Judy Bailey takes a soul stirring cruise down the Murray River.
Big paddleboats stir the soul. There's something about the rhythmical beating of the wheel against water that conjures visions of steamboats on the Mississippi, of southern belles sipping mint juleps and dining on Cajun shrimps.
While you're unlikely to be served Cajun shrimps as the Murray Princess plies the waters of South Australia's Murray River, half a world away from Mississippi, you may well be able to order a mint julep at the well-stocked bar.
Cruising the Murray on the stately Murray Princess harks back to more genteel times.
Time passes slowly here and it is a relaxing way to explore the beautiful South Australian countryside.
Although she looks like a turn-of-the-century river boat, the Murray Princess was built in 1987, by Jock Veenstra, brother of her current captain, Richard. Their father designed her, faithfully following the lines of the old Mississippi river boats such as the Delta Queen.
Instead of steam, she's powered by diesel, and glides so effortlessly and silently through the water; you hardly know she's moving.
I join the boat at her home port Mannum and we'll cruise downriver to the old port town of Murray Bridge before heading upstream for a couple of days before disembarking at River View Lodge.
My cabin is small but perfectly formed with a comfy double bed and one single and its own bathroom. Three windows look out to the red gums on the riverbank.
Eager to explore the boat, I head to the next deck to find the bar and the rather grandly named Sturt dining room. I meet a delightful Italian couple from Adelaide who offer to share their bottle of champagne with me. It'd be rude to refuse, wouldn't it? Luciano and Grace, like many passengers, are here for some R&R. They run a wholesaling business and rarely get time off. And they mean to make the most of their holiday.
The great thing about a cruise is that you meet people. You are seated for dinner, generally at the same table, with about eight others and quickly get to know each other.
By happy coincidence I'm seated with Luciano and Grace.
On our first morning we dock down river at the historic port town of Murray Bridge. This was South Australia's first permanent crossing over the Murray. I check out the local farmers market on the riverbank. You can pick up a great coffee here and there's an impressive array of fresh produce from the river lands upstream. I also find a Kiwi family doing hangi takeaways. They tell me they moved here for work. A meatworks close to town employs about 500 people, a number of them Kiwis.
The petrol head in me notices the classic cars parked on the market fringe. A Corvette catches my eye. "Hop in," urges her cheery owner. I can't resist. Apparently the car aficionados meet here every month to "Hang out and talk shit." Sounds good to me.
The Murray Princess offers a number of riverbank excursions so I decide on a couple. The first officer takes us for a stroll to discover signs of ancient Aboriginal occupation. The crew are a multi-talented lot, turning their hand to everything from steering the boat to singing and dancing, waitressing to wildlife tours.
We learn that the willows lining the lower parts of the river were planted by the early settlers to delineate the river because in flood, the Murray can get to more than 50km wide, much of it incredibly shallow, making it easy for a boat to run aground. In fact two paddleboats did come to grief and never made it back onto the river.
I take a short trip on the Murray Princess's tender to explore the river's towering limestone cliffs. There's a wealth of wildlife to be found in these cliffs that have been here for 20 million years. Little holes eaten into the rock house nests of fairy martins, doves and owls. The cliff face is draped in the silky webs of golden orb spiders. I'm happy to keep my distance! As we return to the boat, pelicans guide us home and Peregrine falcons and kites wheel overhead.
No story about the Murray River would be complete without a mention of the Murray cod, the world's largest freshwater fish. Opinions are divided about how wonderful it is to eat ... but they tell me the biggest caught here was 88kg! They're hard to spot as the water is a bit murky, stirred up by all the bottom feeders; but I'm assured they're there.
I part company with the Murray Princess before she goes on to explore the upper reaches of the river. I leave after a big hug from my new friends, Luciano and Grace, happy and refreshed by the beauty of the South Australian countryside.
1. One of the best ways to experience the river is by taking an escorted river cruise, or getting a group of friends together and captaining houseboat!
2. Visit Monarto Zoo, the world's largest open range safari park and featuring lions, zebra, white rhinoceros and more. Jump on the Zu-Loop Shuttle bus for a free ride to each enclosure, or wander along the 10km of walking trails.
3. Birdwatching: water and mallee birds along the Murray will delight avid birdwatchers. Gluepot Reserve is home to rare and endangered plants, birds and reptiles and has been described as one of the conservation miracles of the 21st century.
4. Enjoy a round of golf at one of the many courses near the Murray River, including Murray Bridge, Mannum and Swan Reach Golf Clubs.
5. Visit the award-winning Banrock Station Wine and Wetland Centre and take in the striking views of the wetlands from the restaurant. Take a stroll along the 7km boardwalk for close-up views of the prolific birdlife.
Captain your own houseboat
If you've always wanted to captain your own houseboat, steering it down a mighty river with your friends and family along for the ride, then a Murray River houseboat holiday is the perfect plan.
Unforgettable Houseboats have 10 boats in its fleet (ranging from 2 to 12 berths), so there is a boat to suit everyone's holiday requirements. Whether cooking a meal on the barbecue or in the gourmet kitchen, relaxing in the Jacuzzi or watching the stars from the top deck, these "floating baches" make for a great holiday.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand. Book now.
Find out more at: Australia.com.
Judy Bailey travelled to South Australia with the assistance of Tourism Australia, the South Australian Tourism Commission and Air New Zealand. For more information see Australia Passion: Nature and Wildlife.