River Daze

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 3

Slithering serpents, superb sangria, splendid serenity and even an abandoned POW camp. Along with plenty of local characters, a cruise up the Murray River is full of surprises and memorable encounters.

“Stop! Right now! Move back towards me.”

I noted an unusual urgency in the voice.

At the time, I was stalking a mob of ‘roos with my camera in a bush thicket a few metres from the banks of the Murray River.

My guiding voice was Club Marine’s SA and NT manager, Mike ‘Sinkers’ Sinclair, who was bobbing nearby in his Bayliner 215 bowrider after dropping me off to photograph some local wildlife. We were somewhere north of Renmark, South Oz, and Sinkers’s eagle eye had spotted the ‘roos sunning themselves on the banks of the river. He had also spotted something else entirely …

As I snuck up on the ‘roos, they moved into thicker bush, so I followed. With my eye viewing the scene through the camera lens, I didn’t notice that a more sinister form of wildlife lay right in front of me on the ground.

“It’s a brown snake Beattie, keep moving backwards,” hissed Sinkers appropriately, the firmness in his voice obvious.

One step ahead of me slithered a metre-plus snake, which was now taking a decidedly unwelcome interest in my presence. I backed up as quickly and stealthily as I could without provoking my new acquaintance, which thankfully turned away in search of his next snack, leaving me to ponder the wisdom of wandering through the bush wearing my ‘Kiwi safety boots’ (thongs), as Sinkers commented wryly when I was back in the boat.

“Beattie, we need to have a talk, mate,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

It was day four of our Murray River Trailer Trip and we’d already clocked up a magazine-full of experiences as we meandered upriver from Waikerie in South Australia, eventually reaching the borders of NSW and Victoria. Along the way, we had encountered nature in its countless forms, sampled plenty of local produce, visited some of the river’s tourism hotspots and even spent some time with a pair of wakeboarding superstars, who demonstrated their talents behind a pair of state-of-the-art towsports boats from Malibu, and Elite Ski Boats and Watersports in Adelaide. We had managed to pack a lot into those five days, including a far-too-close encounter with one of Australia’s most dangerous and venomous snakes.

Apart from my reptilian run-in, I had learned a few other important lessons as we explored Australia’s mightiest river. For instance, I now know thongs and muddy river bottoms do not mix (I have two right-side thongs to prove it), I have a new-found fondness for sangria, steaks will never taste the same since I left the Overland Corner with a bottle of home-made Worcestershire sauce, and I confirmed what I had always suspected – that my inability to catch fish applies equally to both fresh- and saltwater environments.

SOUTHERN SHOWCASE

The plan had been to showcase some of the South Australian end of the Murray’s many attributes, with Sinkers and his good buddy Jason Clarke mapping out a packed itinerary based on their own extensive experience on the river over a number of years.

“Beattie, you’re going to take so many pics, you’ll have to trade the camera in,” was Sinkers’s comment when we hitched the Bayliner up at the start of the trip. Our tow vehicle was a new Mazda BT50 XTR Dual Cab 4x4 ute. It proved to be a worthy partner for our journey, which covered close to 700km over water and land (see BT thrifty, P140).

Waikerie was a good starting point, being central to some of the river’s main attractions and natural features. A relatively easy two-and-a-bit hour drive from Adelaide, we took advantage of an overnight stop here to stock up on fuel and other necessities.

Like most riverfront towns, Waikerie makes it easy to go boating, with good, well-maintained launching and parking facilities. We were fortunate to stay at the Waikerie Caravan Park, which is handy to the water, has heaps of parking for cars and trailers and is just a leisurely stroll away from food and drink.

Wakeboarding superstars Bec Gange and Parker Siegele joined us and entertained with some spectacular aerial antics, including an early morning sunrise performance that was well above and beyond the call of duty given the water temperature!

Read more of Bec and Parker’s exploits, both locally and on the international wakeboarding stage, on P142.

As those in the know will tell you, river boating is an entirely different experience from regular ocean or bay cruising. For a start, you’re never more than a few metres from shore, so there’s always something to capture the attention. There are towns, pubs and vineyards to explore as well as plenty of opportunities to have fun on the water behind a boat or on the end of a fishing rod. And on the stretches of the river that we navigated, the terrain and scenery are constantly changing, morphing from temperate wetlands, to towering red sandstone cliffs, tree-lined shores and red-gum forests and even the occasional beach for a spot of sunbaking.

CAPTURED BY CAUDO

Day two also provided a highlight – as we headed south down the river, our trio of craft enjoying a leisurely 20-minute cruise to Caudo Vineyards, right on the banks of the river in the fertile Riverland wine region between Waikerie and Morgan. There, we were met by Christine and Joe Caudo, who purchased the property in the 1980s and have since developed it into an award-winning winery with a great restaurant and views to die for overlooking the Murray.

