South Australia: Dreamy time on the Murray

By Catherine Smith

It's the country life for me, says Catherine Smith, after experiencing the beauty of bush country during a leisurely trip by houseboat.

You don't have to rough it when you go by houseboat. Photo / Supplied
You don't have to rough it when you go by houseboat. Photo / Supplied

You do expect an Aussie - especially one in the bush - to be able to tell a good yarn. Sort of comes with the territory along with the laconic style and dry wit.

So it is with some disappointment that a group of us, intrepid journalists all, fail to extract from the handsome fella at the Young Husband general store, how his bustling burg (population: 300) came by its moniker. Spinster daughters of some wealthy sheep-station attracting a fortune-hunting larrikin from the city? Cougar widow enticing some hapless lad?

"Well, quite a few blokes around here do have older wives, me included," our less-than-garrulous shopkeeper allowed, before serving us our mid-morning beers.

Well it was Oz, and, like I said, it was the bush.

We were on only day two of our houseboat tour up the Murray River with the modestly, but as it turned out aptly, named Unforgettable Houseboats.

Even our friendly host, Mark Flanagan - who has been running the fleet of luxury houseboats with his partner, Lee-Anne, since the early 90s - reckoned he wasn't sure about the origins of the village's name. But there was pretty much nothing else about this stretch of the mighty Murray River and its environs that Mark didn't know.

A fifth-generation South Australian ("that's about as far back as you can go"), Mark is one of those salt-of-the earth country types from central casting. When we'd arrived at houseboat HQ, in the bigger burg of Mannum (at a couple of thousand souls, it's one of the bigger towns in this sparsely populated state), he'd calmly shown us how to start, drive and park our floating hotel. Piece of cake.

We'd first paused to admire the fridge packed by Angie and rued the stop we'd made at the Adelaide Markets en route from the airport to Mannum to pick up a snack or two, just in case.

Angie had clearly misread our party's size as 16 not six and stocked accordingly: beautifully marinaded meat, gourmet South Australian cheeses, and pantry basics sufficient for a small army. The jam, made by one of the houseboat crew from the local bush tucker - muntrie berries - was a huge hit. Local food doesn't get more local than this.

Mark had also left us nets, bait and lines to catch our own river food, after assuring us that the bait (huge bones of some sort) would not attract crocodiles. South Australia does not have crocs, he promised.

He also assured us - as did every South Australian we met all week - that SA did not, originally, have crims. It was the first free state on the newly settled continent, not a penal colony like those of the ruffians further east.

Mannum was one of the first towns to introduce river paddleboating in the 1850s - there was no bridge over the Murray until 1869 (at, no surprises, the new town of Murray Bridge) - bringing wool from the central stations to be carried to Adelaide.

But since it was first mapped by explorers in the late 1820s, access to and preservation of the river's water has become a pressing issue. The countryside we saw on the nearly 40km we covered in our three-night cruise just hinted at the harshness of the landscape without the Murray's water.

Today, the restored Murray Princess, a stern-wheel paddle boat, cruises the river creating plenty of photo-ops for the houseboaters, and Mannum is now the centre of the river tourism industry.

As well as houseboating, there are clusters of "shacks" on the river banks (think more of old Pauanui beach house than Omaha mansion) and we even spotted a few old houseboats, more down-at-heel than our glamour vessel.

Tiny general store burgs like Young Husband and Bowhill swell to thousands over the summer. For those who don't care for jetsking or waterskiing there are simple campsites with docks for a spot of fishing and contemplation.

Manoeuvring our cottage-on-catamarans for the first time wasn't quite as easy as Mark had demonstrated, but eventually we settled on a couple of ace drivers in our group while the rest of us were the deckhands - scrambling to secure the houseboat to the trees with our best scouting knots.

Poor drivers, like me, tend to sway about the river like a shopping cart. There is a strict etiquette about passing, tooting and turning, and we all gave way to the small car ferries that keep communities connected. Progress was leisurely - top speed is seven knots - so there was plenty of time to take in the classic bush landscape.

Although the red-layered cliffs were just as lovely as the brochures had promised, it was the wetlands and huge stands of eucalyptus bush that were eye-catching. One stop offered us an obliging pair of kookaburras (disappointingly, they did not laugh as that song promised), at another we passed an excited group of children who had caught a brown snake.

One early morning we spied a scoop of handsome pelicans gathered on the beach, and there were plenty of hawks about. But while the promised dusk showings of wombats or kangaroos didn't eventuate, we did scoop out a couple of river crayfish but the shrimps and fish we threw back, forewarned of their muddy taste.

The routine was idyllic: eat, cruise to another quiet beach, eat some more, untie and cruise on until evening for more food, toasts to the good life, then bed. Small expeditions to shore gave a taste of that huge outdoors the Aussies call bush. Sunsets on the still wide river were spectacularly red, sunrises misty and silver.

Australian countryside is the life for me. If only I could come up with a fitting yarn to explain those enticing names.

CHECKLIST

Houseboating: Unforgettable Houseboats is based at Mannum, South Australia, 5238. Phone +61 8569 2559. Low season (June 1 to August 31) houseboat hire starts from A$1700 for three-night weekenders on the basic eight-berth, through to A$3450 for the luxury 12-berth. In the high season (December 22 to January 31) prices range from A$2390 to A$4350.

You can contact the Floating Gourmet Shopping service by emailing info@floatinggourmet.com.au or phone +61 8 8396 6907.

Further information: See southaustralia.com.

Catherine Smith travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.


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