Trace the Murray River by road for delights both visually stunning and deliciously satisfying.
The mighty Murray River is the longest in Australia (and the third longest navigable river in the world after the Amazon and Nile), weaving its way through three states – NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
Concentrating on the stretch running from Albury in NSW to Echuca in Victoria in the Murray Valley food bowl – one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas – offers up the perfect bite-sized (literally) road trip, filled with scenery, food and passionate locals.
A taste of valley life
After arriving into Albury Airport on the (delayed) morning flight from Sydney, I forgo exploring the town and hit the road instead, determined to cover the roughly 227 kilometres to make it to the border town of Moama (the twin town of Echuca on the opposite side of the Murray River in Victoria) by late afternoon.
The first stop worth making along the way is in Corowa, a quick 45 minutes from Albury. The drawcard here is Corowa Whisky & Chocolate, housed in the imposing heritage-listed Corowa Flour Mill, built in the 1920s and which the current owners – the Druce family, who also run the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory in the historic Junee Flour Mill – bought for just $1. While the building itself is fascinating, with its original wooden flour chutes still intact inside, it now houses Corowa Distilling Co., and chocolate and liquorice tastings. You can sample its whiskies in the cosy tasting room, but designated drivers would be best sticking to the thick, sweet hot chocolate in the cafe instead.
It’s another 45 minutes’ drive to the town of Yarrawonga, where the family-owned Rich Glen Olive Estate produces its award-winning olive oils. When Ros Vodusek and her husband Damien took over his family farm, they were determined to build on what Damien’s dad had started when he planted the first olive trees on the former cattle farm; they now have 35,000 trees and produce gourmet foods and a huge range of beauty products in addition to the aforementioned oils.
Their on-site store and cafe is housed in the original family home, complete with Federation-era pressed tin ceilings, leadlight windows and a wide verandah where coffee and cakes can be enjoyed overlooking the lovely gardens, chicken coop and a collection of cheeky goats.
Ros, an endlessly smiling dynamo who is working with her neighbours to turn the area into a bit of a foodie hotspot, has grand plans for the property, from installing a food truck during the busy summer months to be run by their eldest son, an electrician and keen cook, to producing sausages (Damien was previously a butcher) for barbecues on the lawn, and converting a large shed filled with vintage farming and shearing equipment into a wine-tasting room.
Wide open spaces
Back on the road, the next stretch of driving allows me to become better acquainted with the Murray River Valley surrounding me. Looking to the horizon in all directions, the landscape is unrelentingly flat, like someone has taken an iron to it.
Fields of lucerne drenched in clear sunlight cast a warm golden glow in places, while elsewhere, the road is lined with the river red gum trunks that have long since succumbed to the elements and now act as eerily beautiful sculptures. Flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos dart and wheel overhead.
Upon reaching Moama, I head to Perricoota Vines Retreat, an award-winning lakeside village populated by comfortable self-catering villas and some excellent leisure facilities, which is the perfect base for the next few days given its handy proximity to sights and sustenance.
Munching on the Murray
After breakfast in your villa (courtesy of the generous hamper filled with milk, bread, eggs, juice and fruit), leave the car parked out front and head out on foot to explore the immediate vicinity along Perricoota Road on the outskirts of Moama.
St Anne’s Winery is an easy 15-minute walk away from Perricoota Vines Retreat (as the name implies, St Anne’s vines butt up against the property), and well worth a visit for the daily tastings conducted at the rammed-earth cellar door. The property produces a range of wines, from light whites and full-bodied reds to rich, sticky muscats. There is even a chocolate liqueur for those who like their alcohol to lean towards the super sweet end of the scale.
You can work off your late-morning tipple and work up a healthy appetite by walking another 15 minutes towards town for lunch at Three Black Sheep. A popular breakfast and lunch spot with locals, the menu is made up of eclectic cafe fare and the servings are generous (and delicious); my sushi bowl with chicken (a menu staple) comes complete with a syringe filled with a sweet and salty soy dressing that is fun to decant.
With lunch done, grab a coffee to go and head back towards Perricoota Vines Retreat, and keep walking another 10 minutes past it to arrive at the unassuming roadside building that houses Pacdon Park, purveyors of all things pork.
Pacdon Park is the passion project of Jim Arrowsmith and Pete Tonge, both originally from the Lancashire town of Chorley in the UK, who started the business after discovering that traditional British pork pies were in short supply in Australia. The backpacking duo determined to make their own, and a business was born.
Pacdon Park now makes pork pies, pork sausages, streaky bacon, black pudding, white pudding, gammon steaks and haggis, selling direct to the public out of this factory shop (buy up big while you are here and that’s dinner taken care of) and shipping them off to stockists across the country. Jim and Pete now oversee an enthusiastic staff, all of whom are required to wear regulation headdress: a flat cap.
The river in reverse
Retracing my tracks on the return trip to Albury, I break the journey at Lake Mulwala, a small town that swells in size come the busy summer season. Here, Mulwala local Liz Bayles has opened Blacksmith Provedore, a stylish restaurant and bar that trades on the feels of summer holidays of old, while hinting at the future direction for the town.
Sitting on the wide terrace overlooking a lawn set with picnic tables, as the adjacent wood-fire pizza oven produces crispy pies, Liz glows with enthusiasm for the business she is building and the place in which she is doing it: her childhood home. She tells me about plans to expand the outdoor area and enhance the menu before heading inside to talk with her staff.
I find the same passion displayed by Liz (and Jim and Pete at Pacdon Park, and Ros and Damien of Rich Glen Olive Estate) in Ririn and Kevin Yaxley, owners of Circa 1928 in Albury. Housed in a former Art Deco bank building close to the town’s botanic gardens and Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), the couple spent nine months painstakingly converting the site into a boutique spa hotel, and filling it with eclectic artworks and fittings, including Indonesian artist Ong Cen Kuang’s arresting light installation Ferousified Chrysanthemum, which dominates the entrance.
By the time I board my plane back to Sydney, I’m feeling the love for the Murray River Valley, too, along with the weight of a bagful of local produce from this most delicious of bite-sized road trips.
Add this to your itinerary, too
Any trip near the Murray River requires at least a cursory trip on the Murray River. Head to the historic Victorian town of Echuca (reached by bridge over the river from Moama), the boarding point for Murray River Paddlesteamer’s Wharf to Winery tour, a 30-minute cruise to Morrison’s Riverview Winery, Restaurant & Brewery on one of its vintage vessels: I did the trip on the 107-year-old PS Canberra.
Lunch is served on the wide deck of Morrison’s restaurant, overlooking the river amid towering gum trees (and watched over by hungry kookaburras who are coaxed away from diners’ plates by the staff who feed them morsels of raw meat), and accompanied by a selection of its own whites and reds.