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Full steam ahead

Full steam ahead.

A SeaLink cruise along the Murray River allows you to sail away from your daily life, and get a history lesson as you go. Christine Long goes with the flow on a paddlewheeler cruise.

You could say any form of cruising has a romantic appeal. Once on-board you leave ordinary life behind and get swept along in a wonderful whirl of new experiences, people and places.

But there’s an extra dimension that comes with cruising on a paddlewheeler on the broad reaches of the Murray River.

It’s a journey that feels quintessentially Australian, connecting you to a time when hundreds of riverboats were plying their trade on the rivers of the Murray-Darling basin, providing a vital lifeline to settlements and stations in Australia’s harsh inland.

Small wonder then that the sight of the PS Murray Princess charms all who see her as she cruises along the mighty Murray. Cameras click and people stop to wave.

She’s a grand dame, dressed in cream and burgundy, with five passenger decks and a working paddlewheel at the stern. At 67 metres in length and 15 metres across the beam, she can also claim the distinction of being the largest inland paddlesteamer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Our journey on-board will take us along a section of the Murray in South Australia. As Captain Grahame Evett explains to us, the Murray, the world’s third longest navigable river after the Amazon and the Nile, is a “very slow old river.”

“To give you an idea: a year’s flow of the Murray is about the same as one day of the Amazon,” he says.

It somehow seems fitting to fall in with the river’s unhurried flow. Over four days we will cruise upstream about 125 kilometres from Mannum to just past lock and weir number one at Blanchetown, and back again, exploring historic port towns such as Swan Reach along the way.

Built in 1986, there’s no need to keep up a constant supply of logs to propel the Murray Princess. But, Captain Evett tells us, some things haven’t changed. He uses hand-drawn charts to navigate along the river, and negotiating the area known as the Shallows will take every ounce of his concentration.

While on-board, there’s plenty to keep us entertained: hotly contested trivia matches; live piano accompaniment to lunches and dinners; a small library to raid; a mini-gym for the fitness-inclined; and cocktails to sample.

Or you could do nothing. In a world where activity is often marked out in minutes, travelling on the Murray Princess is a delightful antidote to modern life. Carried along at a leisurely six knots, the sound of the turning paddlewheel like a constantly flowing waterfall, you can’t help but relax.

One of the most wonderful ways to while away the hours is to find a comfortable chair on one of the decks and sit and chat to fellow passengers, or simply watch the world go by.

Towering limestone cliffs glowing gold in the late afternoon; the wild beauty of mallee scrub and gnarled old river red gums lining the riverbanks; flocks of sulphur crested cockatoos and corellas screeching and soaring overhead and nesting in holes in the cliff-face; mobs of kangaroos on the hop: these are just some of the sights and sounds that make this trip special. The first morning I wake before dawn and peek out the window to see pelicans circling and gliding in the boat’s spotlight.

And if you find yourself getting restless with the gentle pace of cruising, you can always take the opportunity to go for a quick spin in one of the Murray Princess tenders.


Opening up the waterways

To the 21st-century passenger the pace may seem relaxed, but paddlesteamers accelerated life for our 19th-century forebears. Before their advent, getting supplies to and from inland Australia meant arduous journeys by bullock dray on rough roads.

In 1851, the Governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Fox Young, offered a bonus for the first steamer to navigate the Murray River to the Darling Junction.

The first paddlesteamer, the Mary Ann, was the brainchild of William Randell, someone with no nautical background whatsoever. As Captain Evett tells us, “He’d never built a boat before. In fact, his father was a flour miller.”

That didn’t stop Randell. Such was the experimental nature of his 55-foot riverboat, its original boiler, fashioned by a blacksmith, was square rather than spherical and had to be strapped down with chains. As the tale goes, when the steamer’s fire was first started in 1853, the engineer ran to the river bank and hid behind a gum tree until he heard the regular beat of the pistons.

Randell wasn’t the only one vying for the Governor’s bonus. The Mary Ann encountered low water at Lake Bonney on her first trading voyage and later was overtaken near Swan Hill by another contender, the Lady Augusta, skippered by Francis Cadell. While neither steamer met the precise conditions for the Governor’s bonus; both still received a bonus for their efforts.

