Aboard this graceful 1986-built Mississippi-style paddlewheeler, all togged out in its ornate balustrades and colonial fittings, we are about to explore the magnificent Murray River on its post-lockdown, 3-night Restart Cruise.
Sat at our long table, we are treated to a three-course meal of satay chicken skewers, and scotch fillet and grilled prawns in garlic, dill and caper sauce. Stuffed as we are, no one rejects the blueberry and peach cobbler.
But I, like a child on Christmas Eve, get up in the middle of the night, because I’ve been told what goes on after dark. Our overnight moorage is at Salt Bush Flat. And the only sounds around are that of the river’s nocturnal wildlife. I kneel up on my bed to peep between the louvers of the window shutters. And I gasp. Dozens of elegantly folded up pelicans glide around silently, as if towel origami performing in Swan Lake. The ship’s light spill attracts insects, drawing fish to the surface. I watch on, fascinated, as the pelicans' long pink gular pouches periodically break their stillness to capture their midnight feasts. It’s magical to watch…
Nature walks, Aboriginal reserves and a whole lotta fleece...
Our captain, Nick Sciancalepore, leads an early morning nature walk direct from the gangplank. He talks about the grandeur of the river red gum, one of which we stand beside. Red gums grow long roots, so they can survive up to nine months submerged during flood, stabilising the riverbank while doing so. During the 1850s, early settlers milled their hard, durable timber to build hulls for paddleboats. We identify a whistling kite’s nest well camouflaged within its canopy.
“The saltbush around us is often added to lamb and beef dishes. It tenderises the meat,” says Nick. "But don’t venture too close to it. Tiger snakes and brown snakes like hiding in these bushes.”
Behind us is a large black box; a tree that likes to grow on floodplains. It is twisted and gnarled, and has a rough and fissured bark unlike red gums, which are generally straight, mottled and smooth. And before us is a tranquil billabong. Its entry and exit channels means it’s a breeding ground for juvenile fish and birds, hence the fleet of pelicans congregating on it today. “The bulrush growing around the billabong is what Aboriginal people weaved to make baskets and fishnets,” says Nick.
Not all creatures are welcome around here, however. “Carp lay 200,000 eggs when birthing,” says Nick. “In the 1800s, the river flooded, so they spread quickly. They remain a pest. But they make great mulch for gardens.”
The locks now have fishways, so when the carp jump up, they are captured within cages — up to six tonnes per day at Lock 1!
In the Sturt Dining Room, we join First Officer, Alina Herrmann, for a talk on the 19th-century river pioneers. It comes laced with facts and fables. It’s impressive that the Murray River is the world’s third longest navigable river, travelling 2,530km from the Australian Alps to Goolwa, where it trickles into the Southern Ocean at the Murray Mouth. Yet it drops just two centimetres every kilometre, such is its mild gradient.
Being the river’s original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people were the first to navigate its waters. They would choose straight, east-facing, sun-warmed red gums to carve the outline of a canoe using stone axes. Levering the bark away, they’d lay it in a hollowed-out sand pit, scaffold it open with sticks, and leave it for a few days to dry.
Europeans later arrived in the Riverland, from the Blue Mountains, despite their bewilderment of the westward flowing river. To solve the puzzle, in January 1830, Charles Sturt and his men launched a whaleboat onto the Murrumbidgee River, sailing downstream. Upon reaching a new waterway, he named it the Murray River, after Scottish judge and politician, Sir George John Robert Murray.
Four weeks later, the navigators arrived at Lake Alexandrina. After then travelling on foot across sand hills and mudflats, they arrived at a hugely disappointing narrow outlet, and not the deep-water port they’d hoped for. Sturt and his men rested for a day before rowing back upstream – all 900 kilometres of it! But Sturt reported back that the Lower Murray region offered good land.
The SA government offered two £2,000 prizes for the first two steamers to travel from the Murray Mouth up to the Darling Junction. Enter William Randell: a flour miller, and naval man: Charles Francis Cadell.
In 1853, Captain William Randell built the Mary Ann (Australia’s first steamboat). He actually went on to build a fleet of them, as well as the Mannum Wool Store (the town’s first building) and a dry dock.
