By Neena Bhandari
The Murray River is to Australia what the Mississippi is to the United States.
It gently meanders its way from the Snowy Mountains, irrigating fields and orchards, along its 2520km journey to the Southern Ocean.
In years gone by, it was a thriving route for paddle steamers transporting wool and wheat to and from the towns dotting the riverside. It is now an aquatic playground for families seeking a tryst with nature.
Raucous flocks of cockatoos and galahs swing from river red gums, a solo kingfisher plummets into the shallow waters and returns with its prized catch, fish abound here.
Steep ochre tinted limestone cliffs lure visitors to make the climb as children frolic along the grassy riverbank.
In one of the driest states in the driest continent, where nature is beautiful yet unforgiving, the Murray invigorates life in the ecosystem and the communities that flourish along its banks.
The river enters South Australia from across the Victorian border at Renmark, about 254km from Adelaide.
Drop anchor and dine ashore
This is the place to rent a houseboat if you are thinking of exploring the Murray and its surrounds on the water. There are ample options with larger boats catering to 12 guests and fitted with king size beds and jacuzzis.
At dusk, the boat can be moored in the township and you can venture into the community clubs, local pubs for dinner or cook a gourmet barbecue on the riverbank.
If you happen to be there during the first Sunday of the month, take the kids for a unique cruising experience aboard the historic PS Industry, one of the few remaining paddle steamers.
If you are not game for a houseboat, the Riverland towns offer a variety of accommodation options. There are 12 Riverside caravan parks in the region, many large river shacks and self-contained cottages that can house large families. Sheep stations are a unique way of experiencing Australian rustic hospitality.
The Robertson family-owned Chowilla Station Shearers Quarters are located on the floodplains of international significance, listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. It is home to several species of birds, including the pelicans, kookaburras, emus, red rumped parrots and one of the largest ibis rookeries. It would delight a novice birdwatcher and an ornithologist alike.
The 1870 station with its old world charm has 11 bedrooms offering affordable, exclusive accommodation for extended families of up to 28 members. Kids can have fun picking up firewood for the wood chip heater (Donkey). The property is only five metres from the river so ideal for fishing and yabbying and other water activities.
Riverfront holiday action for the kids
If you are planning a celebration while on holiday, there is a historic woolshed adjacent to the shearers quarters, which can cater for 280 guests and can be hired separately for birthday parties and weddings.
As a parent, it can be a challenge to keep kids engaged and happy on a holiday and at the same time get some time for oneself. The family owned and operated BIG4 Renmark Riverfront Holiday offers plenty of activities in a safe environment. There is a solar heated swimming pool and spa, an inflatable kangaroo jumper, a waterpark with slides, sprinklers, spray guns and a giant dumping bucket.
If the kids are bored swinging and sliding, the adventure playground is a good place for a workout. For the little ones, there is a separate kids’ playland where they can manoeuvre tunnels, cubby houses and hoops.
It is a good place for a short or long stay in one of the self-contained cottages or at the caravan and camping site. The property has a 1km river frontage with splendid views and easy mooring, if you’re travelling by boat.
On the other side of the river, 4km upstream, is Renmark’s satellite hamlet Paringa. It is known for its vineyards, almond and fruit orchards. There is a playground and riverfront picnic area. Kids can see the 1927 steel bridge span raised to allow houseboats and paddle steamers to pass.
Locks and weirs control the flow of this river – the third longest navigable waterway in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile. You can take the kids to see the still operational Blanchetown Lock and Weir, which was the first on the Murray River system. It will be a very different experience from the robots and drones they work with in school labs.
Blanchetown is the Riverland’s gateway, a 90-minute drive from Adelaide, on the opposite end of Renmark. It has a mix of historic buildings, river shacks and some of the best houseboat cruising sections.
Farm stay fun
About 10km south of Blanchetown is Portee Station Homestead, built in 1873. It sits in the river valley of the Murray on the banks of Portee creek. The renovated four rooms have been restored to their original Victorian grandeur and can sleep up to 20 persons. You can drive into the paddocks to watch birds and native wildlife at close quarters in their natural habitat. A working sheep station, kids will love to observe mustering and droving of sheep and the station dogs at work.
A short drive from the Homestead is the Brookfield Conservation Park, which has a dedicated breeding ground for the southern hairy-nosed wombat.
There are a plethora of reserves and parks all along the mighty Murray way. The outdoors are seductive as blue skies, vineyards, citrus fruit orchards, lavender farms and rose gardens fill the air with an aroma one would associate with the Mediterranean. It is an ideal environment to go swimming, water skiing, canoeing, kayaking or cruising through the myriad creeks and lagoons.
For some farm fun, venture downstream, about 200km south of Blanchetown to Narnu Farm on Hindmarsh Island. Here kids can feed deer, bottle-feed piglets, watch a chicken hatch from an egg or take a vintage truck ride to feed horses. The farm also has horse riding instructors for children 2½ years and older and a playground with a wooden castle and paddle steamer.
The 85 acre Farm has seven self-contained cottages that sleep 46 and a bunkhouse that can accommodate up to 54. During winters, guests can enjoy a bonfire under the stars and roast marshmallows.
Farm stay is open for visitors only during weekends and school holidays.
Chill in the Coorong
Down the road from the Farm is the Murray Mouth and entrance to the Coorong National Park, which attracts over 200 species of native and migratory birds. It has the largest breeding colony of the Australian Pelican. It was here that the film Storm Boy, based on Colin Thiele’s novel about a young boy’s friendship with a pelican, was shot.
The Coorong has spectacular white sand dunes and secluded beaches and perfect for camping, picnics, four-wheel drive forays. The Ninety Mile Beach is a known surf-fishing spot.
On the return journey, stop at the Monash Adventure Park, which offers leaning climbing towers, flying foxes and a giant maze with secret doorways leading to a playground. It offers free electric barbecue and picnic facilities.
The Bella Lavender Estate in Glossop is good for a coffee and wood-fired pizza break. Kids can enjoy a game of mini golf or run around in the lavender farm. The Loxton Historical Village and Banrock Station Wine and Wetland Centre in Kingston on Murray are worth a stopover too. All along the Murray, there are museums and interactive centres to satisfy kids’ curiosity.
To end the sojourn on a sweet note, the handcrafted Havenhand Chocolates in Waikerie will leave you wanting to return.
Fly either to Adelaide or Mildura, both are approximately 90-minute drive to the Riverland.
Self-drive or bus are the two main options from the two cities.
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities and to Mildura from Melbourne.
Most major hire car companies are represented at Adelaide Airport.