Australian Traveller looks at the Murray River in a “Just Like” comparison with the mighty Mississippi.
Just Like . . .
Can’t spare the time or money to get to the Mississippi? Fear not. The Murray River is closer, more interesting and far easier to spell.
By Kerry van der Jagt
There: The Mississippi River twists and winds for 3779km across ten US states from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Here: The 2530km Murray River begins in the Snowy Mountains of NSW and reaches the Southern Ocean near Adelaide.
As rivers go, the Murray must be the world’s most lethargic. Meandering slowly, unsure which way to turn next, it’s the old dog of rivers – beginning over six million years ago, when the sea invaded the western part of the Murray-Darling basin.
By comparison, the Mississippi is a mere pup, formed just 15,000 years ago. And, like a pup, it’s impetuous and wayward, producing whirlpools a 100m across and flood currents up to 18 knots.
The Murray was found in 1824 by incompatible explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovel (once referred to as the patron saints of “all who fight on a journey”). In 1853, another duelling duo William Randall and Francis Cadell played out their role in the river’s history. The SA Legislative Council offered a prize of £4000 for the first steamer to navigate from the mouth of the river to Swan Hill. Before you could spell Mississippi these two captains took up the challenge. Randall began his journey on the Mary Ann on August 15, 1853. By September 14, Cadell on the Lady Augusta charged past him at the Murrumbidgee junction. The race was on. For three days the lead changed several times until, ultimately, the Lady Augusta arrived in Swan Hill on September 17, just four hours ahead of the Mary Ann. Cadell scored the trifecta: the bulk of the cash (though Randall received £300), his ship on a commemorative medal (held in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney) and streets named in his honour. Moral of the story? Always back the Lady.
From then on, river transport played an important role; 300 steamers operated in the Murray-Darling system during the riverboat era, transporting passengers, timber, wool and gossip. Today, the Port of Echuca on the Victorian side has a number of claims to fame: world’s largest collection of paddle steamers; home to Australia’s oldest paddle steamer (PS Adelaide); and location of the 1983 miniseries All the Rivers Run. For your own Tom Sawyer moment, day cruises leave from Murray Bridge, Renmark and Mannum in SA, Mildura and Echuca in Victoria, and Albury in NSW. In fact, Mark Twain compared the Murray favourably with the Mississippi River when he visited in 1895.
Captain Cook cruises operates the PS Murray Princess out of Mannum, but don’t expect a European river trip; this is Australia, in all its raw glory. You’ll pass through some of the driest parts of the driest continent, yet be rewarded by ancient red gum forests, soaring gorges and limestone cliffs. On some cruises, stops are made at the Barossa Valley vineyards for wine tasting. That’s when, relaxed and a little lethargic (like the river itself), it’s nice to have a captain as your designated driver.