By the time the Murray River crosses into South Australia, it’s become a magnificent 'old man river' that in the 19th century served as a major trade route for paddle steamers carrying grain and wool to the Murray Mouth.
Make sense of the Murray mouth
The mouth of Australia’s longest river is little seen and barely celebrated, in fact it’s not even well-signposted. It is however located within an extraordinary piece of Australian geography. Having travelled about 2500 kilometres from the Australian Alps, it forms a profusion of vast freshwater lakes and a massive 160km-long barrier of sand dunes harbouring the singular ecosystem known as the Coorong.
But the mouth? Where the Murray meets the powerful Southern Ocean is but a tiny breach in the dunes – a shifting, shallow, un-navigable outlet. To make sense of it all, head to Goolwa Wharf and join a Spirit of the Coorong cruise. You’ll be amazed what you learn.
Get to grips with Goolwa
Since the Murray mouth was so treacherous, the river port of Goolwa sprang up in the 1850s to offload wheat and wool being shipped down the Murray by paddle steamer. Head to the Wharf Precinct for twin relics of the steam age: the Oscar W paddle steamer and the Steamranger heritage railway, both offering delightful yesteryear jaunts.
Alternatively, simply plant yourself on the old timber decks among the pelicans: the fabulous Steam Exchange Brewery serves hand-crafted beers from an old wharf shed, while Hectors café bar does great seafood.
Discover the terroir of Langhorne Creek
The Langhorne Creek wine region is very much in the shadow of neighbouring McLaren Vale but easily rewards those who seek it out. It’s cooled by both the Southern Ocean and Murray-fed Lake Alexandrina and is well-watered, making for flavour-filled reds.
Though relatively little known, Langhorne’s first vines were planted in the 1860s at the Bleasdale Winery, and century old Shiraz vines are still making vintages for Metala. Among the 30 or so producers are seven cellar doors: try a tasting at the beautifully renovated 1860s barn at Bremeton or taste five local producers represented in the sunny grounds of the Winehouse.
Be surprised by Monarto Zoo
You might not associate cheetah and white rhinos with the Riverland, but the rolling grassland of Australia’s largest open plains zoo is not dissimilar to African savannah and has proved a boon for the breeding of rare species. Monarto’s Zu-Loop shuttle bus will take you inside the expansive enclosures to encounter the like of Przewalski’s horse, oryx, African hunting dogs, big cats and bison.
Walking trails get you close to chimpanzees (the chimp house is one of the world’s best), giraffe and white rhino. If you want to get even more hands-on, you can sign up to be a zookeeper for a day.
Full steam ahead to Mannum
There are three very good reasons for heading upstream to Mannum:
1) You can hire houseboats to start properly messing about on the Murray. This section of river is broad and easily navigable; you don’t need a boat licence and the vessels come in a variety of sizes and fitouts. (Try Unforgettable Houseboats which has boats with al fresco spa baths.)
2) Mannum is a historic and picturesque town where Australia’s first paddle steamer was launched (be sure to visit the Mannum Dock Museum).
3) You can tie your boat up at the bottom of the Pretoria Hotel.
Do a river crossing by ferry
There are 11 ferry crossings up and down the Murray in South Australia, operating 365 days a year. The cable ferries are effectively barges that haul themselves along a cable back and forth across the river. They’re free to both motorists and pedestrians, and many of the ferries have served their local communities for more than 50 years.
Try the crossing at Swan Reach, a town that sits on an elevated cliff and is home to the unusual Swan Reach Hotel which was built around a homestead in 1896.
Go around the Big Bend
The Big Bend by Night Tour has become something of an institution, running for more than 25 years. The tour takes place on Dave Le Brun’s station near Swan Reach and relies on plenty of down-home charm as well as a specially fabricated vehicle.
The evening starts with a three-course dinner beside the red sandstone cliffs of Big Bend (spectacular at sunset) and finishes with a spotlighting tour that hands you the chance to see owls, wombats, bats and kangaroos.
Wander among the wetlands of Banrock Station
A cellar door with a conscience, Banrock’s Wine and Wetlands Centre is part vineyard and part riverside conservation project. Funded through wine sales, the wetlands occupy 1375 hectares, rescued from being permanently flooded and allowed to return its natural cycles of wetting and drying.
Visitors can do self-guided walks on 8 km of boardwalks, looking for threatened species such as the southern bell frog and regent parrot, as well as waterbirds including pelicans and black swans. In 2016, an extinct species of native plant, the spiny daisy, was found to be doing very well. The tasting room and restaurant make use of al fresco decks overlooking the wetlands.
Stop and smell the roses in Renmark
Ruston’s Rose Garden and Visitor Centre is Australia’s largest rose garden. It’s home to 4000 varieties numbering 50,000 bushes, and since most varieties bloom six times a year, you’re pretty much guaranteed an eyeful of colour. The Visitor Centre is home to a café, a collection of classic cars and a very popular Thai pop-up restaurant called Jimmy’s.
If you fancy trying some locally produced spirits, head to 23rd Street Distillery in Renmark for a tour and then a sample of their gin, brandy and whisky. Their rose vodka and “Not your Granny’s Brandy” are two of the drops on offer featuring locally sourced ingredients distilled on the premises.
Paddle your own canoe
The section of river between Lyrup and Chowilla is a frenzy of loops, braids and lakes, forming vast backwaters that are a haven for wildlife. One of the easiest and most peaceful ways of exploring this little-visited natural wilderness is by kayak. Canoe The Riverlands operates out of Renmark and Paringa, offering canoe hire, instruction and, best of all, organised tours.
Take to the water for sunset tours, picnic tours or an introductory paddle; and if you really want to up the magic, join the thrice-monthly full moon tour.
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. Most major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.