Murray Princess docked at Murray Bridge
The Murray-Darling river system
is the closest thing Australia’s got to the Mississippi, an inland highway paved with muddy water and boasting more chicanes than an F1 circuit. But she ain’t what she used to be. Not only is the river no longer a conduit for transporting people and supplies, but its very future is on the line. At the moment there’s a bunfight going on as four states who have an interest in that watery flow try to work out how they can all continue to profit without either sinking its dependent communities or totally destroying the imperilled environment they rely on. Fortunately, flooding rains that devastated some regions of those states earlier this year have bought the beancounters an extension by refuelling the river, removing the urgency that years of drought and dwindling water supplies had caused.
Last weekend, I got to take a float on a South Australian stretch of the Murray, churning our way by diesel-driven paddlewheeler — the largest in the southern hemisphere, the company boasts — from Mannum downstream to Murray Bridge, where we had a wander through the historic Round House, then upstream to the vicinity of Walker Flat before heading back down to Mannum.
The PS Murray Princess is operated by the Captain Cook line. It was a very pretty boat, built in 1986, with lots of dark timber interiors in its common areas. Our cabin was just big enough: a wardrobe, small ensuite in which I had to stork-bend to get under the shower head, a single bed on either side of the door that opened directly onto the deck, a heating vent in the bathroom that meant barely any blankets were needed, a wee window to let in some cool winter air. Twenty-four hour coffee and biscuits (Arnotts, a once-Australian icon, a little like the river in its riverboat heyday) and refills of drinking water were available in the lounge.
The lounge was a lovely space, two floors linked by spiral staircases in timber and brass, and a floor to ceiling window that showed the paddle doing its thing. When the sunlight was right, little rainbows would appear in the paddle’s spray. The ground floor had an unused bar and lots of tables and chairs; the upstairs mezzanine had a library and games box and more tables.
The bar was a small space at the nose, with the actual bar servicing both it and the adjacent dining room, the largest room on the boat. Its chief features were a timber strip down the centre for dancing and a two-sided breakfast bar.
Meals were safely Australian: various meats and veges, pasta and quiche and cheese platter with one lunch, buffet breakfast. Sensational seafood, including grilled barramundi.
The boat was at perhaps two thirds of its 120 passenger capacity and we were the youngest. The complimentary bus to and from Adelaide could’ve been mistaken for a retirement home outing, a veritable bowling alley of grey hair and bald spots when seen from the rear seats. We were surprised by the demographic but the cruise company had better insight: the entertainer was in his seventies, adept at clarinet and electric organ, spicing up the old-time tunes with a touch of Michael Buble and saxophone as the party lights rotated on the mostly vacant wooden dance floor into the early evening.
The river itself was the star attraction, usually showing one steep set of cliffs on one bank, the other flat land most often given over to agriculture but consistently dotted with towns and small outposts of rather fancy holiday shacks. Holiday houseboats were common, moored like mile markers in the reeds along the banks. At night, our boat would simply nudge its way into a berth and tie up to some handy gum trees — what magnificent specimens those river gums were. We went ashore a couple of times for a closer look. One stroll revealed a midden, canoe trees and the ongoing dysfunction the white middle class suffers in dealing with race relations. We walked away before the compulsion to jab the guide in his jaundiced eye became overwhelming.
The cliffs — they become more dramatic the farther upstream you travel, apparently — were vertical in places, with tenacious saplings sprouting along their bases. They were often dotted with bird nest holes, and circling hawks were common company for the duration of the journey. The birdlife was abundant — ducks, egrets, cormorants, pelicans downstream and black swans, a cheeky willy wagtail who might’ve been a fellow passenger, swallows. The birds were coming back, we were told, after the drought had forced them to relocate elsewhere. Many were still over at Lake Eyre enjoying the big wet.
We spent much of the voyage with our laptops and souvenir coffee mugs in the lounge or with a glass in the bar, where the prices were very fair indeed ($12 cocktails, $8.50 Coronas, wine about $8 a glass), making occasional dashes outside to photograph something gorgeous sliding by.
We were fortunate to have timed our flights in a window between the air traffic disruption of volcanic ash clouds drifting in from South America; a number of fellow passengers had brought the train across from Perth or Melbourne, praising the comfort and the food but a bit wary of the swaying motion. No such trouble on the Murray: it has a placid surface, though muddy and dotted with leafy detritus from the recent fresh. You can shower in it, but you wouldn’t want to drink it.
Three nights was probably enough time to spend largely constrained to the Princess’s decks and lounges, but it was a leisurely exploration that empowered laptop time and casual conversation and offered a glimpse of Australia’s history and geography. I’m glad I went, but I’m not checking All the Rivers Run out of the video store any time soon. Though I am tempted to jump ship and read Fevre Dream yet again!