Mesmerised by the Murray

Meandering along the Murray River in a gently purring houseboat, past ochre-stained limestone cliffs reflecting the descending sun, you’re likely to experience a reaction common among holiday-makers touring the Riverland.

It’s a sense of anxiety that you won’t get to do this forever, followed by an impulsive urge to sell the house, the car and pack up the kids to embrace this simple, charming existence.

Family having fun at the Murray Bridge Foreshore Reserve on the Murray River

The Riverland begins to woo from its outer boundary, only two hour’s drive from Adelaide. Regarded as a ‘sleeper region’ that travellers often overlook – drawn instead to the glamour of the Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale wine regions – this productive pocket remains a treasured secret.

But as word ekes out, a host of new attractions are evolving, from boutique river cruises, kayaking tours, luxury river-facing accommodation, a bakery and providore – and plenty of cellar doors.

Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery is one such development that’s become a fast-favourite. It’s based on Tom Freeman’s family property; he returned home to run the family houseboat business a decade ago and, with partner Sarah Dowdell, decided to give their century-old woolshed a new lease on life.

Drinking at the Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery on the Murray River

“We were keen beer drinkers and loved beer brewing, plus craft beer was starting to move and there were no other microbreweries in the region, so it all made sense,” Tom said.

They started brewing in 2009 and now produce a range of pale, amber and dark ales, ciders and a ‘hard’ lemonade, containing eight per cent alcohol.

“It’s made using all Riverland products,” says Dowdell.

“It has white wine made from local grapes, dry apple cider with fruit sourced from Loxton and fresh lemons from Waikerie.”

Secret place

Another special place – and local’s secret – is Headings Cliffs lookout near Paringa, only 2km from the brewery. Once atop the steel structure, you’re granted a magical gun-barrel view down the river, lined with citrus-hued cliffs that glow at sunset.

Our tip is to bring a couple of foldout chairs, a bottle of Riverland wine and settle in to enjoy the cackle of kookaburras.

The lookout is only minutes from another Riverland surprise with similarly striking views on a distinct bend in the river. The Frames luxury accommodation was created in 2014 specifically for escapist couples, with each villa having a private heated pool, hydrotherapy spa and sauna.

Should you venture out, The Frames offers personalised tinnie tours through river estuaries where native birds, koalas, kangaroos and sometimes echidna can be spotted, or champagne-infused sunset cruises in a restored 1929 wooden gondola with a claim to fame: it once starred in Stefano de Pieri’s ABC TV cooking series, A Gondola on the Murray.

It is, of course, a complete indulgence but even if you’re camping in the Riverland, you don’t have to miss out on a Murray River cruise. In early 2015, James and Sandra Schober started their Waikerie-based boutique cruise company, Rivergum Cruises, taking up to 10 visitors at a time on tours along the mighty waterway.

Indulge in many drops

Departing on demand, they visit Riverland icons on full-day trips, including eco-winery Banrock Station, Caudo Vineyard, the historic Overland Corner hotel and Lock 2.

Caudo Vineyards

The most popular cruises are the two-hour trips to see the Ramco redgums or the Yarra Cliffs.

The 35-foot vessel, Qatar, took her husband James 14 years to transform into a river cruiser, after buying it from a neighbour who’d left the 1960s lifeboat in his backyard for decades.

Being dropped off at Banrock Station by Rivergum Cruises and then bussed back to your accommodation allows you to indulge in the winery’s many drops.

But the Riverland’s wetland centre, bird hides, information huts and boardwalks mean it’s just as fun to self-drive, marvelling at the vineyard and wetland views over a restaurant lunch before lathering up with sunscreen and going for a nature-based stroll.

Menu for the doggies

While not exhausting, it is engaging so allocate a few hours to properly explore, then head to the famous Mallee Fowl restaurant for a restorative dinner spiked with the bush flavours of native foods. Taken over by Kevin and Kylie Stephens in early 2015, the rustic, outback-themed diner has been enhanced with a kitchen garden, extensive playground, sandpit and outdoor seating.

In 2016, the kelpie-showing pair will be introducing a doggy menu, serving pig’s trotters, pig’s ears and healthy dog biscuits.

For humans, Kylie says the most popular menu mainstay is the sugar-cured kangaroo fillet, followed by the quandong cheesecake. They have their own quandong orchard on the property, though demand for the bush fruit often outstrips supply.

And then, it’s back to the river, perhaps with Canoe Adventures, who send you on soothing, near-silent journeys in kayaks or canoes, paddling through nature and truly connecting with 180 degrees of Riverland beauty.

Whether going solo, on a guided tour or taking time out on an overnight camping canoe trip, it’s a peaceful way to complete your time in this beguiling part of the world.

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Story by Fleur Bainger, Images by South Australia Tourism.