Combining houseboating and hiking may just be the best of both worlds. A wonderful outdoors hike with no tenting at the end of the day.
From our clifftop perch, pale blue skies and ochre dirt collide. Forty metres below, bands of gum trees push through a sea of mist to reflect in the still mirror of snaking water. It’s an Australian icon, yet I don’t recognise it. This isn’t the Murray River of waterskiers and paddle steamers, it’s a scene from another age, another time – a time, perhaps, when the Erawirung people lived here exclusively.
I’m bundled in a down jacket and beanie, taking in the view from the top of the Headings Cliffs, my toes turning numb in the sub-zero dawn air. Next to me, my 80-year-old mother’s face beams in the burnt- butter light cast by the rising sun. Vast and timeless, the land seems to act as a spirit level, emanating peace and creating a space for shared wonder.
Our second morning on the Murray River Walk is hypnotically beautiful. The day before, our wanderings had taken us over trackless bushland where emus and kangaroos watched from a distance, and winding oxbows lay scattered with pelicans, egrets and herons. We’ll walk 40 kilometres over four days and cruise 70 kilometres along a stretch of river upstream from Renmark in South Australia, close to the Victorian border.
Home is a houseboat, a modern and cosy two-tiered vessel with five cabins, lounge and rooftop spa that we share with eight other guests and three crew. My mother’s desire to connect with a quintessential piece of Australia has brought us here, on our first holiday together since I was a teenager.
My mum and I don’t always see eye to eye but one thing we do agree on is hiking, an appreciation of which was likely seeded during Sunday family bushwalks in my childhood. While I have gone on to hike thousands of kilometres on long distance trails, my mother still manages about 30 kilometres every week with a local walking club. This level of activity I have always taken for granted, but as I see her tentatively negotiate the steep descent off the eroded sand cliffs, hiking pole in hand, to return to the boat, I discover a newfound appreciation for what she is still able to do.
Heather McNaughton is our guide, warm and sprightly at 62 years of age. “I’ve rarely seen it look so good with the mist this morning,” she says over steaming poached eggs and feta.
Though we’ve seen the river from various angles now, we’ve barely dipped our toes in the water. Australia’s longest river begins as a trickle in the Snowy Mountains of NSW, growing in size and winding like a ribbon as it’s fed by the Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers on its 2520-kilometre journey to the sea near Goolwa in South Australia. It’s the world’s third longest navigable river, after the Amazon and the Nile and, in walking alongside it, we see it from an angle few do.
Here, the water snakes and curls as it meanders across floodplains and, as water levels vary, so does the walk. There are no tracks or trail markers to follow here; we are far from civilisation. Heather leads us on animal trails and routes of her own choosing, skirting the river’s edge under the watchful eyes of whistling kites, pelicans and yellow rosellas twittering in the treetops.
“Occasionally I see people on the river but never while walking,” she says. Heather knows the land intimately. For 13 years, she and her husband ran a sheep farm on Calperum Station. “When we were farming, I always had a sense that this landscape was too fragile to be doing what we were doing. The climate was a challenge. We had a lot of drought – sometimes having to sell sheep, cull them or truck food in. It didn’t seem like the right place to be doing it.”
She’s far more comfortable these days, showing people her beloved river on foot. Our passage here is a sharing of knowledge and beauty that leaves no trace. “It feels like giving back to the environment.”
For millennia, the local Indigenous people lived along the Murray River – around several thousand of them Captain Charles Sturt estimated when he set out to explore the river in 1830. The arrival of overlanders changed everything, but the spirit of these first inhabitants remains.
Heather points out trees left scarred from the removal of bark to create shields or canoes, and demonstrates how ochre clay was moulded to plug holes in them. Middens, formed from piles of mussel shell fragments, dot the shoreline – traces of feasts once devoured. I enjoy discovering the river on foot but the views seem somehow sweeter from the hot tub on the houseboat’s top deck.
Walking days are leisurely, finishing mid-afternoon before slipping into a hedonistic evening of nibbles and three-course dinners paired with bottomless local wines. Internationally acclaimed chef Andrew Fielke, a specialist in the use of native ingredients, is the master behind the menu.
Food is plucked from the surrounding riverland: yabby bisque, Murray cod with lemon myrtle crust and kangaroo osso buco. Wilted buds of saltbush, picked during our rambles, are mixed with the morning’s scrambled eggs. We are not just walking the land, we are tasting it, too.
Back on land, Heather leads us along the Chowilla Creek for a while, cutting a corner off the meandering Murray. We step over fallen branches, picking a way between stands of brushbox and past billabongs carpeted in green and rust-coloured azolla, an aquatic fern. At a gnarled river red gum Heather pauses, suggesting we link hands and wrap our arms around it. “They’re about 100 years old for every metre in circumference,” she says. We date it at about 580 years old.
Far more ancient is the river itself, which emerged after the retreat of a vast inland sea around 130 million years ago. In its natural state, the river system is ephemeral, but these days locks and water regulators tightly control flows, permanently flooding some areas while depleting others further afield of the occasional natural inundation they need. It’s a tug of war between irrigation and environmental needs.“If we lose the river, we lose the fish, the birds, we have salinity issues, plus it affects food production,” Heather says.
But in this moment, the Murray belongs to the pelicans clustered by a sprawling river red gum, to the snakebird drying its wings after diving for fish, and the heron perched on the tip of a dead tree. It belongs to the kangaroos, turtles, lace monitors and banjo frogs. And, if only for a while, it belongs to my mother and me.
The Murray River Walk departs from Renmark in South Australia. Fly from all state capitals to Adelaide, from where it’s a three-hour drive to Renmark, or fly from Melbourne to Mildura for a 1.5-hour drive. Rental cars and transfers are available from either city.
Accommodation before and after the walk in Renmark is plentiful. The impressive art deco Renmark Hotel holds a commanding riverfront position.
The four-day Murray River Walk includes accommodation, all meals and beverages and more, and its season runs May to September. It forms part of Murray River Trails’ portfolio of experiences alongside a three-day Murray River Safari and customised houseboat holidays, Murray River Escapes.
For more information visit murrayrivertrails.com.au