Travel: Down the Murray River

Australia? Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Big airports, bigger cities.

As I stood contemplating Melbourne International Airport, it came to me that the above three cities were the limit of my experience across the Tasman.

This, however, was a new adventure. A Tourism Victoria official was on his way to collect myself and two other journalists for a five-day round-trip that would take us into the heart of Victoria. Travelling north, the majestic Murray River would flow at the centre of our travels, and around it places with real Australian names - Echuca, Swan Hill and Mildura.

When Tony Poletto arrived it was clear he was the man to look after three hungry media types. Let's describe his appearance as cuddly, his demeanour as enthusiastic. Where Victoria was concerned Tony wasn't conceited, he was convinced, to borrow a line from Muhammad Ali.

So it was goodbye to Melbourne, and hello to an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive to Echuca (Meeting of the Waters), a heritage river town, home to a fleet of paddle steamers and a great base for houseboat holidays and watersports.

At one time Echuca was the state's most substantial inland river port.

Confirming my suspicions about Tony, our first port of call was Oscar W's Wharfside. A delightful restaurant overhanging the Murray River, right on the once-thriving port. It was the perfect venue for a briefing on the town's history.

The standard was also set for our dining throughout the trip. Outstanding foods and beverages, with service to match. Friendly, not overbearing, helpful.

Mid-afternoon we began to explore a town that received a modern-day rejuvenation when used as a filming location for popular 1980s period drama All the Rivers Run. That television mini-series, set in the 1890s, explains wooden guttering and gravel roads by the port, and why you won't see power lines above ground.

Millions of dollars have been spent keeping that part of the town a virtual museum.

One doesn't have to use much imagination to conjure the life and colour the Murray River once brought. Steamers taking supplies up and down river, bringing produce from farms as far away as the Queensland border, to be taken to the city by rail. The river is still busy with pleasure craft, houseboats and about a dozen commercial paddle steamers.

About 1.8 million people visit Echuca a year, population 14,000, for that very reason.

But there are other attractions when one tires of the lazy flow of the Murray River. Sharp's Magic Movie House and Penny Arcade proved delightful, with its mix of silent movies and vintage gaming machines.

Among the normal skill games was an oddity, an early version of pornography, a "peep show" on offer for a token.

For the petrol heads, the National Holden Museum is a must. Featuring many privately owned vehicles left for safe storage, among the gems are the one millionth Holden, still owned by the motor vehicle manufacturer and never road registered. There's also the two millionth Holden and the four millionth Holden with 70km on the clock.

As night fell we came to our first real encounter with the Murray River, a cruise and overnight accommodation on the paddle steamer, PS Emmylou, with a captain and crew straight out of the olden days - slightly shifty, somehow endearing, all with stories to tell if only you knew them well.

There's nothing overly comfortable about the accommodation, but that simply adds to the overall experience on a craft powered by a 1906 steam engine.

In the darkness the steamer anchored, and we alighted to a clearing for a party befitting our new status as ratbag river heroes.

It was all quiet on the Murray River as we steamed back into the Port of Echuca the following morning.

After an informative visit to the Echuca Historical Society, housed in the National Trust-listed former Police Station and Cell Complex, it was time for the Echuca Moama Wine Tour.

This tour briefly crosses the border into New South Wales. With Sue McGowan as our guide it proved an exceptional way of getting around a number of estates, getting a feel for the varieties on offer, and sightseeing.

My favourite encounter was at Silverfox, in the heart of the Perricoota Wine District. Owner Jackie Stevens introduced us to wine tasting. Oxygenate by stirring, smell, hold on tongue for palate, breathe through teeth for full mouth experience.

In the late afternoon we left Echuca, embarking on a 165km trip to Swan Hill, still on the banks of the Murray River and surrounded by fertile agricultural land. At the Murray Downs Resort and Golf Club a luxury room awaited, far removed from the paddle steamer bunk.

It was time to relax at the Balinese-themed, Java Spice restaurant, before crashing after a full-on two days.

Swan Hill claims to be "the food bowl" of Victoria, and was another major port town of the paddle-steamer era. The first stop on day three, the Pioneer Settlement on the picturesque banks of the Marraboor River, was testament to the old ways.

Expensive vintage tractors, steam running an entire workshop as it did until the 1920s, a blacksmith (from Paraparaumu), horse and cart rides and, indicative of changing times, a ride around the settlement in a 1924 Dodge. Not to mention a well-stocked sweet shop, and much more than we had time for.

A short walk away lies the Swan Hill Regional Gallery, a classy premise, with Spoons Riverside restaurant conveniently sandwiched in-between. The gallery hosts a permanent collection of Australian native paintings, 20th century prints, drawings, works on paper and post-1960s paintings, as well as featuring touring exhibitions.

Finally we got to see Murray Downs Resort and Golf Club in daylight. One of Victoria's finest courses it has a spacious and busy clubhouse, and through careful planning the 18 holes stand in proud defiance of the difficult climatic conditions Victoria sometimes experiences.

Best of all, it doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

As one travels through this area you learn the people have been through droughts, fires, floods, and infestations of all kinds - locusts, crickets, mice, moths. But with a shrug of the shoulders, they're back smiling.

On day three I realised the vital difference between travel to the cities and travel inland is the people. It's difficult to really engage with Australians in a city where the pace of life is hectic, but in these smaller places people have time.

Mid-afternoon it's time to depart for our final destination, Mildura. On the edge of the Australian outback, it is an oasis by the Murray River. Produce, good weather, water - it's all here.

Better still is our luxury accommodation aboard a $750,000 houseboat. Everything first-class. A floating five-star hotel.

After settling in, we walked a few hundred metres to the restaurant of celebrity restaurateur Stefano de Pieri. Stefano's Restaurant, situated in a basement, was doing just fine without him. And the five-course menu with matching wines was almost too good for my uneducated palate.

A cruise down the Murray River in luxury was a superb way to unwind, and Chris Durban, the owner of Aaah Willandra Houseboats, perfect company.

It was my personal highlight of the trip to drive such a beautiful craft, and it made one realise how easy it would be to organise a family holiday on the Murray River.

Regular stops broke up the day. A visit to the delightful Riverside Golf Course, more country than Murray Downs, offered the chance to race around on golf carts. Mildura has seven golf courses, and with the mild climate, golf is on the agenda year-round.

The riverside features magnificent native red gum and box trees and abundant bird life, which immediately spoke relaxation.

Lunch at family-owned Trentham Estate offered sumptuous food and award-winning wines, before an easy-to-understand look over their impressive winery operation.

Then back towards Mildura we stopped at the Gol Gol Hotel for a cool ale - perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

By the time we arrived at our riverfront moorings the Murray River had worked its magic on us. We said goodbye to Chris, a top bloke with a top business, and reflected on a day of good vibes. But there was more - beer tasting at the Mildura Brewery, and a final dinner with Tony at the Spanish Bar & Grill.

Early next morning we flew back to Melbourne, where I spent the day walking the beautiful streets before flying out that evening.

Australia, I had discovered, is much more than its cities. And if people are part of your tourism package, I suggest you think about a self-drive, personalised tour north from Melbourne. And whatever you do, get the Murray River in your veins.

- Hamilton News

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