Australia’s River Murray was an important transport link in the past. It has been referred to as ‘Australia’s Mississippi’, and paddle boats used to ply the river carrying passengers and produce.
Although some of the paddle steamers have been preserved, they have built new paddle wheelers especially for the cruising business. The best of these is the Murray Princess.
Her Captain told us that there had been controversy when the Princess was built in 1986. She’s a stern-wheeler, more like a Mississippi riverboat than anything else.
‘The traditional Murray steamer was a side-wheeler’ he said ‘but we wanted the widest ship which would pass though the locks further up-river’.
The Murray Princess is based at Mannum, about 50 miles east of Adelaide. It moors at the Mary Ann Reserve, where, in 1852, Captain William Randell built the first-ever Murray paddle steamer, the Mary Ann.
Her maroon and cream colour scheme promises laid-back luxury, and lives up to that promise. The season hadn’t quite got into its stride yet, and we were only eighteen souls aboard a ship that could carry 120.
Captain Ray Weedon, the Master, was highly visible. He told us about his ship, the history and geology of the river and the wildlife we would see … and we could knock on the door of the wheelhouse and speak to him any time.
‘We haven’t had any rain to speak of since 1990’ he told us ‘The river’s hardly flowing!’
Which was a surprise. Signs in Mannum showed how high the water came in various floods. And, we were told how the willow trees were planted on the banks to show the true course of the river in flood time. ‘Otherwise, when the water went down, your boat could be left high and dry half a mile from the river!’
We cruised along a stretch of the Murray where the citizens of Adelaide have their ‘shacks’, or holiday homes. Most of the time, we were accompanied by water-skiers or jet-skiers, who used the waves thrown up by the giant paddle to add an extra thrill to their ride. And, whenever we passed a settlement of shacks, children would hold up placards, or call ‘Sound your horn’. It would seem that, after twenty years, her novelty still hasn’t worn off!
But, the horn was reserved for warning the many ‘punts’ (chain ferries) of our approach or, during a ‘shore stop’, to warn anyone ashore that the ship would sail in 30 minutes.
One of my favourite places was the two-storey lounge in the stern. A gigantic window gave a view of the paddle wheel churning up the water, and tea, coffee and biscuits were always available. Close second came the dining room, where the chef excelled himself every time.
We moored overnight on the riverbank, where the only facilities were a notice telling the times the Princess used the berth, and requesting other river users to stay clear at these times.
One morning, the First Officer took us on a nature walk, pointed out some of the wildlife, and showed us a ‘canoe tree’, from which Aborigines had long since removed the bark to make a canoe, but still left the tree alive. He also showed us the native Red Gum, which provided fuel for the old steam boats.
Another time, we transferred to the Dragonfly, a smaller boat, for a ‘wetland safari’. We were able to make a closer inspection of the red cliffs that flank the Murray around here, and watch the swallows darting in and out, and the Captain of the little boat was able to use them to illustrate the geology of the region.
And, we could get up really close to the pelicans and cormorants.
We only really touched a major township at Murray Bridge, which is so called because there’s a bridge (or, nowadays, two bridges) over the Murray. These are the first ones you encounter as you journey upriver from the mouth. The next one is at Blanchetown, about 70 miles upriver; between them, the usual way of crossing is by means of a chain ferry.
Before the bridge was built, the Aborigines called the place Pomberuk, and this is the name of the Aboriginal centre, almost under the shadow of the bridge. Here, we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing, and didgeree-doo playing before the Aborigines conducted us around the Aboriginal museum and chocolate factory.
The only disappointment was one morning, when we rose before dawn to take a walk to the cliff-top to see the sunrise; a sight they said we shouldn’t miss. We were up there at 6 am; unfortunately, the sun wasn’t! But, we can’t be too hard on the crew or the organisers. That really is beyond their control!
Murray Princess is operated by Captain Cook Cruises, at
96, Randell Street,
South Australia 5238.
They can be contacted within Australia by calling 1800 804843, or from overseas on +612-92061144 email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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