Murray River road trip
Tracing the mighty Murray River from Albury to Mildura.
The car is sardined with our holdalls, a picnic rug and an Esky filled with cheeses as chilled and mature as my Irish mother, who is currently humming along to the radio from the passenger seat on the first day of her Australian holiday. From Albury to Mildura, we’re state-hopping between Victoria and New South Wales, threading our way through Cobram, Echuca, Gunbower and Swan Hill, to the melodies of country music waltzing from the speakers.
It’s a peaceful, easy feeling shadowing the patchwork of pastoral fields and native forests that tiptoe down to the banks of the Murray River. Through the wide lens of our Land Rover’s windows, the journey is a stop-motion gallery of landscape artists, where scenes evoking Turner’s ethereal light, Heysen’s towering eucalypts, and Streeton’s dreamy waterways paint a bucolic canvas.
No sooner do we start driving, than we’re out of the car again. Just five minutes from Albury’s town centre, the Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk traces 11 Indigenous installations that border swamphen, cormorant and pelican-flecked lagoons. Rising from the riverbank is Katrina Weston’s The Bigger Picture. Through its giant hollow frame, we capture the pulse of the region’s lifeblood, the Murray, ebbing slowly westward, much like we’ll be doing over the next few days.
Slideshow images: The Murray River at sunrise at Torrumbarry, the river’s pink salt harvest; the PS Emmylou.
We cross the river from New South Wales into Victoria and traverse the rural idyll of Indigo Shire to sample the riches of the region’s farm gates and wineries. Metres from one of the Murray’s centrifugal bends, we reach Gooramadda Olives, where Robert Whyte offers ‘olive door’ tastings. His Hardy’s Mammoth oils won a gold medal at the 2018 New York International Olive Oil Competition, and I can taste his pride in the golden liquid.
Nearby, Rutherglen Estates Cellar Door also draws the Murray’s precious water to its fruits, harvesting a prized sweet muscat. The timber-dressed cellar door also houses the Aboriginal Exhibitions Gallery with an impressive commercial collection.
It’s not surprising that the Murray’s landscapes should ignite the artistic wick of local creatives. Half an hour west along the Murray Valley Highway, by the town of Yarrawonga, is the mysterious sight of manmade Lake Mulwala. This Tolkienesque waterscape is where thousands of dead river red gum trunks stand, semi submerged, like surviving columns of an abandoned Atlantis. The foreshore is alive and kicking, pitted with picnic tables and barbecues that soon sizzle with the snags from our Esky.
Our food stores aren’t depleted for long. Approaching Cobram, our purses open at award-winning Manto Produce on orchard-lined Campbells Road. Mum is in her nostalgic element remembering her farm upbringing. Blossoming with everything from apricots to avocados and spring onions to eggplants, the Mantovani family’s self-serve farm shop has no cashier, just an honesty box. It’s a distillation of Australian produce and Australian values, and a touch of old Ireland too, apparently.
A wallaby makes an appearance. Image: Marie Barbieri.
Eager to rejoin our mighty natural guide, we shortcut along Cobram’s River Road to reach Thompsons Beach. A sloping lawn descends to a thick tongue of sand – 270 kilometres from the nearest ocean. Here, anglers cast lines, paddle-boarders wobble, rubber dinghies introduce children to the river, and chilled wines pop at picnic tables, waking snoozing sunbathers. And wedged in the enormous river gums is a population of ruminating koalas.
“Country Roaaaads, take me home…” precedes “I walk the liiine…” until Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary keep on burnin’…” exhausts our larynxes. Our singing may not be pretty, but it passes the next 100 kilometres of today’s five-hour journey to Echuca, which has us state-crossing, twice.
We’re charmed upon reaching Echuca: historic paddle-steamer country. This pioneer town, where horse-drawn carriages clip along its 19th-century street, has settler cottages, blacksmiths and artist studios.
Riverside, the one-time cargo-carriers PS Alexander Arbuthnot, PS Pevensey and the wooden-hulled PS Adelaide (the world’s oldest still-working paddle-steamer) rest moored to the heritage-listed Echuca Wharf.
But it’s the 1982-built PS Emmylou that steals our hearts. This pretty wood-fired paddle-steamer runs multi-day ‘boatel’ cruises, with her intimate Emmylou Suite posing at her bow, complete with double bed and bathroom. Emmylou’s Evening Steaming Dinner Cruise entices with smoked salmon blini, Victorian eye fillet and decadent dessert plates with matching wines, while cruising the river to a live commentary on its history.
Orange World near Mildura. Image: Anne Morley.
Back on the road, we head for Gunbower via a quick diversion to Lock 26 and Torrumbarry Weir. Its visitor centre pays homage to the area’s prized red gums and the Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota Forest: an internationally significant wetland. An amble across the weir reveals the Murray’s latent power, raucously cascading downstream.
Along gravelled McPhail and Dormoyle Roads, I almost feel my Freelander do a happy skip. At Longmore Lagoon, we’re surrounded by water as if digested by the Murray’s small intestines. These wiggly wetlands are a sanctuary for kookaburras, pelicans and the shyer eastern rosella. Teetering on a narrow elevated bank, we find pretty Upper Gunbower Creek. My camera now does a little skip.
Ninety minutes later, we slow at the time capsule of Swan Hill, home to the giant 160-year-old Burke & Wills Moreton Bay fig (and a giant murray cod). We lengthen our calves at the Pioneer Settlement’s old-time shoppes: a music store and drapery, dispensary and a bakery and creamery.
Hugging the river along the Murray Valley Highway to Mildura, we pass Riverbend Orchard, the Australian Cricket Bat Willow Project (making Aussie cricket bats), Andrew Peace Wines and endless rows of almond trees, grapevines and olive groves. This is the pantry of the south.
Nearing the end of our trip, I try to explain to mum why I want to photograph a pink salt farm. “Well, I still don’t understand what Instagram analytics are, but I do love a dash of salt!” she teases.
Katrina Weston’s The Bigger Picture sculpture in Albury. Image: AlburyCity.
We meet up with Alison Stone of Discover Mildura, for her eco tourism-accredited tour of Murray River Salt’s harvest site. “Millions of years ago this was a sea, which left behind an enormous saline aquifer,” she explains.
Beneath the evaporation ponds before us, the iridescent pastel pinks of the underground rock are transfixing. It’s due to highly mineralised brine, rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium and iodine. But mum still thinks it’s magic. The site is harvested for table salt, bath salts and cattle licks, and also for Mildura Chocolate Company’s dark chocolate – for human licks.
“This salt farm is a great environmental story,” adds Alison. “It creates premium produce from a waste product, while reducing salinity in the lower Murray.”
Murray-siders are fiercely proud of their environment, their lifestyle and their livelihood. And so they should be.
Marie Barbieri stayed on the PS Emmylou as a guest of Murray River Paddlesteamers.
By the numbers
- Take me Home, Country Roads, John Denver
- Proud Mary, Creedence Clearwater Revival
- I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash
- He’ll Have to Go, Jim Reeves
- I’ve been Everywhere Man, Lucky Star
MAMA (Murray Art Museum Albury) which has a strong Indigenous, colonial and regional identity.
Byramine Homestead, Brewery and Cider House near Yarrawonga to sip from cider tasting racks and tuck into Devonshire tea.
RACV members save 10 per cent on Murray River Sightseeing Cruises.