Captain Charles Francis Cadell named his newly built steamer: Lady Augusta. Sailing her south from Sydney, and looping around to the Murray Mouth, he was ready for the two-day race up to Swan Hill. After repeatedly overtaking each other, Cadell reached the finish line first.
By 1836, Adelaide was established, and within a decade, shipbuilding and river trade was heaving, transporting wool and wheat. The riverboats were workhorses, and a communications channel, ferrying people, stock and produce, and were constantly loading and unloading.
But the hardest yakka was that of the manual labourer. Employees worked from 4 am to 10 pm for two Guineas per week, plus meals. Loaders would stand all day in water, often with snakes in the woodpile. And you didn’t want to mess around in those days. Woodcutters were known to put dynamite in hollow wood to teach thieves a lesson. When stolen wood went into the boiler… you guessed it… it exploded.
By 1880, around 200 paddle steamers had plied the Murray. And in 1947, Pearl Wallis became Australia’s first female riverboat captain, inspiring Nancy Cato’s 1958 novel: All the Rivers Run. However, the Murray River’s buzzing heyday was to face major changes. Road and air travel gradually brought river trade to a halt.
Today, around 40% of Australian farms (more than 50,000 of them) are located within the Murray Darling Basin, producing fruit and vegetables, dairy, rice, oil, wheat, cotton, and sheep and wool. Around 46 species of fish reside in its waters, attracting more than 95 species of waterbird. Its precious slow-flowing water remains its most valuable resource that needs to be carefully monitored and managed for human consumption, water quality, navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, flood and drought-mitigation, and cultural heritage.
Excitement builds, arriving at the striking orange cliffs of Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve. It’s one of Australia’s most culturally significant archaeological sites. Here, the traditional custodians welcome us to their land. Cynthia leads us to a fantastic flight of 218 precipitous wooden steps. Some passengers choose the easier, lower walkway, while the rest of us join the climb with guide, Sam Stewart.
Sam is fiercely proud of the impressive boardwalk. “Four Aboriginal men built this 29-year-old boardwalk," he says. "It was predicted to take up to two years to complete, but was finished in just over 10 months.
Pausing as we climb, we absorb the magical views across and along the river as riverboats ply and waterbirds fly. Upon reaching the top, the peace-steeped landscape is dreamy. Sam shows us native spinach, native apricots, emu grass and hop bush. The Ngarkat people were a local tribe who would visit to collect food and water when their own natural provisions dried up. They traded mussels, yabbies, fish and turtles. “They’d arrive in groups of 10 to 15, after 1.5 days walking,” says Sam. “We would give each other notice of our arrival with a smoke signal.”
We stand by an Aboriginal midden scatter containing river mussel shells. The white stones we spot around the grounds are from past ceremonial sites. The black stones are stained due to the hot fat that dribbled from the cooking of kangaroo meat. “We had our own kind of barbecue back then,” smiles Sam.
Sam then passes around a selection of quartz, flint, and silica-rich chert stones that have travelled all the way here from Lake Mungo and the Glasshouse Mountains. With sharp eyes, he then forages for berries on the ruby saltbush and finds a native apricot. Then it’s laughs all round.
“This is pittosporum, our native laxative. It doesn’t give you number twos — it gives you number threes, and you don’t want to know what they are!” he laughs. He then plucks from a pigface, and bites and sucks from its succulent leaf.
Descending the cliff-clasping boardwalk, we then track along the lower cliffs, embedded with fossilised oyster shells. Sam points out a beehive, and tells us: “European bees sting. Our native bees don’t.”
Back in the 1920s, Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale conducted archaeological digs of the stratified rocks at Ngaut Ngaut. The archaeologists discovered fossilised remains of the bounty of food on offer at the time, to include: marsupials, ducks, tortoises, reptiles, shellfish, crayfish and the Murray cod. They also unearthed deposits of the Tasmanian devil and the Tasmanian tiger.
Sam closes with a powerful sentiment. “We lease this land from Parks and wildlife. And our aim is to build a visitor centre. It’s been state approved, but we’re waiting for federal permission now.” He then adds: “It is not Aboriginal people that own the land — it’s the land that owns us...”
