The Murray River is Australia’s Mississippi – or so the American author Mark Twain declared when he saw it in the early 1900s. It’s a fraction of the size of the American river, but in a country of seasonal, intermittent streams it counts as a major waterway. Fed by melting snow from the Snowy Mountains, as well as by the Murrumbidgee and Darling rivers, the Murray flows through the arid plains, reaching the Southern Ocean southwest of Adelaide near Goolwa. With the Darling and its tributaries, it makes up one of the biggest and longest watercourses in the world, giving life to Australia’s most important agricultural region, the Murray–Darling basin. Almost half of South Australia’s water comes from the Murray; even far-off Woomera in the Outback relies on it.
Historically, the Riverland was densely populated by various Aboriginal peoples who navigated the river in bark canoes, the bark being cut from river red gums in a single perfect piece – many trees along the river still bear the scars. The Ngarrindjeri people’s Dreamtime story of the river’s creation explains how Ngurunderi travelled down the Murray, looking for his runaway wives. The Murray was then just a small stream, but, as Ngurunderi searched, a giant Murray cod surged ahead of him, widening the river with swipes of its tail. Ngurunderi tried to spear the fish, which he chased to the ocean, and the thrashing cod carved out the pattern of the Murray River during the chase.
Seeing the river
The best way to appreciate the beauty of the Murray is from the water itself. Several old paddle steamers and a variety of other craft still cruise the Murray for pleasure. From Renmark, the PS Industry is one of the few wood-fuelled paddle steamers left on the Murray, and cruises on the first Sunday of the month (1hr 30min; bookings through the Renmark visitor centre). Riverland Leisure Canoe Tours (08/8595 5399, http://www.riverlandcanoes.com.au) rents out kayaks and canoes, and arranges guided day tours.
Cruise Murray (1800 994 620, murrayrivercruises.com.au) has a range of two- to seven-day cruises, many of which start from the lower river town of Mannum, an hour’s drive east of Adelaide. Other cruises from Mannum can be booked through the visitor centre, 67 Randell St (1300 626 686, http://www.mannum.org.au).
Renting a houseboat is a relaxing and enjoyable alternative, available in most towns on the river. All you need is a driving licence, and the cost isn’t astronomical if you get a group of people together and avoid the peak holiday seasons. A week in an eight-berth houseboat out of season should cost around $1300, in a four-berth $950. Contact Oz Houseboats (08/8365 7776, http://www.houseboatbookings.com.au) for details and reservations.