Australia: Up a long, lazy river

By Phil Welch

A trip on a riverboat paddle steamer is a lovely way to travel. Photo / Supplied
A trip on a riverboat paddle steamer is a lovely way to travel. Photo / Supplied

At 2375km long, the Murray River is Australia's longest watercourse. From humble beginnings in Cowombat Flat in the Australian Alps, to its mouth near Goolwa, Southern Australia, the river forms the natural boundary between the state of Victoria and New South Wales

We arrived in Echuca, a large town 205km north of Melbourne and the river's closest point to the city. It became famous to many in the 90s TV series All the Rivers Run, much of which was filmed in and around the port of Echuca.

Echuca means "meeting of the water". It was, at one time, one of the most important ports on the Murray because of its proximity to Melbourne. Paddle steamers would carry wool here for transportation to the city.

Today, it is home to the world's largest paddle steamer fleet and, in particular, the oldest surviving wooden-hulled paddle boat: the PS Adelaide.

We stopped for lunch at Oscar W's, watching the paddle steamers as they chugged past.

The well-established restaurant prides itself on using regional produce and boasts a seasonal menu. We were treated to a poached veal salad, delicious yabbie pasta and grilled kangaroo. It was so good that any feelings of guilt I may have had over eating one of Australia's national animals vanished as I licked my plate clean and looked for more.

After lunch we toured the historic port for an insight into the mammoth task of restoring the quay, an ongoing labour started almost 40 years ago.

The other port projects seemed just as daunting when it was demonstrated how time-consuming and precise the restoration of the hull of a derelict paddle steamer had to be.

Next, it was on to Sharp's Magic Movie House and Penny Arcade. With a handful of coins, you can watch old silent films or experience pre-arcade game amusement halls with "test your strength" mechanical arm wrestlers (I was a weakling), bet on ponderous tin horses as they stutter and stagger Historic Echuca is a Murray River highlight.

I woke just before dawn and crept on deck to watch the sun rise over the eucalypts. across a two-dimensional racetrack, or peek through a small slot at vaguely 3D images of semi-clad flapper girls. Fantastic fun.

After all that excitement it was time for afternoon tea and scones at the Wistaria Tea Rooms (delicious) then on to the National Holden Motor Museum (surprisingly interesting) for a brief look around.

No visit to Echuca could be without a trip on a paddle steamer and, with the sun slowly melting into a red sunset, we boarded the PS Emmylou, our accommodation for the night. The Emmylou looks old but was built in 1982. It is, however, driven by a restored steam engine from 1906 and appeared in All the Rivers Run as the PS Providence.

After dropping off my bag in my cabin, a small but very comfortable room on the top deck, I fell down some very steep steps into the galley and staggered on to the stern deck to enjoy a glass or two of sav and the last of the sun as we chugged down the river to our evening mooring.

The crew were rugged and friendly. After a feast prepared by their excellent young chef, they lit a fire on the riverbank where we all sat talking and drinking well past midnight beneath a clear night sky.

I woke just before dawn and crept on deck to watch the sun rise over the eucalypts.

The river was completely still and reflected the stars like a mirror. Other than the gentle lap of the river it was utterly quiet, and I revelled in the moment - until a rattling snore from a cabin brought me back to reality and stirred me to head back to my room for a few more hours' sleep.

After breakfast - and a fond farewell to the Emmylou - we explored the Echuca Historical Society, just minutes across the town square. The society is housed in the old police station and one of the cells is still available to visit. The others house some of the society's incredible collection of artifacts and ephemera of a not-too-long-ago age.

I could have spent hours - no, days - wandering around the museum, examining the remnants of the lives of the former Echuca residents. Everything imaginable, from iceboxes and meat safes to party dresses and corrugated tin boats, had been collected, and with help from the local newspaper, the Riverine Herald, was in the painstaking process of being catalogued by the dedicated volunteers.

After that remarkable glimpse into the past it was time to experience the present - the contemporary wines of Victoria on the Water and Wine Tour.

Sue McGowan led us on an enlightening tour of the area. Highlights included a short wine-tasting lesson by the very engaging Jackie at Stephens Brook Estate, and some delicious fortifieds, courtesy of the lovely Bambi at Silverfox Wines.

Then, all-too-soon, I was full of wine and it was time to leave Echuca, the paddle steamers and the wonderful ladies of the Historical Society.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Oscar W's wharfside red gum grill and deck bar

Murray River Paddlesteamers

Echuca Moama Wine Tours

Stevens Brook Wines

Silver Fox Wines

Phil Welch travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

- NZ Herald

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