By Fleur Bainger
Meandering along the River Murray in a gently purring houseboat as a wall of ochre-stained limestone cliffs blaze red, reflecting the descending sun, you’re likely to experience a reaction common to blissed-out holiday-makers touring the Riverland.
It’s a sense of anxiety that you won’t get to do this forever, followed by an impulsive urge to sell the house, the car and pack up the kids to embrace this simple, charming existence.
It’s perfectly understandable. Dreaming of the paddle steamers that started tracing the river’s twists and turns in the 1850s, you fall for the weeping willows bending towards the water, the cellar doors backing onto Australia’s longest river and the vineyards and orchards peeling off from its life-giving source.
The Riverland begins to woo from its outer boundary, only two hour’s drive from Adelaide.
Regarded as a ‘sleeper region’ that travellers often overlook – drawn instead to the glamour of the Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale wine regions – this productive pocket remains a treasured secret.
But as word ekes out, a host of new attractions are evolving, from boutique river cruises, kayaking tours, luxury river-facing accommodation, a bakery-cum-providore – and plenty of cellar doors.
Wilkadene Woolshed Brewery is one such development that’s become a fast-favourite.
It’s based on Tom Freeman’s family property; he returned home to run the family houseboat business a decade ago and, with partner Sarah Dowdell decided to give their century-old woolshed a new lease on life.
“We were keen beer drinkers and loved beer brewing, plus craft beer was starting to move, and there were no other microbreweries in the region, so it all made sense,” says Dowdell.
They started brewing in 2009 and now produce a range of pale, amber and dark ales, ciders and a ‘hard’ lemonade, containing eight per cent alcohol.
“It’s made using all Riverland products,” says Dowdell. “It has white wine made from local grapes, dry apple cider with fruit sourced from Loxton, and fresh lemons from Waikerie.”
The brewery is now open every day of the week, makes grazing platters and welcomes BYO picnickers (food only, obviously), and hosts guided tours for $10 per person.
Along with sharing the history of the old sheep property, a big focus of the tour is the brewery’s zero-waste philosophy.
“We’ve got over 30 kilowatts of solar power now, and everything gets recycled,” says Dowdell.
“Our spent grain gets fed to our chooks, wastewater from the brewery gets pumped out onto 1.6 hectares of garden, and we use only rainwater to brew with, which is quite unique given the lack of rainfall in the Riverland.”
The couple still run four houseboats, and believe there’s no better way to soak up the region – particularly given all you need is a regular driver’s licence and a simple lesson before you’re away.
“Where else can you hire something that’s five star, with five bedrooms where the scenery changes every day? And you’ve got freedom to go wherever you like,” says Dowdell.
With a background in travel, Dowdell readily shares her Riverland touring tips with visitors.
“Banrock Station is right up there as being one of the best to see, with the cellar door and the wetlands,” she says.
“There’s Ruston’s Rose Garden in Renmark – it’s the largest rose garden in Australia and they also do some great meals there. We’ve also got a new providore called Backyard Breads; they do all handmade breads, chutneys and really promote local produce. They’ve been open less than a year,” she says.
Another special place – and local’s secret – is Headings Cliffs lookout near Paringa, only 2km from the brewery. Once atop the steel structure, you’re granted a magical gun-barrel view down the river, lined with citrus-hued cliffs that glow at sunset.
Our tip is to bring a couple of foldout chairs, a bottle of Riverland wine and settle in, listening for the cackle of kookaburras.
The lookout is only minutes from another Riverland surprise that enjoys similarly striking views on a distinct bend in the river. Opening in 2014, The Frames luxury accommodation is a trio of curved, rectangular, architecturally designed villas.
Created specifically for escapist couples, each villa has its own private heated pool, hydrotherapy spa and sauna.
No detail has been overlooked inside, either (the beds even have inbuilt massage machines!), which means guests often opt to stay cocooned in their haven for their entire stay.
Should they venture out, The Frames offers personalised tinnie tours through river estuaries where native birds, koalas, kangaroos and sometimes echidna are spotted, or champagne-infused sunset cruises in a restored 1929 wooden gondola with a claim to fame: it once starred in Stefano de Pieri’s ABC TV cooking series, A Gondola on the Murray.
It is, of course, a complete indulgence but even if you’re camping in the Riverland, you don’t have to miss out on a River Murray cruise. In early 2015, James and Sandra Schober started up their Waikerie-based boutique cruise company, Rivergum Cruises, touring up to 10 visitors along the mighty waterway.
Indulge in many drops
Departing on demand, they visit Riverland icons on full-day trips, including eco-winery, Banrock Station, river clutching Caudo Vineyard, the historic Overland Corner hotel and the water transferring stretch of Lock 2.
The most popular cruises are the two hour trips to see the Ramco redgums or the Yarra Cliffs.
“It’s a nice time to be on the river,” says Sandra. “Coming back on sunset, we go past the cliffs and it’s just beautiful. Ramco really shines.”
The 35-foot vessel, named Qatar, took her husband James 14 years to transform into a river cruiser, after buying it from a neighbour who’d left the 1960s lifeboat in his backyard for decades. And the name?
“It was a boat that came from a cattle ship from Doha in Qatar,” says Sandra.
Being dropped off at Banrock Station by Rivergum Cruises and then bussed back to your accommodation allows you to indulge in the winery’s many drops.
But its wetland centre, bird hides, information huts and boardwalks mean it’s just as fun to self-drive, marvelling at the vineyard and wetland views over a restaurant lunch before lathering up with sunscreen and going for a nature-based stroll.
Menu for the doggies
While not exhausting, it is engaging so allocate a few hours to properly explore, then head to the famous Mallee Fowl restaurant for a restorative dinner spiked with the bush flavours of native foods. Taken over by Kevin and Kylie Stephens in early 2015, the rustic, outback-themed diner has been enhanced with a kitchen garden, extensive playground, sandpit and outdoor seating.
In 2016, the kelpie-showing pair will be introducing a doggy menu, serving pig’s trotters, pig’s ears and healthy dog biscuits.
For humans, Kylie says the most popular menu mainstay is the sugar-cured kangaroo fillet, followed by the quandong cheesecake. They have their own quandong orchard on the property, though demand for the bush fruit often outstrips supply.
And then, it’s back to the river, perhaps with Canoe Adventures, who send you on soothing, near-silent journeys in kayaks or canoes, paddling through nature and truly connecting with 180 degrees of Riverland beauty.
Whether going solo, on a guided tour or taking time out on an overnight camping canoe trip, it’s a peaceful way to complete your time in this beguiling part of the world.