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.
An eastern rosella on a gum tree in Echuca. Image: Getty.
Topping up the honesty box. Image: Marie Barbieri.
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.