Bruce Elder takes a trip along the mighty Murray.
In the late afternoon, sitting on the veranda of The Manor downstream from Blanchetown, I watch the sun turn the Murray River's sandstone cliffs golden.
The balmy coolness of the night air, the pelicans gliding silently just centimetres above the water as they make their way upriver and the sounds of the corellas squawking at each other in their eyries high in the eroded cracks in the sandstone combine to produce a sense of rustic peace and tranquillity.
A leisurely journey mooching down the Murray is a rare opportunity to relax, explore and experience the enduring power and beauty of Australia's longest river and to appreciate that, even when drought has made times impossibly tough, the river still has a graceful magic that recalls T.S. Eliot's famous observation: "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/is a strong brown god."
There is no question the Murray River, known simply as "the mighty Murray", is suffering. Fed by waters from the Snowy Mountains, the Murrumbidgee and the Darling, it has been in drought for at least the past seven years.
Yet, as you sit on the deck of the Murray Princess paddle steamer, walk along the sandy shoreline at Blanchetown, explore the beautiful river banks with their ancient red gums, or cruise through the final barrage at Goolwa heading towards the river's mouth, you would hardly know this. There is water in the river, the floodplains - particularly around Renmark and Berri - yield rich harvests and tourism still drives historic port towns such as Goolwa, Mannum and Murray Bridge.
To the casual observer the Murray looks unchanged. But the alert and sharp-eyed will see the effects of an extended drought. Look closely at the hundreds of jetties where people launch their tinnies and you'll notice the boardwalks are two metres above river level. Does every river dweller own a 30-metre cruiser? Or has the river fallen so far that anglers now have to scramble down the banks to clamber aboard their tinnies?
Crossing the border from Mildura and NSW, the first major Murray River town in South Australia is Renmark. Located 568 kilometres from the river's mouth and with the water kept artificially high by the weir at Lock 5, it is a reminder of the agricultural richness of the floodplain soils. On a gracious, verdant arc of the Murray and surrounded by vast, flat tracts of land rich with grapes, apricots, plums, limes and olives, it is an elegant town characterised by wide streets. It is famous for its roses - Ruston's Roses, a spectacular display from September to July, is the largest rose garden in Australia.
The town's other main attractions include Olivewood, a National Trust-listed historic home; a fascinating five-kilometre riverside walk; and the opportunity to travel on, or inspect, the historic PS Industry.
Olivewood was the home of George and William Chaffey who created the first, and short-lived, Murray River irrigation scheme, which led the assistant director of Kew Gardens in London to declare: "From these sunny lands where our sons and daughters have made their homes, we shall draw our future supply of fruit." He was right about the fruit but it was only later that the irrigation system began to work efficiently.
The town's early history can be gleaned from the riverfront interpretive walk that, through historic photographs and informative text, explains the evolution of the local economy and the importance of the Murray as both a mode of transportation and source of irrigation.
Behind the Renmark Paringa Visitor Information Centre is the paddle steamer PS Industry, built in 1911, which is open for inspection seven days a week and does river cruises on the first Sunday of the month.
For information, phone 1300 661 704 or see renmarkparinga.sa.gov.au.
Overland Corner Hotel
On the edge of the Murray River floodplain, this historic hotel was built in 1859 on a site - Overland Corner - that had by that time become a popular resting place for drovers moving sheep across to South Australia from NSW. It was commissioned by John Chambers, a successful pastoralist, and built by William, Henry and George Brand. The flooring in the bar is made of red gum that has been cut into tiles.
Not surprisingly, the hotel has been the site of several adventures and mishaps. It is said the bushranger Captain Moonlight rode his horse into the bar. In the early 20th century it was the local mail reception point and, in the 1920s, German settlers used it for dances.
Today it has excellent pub meals that can be eaten on outside tables made from huge slabs of slate. The ambience in the beer garden and front bar is timeless and every aspect of the pub is a reminder of the river's colourful history. The pub was flooded in the 1950s (there are markers on the walls recording the height of the water) and there is a large levee bank protecting the building from the Murray's periodic flood. Old Coach Road, Overland Corner, (08) 8588 7021, open daily from 11am.
PS Murray Princess
There is still no substitute for cruising on the Murray. It is the perfect way to experience the river. Heading out from Mannum, known as the "houseboat capital of Australia", the PS Murray Princess correctly boasts that it is the "largest and most luxuriously appointed paddle wheeler, purpose-built for just 120 passengers. The graceful paddlewheel, mahogany furnishings and spiral staircases reflect the elegance of a grand era of paddle steamer cruising."
The cabins are large and comfortable, the pace is leisurely and there are many activities ashore. It is equally possible to sit in the lounge and watch the paddles slowly turning or wander around the decks trying to spot the many pelicans, spoon-beaked egrets, blue wrens, corellas and black swans that glide and soar past the boat. The PS Murray Princess has three-, four- and seven-day tours from Mannum up to Swan Reach. See www.captaincook.com.au or phone (08) 8569 2511.
Big Bend Eco Tours
Experiencing the magic of the Murray's ecology is vital for any understanding of the river. At Sunnydale, which has the highest cliffs along the river, David Le Brun has established Big Bend Eco Tours, which uses the resources of his riverside property.
In the mornings, on the edge of the floodplain, he gathers fallen eucalypt branches, makes an open fire and then cooks an Australian breakfast comprising kangaroo sausages, marinated rabbit, scrambled eggs with bush tomato and boobiella, wattle-seed toast, poached eggs cooked in water salted with samphire bush, wild lime marmalade, quandong jam, wattle-seed pancakes with desert passion syrup and quandong dessert sauce. It is a reminder that South Australia is the nation's leader when it comes to using bush tucker.
In the afternoons, usually for the passengers on the PS Murray Princess, Le Brun and his family present an entertaining sheep-shearing display in their woolshed.
It culminates in a hilarious sheep race with bets being taken on specific sheep. At night Le Brun takes visitors on tours to spot grey kangaroos, wombats, wallabies and small nocturnal native animals. See murrayriver.com.au/big-bend-by-night-eco-tours-977/ or phone David Le Brun, (08) 8570 1097.
Bruce Elder travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Qantas fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Adelaide; Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne only. Fares start at $30 from Melbourne with Tiger Airways and $79 from Sydney with Virgin Blue. The major car hire companies have offices at Adelaide airport. Renmark is about three hours' drive from Adelaide.
Renmark: At the Renmark Golf & Country Club, visitors can play a quick 18 holes, enjoy four-star accommodation and eat and drink with the golfers at a modern, well-appointed 19th hole. Sturt Highway, Renmark, (08) 8586 8200, renmarkgolf.com.
Blanchetown: When I first visited Blanchetown in the 1980s it was notable for "Shack City", where holidaymakers from Adelaide had built makeshift houses out of packing cases, odd bits of timber and corrugated iron and given them names like "Dad's Den". Today the shacks have disappeared to be replaced by large, modern riverside residences such as The Manor. It sleeps 10, has two big barbecues, a large outdoor table and an outside flat-screen television so you can watch the footy while cooking the steaks. Oh, yes, and there is a games room upstairs with a billiard table and a flat-screen television hooked up to a PlayStation. 97 Page Drive, Blanchetown. River Shack Rentals: Wendy Hartley, 0447 263 549, rivershackrentals.com.au.