Bends in the river
The mighty Murray – Australia’s biggest and boldest river – beckons those seeking a holiday in the slow lane.
A journey along the most historic section of the mighty Murray River is a chance to relax amid beautiful landscapes and colonial history.
29 October, 2021
Australia’s biggest and boldest river begins as a burbling stream in the Snowy Mountains
The Murray River has always fascinated explorers, traders and travellers. Now it seduces holidaymakers with thoughts of Huckleberry summers spent meandering along its riverbanks. Get ready for old frontier settlements and paddle steamers, mist among towering gum trees and the blue zip of kingfisher wings. There could be few better ways to spend a week than along the Murray’s riverbanks, where lazy days drift by plump pelicans, and every bend supplies another captivating panorama.
Australia’s biggest and boldest river begins as a burbling stream in the Snowy Mountains and ultimately, brown and sluggish, it empties into the Southern Ocean on South Australia’s coast. But its midsection between Albury-Wodonga and Mildura, where it meanders through wetlands and rolling hills, is the place to be for a holiday in the slow lane. Here it defines most of the Victoria-NSW border although, as the border runs along the river’s southern bank, the Murray is entirely within New South Wales.
Australia’s greatest river isn’t just physically big – it has big history too. Aboriginal groups have inhabited its banks for 40,000 years, leaving behind artworks and ancient burial sites, while European explorers found it a handy transport route on the way to the desert landscapes beyond.
Explorer Charles Sturt named the river in 1830 and it quickly became critical to the opening up of inland Australia. By the late nineteenth century, the Murray was compared to the Mississippi for its importance as a trade route for the wheat and wool that made Australia great.
Start in the east at Albury-Wodonga and you’ll find one of the river’s earliest port towns, located conveniently between Sydney and Melbourne and within a cart-haul of the Victorian goldfields. The twin cities are wrapped in riverside parkland, and the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) is one of the best cultural precincts in regional Australia.
Drive west along the river and travel into history and legend. Echuca is one of the Murray’s oldest ports, and its agreeable air and colonial flavour entice visitors to linger longer than anticipated. Many of the town’s buildings now host cafés and antique and fashion boutiques. Among notable heritage buildings is the Star Hotel, complete with an underground bar and escape tunnel that signal its use as an illegal drinking venue in the riotous old days.
Explorer Charles Sturt named the river in 1830 and it quickly became critical to the opening up of inland Australia
Only about a third of Echuca’s 1860s triple-tiered wharf remains, but its impressive size indicates the importance of this wool port to early trade
Today there are more sedate enjoyments in surrounding vineyards such as Morrisons Riverview Winery or Chanter Estate, which has an attached military museum.
Only about a third of Echuca’s 1860s triple-tiered wharf remains, but its impressive size indicates the importance of this wool port to early trade. Although river trade is now a thing of the past, Echuca still boasts the world’s largest paddle-steamer fleet and the world’s oldest wooden-hulled steamer, the Adelaide. Paddle-steamer excursions are a highlight of any Murray holiday and most come with interesting commentaries on pioneering days as you watch the riverbanks drift by and turtles warming themselves on sunny rocks.
You could follow the Murray Valley Highway from here all the way to Mildura but, as the road is often set back from the river itself, be sure to meander the byways. In the superb wetlands of Gunblower Island State Forest you’ll spot pelicans, black swans, spoonbills, purple swamp hens and soaring wedge-tailed eagles simply by following the forest drive; for the more energetic, Safes Lagoon near Cohuna has a wonderful five-kilometre canoe trail.
The Murray here is an expansive, slow-moving river surrounded by rust-red hills that flare at sunset and its waters braid across marshy flats teeming with long-legged ibis. This magnificent landscape is presided over by another historic river port, Swan Hill, established in the late 1830s.
Colonial history is presented in entertaining fashion at the Pioneer Settlement open-air museum, which recreates a working township from the Victorian era and teaches you about life in the bad old days.
From Swan Hill, the river winds through almond and peach orchards, then mallee country. Stray away from the river to Mungo National Park, which has significant Aboriginal sites and stretches of bold orange outback. Stick to the Murray for some rugged river-scapes best appreciated by taking to a kayak. You might also want to hit a golf course – Murray Downs Golf & Country Club is reckoned to be the finest, but all boast immaculate greens nibbled by kangaroos and winding between scenic billabongs and giant red gums.
Stray away from the river to Mungo National Park, which has significant Aboriginal sites and stretches of bold orange outback
Mildura is a good place to unwind for a couple of days and explore its many offerings at the pace of the river itself
As you approach Mildura the landscape’s lemon and olive groves offer a touch of the Mediterranean, and cellar doors provide a pleasant change of pace. Local chef Stefano de Pieri’s 1990s television show A Gondola on the Murray first brought the superb food and wine of Mildura to Australia’s attention in the 1990s. Enjoy a tasting at the Tuscan-inspired Oak Valley Estate cellar door, and dine on the river-viewing terrace at Trentham Estate on linguine marinara or grilled porterhouse, accompanied by a matched wine.
Mildura is a good place to unwind for a couple of days and explore its many offerings at the pace of the river itself. It boasts many historic buildings and rather grand former hotels that once served the many river traders. The Mildura Brewery also provides a cleansing change from the grapes you’ve experienced on the trip to date and Stefano de Pieri still runs a restaurant and café here. In addition, Langtree Avenue tempts with a whole strip of dining opportunities. The flavours are big and bold, the perfect homage to the Murray, that most Australian of rivers.
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