Whether you’re after a coastal drive, the sight of a winding road cutting through a barren landscape or a the beauty of mountains rolling along the skyline, there are more than enough iconic drives to keep you exploring – here is the Mighty Murray Drive.
Setting out from the vibrant regional twin city of Albury Wodonga and calling it quits some 880 kilometres drive away, the Mighty Murray River Drive hugs the banks of the river, passing by detour-worthy country towns and encompassing the fertile Murray Valley food bowl, brimming with passionate producers creating everything from tangy olive oils to award-winning wines. The journey then strikes off inland to the desolately beautiful Mungo National Park, a site of unfathomable significance to Aboriginal culture and history, before returning to the river again at Wentworth, located in the southwest of the state (close to the Victorian border city of Mildura).
Kickstart your trip in Albury
Albury (twinned with the Victorian city of Wodonga) is the obvious starting point for any exploration of the Murray River, but that definitely doesn’t mean that is should be relegated to just somewhere to get off a plane and pick up a hire car. Located on the traditional land of the Wiradjuri people, the largest regional city in the Murray has much to recommend it.
Given it is the Murray River that will occupy so much time over the next few days, it seems like the obvious first place to head; you can stand in silent wonder on its banks if that’s your thing, but actually launching yourself onto it offers a much more authentic experience of the much mythologised waterway. Hire a canoe (try Murray River Canoe Hire), and paddle the gentle waters admiring the views along the banks. Once finished, get a different perspective from a table at The River Deck Cafe, a local institution sitting pretty in the lovely Noreuil Park and overlooking the river.
While it is tempting to get in the car and hit the road, that would be selling Albury short and mean missing out on biking the Wagirra Trail, a 15-kilometre trail (bikes are available for hire from Cycle Station) that includes the Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk, with arresting installations by 11 Aboriginal artists, and the Wonga Wetlands, which are teeming with birdlife.
Back in the centre of town, take a walk along the bustling main thoroughfare of Dean Street, admiring the elegant historic architecture that hints at Albury’s importance as a regional hub, and dropping in to the contrastingly modern Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) to browse the extensive collection, which includes paintings, ceramics, photography and Aboriginal artefacts.
With the day slowly waning, head to the elegant Circa 1928 for a first night treat. Housed in a former Art Deco bank building close to the town’s botanic gardens, owners Ririn and Kevin Yaxley spent nine months painstakingly converting the site into a boutique spa hotel, and then filling it with eclectic artworks and fittings, including Indonesian artist Ong Cen Kuang’s arresting light installation Ferousified Chrysanthemum, which dominates the entrance. The rooms are a stylish mix of vintage and modern furniture, generous beds and luxe bathrooms, one of which has an original bank vault tucked into the corner near the chic copper-top bath. Breakfast in the morning is equally unique, delivered to the room on a cut vintage cake/drinks trolley.
Albury to Howlong & Corowa: to linger in historic towns
It’s roughly 227 kilometres to the border town of Moama (the twin town of Echuca on the opposite side of the Murray River in Victoria and easily accessed by bridge), which is absolutely possible to traverse in under three hours, but with a number of interesting towns to stop at along the way, you are going to want to take your time.
The first spot worthy of investigation is the town of Howlong, which has a rich history (NSW surveyor-general Major Thomas Mitchell set up camp here in 1836) and is known by anglers as a lucky spot to bag a prized Murray cod. Take the self-guided Howlong History Trail (it takes three hours to walk or an hour to drive) past a collection of 28 sights significant to the town, before finishing with something to eat at Courthouse Kitchen, part of the 140-year-old Courthouse Hotel .
From Howlong it’s about a 30-minute drive to the town of Corowa, which played a role in the movement for Federation (find out about it at the Corowa Federation Museum). The real drawcard here is Corowa Whisky & Chocolate, housed in the imposing heritage-listed Corowa Flour Mill, originally 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 interior wooden flour chutes still intact, 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 on-site cafe instead.
Corowa to Yarrawonga & Mulwala: for the perfect Murray River itinerary
It’s another 45 minutes’ drive to Yarrawonga, where the family-owned Rich Glen Olive Estate produces its award-winning olive oils. When Ros Vodusek and her husband Damien took over the 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 an extensive range of delicious smelling olive-based beauty products in addition to the aforementioned oils.