Shenanigans at Sunnydale
Continuing our cruise towards the lengthy horseshoe-shaped Big Bend, the river’s tallest and longest stretch of 40-metre-high sandstone cliffs dwarf the boat. It's as if we were cruising through a towering gorge. Arriving and disembarking at Sunnydale Big Bend, near Swan Reach, it’s like stepping into a movie scene. The property’s owner, David LeBrun, greets us warmly, along with his welcoming daughter, Mardi. They hoist us onto their charming custom-built carts. I feel like I'm Laura Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie. In our rustic transport, we trundle along rubbly bush tracks to the shearing shed, where all lunacy of the lanolin kind unfolds.
Herded into the shearing shed for some educational farming fun, we sit on tiered benches to watch David shear a mature Marino wool sheep. It’s been hand-reared, so takes it in its stride as its giant fleece falls away. David touches on the backbreaking work of sheep shearing back in the day. “A shearer would get $3.40 per sheep per shear,” he says. “And they’d need to shear 150 to 200 sheep to make a wage.” He explains the importance of the micron of the fibre: the closer the crimp the higher the quality, and hence, the price.
A live auction to win a thoroughbred race sheep then kicks off (all in the name of fun). We offer our bids, and watch the show, as an assortment of sheep from English Leicesters to dorpers, Suffolks to South African Marinos, and Persians to alpacas gallop along the gangplank in search of delicious treats. One even jumps the barrier, sending the crowd into surprise-induced hysterics. It gets loud!
Being at the heart of Australia’s first-listed International Dark Sky Reserve, we stay on for David’s Dark Sky tour. He has us gazing into his telescope, through which we marvel at the craters on the moon. And behind the increasing haze, we locate the spangly Milky Way.
Still on the station, dinner is a flavour-smacking riverside barbecue, where we watch the Murray Princess crew perform tongue-in-cheek skits. It propels the crowd into much singing and clapping around the campfire. The gourmet beef sausages, the lamb chops and porterhouse steaks followed by scones with mandatory jam and cream (loaded in either order!) end with billy tea until the last of the cinders fade. We then wobble back to the boat, well ready for our toasty beds thanks to the electric blankets. Sleep is deep.
All aboard the Dragonfly...
It’s another flawless winter’s day on the marvellous Murray. Having moored near Piggy Flat, we hop onto the flat-bottomed MV Dragonfly for an intimate small-group eco tour. Cruising up close to the 25-metre-high limestone cliffs sends cameras pointing and shooting at every opportunistic angle.
“The many willows you see here stabilise the riverbank,” says Lynley, our skipper “protecting it from backwash from the river's boats, jet skis and waterskis. But they do drown in flood.”
Tucked beneath the rim of cave-like ledges and hollows, a complicated ecosystem of miniature maidenhair ferns colour the cliffs. What look much like beehives, are in fact the bottle-shaped mud nests of tiny Fairy Martins. And many golden orb weaver nests hang like hundreds of bonsai-sized fishing nets.
“The peppercorn trees you see along the bank with their shoots growing in water,” says Lynley, “blew in on the wind as seeds from farms. Settlers planted them for shade. Unlike the highly flammable eucalypt, peppercorn trees would smoulder, giving farmers time to extinguish fires.”
Returning alongside the mud banks on the opposite side of the river, we see a 400-year-old eucalyptus tree. We hear about how Aboriginal people would pluck reeds from the water, chew on the pulp, roll on their arm, dry, and then plait the reed over and over to create a strong rope.
The rest of my afternoon is spent chilling back on our pretty sternwheeler. And she sure does sport yesteryear charm. I wander up to the wheelhouse; all decked out in flawlessly polished wood. From behind his helm, Captain Nick waves, with a smile as sunny as the day.
I while away some time lazing on the top deck, where the high sky smudges with birdlife. The ripe silence is penetrated only by the screeches of the sulphur-crested cockatoos and the gaggle of corellas that nest in the cliff hollows.
I wander into the two-storey aft lounge, graced by a curving brass-railed staircase. The winter sun floods in through the 4-metre-high windows, through which I become hypnotised by the turn of the paddlewheel busy choreographing its dance of rainbows. This is life on the Murray today, but it’s just another day in S.A.
PS Murray Princess is owned and run by Captain Cook Cruises (of the SeaLink Travel Group). For further details on the above cruise, as well as the other exciting itineraries the company offers, visit: www.murrayprincess.com