A Houseboating Holiday on the Mighty Murray River

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Sep 02, 2016

Melanie Ball spends a few long, lazy days houseboating on the Murray and practising the perfect park. Photography by Julian Kingma.

A rainbow spans the Murray River between passing showers, pastel hues arching over a flotilla of dead gums where pigeons and galahs perch. We’re soaking in a rooftop spa on a 22-metre-long houseboat, enchanted by this pretty lightshow. Soon the rain sets in and we walk in misty drizzle up the grassy riverbank for dinner at the historic Gol Gol Hotel, which once serviced paddle-steamers and the coaches of Cobb & Co.

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The mooring below this renovated 19th-century pub – on the Sturt Highway near Mildura, if you’re on wheels – can be rowdy when the Murray is busy with boats and passengers are keen to party. But tonight, after a dinner of slow-cooked pork belly and local shiraz, ours is the lone houseboat and its bow lights guide us back down to the water at bedtime.

My husband and I are less than a day into a three-night journey along the river. We were picked up that morning at Mildura Airport in north-west Victoria by our friendly taxi driver, Danny, who ferried us to the Mildura marina to drop off our luggage at All Seasons Houseboats and then into town to shop.

We returned with Mildura Brewery beer, artisan loaves from Banjo’s Bakery Cafe and a bag of juicy local oranges. Our goodies from Sunraysia Cellar Door included Murray River Gourmet Salt Flakes, Desert Honey Black Box and assorted wines.

With our regional bounty stowed aboard the promisingly named Absolute Indulgence, All Seasons co-owner Sean Bromley gave us a comprehensive pre-departure briefing before steering us out of the marina (staff also pilot boats back in at the end of the hire). After overseeing one practice mooring, he motored away in a tinny, leaving us in charge.

Hundreds of paddle-steamers plied the Murray in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, carrying wool, wheat and stores for remote pastoral stations. These days, the three Mildura paddleboats that take tourists on short trips are far outnumbered by modern houseboats. Tens of thousands of people cruise the river every year in technology-assisted comfort that would have been beyond the imaginings of steam-era passengers.

The fleets of the 10 or so houseboat companies operating in the Mildura region range from pet-friendly family vessels to top-end luxury. The 12-berth Absolute Indulgence is extravagantly spacious for two and I love its starboard (that’s the right side) open-plan dining, kitchen and living area.

Houseboats are permitted 40 kilometres upriver to Gol Gol State Forest, south-east of Mildura, and 56 kilometres downstream to historic Wentworth, where the Darling River joins the Murray in south-western NSW. The Wentworth run involves manoeuvring through Lock 11, one of 13 navigation locks on 14 weirs built along the Murray (most between 1922 and 1937) to regulate the flow of water to aid navigation and irrigation. You need more than three days to explore the limits of this range, however, so we choose to go upstream.

The first leg of our journey is short and it’s midafternoon when we approach the Gol Gol Hotel mooring. I’m at the wheel but lose my nerve working the boat into shore – where’s the park assist? – so my husband, Simon, takes over, seeing us safely moored.

We continue upriver next morning, passing lazy loops of river at just above walking pace (the boats travel at four to eight knots, about seven to 15 kilometres per hour). We regret not bringing our binoculars, for the Murray teems with birds, not all as easily identified as the pelicans flying seaplane-like overhead. There are black swans shepherding fluffy grey cygnets and whistling kites, whose untidy stick nests sit high in the eucalypts lining the river. 

Egrets, cormorants, herons and chestnut-and-black Australian shelducks share the river. Red-rumped parrots dart green and yellow between trees. Superb fairy-wrens hop among the golden reeds where we moor and pied butcherbirds pose for photographs on our bow railing.

The stern rail sports fishing-rod rests but the dominant catch from on board is carp – good bait, Sean told us, for hooking yellowbelly and cod among the trees. Some operators provide or rent runabouts (and can issue fishing licences) for accessing these spots but we declined, thinking it sounded like hard work. Others are less slothful, though, and we pass several houseboat-loads of fishers.

Sean also told us we could swim anywhere along this section of the Murray because the locks effectively dam it, maintaining water level and reducing flow; we could jump off the rear swimming deck and not drift away. We could but we don’t, preferring the heated spa instead.

About an hour upstream of the Gol Gol Hotel, a barn-sized, red-brick building looms on the Victorian (right-hand) bank. It’s the heritage-listed Psyche Bend Pumping Station. Built in 1917 on the site of the original 1891 pump house, it shelters the steam-powered pumps designed by brothers George and William Chaffey, the Canadian irrigators who founded Mildura. The pumps lifted river water into Kings Billabong, from where it was channelled to irrigate horticultural blocks fringed by arid mallee. The steam pumps operated until 1959, when the neighbouring, less elegant electric-pump complex came into commission. Mildura’s vast plantings of grapes and citrus are still irrigated from the Murray but not through Psyche Bend. 

Beyond the pump house there’s nothing either side of us but rivergums. Some are fat and gnarly, with finger-like roots that have gripped the bank for centuries; others are younger, with paint-like red stripes. Willows splash gold along the shore and across occasional camp sites.

From a plane, the Murray looks serpentine and snakes feature in some Aboriginal Creation stories about the river. One tells how the ancestral being Biami sent a snake to accompany a woman as she dug for roots in the ground. Biami filled the winding trail the snake left behind her with rain to create the river. 

A few more meandering bends bring us to the spectacular river cliffs from which the Mallee town of Red Cliffs takes its name. Despite the high-voltage stanchions atop these sculpturally eroded, red-and-yellow-striped battlements, it feels like we are miles from everywhere. And there are no other boats or people in sight when we pull in about a kilometre further on.

Recommended mooring spots are marked “P” on the boat’s GPS navigation map but you can stop almost anywhere on the Victorian bank; much of the NSW shore is private property. I keep the engines running, holding the boat against the bank, until Simon secures our four mooring lines with double half-hitch knots – a skill he learnt sailing in his apparently only partially misspent youth.

He learnt to cook, too, and the sun is setting on our second day as he prepares roast beef, which we eat on the stern deck beneath a scattering of stars.

Clouds deny us the spectacle of first light on the cliffs next morning but the grey sky doesn’t detract from the beauty of our journey back downriver to Trentham Estate Winery, on the NSW bank. It’s a popular destination for car- and boat-based tourists and locals who come for the wine and to eat in the region’s only riverfront restaurant. 

We’ve had plenty of practice over two days of cruising and our arrival at the winery, with me at the helm and Simon on the ropes, is a houseboat-mooring masterclass. 

Perfect parking puts us ashore half an hour early for our booking so we saunter into the tasting room to choose a white to have with lunch. The almost flinty Italian varietal vermentino complements my mussels, Simon’s duck and the salted caramel and chocolate tart we share.

Refuelled, we motor around the next bend downstream to a spot with a fabulously lumpy rivergum stump as a mooring post. Abandoning ship and husband, I set off on the 9.5-kilometre loop walk around adjacent Ducks Foot Lagoon, wishing I had time before dark for the longer walk taking in the Psyche Bend pump house. Enjoying the leg stretch after two days of eating, drinking and lolling, I walk briskly through eucalypt scrub and reed-fringed wetlands, stopping only to watch a spoonbill scoop a titbit from a waterhole. I step back on board to the welcoming hum of the spa-bath pump. 

Next morning, we untie to a chorus of butcherbirds and embark on the final leg of our too-short houseboat break, two hours down a river now awash with sunshine, back to the marina and everyday life.

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