Australia’s Murray River Houseboating
Houseboating on South Australia’s Scenic Murray River
By Marie Kimber
The blaze of natural light from floor to ceiling windows all around, and a sparkling white kitchen, immediately captured me. I’m like a moth; light draws me in.
Natural sunlight is my jet fuel, and this space would power me entirely over the coming days.
Chad from Houseboats SA guided us across the gangplank onto The Wanderer, a 4-6 berth houseboat that would be our romantic hideaway for the next five nights.
The Wanderer operates out of Mannum, a small country town of fewer than 3,000 residents on the Murray River, sixty-two miles from South Australia’s capital, Adelaide.
We should have been stepping off a plane from Sydney, onto the island of Samoa right now. However, Covid-19 became the party pooper, ending our proposed celebratory week at an island resort for my 60th birthday and my partner Colin’s 50th.
South Australia was fortunate to have minimal cases of the virus and limited harsh restrictions were enforced. While we were still able to go to work, travel to the regional areas was prohibited. Thankfully, the government lifted this ban, just in time for our birthday week.
The Lifeblood of the Dry State
The Murray River winds its way for 1558 miles from the mountains in New South Wales, through Victoria, to the Southern Ocean. It is the third-longest navigable river in the world behind the Amazon and the Nile and provides water to households and irrigation for agriculture, including 95% of the country’s oranges. Along with its tributaries, the Murray is part of the third-largest catchment of water on earth.
South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent, and while there are pristine beaches along the coastline, many people head inland to the ‘river’ for their recreation. Fishing, waterskiing, canoeing, and boating are popular activities, with holiday homes and campgrounds dotting the banks’ landscape.
Chad walked us through this beautifully refurbished, luxury vessel and gave a crash course on how to operate it and where to find all we’d need.
We listened keenly to hear how to use the BBQ, where the firewood was, the location of the supplied kayaks and fishing rods before cementing the critical components of how to start and steer the motors and how to tie off when mooring.
Daylight was fading as we motored out of the marina to the mainstream and parked up for the night.
Each with an ensuite, the two bedrooms were positioned along one side of the vessel, leaving a bright open space down the other side. From the helm, you had a vision right through to the rear.
SA Houseboats provided every appliance and item of crockery and cutlery you’d ever need in the well-equipped kitchen with a microwave, full-size refrigerator, and stove. Leather couches at either end of the boat, plus a dining table for six, television, and DVD completed the creature comforts.
An upper deck with sun lounges provided more room to move and an elevated position to take in the views.
With the sparkling white wine chilled, Colin popped a cork while laying out an impressive platter of my favorite foods. We watched as dappled flecks of gold and amber lit up ripples on the river as a fiery sun set behind the trees in front of us. Life doesn’t get much better. Cheers to turning sixty!
A Place in one of Australia’s Most Romantic Eras
On our first morning, we headed upstream to the township of Mannum. Here the history dates back to 1853 when a young man had the vision to launch the Murray’s first paddleboat. The paddleboat route opened up a network for goods and services to cattle stations and pastoralists upstream.
Later that century, settlers predominantly from Germany settled the land around Mannum to grow cereals and produce sheep.
We had plenty of food and wine on board, so we didn’t need to stop in at Mannum.
However, there are houseboat berthing facilities within an easy walk to the shops, bakery, and hotel if required.
Some Riverland towns have a bridge for vehicles to cross the river, but most regional centers are serviced only by ferries as part of the national highway system.
Brain in Gear Feat
Our only ‘brain in gear’ feat was to navigate past Mannum’s two ferries. As we approached the ferries, we referred to what we’d learned in our orientation, and the information printed at the helm, and sounded out a 4-6 second blast of our horn.
This adherence to international boating rules signaled our intention to the ferry driver that we wanted to pass. Once he turned on a green flashing light, we returned to cruising speed and started upstream to explore.