The charming store and cafe is housed in the original family home, complete with Federation-era pressed tin ceilings, leadlight windows and a wide veranda where you can indulge in coffee and cakes overlooking the pretty gardens, complete with a chicken coop and a collection of cheeky goats.
The drive towards the nearby town of Mulwala skirts the man-made Lake Mulwala, which presents a quizzical sight, with the still waters pierced by the trunks of long- deceased river redgums. Spotting a gaggle of swans elegantly lacing their way around these natural sculptures, it is impossible not to want to pull over and wonder at the haunting beauty of the scene.
Mulwala local Liz McNaught opened Blacksmith Provedore in 2017 and the stylish restaurant and bar trades on the town’s nostalgic feel of summer holidays of old. Sitting on the wide terrace overlooking a lawn set with picnic tables, as the adjacent outdoor oven produces crisp-based pizzas such as the signature Paul Hogan (topped with chilli BBQ prawns), Liz glows with enthusiasm for the business she is building. And rightly so, as it is one that is helping to revitalise the town, which swells with holidaymakers during the summer months, but remains blissfully sleepy the rest of the year.
If you have the time, and a healthy sense of adventure, you can take to the waters of the lake for a spot of water skiing, a popular pastime here – the Mulwala Water Ski Club caters to all comers, from old hands to absolute beginners – before setting off again.
Camping nearby in Tocumwal
If you are a camping enthusiast, you might want to head to the historic town of Tocumwal to pitch a tent for the night. There are 24 river beaches dotted along the edge of the Murray River here, with a number of them set up for camping including Tocumwal Town Beach, Sonnermans Beach and Finlays Beach.
Alternatively you can head 20 minutes outside of town to set up camp on Ulupna Island, a river island in the Barmah National Park. While in residence under canvas, take a scenic glider flight with Sport Aviation, visit the Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome Museum , which played a key role in pilot training during the Second World War, tour the Tocumwal Railway Heritage Museum or just splash about in (or on) the Murray River swimming, fishing or canoeing.
Tocumwal to Moama-Echuca: to bask in the unspoilt beauty
The next stretch of driving affords the opportunity to become better acquainted with the Murray River Valley. Looking to the horizon in all directions, the landscape is unrelentingly flat, like someone has taken to it with a giant rolling pin. Fields of lucerne bathed in sunshine glow golden in places; elsewhere the road is lined with gum trees that have long since succumbed to the harsh Australian elements. All manner of birdlife dart across fields, perch on trees and wheel overhead. The landscape continues, unrelenting in its unspoilt beauty, until the outskirts of Moama come into view.
With a full day of driving done, head to Perricoota Vines Retreat, an award-winning lakeside resort dotted with self-catering villas and leisure facilities, which is perfect for couples or families. If you are sans kids, head to Junction Moama for cocktails, craft beer and local wines that complement a menu of share plates.
Alternatively, Pacdon Park, purveyors of all things pork, is a 10-minute drive away. This is the passion project of Jim Arrowsmith and Pete Tonge, both originally from the Lancashire town of Chorley in the UK. The pair started the business after backpacking around Australia, where they discovered that traditional British pork pies were in short supply. Jim and Pete now oversee an enthusiastic staff (all of whom wear regulation headdress: a flat cap) producing pork pies, pork sausages, streaky bacon, black pudding, white pudding, gammon steaks and haggis, selling direct to the public out of this factory shop (open from 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday).
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast (courtesy of a breakfast hamper ordered from Perricoota Vines Retreat), head across the Murray River – and over the border – to the historic Victorian town of Echuca. Wander the Port of Echuca Discovery Centre, an evocative living monument that includes the interactive Discovery Centre, the working Evans’ Brothers sawmill, the Cargo Shed Kids Space, and display of all things steam-powered, until it is time to board Murray River Paddlesteamers’ Wharf to Winery tour.
The cruise along the Murray to Morrisons Riverview Winery, Restaurant & Brewery takes 30 minutes on one of its vintage vessels, including 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. Murray River Paddlesteamers also conduct one- and two-hour cruises as well as overnight journeys that include the chance to steer a paddle steamer and watch the engineer stoke the hungry steam engine with redgum wood.
