Murray River: Sporting chance

By Rob McFarland

More interested in play than pinot? The Murray River is still for you, writes Rob McFarland.

A meander down the Murray proves the perfect antidote to waterskiing lessons. Photo / Rob McFarland
A meander down the Murray proves the perfect antidote to waterskiing lessons. Photo / Rob McFarland

It was supposed to be a hypothetical question. When I asked Jack: "What would happen if the engine failed now?" I didn't expect him to reply: "Let's find out."

I wouldn't be so worried if we were in a car or a boat. But we're in a two-seater plane - at 2500 feet.

Jack powers back the engine of the Piper Tomahawk and then, with a grin, tells me we're about to attempt a "dead-stick" landing.

I try to hide the look of sheer terror on my face. I don't like the sound of the word "attempt" and I'm even less enthusiastic about the word "dead". But I'm in safe hands. As an instructor at Jarden Aviation, Jack has been flying for 34 years and has racked up more than 12,000 hours in the air. After a couple of sharp turns to lose height, he glides in and touches down smoothly.

It's an exhilarating end to my first trial instructional flight, where for several minutes Jack let me fly the plane. It's an intoxicating feeling to be at the helm of an aircraft and I can see why so many people decide to get their licence after taking one of these flights.

Jarden Aviation is in Yarrawonga, on the Victorian side of the Murray River, and I'm in the region as part of an adventure-packed, three-day dash along the river from Echuca to Albury.

This stretch of the Murray is peppered with exotic-sounding twin towns that straddle the VIC/NSW border, such as Echuca-Moama, Yarrawonga-Mulwala and Albury-Wodonga. It's a region that has long been a tourist hot spot (Echuca is one of the most-visited destinations in Victoria), but it's not an area that I'd previously associated with adventure.

The last time I was here was for a paddle-steamer trip which, while highly enjoyable, wasn't exactly an orgy of adrenalin. But, over the past few days, I've discovered the area has a wilder side. And it all started with a man called Brett Sands.

Sands is a three-time world barefoot waterski champion who now offers wakeboarding and waterski lessons on the Murray just outside Moama. So popular is the sport around these parts that it's been nicknamed the wakeboarding and waterskiing capital of Australia. It's also the site of the country's biggest waterski race, the Southern 80, which sees competitors from all over the world tearing along 80km of the Murray at speeds of up to 160km/h. Sands has skied the Southern 80 six times, so if anyone is going to get me up on a pair of waterskis, it's him.

He starts me on a boom bar from the side of the boat and we practise the launch. I lie back in the water, skis sticking up in the air, knees against my chest and let the boat gradually pull me up. And, miraculously, it works.

Then we try with the rope off the back and I'm up again, first time. I'm just thinking what a doddle this waterskiing business is when a wave catches me off-guard and I perform a spectacular face-plant.

Later that afternoon we opt for something a little less wet and wild. Normally visiting a museum wouldn't be high on my to-do list for a trip like this, but the National Holden Motor Museum in Echuca is a little gem. Not only is it Australia's most-visited car museum but, at A$16 ($22) for a family of four, it's refreshingly affordable. Among its constantly changing range of 45 cars are Holden's one- and two-millionth cars, both of which have never been registered or sold.

The museum isn't the only surprise in the area. As unlikely as it sounds, on the way from Echuca to Yarrawonga we stumble across a 3ha cactus farm that contains more than 4000 species, including the cardon cacti that can gro to 19m high. Owners Jim and Julie are walking cacti aficionados and provide tours of their unique collection.

Understandably, many of the opportunities to get active in the region revolve around the Murray and, after tearing along it behind a boat, I was keen to see it from a more leisurely perspective.

Yarrawonga Outdoors offers guided kayak tours and I spend a relaxing couple of hours with owner Shayne nosing around the Murray's backwaters; threading through an eerie landscape of drowned river red gums before battling through reeds to get to the junction of the Murray and Ovens rivers. It's midweek, so the river is quiet and refreshingly free of the speedboats that roar up and down it most weekends.

We have several golfing enthusiasts in our group, so the final instalment in our three-day trip is a visit to Yarrawonga and Border Golf Club. With 45 holes, it's Australia's largest public-access golf resort and, for a public course, it's in excellent condition. It also has some deceptively tricky holes and - after a round on its challenging Lake Course - it now has the largest collection of my golf balls of any course in Australia.

The last three days have opened my eyes to this part of the Murray. Southern 80, here I come.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Melbourne. Echuca is a 2.5-hour drive from Melbourne.

Staying there:

Quest Echuca

RACV Cobram Resort

More information:

Brett Sands Watersports

The National Holden Motor Museum

Cactus Country

Jarden Aviation

Yarrawonga Outdoors

Yarrawonga & Border Golf Club

* Rob McFarland was a guest of Tourism VIC and Tourism NSW.

- Herald on Sunday

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