Our Land Abounds in Nature’s Gifts
Birdlife on the river was prolific, notably so the Australian Pelican. Pelicans weigh up to 15 pounds and have a wingspan of 8 feet. They live in coastal regions as well as lakes and rivers.
In rare wet years (four times a century), when Lake Eyre in the center of Australia fills with water, pelicans and other waterbirds fly for hundreds of miles to breed there. It remains one of life’s mysteries as to how they know this usually dry salt lake has water in it.
Several native and introduced species of fish flourish in the river. The Murray Cod can measure up to six feet long and weigh 250 pounds. Unfortunately, the introduced European Carp is the most notable species. Wanting to call Australia home, they escaped a fish farm in the 1960s.
Carp uproot vegetation and stir up muddy sediment, making it difficult for native fish that rely on sight to feed. It is against the law to return this pest to the river, with anglers liable for a fine.
Lazy River Daze
Powered by two Yamaha outboard motors, we motored leisurely upstream past grazing pastures, tall redgum trees, weeping willows, and steep ochre-colored cliffs resembling layers of honeycomb. By early afternoon we found a suitable clearing to moor our floating home.
As I held the houseboat gently against the bank with the outboard motors in gear under low revs, Colin wheeled out the gangplank and threw the stern ropes ashore. A quick tie off around a gum tree saw us safely moored while he dealt with the bow ropes.
We gathered kindling from under the nearby trees, and with the firewood supplied on the houseboat, we lit a hearty campfire. Two juicy steaks were shortly sizzling over the hot coals as we opened a bottle of McLaren Vale Shiraz.
A chilly winter breeze swirled through the reed bed in front of us, dipping the coarse, sandpapery fronds to and fro. I was soon loosening the woolen scarf draped around my neck as the mesmerizing flames, and smooth wine warmed me from inside out.
An Unforgettable Morning
With no one within ‘cooee’ (that’s Aussie for a loud call used to attract attention when in the bush), we didn’t need to close the blinds. In the morning, I crept out of the crisp, white linen sheets of the comfortable Queen size bed, turned on the gas heater in the lounge room and watched as the sun came up and nature sprang into life.
A symphony of bird calls played out from the magnificent gum trees silhouetted against a tangelo sky; the birds seemingly as exhilarated as I, at the start of a new day in paradise. Pelicans patrolled majestically across the glassy water, their large black and white frame leaving a wake of ripples fanning out behind them.
Their unique grunting noise sounded more akin to a pig than a bird. I watched and listened in awe, my hands cupped around a steaming coffee mug while my heart was warmed by the sight and sounds around me.
Murray River: A Destination Away from the Crowds
The year 2020 forced travelers to look closer to home for their getaway fix. The houseboat industry along the Murray River has enjoyed a resurgence of bookings for that reason. In addition to providing serenity and immersion into nature, travelers prospered by being removed from congested spaces. There is no lining up toe to toe in queues in airports or popular tourist attractions. No more shoulder-to-shoulder airline journeys.
Grateful for a Change of Plans
With no Wi-Fi and limited mobile phone service, we had a short break away from the usual distractions, the media, the doom and gloom. We hardly saw another person. We remained connected in our personal space, witnessed the joy of nature, took time out to breathe deeply, and loved every minute of it.
Like many people around the world, Covid-19 changed our travel plans. Had that not been the case, we would have missed this particular time away. Invariably, it is exotic destinations afar, that attract us and have us researching and planning with zest.
Often to find when we arrive that we are mixing with countless other people with the same idea. With many travelers now fearful of being in crowded locations, a houseboat holiday is a perfect alternative.
The world has changed, but new life always germinates and grows from a dark place. Samoa will have to wait.
Find Your Own Houseboat
To check out The Wanderer and other SA Houseboats
For a range of houseboats from all points of the river
For things to do, places to go in South Australia
Marie Kimber lives on the beach adjacent to Australia’s premier wine region of McLaren Vale in South Australia. An avid writer, photographer, public speaker, and tour host, she is passionate about sharing her destinations and love of food, wine and people with the world.