Outback Adventures on South Australia's Murray River

Uncover hidden gems along Australia’s longest river.

The peaceful Murray River in South Australia meanders through a photo-worthy land of ancient red gum forests, spectacular ochre-colored cliffs, tranquil creeks, oxbow lagoons, wildlife, water birds, and old communities with stories to tell. It’s the kind of region that invites deep exploration—you’re just dying to see what’s up the next creek, or around the next bend. “Riverland is a rugged, beautiful area, and there are a number of fun ways to get out into it,” says Dan Westegren, National Geographic photographer.

A couple of hours drive from Adelaide, The Murray River has been a vacation destination since 1961, when a local man built 20 houseboats and leased them out. Some of the originals are still in use, but others are brand new high-tech affairs with hot tubs and big-screen TVs. Rent them for your family and friends, and cruise at your own pace.

The Murray River Walk, a unique way to experience South Australia’s abundant wildlife, offers a four-day cruise and walk. “You walk during the day,” explains Dan, “and use the boat for your sleeping accommodations. You can walk for six hours, then eat barbecue and watch the river go by.” The Murray River Walk houseboat is a modern 10-berth, double-decker vessel with a hot shower and a top-deck spa overlooking the river. During the day, walkers cover an easy to moderate route that totals 26 miles in 3 days; the boat journeys 43 miles. At night guests savor three-course dinners prepared from local food and wines.

The activities that accompany a stay on the Murray River Walk houseboat are vast. A hike to nearby Headings Cliffs reveals breathtaking sandstone columns and buttresses taking on the colors of sunrise, and on other days you can explore various creeks and backwaters. Your journey may take you across a billabong—a seasonally dry streambed and its ever-spreading mosaic of cracked mud. See Anhingas perch on snags to dry their wings, and black pelicans skim along the riverbanks.

The Murray River’s long history survives through its untouched terrain. “It’s such an arid region,” Dan reports, “For the most part the river runs as freely as it has for generations. It used to be a transportation corridor for wool from the sheep farms, and you can still see the old bridges and sheds from that period. Now it’s a pristine region. Not a lot of people live there, the air is clean, and there are cool birds everywhere.”

Venerable old river red gum (eucalyptus) trees dot the landscape. One of them, a massive survivor known as Mother Theresa, is likely more than 1,000 years old. Others show where bark was removed centuries ago by aboriginal people for the construction of bark canoes. In a harvested wheat field nearby, you could spot a mob of emus and their young. Emus and kangaroos show up on lots of menus. “It sounds exotic to us, but it’s like eating deer or elk. They’re wild and they’re plentiful. In fact, in some places I was advised not to drive at night because kangaroos can suddenly jump in front of your car.”

<a href="https://www.facebook.com/murrayriverqueen2016/">The Murray River Queen</a>, a traditional side-paddle steamer, has had many lives on the river. Originally a luxury cruise boat built in the style of the old wool-carrying vessels, it served time as a youth hostel and is now permanently moored on the Renmark waterfront as a high-end restaurant.
The Murray River Queen, a traditional side-paddle steamer, has had many lives on the river. Originally a luxury cruise boat built in the style of the old wool-carrying vessels, it served time as a youth hostel and is now permanently moored on the Renmark waterfront as a high-end restaurant.
Photograph by Dan Westegren

A lot of the Murray River action happens around the town of Renmark, population 7,500. Renmark has become a popular spot for such water sports as skiing and wake boarding, as well as for golf and the arts; it’s also the home of Australia’s largest rose garden. The town’s newest attraction, the Murray River Queen paddle steamer, formerly a youth hostel, is now a floating restaurant.

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On the final day, the Murray River Walk houseboat goes through a lock and then reaches the state border. The cruise ends with a celebratory lunch at the award-winning Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery. This authentic Australian outpost occupies an erstwhile shearing shed on what was a famous sheep and wheat station.

A visit to Murray Whether you undertake the trip by houseboat, canoe, kayak, “tinny,” or pontoon boat, the Murray River promises a unique South Australian outback experience. There are cut-off lakes to be explored, fish to be caught, fresh fruits and vegetables to be tasted, quality beers and wines to be sampled, stars to be gazed at. “It’s a huge braided labyrinth of waterways and amazing things to do,” Dan enthuses.

A visit to the Adelaide airport via Air New Zealand will be one of exceptional comfort, food, and service, making a vacation to the Murray River easier than ever before. Be prepared for the hot sun, and pack a bathing suit and towel if you want to swim in the river. Or just go in your shorts. It’s South Australia. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.

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