Victoria: River ramble

By Phil Welch

Victoria is a trove of Australian settler history. Phil Welch falls under the spell of its meandering Murray river.

The spellbinding Murray River at sunset. Photo / Thinkstock
The spellbinding Murray River at sunset. Photo / Thinkstock

We arrived in Mildura in time to witness a blood-red sunset. It was an atmospheric start to what would be a holiday that changed mood in time with the river we drifted down.

The Murray River divides New South Wales and Victoria. Mildura, on the Victoria side, is a popular stop-off point for cruises.

With a population of 30,000, it is a major agricultural centre and boasts a lively nightlife, managing to keep residents and tourists happy.

Good spots to eat and drink before departing on your boat are Stefano's, the Spanish Bar and Grill and, for microbeer connoisseurs, the impressive Mildura Brewery, formerly the Astor Theatre. You can admire its gorgeous Art Deco interior over a boutique brew.

Willandra Houseboats is a friendly, family-run business owned by Chris and Marina Durban.

The boat we were sailing on, the Pure Paradise, lived up to its name. The attention to detail on board was incredible.

The word "cabin" doesn't do its suites justice. An open-plan living space with a fully equipped kitchen (far better than mine at home) and a large sitting room led to exquisite en-suite bedrooms.

At the stern, stairs led to a partly covered upper deck with a giant spa pool, sun loungers, a kitchen with barbecue and a huge round table for al-fresco dining.

Here, too, was a secondary helm so the skipper could join in all the fun.

Yes, I thought, this would do nicely.

The next day, relaxing in the luxurious sitting room, with a glass of rose in my hand and the sun streaming through the windows, I mused on the previous day's visit to Swan Hill's historic Pioneer Settlement, where we'd stepped back in time.

Music had drifted from the piano shop as we roamed the dirt streets. We passed a tiny building which housed the newspaper and printing office, peeked in at the glowing forge where a blacksmith hammered out hot-red iron on her anvil.

A signwriter displayed his calligraphic skills across the front of his building and a huge shed housed a vast steam engine from which looped belts of many shapes and sizes, all powering an assortment of machines and tools around the building.

My favourite part of the village was the apothecary. The dark, wood-panelled shop, its shelves bowed under bottles, jars and phials, filled with medicines and cure-alls of the time, appealed to the magpie in me.

In a separate display I discovered, to my delight, sitting between a packet of laxatives and a box containing a cure for croup, a box of Cannadonna: cigarettes for asthmatics. The ingredients, proudly advertised, were cannabis and belladonna. Weed and deadly nightshade.

Behind the apothecary's was the dentist - a torture chamber filled with small metal instruments of pain: hooks, scrapers, pliers, files and clamps, all neatly awaiting the hands of the papier mache fiend that stood over a similarly-made patient in the centre of the small room.

With a shudder I left the shop and hitched a short ride in a vintage car past horse-drawn carriages and a large collection of unfathomable farm machinery.

The charm of the village has been lovingly recreated making it far more accessible and personal than a typical museum.

It also offered various activity programmes throughout the day, including rope-making, butter churning, Aboriginal culture and a gem tour.

I loved it.

Chris had joined us earlier that morning and had kindly volunteered to pilot the Pure Paradise for the day, allowing us to enjoy both the scenery and the alcohol on offer.

First stop was Riverside Golf Club, where the beautiful course's fairways are set among billabongs and pass beneath towering red gums and box trees rife with wildlife.

Riverside boasts 18 greens around which we whizzed on our electric buggies. Superb fun.

An hour-and-a-half later we moored at Trentham Estate winery and took a fascinating tour with owner Anthony Murphy, before a fabulous lunch accompanied by Trentham's award-winning wines.

The staff's knowledge of their product and the friendly way in which we were looked after made me see what made the place so popular and successful.

And then it was back to the houseboat and on to the famous Gol Gol Hotel where, after a short walk up a grassy hill, we sampled beers and lagers in the 1877 lounge bar, all the while in view of the Murray as it wound through the countryside.

Sloshing slightly, I managed to return to the Pure Paradise without falling into the Murray and we headed slowly back to Mildura as the afternoon slid tipsily into evening.

With a wistful smile, I realised that my journey along this fascinating river was drawing to an end, and wondered if anyone would notice if I stowed away in a cupboard.

Websites:

* willandrahouseboats.com.au

* pioneersettlement.com.au

* riversidegolfclub.net.au

* trenthamestate.com.au

* golgolpub.com.au


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