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Published: December 16th 2010
We had chartered bareboat sailboats before, but this was our first experience with a houseboat. It was a beauty. Twenty metres long and eight metres wide. And for only two couples. My wife and I, and her brother and wife. Mostly we cruised the South Australian section of the Murray near the Victoria and New South Wales borders.
First we had to get there. We decided to drive. We all lived in southern Queensland, so we headed off through New South Wales and stopped at the Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo. We have just returned from a safari tour of Southern Africa, and while it was different and exciting, we could have seen most of the same animals in a much shorter time here.
Our first encounter with the Murray River was at Echuca on the New South Wales – Victoria border. In fact most of that border is the Murray River. Echuca’s main claim to fame is the riverfront. Tourists can now ride on paddle steamers just like travellers and cargo did when the paddle boats were the transport of the day.
The wharf is part original, and part restored for safety reasons. It is a massive
timber structure. It has to be over ten metres high to cope with the tidal fluctuations between drought and floods. It used to be 400m long, but it handles all the tourists now at only 75m.
The town provides modern conveniences, but is also a living, breathing, museum town. One of the buildings was a ‘sly’ grog shop, and its underground bar with escape tunnel still exists. If you want old world charm when you visit Echuca, stay at the Steam Packet Inn. The name says it all.
On the road again we headed west, basically following the course of the Murray. Twenty-three years ago Eileen and I had been to the museum town of Swan Hill and we wanted to see how it had progressed. Sadly it had not faired well. These museum towns used to be popular back in the 1970s. Not so much any more. As a pioneer town for tourists, Swan Hill was now struggling.
We had a brief look around and continued to South Australia. Eileen and I had never set foot here before. Somewhere around 1829, Captain Charles Sturt was trying to find out why so many Australian rivers flowed westward,
and to where. An inland sea was suspected. The expedition rowed a whaleboat along the Murrumbidgee River, which flowed into the Murray. Captain Sturt followed that before reaching the mouth at Lake Alexandrina. The lake emptied into the Southern Ocean.
We took one look at our huge floating home and were impressed. We went for a test drive. This was so the fleet manager could determine whether we were capable of handling this behemoth. We proved we could leave the riverbank, motor around a bit, and nose it into the bank again. Then we were on our own. We provisioned at nearby Renmark, pulled away from the bank again, and motored upriver. We had booked this boat because it had so much living area. Despite her size there were only three cabins. The rest was lounge, dining, and galley equipment, and lots of space. There was a foredeck with a BBQ, and an aft deck with a boarding ladder for swimmers. This was the best centre console fishing boat ever.
The lifting span bridge at Paringa is raised twice a day for river traffic. We timed it right and left behind the houses, shops, and small factories, the
camping ground and ski boats, and headed of into the semi-wilderness. This was not school holidays so traffic was light. Usually all we saw were birds, including Swamphens and Whistling Kites. In the late afternoon we nosed into a cleared section of riverbank and tied our bowlines to a couple of large trees. This is the standard way to ‘anchor’ a houseboat here. Our first night’s fishing was a failure, but sundowners were drunk, dinner was eaten, and sleep was had.
Next day we passed a couple of houses on the banks but saw no one. The cliffs of red dirt towered some thirty metres above us. We saw a climbing trail that led up to a viewing platform, but none of us felt that energetic. We could see enough good stuff from the boat anyway.
To assist with the Murray River Irrigation Scheme there are several locks that have to be negotiated by river vessels. Our first was Lock 6. They are all a similar design, having a barrage across the river, with the lock itself against one bank. Three long blasts on the ship’s horn will bring the lockkeeper down, unless it’s lunch time, when you will be ignored.
We could have fitted three houseboats our size in the lock, but it was the quiet season, so we had it all to ourselves. We motored through the open gates and the lockkeeper tied off our mooring lines. It only took a few minutes for the water to rise the two or three metres, and then we could talk with the lockkeeper face to face. He and his wife must have had a lot of spare time. The lawn was lush and green, and the expansive garden was beautiful. The front gate of the lock swung open and we motored out in to the river proper again.
We passed a few more homesteads and a lot of weeping willows. Our parking bay for the night was near an old customs building at Elura, which is now a shop. We didn’t need to buy anything here because we had plenty of provisions, and besides, this night we caught fish. We drifted off to sleep to an orchestra of frogs.
During the next day we passed the South Australia – Victoria border on the southern bank. I don’t know whether there were some egotistical politicians interfering with the surveyors back when this was done, but we didn’t pass the South Australia – New South Wales border on the opposite bank for another few hours.
There are a few places where even in a good season the river shallows. Once we had to take a detour via a narrow but deep channel or we would have been parked with the pelicans on a sandbank.
In another couple of hours we passed the ruins of the old Cal Lal police station. Now there was holiday accommodation instead of a jail, and deck chairs scattered around a picnic area. A bit further upstream we came to Lindsay Cliffs. We did stop here. It was the nicest place we had come across, with a sandy beach, some picnic tables, great scenery, and an eagle to entertain us.
This was not a one way cruise. The houseboat had to be returned to Renmark. The last homestead we saw before we turned around was Old Warrakoo Station. The Mildura Aboriginal Corporation manages a community justice program here, so that disaffected aboriginal youth, instead of serving jail time, can learn basic life ethics and work skills on a farm.
The return trip to Renmark was quicker than on the way out as we now had the current with us. Our car trip back to Queensland was quicker too as we took a more direct route. All return trips are a little sad as returning to work seeps into the mind. If only I had known what exciting holidays we would have next year.
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