Developed in the 1800s by a pioneering German family, much of the original architecture still remains, underpinned by modern facilities for visiting wine buffs and tourists.

Caudo Vineyards boasts its own complete range of wines, from shiraz through to merlot, semillon, chardonnay and the more exotic sangiovese and verdelho. They can also tantalise the tastebuds with a sangria that definitely puts a whole new perspective on the day, as I can attest.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the grounds and being entertained by Christine and Joe’s tales of previous pioneering exploits in the wilds of PNG. At 70 years young, Joe even offered to ‘hang ten’ behind one of our boats for a photo op, but unfortunately we didn’t have a spare board to suit. Those in the know say the energetic vintner, who is also an accomplished classic car racer and collector, is a more than capable performer behind a boat – the towsports prowess runs in the family, with son Zac a champion wakeboarder.

With full bellies, we turned our bows east. While we bid farewell to our Malibu escorts, our next destination was the township of Loxton, before ending the day in Renmark. Along the way, we passed through the first of a series of locks, keeping in mind the opening and closing times to ensure we weren’t stranded for the night. Unless otherwise advised, daily lock operating times are 8am to 11:30am and 1pm to 4:30pm.

Throughout the trip we found the lock masters to be friendly mines of information, sharing everything from favourite fishing spots to river conditions, and shallow areas and local landmarks to watch out for.

BEWARE OF BUSHRANGERS

Located between Waikerie and Loxton, the Overland Corner Hotel is rich with tales of bushranging and pioneering. A short five-minute stroll (or even shorter mini-van drive if you call ahead) from the river, the hotel oozes history and there’s plenty of period memorabilia on display. Apart from spinning captivating yarns about the hotel’s past, including fascinating encounters with the resident ghost, owners Renske and Phillip Reddy also do a mean home-brewed Worcestershire sauce to go with any of the hotel’s sumptuous local meats. And they pour a great beer, too.

Moving on to Loxton, our stay was brief as we had to retrieve the Bayliner for the half-hour drive to Renmark, where we would be based for the final two days.

Headquarters in Renmark was the multi-award-winning BIG4 Renmark Riverfront Holiday Park, which has to be one of the most impressive and well-maintained campgrounds I’ve stayed in. Boasting almost 1km of absolute river frontage and uninterrupted river views from its luxury self-contained cabins, the park is more like a resort and is intended as a haven for families. Facilities include a large pool and watersports area, along with playground, tennis court and camp kitchen.

We were fortunate to enjoy cabins overlooking the riverbank, with all you’d need in terms of food and local facilities an easy five-minute drive into town. Each morning, it was simply a matter of walking to the boat, tied up on the bank opposite the cabin, for a gentle cruise to the dock in town for breakfast.

Heading further east, we soon found ourselves in near-wilderness isolation, no doubt enhanced by the fact that holiday season had come and gone. A cacophony of sounds accompanied us as sulphur-crested cockatoos squawked, while shags, ducks and swans took to the sky and eagles soared overhead as we approached.

WILDLIFE WELCOME

It was here that I had my far-too-close encounter with the brown snake. Throughout the day, though, it was as though the wildlife had formed a welcoming committee just for us. A large goanna crawled lazily up a red gum, while a mob of emus scratched its way through the undergrowth. ‘Roos bounced through the bush and another snake weaved its way serenely across the river, barely noticing us as we shadowed it to the bank.

Other highlights of our final two days included a visit to the upriver borders with NSW and Victoria. We also had a surprise encounter with our nation’s past, with the discovery of the remains of a wartime internment camp, on the river bank at Loveday, near Barmera – only a sign now marks the location where more than 5000 mostly German, Italian and Japanese detainees were imprisoned, producing crops and other goods for the Australian war effort.

On a lighter note, we chose to drop in at the historic Customs House near the borders to top up on fuel and have a chat with the locals. There are refuelling facilities at various points along the river, but it’s advisable to ensure you carry enough ‘just in case’ spare fuel with you in the event you or others might need it.

An afternoon snack and a sample selection of house brews at Woolshed Brewery was a pleasant way to cap off our last day, which is perched high on a picturesque section of river midway between Renmark and the borders. Boasting handcrafted boutique beers, the brewery has a rustic antique woolshed feel about it, with plenty of old shearing hardware and artefacts on display. It was a great setting to reminisce about our experiences of the previous few days and savour some local produce.

As a family boating getaway, and if you’ve got a shiny new Malibu or an aluminium cuddy, the Murray offers so many opportunities for adventure and fun. Whether you’re a history buff, angler, watersports enthusiast, or just appreciate fine wine and scrumptious cuisine, there are so many options, you’ll need more than one visit to do it justice.


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