Moama-Echuca to Barham: for a cruise south of the border
The easiest way to reach the town of Barham is to follow the river out of Echuca on the Victorian side of the border, before heading back over the Murray River (and the border into NSW) some 90 kilometres away. A stop here affords another chance to take to the river; Ash and Linda Williams’ Barham River Cruises come complete with a running commentary on the history of the town and its slice of the river. On dry land again, pick up a map of the Redgum Statue River Walk from any business in town and head out to see its collection of redgum sculptures depicting local pioneers and native wildlife crafted by skilled chainsaw carvers.
While the area around Barham is known for its citrus fruits, the fertile earth here also favours grape growing. The boutique Barham Vines turns these into interesting small-batch red wines, which you can sample at its cellar door – accompanied by a wood-fired pizza – if you are passing through on a Saturday.
Barham to Balranald: to follow the Five Rivers Fishing Trail
From Barham it’s a two-hour drive (on both sides of the border) to Balranald, which holds the distinction of being the place where five rivers converge: the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Wakool, Edward and Lachlan.
Of course, anglers are spoilt for choice here; if you are keen, grab a map to the Five Rivers Fishing Trail and try your luck. Alternatively, you can explore the history of the town at the Yanga Woolshed, once home to 3000 sheep, or by walking the self-guided Balranald Heritage Trail.
You might want to consider heading out of town to Yanga National Park. While its wetlands are teeming with everything from egrets to eagles, it is the overnight camp site at Mamanga campground, right on the banks of the Murrumbidgee and under a dome of glittering stars that transforms a visit here into a quintessential road trip experience (and one the kids will love).
Stay nearby at Lake Paika Station
Accommodation with uninterrupted water views is also on offer at Lake Paika Station, a short 17-kilometre drive from Balranald. A night spent at the historic station, sitting on a peninsula of Lake Paika, can be done in either the restored Workman’s Quarters, with rooms facing the Lake, or the charming Duff’s Cottage, a good option for families with three bedrooms, a wood-burning fireplace and, most importantly, endless Wi-Fi.
Balranald to Mungo National Park: to learn about the cultural history of Lake Mungo
Setting off in the early-morning glow of sunrise, it is just over 150 kilometres from Balranald to Mungo National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed landscape of dry lakebeds and desert-red sand dunes possesses an otherworldly beauty that almost defies description; it is truly one of those places that you need to stand in the middle of to fully understand its dramatic natural beauty.
The area encompassed by Mungo National Park is of incredible significance to the local Aboriginal people, and to the Indigenous history of the country itself. Male and female human remains discovered on the dry Lake Mungo date back some 42,000 years, making them the oldest human remains found anywhere in Australia (it is believed that Aboriginal communities have dwelt on the lands here for some 50,000 years). One the best way to better understand this Indigenous history and see one of the highlights of the park, the Walls of China, is by booking a tour with an NPWS Aboriginal ranger, being welcomed to Country and learning about the cultural history of Lake Mungo and its traditional owners.
You can also explore at your leisure: start at the Meeting Point behind Mungo Woolshed, built in 1869 as part of the Gol Gol pastoral station, and set out on the Foreshore Walk, an easy 2.5-kilometre circular trail across the shoreline of Lake Mungo. There are markers up the red sand dunes on the western shore of the lake, where you can see the remains of a forest of mallee and white cypress that used to cover the area.
Wind up your journey in Wentworth
The drive time to Wentworth, and back towards the Murray River, is roughly 1.5 hours, passing by lakes and national parks along the way. The town is blissfully situated at the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers, which can be best appreciated from the Viewing Tower.
Much like Albury is much more than just a starting point, Wentworth is more than just a finishing point. While here, make time to see the Perry Sandhills, hectares of continuously shifting sand dunes where the skeletal remains of giant mega-fauna have been found (replicas are on display at the Pioneer Museum in town) and where evidence to ancient Aboriginal habitation is still being unearthed as the sands drift and change with the winds.
Finish off by toasting the journey at the family-owned Trentham Estate winery, nestled on the banks for the river, with a glass of Shiraz and a dish of Murray cod (what else?).
Make sure you stay up to date with the road conditions before you set off with the latest travel alerts at Visit NSW.