day. It's a luxurious way to walk the walk, with hot showers, a top-deck spa and wrap-round water views at every turn, including the five double bedrooms and two bathrooms, spacious lounge and dining area.
The food is a highlight, a showcase of local produce and native ingredients – Murray River callop, kangaroo, yabbies, Riverland beef and lamb, quandong desserts and salads of samphire and native greens foraged during the day as well as platters of emu pate, olives, cheeses, chutneys, nuts and sundried fruits. Evening meals are presented degustation-style, with matched Riverland wines including varieties that you don't often find on Bottle-O shelves such as the Petit Manseng that partners lemon myrtle-crusted Murray Cod or the Graciano that goes with a yabby bisque, a Nero d'Avola served with Bunyip Reach beef ragout and an Italian Lagrein that works wonderfully well with kangaroo osso bucco.
Walking is easy, more of a stroll than a trek along mostly level ground, covering between 10 and 15 kilometres each day. We stop frequently as our guides, Tony and Cass, show us the scars on trees where canoes, shields, woomeras and coolamons were cut from the bark by the Erawirung people, point out middens and cutting tools scattered in the undergrowth and the charcoal remains of ancient cooking hearths.
We listen to stories of the paddle steamer days, when hundreds of boats and barges plied the river, ferrying wool and supplies to the stations and ports along the waterway as we gaze at rusting relics and half submerged wrecks. And we learn how irrigation and water management has changed the landscape along one of our most highly regulated rivers with its system of dams, locks and weirs.
Our section of the river is higher than normal, thanks to a weir raising at Lock 5, which has allowed water to seep back into the wetlands, watering parched trees and, in places, inundating our track. We wade knee-deep across a two-metre wide stream in one spot, in another, Tony has left a canoe and a pair of rubber waders, which he dons as he ferries us, two by two, across the shallow stretch of water. Later the same day we cross a creek on an 80-year-old sheep crossing, a rickety rusty suspension bridge that looks like it's been built out of old beds. The environmental flows have produced a wildflower boom, and the ground is carpeted in pink pigface, purple Darling peas, yellow buttons and groundsels and white showy daisies.
Our route meanders across two historic properties, Calperum and Bunyip Reach stations; the Murray River Walk has exclusive access and we don't see another walker the entire time. We do see plenty of kangaroos, skinks and even a tiger snake, coiled in grass beside the track, as well as a shy echidna busily burying itself beneath a bush.
Pelicans are constant companions, as are elegant egrets and slightly goofy spoonbills perched in treetops, cormorants and darters drying their wings on half-drowned branches and whistling kites riding the thermals. Ducks patrol the shallows and emus flounce across the floodplains, feathered skirts fluttering.
We spend almost as much time on the river as we do on land, exploring anabranches and backwaters in an aluminium cruiser, negotiating locks and stickybeaking at historic customs houses and old shearing sheds, including a bbq lunch and beer stop at Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery on the last day. As far as walking holidays go, it's pretty cruisy.
Lee Atkinson travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission and Murray River Walk.
The Murray River Walk is a four-day easy walk that begins and ends in Renmark, which is about a three-hour drive east of Adelaide. Walking season is May through to the end of September. Day packs and walking poles are supplied. From $2300 a person, including all food, beverages and houseboat accommodation. See murrayriverwalk.com.au