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The first thing I noticed when I stepped aboard the Murray Princess was the row of carved wooden portraits of early pioneers who played a significant role in opening up the Murray River, including George Chaffey.
George and his brother William introduced commercial irrigation to Australia, and while George settled in Renmark, William ventured further upriver. In 1889 he built a splendid mansion named Rio Vista that later became the Mildura Art Gallery. As a child, while my parents dined with their friend, the Director Ernst van Hattum, I would slide down the balustrade and go off to explore the garden and the mansion’s many rooms.
My free-spirited childhood came to mind when thinking about where I could go travel restrictions notwithstanding. I could revisit my past and so I booked a 7-night cruise aboard the Murray Princess.
My adventure began in Adelaide, where the transfer coach picked me up from my hotel for the 90-minute drive east to Mannum from where we would start our cruise 208 kilometres upstream to Renmark.
Reliving the romance of bygone days, the Murray Princess is an authentic paddle wheeler that harks back to the bustling times between the 1880s and early 1900s when the Murray River was a major trade route with paddle steamers transporting cargo and supplies.
Built in Goolwa, South Australia in 1986, it is 67 meters long, the largest paddle wheeler with a wheel at the stern in the southern hemisphere.
After being welcomed aboard, Captain Nick’s whistle blew, and we cast off into the sunset, cocktails in hand. With a capacity of only 120 passengers, the boat has an intimate and relaxed ambience. Conversation flowed freely and I easily made new friends. Isabella had been on the same cruise just five weeks prior, Irene and Sue were also regulars and like most of the other passengers, came from South Australia. Some travelled aboard twice a year and had done so for years, including Joyce and Les. “Every cruise has been different, the river always changes, and we’d stay longer if we could.”
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We spent our first night at Saltbush Flat. Waking early the next morning I went for a walk along the bush track. Wildlife was everywhere; grey kangaroos stood tall, twitching their noses before hopping off, and birds flew overhead – black cormorants, whistling kites, and sulphur crested cockatoos. In the days that followed, I saw many more birds, including pelicans, herons, parrots and black swans.
Whenever we reached charming riverside towns including Morgan and Loxton, I’d spend the afternoon strolling along the broad tree-lined streets, peppered with cafes, craft shops selling homemade treats, and visiting the local pub for a refreshing drink with my new friends.
Each day the landscape changed. We cruised past majestic river red gums, vast wetlands, citrus orchards, wineries, and small historic settlements like Piggy Flat. Most dramatic of all were the sweeping bends of the river, where red, yellow and brown limestone cliffs rose high above us. Most spectacular of all was the horseshoe bend at Big Bend, with cliffs that provide a nesting habitat for cockatoos and corollas.
At Waikerie, another picturesque riverside town, a walking trail high up above the river leads to two silos now stunningly painted with a giant parrot and yabbie, standing almost 30 metres tall.
At Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, once a meeting place for local Indigenous tribes, we met Ivy and her family and learnt about ancient rock carvings, rock shelters, and place names like Murrundi, now called the Murray.
The best vantage point to observe the ever-changing scenery is on the sun deck, for an uninterrupted view of life on the river, from where you can wave back to people casting their fishing lines or swimming as you cruise by.
But for sheer exhilaration, you can’t beat travelling in a tender boat to get up close to the whoosh of the turning stern wheel, or being on the sun deck when the boat squeezes under bridges and through locks with little clearance.
Each night, we’d return to the boat for a delicious meal, with the menu firmly grounded in showcasing fresh local produce. This included scotch fillet, grilled chicken breast, fried barramundi, and lamb rump, with special diets well catered for. Desserts were also delicious including chocolate brownie or cobbler with Chantilly cream. The chefs always excelled especially on our final night with a 6-course degustation meal.
The wine list was extensive, reasonably priced and featured local vineyards. Even the cocktails focused on the region with names like Mud Slide, Murray Buster and Procrastinating Pelican that were a talking point and quite delicious.
After dinner, the fun didn’t stop as Bill, our entertainer and renowned Adelaide jazz musician played our song requests.
On our final night, Garry, a fellow passenger, bought party hats, whistles and glow-in-the-dark bracelets for us all, as we cheered on Bill as he played his saxophone with gusto.
As our final night drew to a close, I didn’t want it to end, so I went for a stroll by the river’s edge navigating by the light of the moon, and on my return spent time on the sun deck, the sky illuminated with stars. With my new friends we gave a toast to happy times and life felt good again.
After my return home, I sat down to write this story, my laptop balanced on the mosaic table given to my family by Ernst Van Hattum as a farewell gift when we left Mildura. The pattern is of fish. Then I realized they are Murray Cod. After a week cruising on the Murray, I felt reconnected to the river and to my past.
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