River life ambience
What comes to mind when thinking of Australian travel experiences? Bondi and beaches? Uluru and outback? The Great Ocean Road/Barrier Reef? Big things? (Big Lobster, Big Banana, Big Pineapple, etc.) How about a mighty river flowing through three states of the driest continent on the planet? In a land “girt by sea” you wouldn’t expect fresh water activities and leisure to rate highly in popularity, but they do.
The Murray River flows through New South Wales, Victoria and all of South Australia to its outlet into the Southern Ocean by Goolwa and Lake Alexandrina. It is fed by the Darling River with its tributaries originating in Queensland. It is no exaggeration to say that Australia wouldn’t be viable as a modern Western country without it. Single handedly it feeds the massively human-assisted irrigation that keeps Australian agriculture (and viticulture) and hence Australians alive. It always has, featuring strongly in Aboriginal life and mythology. It’s also a major recreational asset with its own unique fluminous ambience and ways of life.
The Murraylands lie just the other side of the Adelaide Hills, not 100 km from the city in a terrain that changes by the minute. From affluent suburban sprawl, to the cultivated and cultured vineyards of the hills, through the Mount Lofty Ranges’ more rugged territory, beyond the township of Palmer (famous for the ‘Bear Rock’ and other artistic urbanisation of the rocky terrain) and suddenly you are in the vast, cultivated plain. The Murray snakes lazily through this country, through dramatic sandstone gorges and lush meadows, a linear oasis of green in a red continent.
The River once was the region’s commercial artery with steamboats serving the communities that sprang up from agriculture to prospecting in the Victorian gold rush. Today the river traffic is entirely recreational- perhaps that’s a metaphor- appealing to those seeking calm and those seeking adventure alike. Restored paddle steamers meander the waters, while speedboats, jet skis, water skiers and the ‘biscuit’ zip by like insects in a rage. It’s not uncommon for city people to own a ‘shack’ on the river, although shack could mean an expensive four bedroomed house with air conditioning, cold storage for a month’s provisions and a private landing or boathouse.
We stayed in Mannum, a charming river town of two pubs. The top pub (the Pretoria) is famous for its live music- our primary reason to visit (each January hosting the Sounds by the River festival). We saw Aussie music legends Bob Evans and Josh Pyke in what was surely the strangest gig of their tour. In the bottom pub we discovered the locals’ love of rock and roll and surprisingly good cuisine and, as always, brilliant South Australian wines. Unfortunately the paddle steamers weren’t operating and we didn’t fancy the biscuit, but the river is accessible by road, and numerous (free!) car ferries provide the aquatic experience.
MURRAY RIVER DRIVE from MANNUM
Head north from Mannum along the river’s northern bank, turning off Purnong Road onto Mallee Road to Walker Flat where their is easy access to the sandstone gorges and a (free) car ferry. On the other bank their is a lookout point at the top of the hill with spectacular views both North and South. Heading south on Hunter Road we stopped at Bowhill with its one shop (one of the few places you can buy groceries and alcohol in the same shop). Turning off the main road by Younghusband, East Front Road hugs the water’s edge through delightful villages before rejoining the main road to Mannum where another ferry crossing awaits.