Where the mighty Murray runs

Australia’s largest river system is overflowing with natural attractions.

This is Australia,” says Captain Matthew Irvine outstretching his arms to the view beyond the wheelhouse.

Scenes framed by nature glide past – streaks of burnished gold lick the water like flames, softly hued willows drape across the shores and reflections of twisted river gums create perfect symmetry. It’s like we’re cruising through an art gallery.

“Every day is different,” Matthew says. Growing up on the river and now as captain of the Murray Princess, the largest inland paddle-wheeler in the southern hemisphere, the river is in his blood.

“There is still so much I haven’t seen – the Murray is full of surprises.”

Rising in the Snowy Mountains and snaking its way like a giant serpent along 2508km through three states to the Southern Ocean, not only is the Murray Australia’s largest river system, it’s also the third longest navigable river in the world (after the Amazon and Nile).

It even has its own flag. And with a history spanning around 60 million years, still waters run deep.

Paddle steamer on the Murray River.

As a nod to bygone days when hundreds of steamers chugged up and down the Murray carrying cargo, cruising on the 120-berth Murray Princess is a nostalgic way to explore the river.

Our seven-night round trip from Mannum (90-minute drive from Adelaide) takes in a tapestry of experiences.

One day we head to the Barossa Valley for wine tasting, a cooking demo at Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop and a fine lunch featuring local ingredients at Lambert Estate.

Other days we dip into the history books at the Swan Reach museum, meander through the craft market in Murray Bridge and marvel at the engineering as we traverse Lock 1 in Blanchetown.

At Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve, we walk on country beside Indigenous guides for a glimpse into the life of the Nganguraku people who have inhabited the region for tens of thousands of years.

“Look here, what do you see,” says Cynthia Hutchinson, pointing to an ancient petroglyph carved into the ochre limestone cliff overhanging a shallow cave.

Peering at the series of lines and dots, we hazard a guess.

“Crocodile. Dinosaur. An upside down echidna.”

Enjoying her game, Cynthia finally explains her people’s interpretation as being a dolphin.

“Every mark painted or carved into this wall tells our stories – it’s the social media of millions of years ago,” she said.

Although some of the wildlife that once roamed this area might be long gone, there is still plenty to spot.

From kangaroos and wallabies venturing to the riverbank for a drink, to goannas sunbaking on logs and lethargic wombats waddling through the scrub, patience is rewarded.

A pelican glides serenely on the Murray.

And when it comes to birdlife, the sky is a constant cacophony of species vying for centre stage. Corellas and cockatoos win the prize for the noisiest, followed closely by kookaburras who seem to laugh in all the right places.

During a nature tour on the ship’s tinny, we pass the towering cliffs and gaze in awe at holes gouged into the rock used by clever cockatoos as perfect nests.

We also spot black kites soaring overhead, great egrets, cormorants, martins, swans a plethora of ducks (especially the grey teal with its flash of bright blue as it swims by) and a superb fairy wren tucked into the hollow of a tree.

But it’s the pelicans who are the heart stealers.

As the signature of the Murray, they skim across the water like low-flying seaplanes and seem to skid to a stop as if they’re dropping in for a chat.

Early one morning I counted 23 bobbing around on the water, their wake breaking the glass-topped water creating a web of silvery patterns.

Late each afternoon, we moor and watch the light change day into night.

A highlight is Big Bend where the cliffs lining the river illuminate into pillars of tangerine and scarlet set against a pink sky. It’s here, three generations of the LeBrun family have created a niche by developing a range of tourism activities.

One night we huddle into safari-style wagons and bump along dirt tracks in search of wildlife.

We don’t need to go far to strike it lucky.

A large mob of western grey kangaroos (including three rare albino kangaroos) graze metres from the vehicle. Above, a blanket of stars unfurls across the universe.

“This region has recently been named Australia’s first Dark Sky Reserve – there are only 15 declared sites in the world,” David explains.

The LeBruns have created an overnight viewing area with telescopes where guests can bring a swag and in the morning indulge in a bush breakfast.

Just another of the many reasons to return to this magnificent slice of Australia.

Story Jocelyn Pride

Discover the magic of the Murray River aboard the PS Murray Princess. For a limited time you can save $157 per person on Murray River cruise packages with RACQ Travel, which also include sightseeing in Adelaide. Phone 1300 188 71.