Travelling more than 100 kilometres on foot and by boat, Jo McKay sees the Murray River in a whole new light.
Photography by Damian Bennett
It's 5:20am and the sky is still scattered with stars. I’m perched on a small pontoon cruiser with 11 others, gliding across the Murray River. As we motor along, moonlight on the river’s surface fractures into ripples. When we reach the bank, we clamber out of the boat, disoriented in the murky light. Our leader, Tony Sharley – bright-eyed and animated despite the time and darkness – gives us an encouraging wave. It’s the signal to follow and so we do, single file, switching back and forth up an incline and along a ridge, which in daylight is rich and red, though all I can currently make out is rusty grey. On the breeze, the air starts to thrum with the paean of birds.
Our goal is a two-kilometre walk away: a viewing platform up high, where we’ll be able to see the sweep and bend of the mighty Murray bathed in early-morning light. As we ascend the lookout some 15 minutes later, the clouds morph into a kaleidoscope of pink and purple and the impeccably timed golden sunlight streaks across the sky. Below, the river goes mirror-like, reflecting pale trunks, grey-gum foliage and the russet escarpment we’re standing on. We all grin and cheer.
Eucalypt woodland can be found in the river's wetland ecosystem
But this escape is actually a clever blend of walking and river cruising; some 40 kilometres of the former and 70 kilometres of the latter, with the fourth day dedicated entirely to cruising.
There’s another point of difference between this and other walking tours: the accommodation. There is no camping or glamping here, let alone swags. Instead, we’re spending our nights aboard a well-equipped houseboat with five double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a cosy lounge and an adjoining kitchen, where our walking guides turn chefs to prep flavourful meals using regional fare. In a nod to extravagance, a hot tub bubbles away on the upstairs deck – Sharley assures me it’s as popular in July as it is with our troupe in mid-spring (the Murray River Walk operates from May to October in 2017).
Whether walking or cruising, the party’s focus is always on what Sharley describes as “Australia’s greatest river”, a sinuous coffee-and-olive-hued watercourse that’s more than 2500 kilometres long. From its source in the Australian Alps, the Murray snakes south, forming the border between NSW and Victoria then wending through South Australia’s Riverland region before turning south to seek out the coastline.
Obviously, our four-day expedition doesn’t trace the river’s entire length. Instead, Sharley’s all-inclusive tour focuses on the tangle of Ramsar Convention-protected wetlands between Renmark and the South Australia/Victoria border, covering some of the Murray’s iconic scenery: towering red cliffs that frame the water; dense bushscapes lining the lower banks; and twisted, gnarled skeletons of long-dead gums, magisterial tributes to floods and droughts of the past. “The river is a living thing,” says Sharley. “I just want people to connect with it.”
It’s not a hard ask. In yesterday’s sunshine, we trekked for 14 kilometres along its banks and tributaries, through graceful red-gum forests and sparse black-box groves and then over plains carpeted with wild flowers, the result of heavy winter rains. Today, post-sunrise excursion, we’ll tackle another 12 kilometres; tomorrow, we’ll do it again. We don’t set a cracking pace. But as we walk, Sharley, a river management expert, effuses about the ora and fauna in this wetland ecosystem; the Indigenous culture of the region; and the geology, politics and community that have shaped this river. Sharley’s enthusiasm is irrepressible; a lifetime of energy lines his face.
Ours is a party of 12 comprising two guides and 10 walkers – the maximum number of guests on any Murray River Walk. We’re of varying ages (ranging from those in their thirties to those in their sixties), fitness levels and occupations: there are winemakers, lawyers, scientists and social workers. For those who regularly ramble, the cruising element adds a new dimension. We are on and off the cruiser daily, hopping from the houseboat to it, to the riverbank and back – and it’s not just for the benefit of being ferried to sundry walking tracks. This smaller vessel allows Sharley to show off parts of the river that would otherwise be inaccessible.
At times, we navigate anabranches of the Murray, and anabranches of anabranches – some so slender that the gums seem to close in on both sides. The sun dapples the water through the canopy and when the boat slows, only the rustle of an emu, the thump of a roo loping along the bank or the twittering of birds punctures the silence.
The Murray is home to birdlife such as the elegant great egret
One day, a call from Sharley pierces the air as he walks ahead and the rest of us crunch through the undergrowth on the banks. “Inchies!” he shouts. Walking in uninhabited bushland isn’t without its perils and the Riverland is no exception. During his introduction, Sharley had mentioned some of the menaces we might encounter: snakes are probably the most worrying; “inchies”, or inch ants, are another. The name explains their length, while the vigour with which they are pointed out indicates the sting of their bite. Yesterday, a few in our gang succumbed to several of these critters but today we’re on the ball and well warned. We all hop, step and jump over the nest.
Dangers aside, it’s peaceful walking. That’s partially to do with the isolation. There hasn’t been a phone or wi- signal since we motored away from Renmark and, save for those aboard the few passing houseboats, there’s not a soul in sight. What results is a delightful intimacy; it’s easy to natter away, getting to know one another as we walk and cruise, but there are also times when we fall silent. Even as the clouds roll in and wet weather threatens, I feel a quiet sense of ease, a welcome change from the hustle of urban life. Back at the houseboat, the relaxation continues with piping-hot showers or, for some, a soak in the hot tub. Then it’s wine and nibbles and a three-course meal, followed by lingering conversation. By 10pm, though, the boat is dark and hushed. We’re walking again tomorrow and need our rest.
When a fine drizzle sets in one morning, Sharley enthuses: “A wet day in a wetland! It will be sticky today. We’ll get some mud on us!” It hardly matters; we’re well prepared for whatever the weather gods might throw at us. Sharley has been emailing us for weeks now, ensuring we bring appropriate gear – wet-weather layers and extra socks, naturally, but also gaiters.
A week before we depart, I stare at the canvas calf protectors in the hiking shop. Do I really need gaiters? They aren’t expensive but, for an occasional walker like me, they’re not cheap, either. Begrudgingly, I buy them. On day one, I don them proudly, only to realise that just one other walker is wearing a pair – and that includes our guides. I swallow a silent harrumph. But come day three, in the slick, soaked wetland, I’m outright smug because other people’s trousers are smeared in mud from ankle to knee. My gaiters are coated, too, but no water or mud is getting through these suckers. Outdoor gear aside, there’s a moody beauty to walking in this cold, misty rain. The red-gum canopies seem greener and the bark takes on a silver lustre.
Back on the boat, our walking day done, I stare once again at the scenery through the big-screen window in my bedroom. The river slips silently past and I’m mesmerised. I could stare at it for hours but then I hear the hot tub crank upstairs and the unmistakable clink of glasses. It would be churlish not to join in...
Where to stay beforehand
During the tour, you’ll be sleeping on the houseboat. But as the cruising and walking commences on Mondays at 7.30am sharp in Renmark, about 250 kilometres north-east of Adelaide, you’ll need a place to rest your head the night before. These local spots fit the bill.
Perched on a bluff in Paringa, The Frames comprises three luxury lodgings with light- filled interiors, private outdoor spaces and special extras such as spa baths.
Pike River Villas
A 25-minute drive from Renmark, in Lyrup, the five well-appointed self-contained Pike River Villas overlook the water, an anabranch of the Murray.
The Water House
Secluded three-bedder The Water House has private river frontage in Paringa and is perfect for groups, especially those who want to self-cater. There’s a minimum two-night stay so make a weekend of it, exploring Renmark and its surrounds before the walk begins.