From those humble beginnings paddlesteamers flourished, and river trade with it. In their heyday there were about 200 barges and paddlesteamers, with the majority taking building materials up river and bales of wool on the return journey.

But riverboat life wasn’t without its challenges. Fire was an ever-present danger, and the cycle of floods and droughts meant sandbars, changing channels and snags were other potential hazards. Misjudging the dry season, meanwhile, could mean being stranded for months.

Captain Evett relates the story of the Jane Eliza, which began its journey from Morgan to Bourke in 1883 and didn’t arrive until 1886. Its return journey, down the Darling, was a lot faster. “By then they had high water and it took her less than three weeks to get back,” he says.

Under competitive pressure from the spread of the railways, the riverboat companies lobbied to have a system of locks and weirs built to regulate the flow of the river. The first lock and weir at Blanchetown was completed in 1922 and the Murray River now has four major dams, 15 locks and 16 weirs. However, the emergence of faster methods of transport meant that, by the late 1920s, riverboat trade was in decline.


The shore thing

As we journey along the Murray, our on-shore excursions offer a window into other layers of Australia’s history.

Scar trees at the river’s edge are visual reminders of the bark canoes created by the area’s first inhabitants, and at Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Conservation Park we learn more about how the Nganguraku people lived.

Our guide, Cynthia, tells us this is home to one of the most significant Aboriginal archaeological digs in Australia, telling the story of occupation and non-occupation by local tribes over thousands of years. Rock engravings near the river piece together more of a picture of their life, including their regular diet of turtles, fish, wading birds, emus, echidnas and kangaroos.

There are glimpses, too, into how contemporary farmers and producers in the region deal with the ongoing challenges of life on the land.

At Blanchetown, we stroll in the late afternoon to the vineyards of Burk Salter Wines for a spot of wine-tasting. For 70 years the vineyard’s crop went to the Barossa, but since 2002 it has been producing its boutique wine. Greg Salter, whose father and grandfather planted the first vineyard on the land, educates us on the wisdom of machine-picking rather than hand-picking in an area where temperatures often soar above 40 degrees at harvest time. “Our quality has skyrocketed since we began machine-picking,” he says.

Another stop near Big Bend provides insight into the days when Australia rode upon the sheep’s back. At Sunnydale, a farm near Swan Reach, David Le Brun and his daughter, Mardi, give us an entertaining and informative talk and demonstration of the tools and tricks of the trade used by shearers in its woolshed in bygone days. We also meet a wide variety of the woolly ones, from an English Leicester, a breed with coarse wool used for carpets and blankets, to the Wiltipoll, Damara, and Dorper breeds, low-maintenance shedding sheep used for meat.

To say you won’t starve on the Murray Princess is an understatement. We start with a three-course dinner that includes prawn skewers, chicken Wellington and butterscotch syrup cheesecake, and enjoy ample buffet breakfasts and lunches with everything from curries to a Chinese twist. Dinners include a barbecue centred around a campfire on the riverbank at Big Bend and a sumptuous seafood feast at the Captain’s Dinner.

Those who join in the optional bush breakfast at Sunnydale are in for a treat, too. Beginning with glasses of sparkling wine arranged in the back of an abandoned Austin A40 on the banks of the river, we dine on a three-course breakfast that includes kangaroo sausage; scrambled eggs seasoned with saltbush; bush tomato and double-smoked bacon; wattleseed toast with lemon myrtle butter and quandong jam; and wattleseed pancakes with desert passion syrup.
It’s all washed down with billy tea made with freshly plucked black box leaves.

By the time the Murray Princess arrives at Mannum on Friday morning, we have well and truly forged a memorable connection with the Murray, its landscape, its animals, and its people past and present.

Cruise the Murray

The four-night Outback Heritage Cruise on the PS Murray Princess leaves Mannum in South Australia on Mondays. Interstate travellers can book accommodation in Adelaide, including the five-star Majestic Roof Garden Hotel, and travel via the complimentary coach
transfer to and from Mannum.

Optional add-on tours include the Barossa Wine and Heritage Tour, and Kangaroo Island.