Written by Mogens Johansen and published in The West Australian.
There’s more to South Australia than crows and Adelaide. You can cruise along the iconic Murray River on a paddleboat, explore world class wine regions such as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale on the Fleurieu Peninsula or hop over to Kangaroo Island to enjoy its rugged beauty and marvel at the island’s wildlife. It’s all a three-hour direct flight away and it’s easy to put together an interesting itinerary with activities to suit all ages.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, people are playing bowls at the bowling club, and others are enjoying a beer at the Pretoria Hotel or having a chat outside the shops in the main street, when my coach rolls into the small riverside town of Mannum. The Murray Princess is a beautiful sight when I first spot it moored at Mary Ann Reserve. I can’t wait to get going on the three-night Murray River Discovery Cruise.
Murray River Developments’ audacious plan to build a grand Mississippi style stern-wheel paddleboat sparked plenty of interest back in the late 1980s, but it didn’t get off to a flying start. The Murray Princess, as it was named, wouldn’t float. It was stuck in the mud at Hindmarsh Island dockyard near Goolwa where it was built.
Onlookers waited anxiously for several hours, but it wasn’t until 30 hours later that the 1700 tonne riverboat finally floated. Thankfully, since then, it has been smooth sailing for the Murray Princess. It is now owned by Captain Cook Cruises, which runs a variety of cruises on Murray Princess.
The Murray River begins as a mountain stream in the Great Dividing Range in north-east Victoria and flows through more than 2500km of Australian landscape before it eventually empties into Lake Alexandrina in South Australia. Aboriginal people have lived along the river since ancient times, the early European explorers travelled along it and it became a vital trading and supply route for the early settlers.
The Murray River has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for artists and bush poets who capture the beauty, hardship and charm of this magnificent and important waterway. The river is the lifeblood for important agriculture in the country it passes through and there has been much debate about how to manage water allocation for growers while maintaining a healthy flow that can preserve and sustain the natural order along the river.
The tone for the cruise is set from the beginning when cruise director Martin Field and first officer Alina Hermann give a relaxed and humorous introduction and safety briefing. The three-day cruise (there are five and seven-day options as well) will first take us downstream to Murray Bridge, then upstream as far as Salt Bush Flat before heading downstream again to Mannum.
There is a relaxed informal atmosphere. Life onboard is about socialising and enjoying the scenery from the common areas. The club lounge, the dining room, the sun deck and paddlewheel lounge (which offers a spectacular view of the huge paddlewheel at the stern of the Princess) are all great places for striking up conversations with other guests.
Each of the decks are named after Murray River pioneers, Sturt, Randell, and Chaffey. My cabin is on the Cadell deck, named after Francis Cadell, a Scottish navigator and entrepreneur. He had a colourful history that included winning a gold medal for his exploits on the Murray River on the paddle-steamer Lady Augusta, failed business interests and involvement in whaling, trading and pearling before he disappeared in the Dutch East Indies in 1879.
The cabin is small but comfortable. It has twin beds, a wardrobe, drawers, a small writing desk and a compact bathroom with a shower cabin, vanity and toilet.
The people onboard this cruise are generally retirees but there are a few young ‘uns as well. Danish couple Henrik and Ellen are on the last leg of a two-month Australian adventure that began in Darwin, and Canadian businessman Graham is travelling with his mother Jeanette on a trip “Down Under”. We slowly glide past ever-changing scenery, everything is nice and close, the river is only a few hundred metres wide. Holiday shacks, caravans and houseboats are tucked neatly into little hideaways among the riverside vegetation and from time to time the we pass some impressive sandstone cliffs.
Every night Capt. Mathew Irvine “parks” the Princess at the shore and there is an opportunity for an explorative walk. We arrive at our first overnight mooring at Mundurra after dark. The crew start a fire by the riverside and it is a beautiful sight with Murray Princess and the bank lit by its floodlights and the fire.
A few of us join the crew for a chat until it begins to rain. By morning the rain has gone, and dawn reveals a glassy river with holiday homes with red glowing sandstone cliffs as a backdrop. While we enjoy our breakfast, Capt. Irvine sets off towards Murray Bridge where we have the choice of exploring the town and its history or taking a bus trip to the Monarto Safari Park.
I choose the trip to Monarto Safari Park for the chance to see their animals up close in their large free-range enclosures. We are allowed in before the official opening which means we get to see many of the animals at their most active as they enjoy their breakfast while we drive through their enclosures in our bus.
My favourite highlights are the park’s cute newborn giraffe, a mischievous young white rhino and a lovers’ tiff between a lioness and three young males.
Afternoon activities include a talk by local historian Peter Harden followed by an opportunity to sample some of the food and wine produced by the river lands. My favourite place onboard is the club lounge, which happens to be where the bar is, but also offers the best view of the river as we cruise along. River Sunset, Weeping Willow and Procrastinating Pelican are not the sights I see along the way but the creative names of the cocktails on offer from our bartender Shane in the club lounge.
The river and the surrounding wetlands in this area are an important breeding and feeding habitat for many types of waterbirds, fish, invertebrates and plants. At Salt Bush Flats, I encounter a rather large and intimidating male kangaroo with a couple of female companions during my morning walk around the wetlands. He is much taller than me when he stands up to check me out, he has a large cut to one ear that makes it look like he has three ears. I stay small, back-pedal slowly and watch as he and his harem bounce away.
Later, I join first officer Alysha Herrmann when she takes a group on an informative nature walk through the same area, but this time there is no sign of Three Ears. We moor at River View Lodge on our last afternoon. Here we have the opportunity to get close to the edge of the river in the flat-bottomed boat Dragonfly and learn about the many plant and animal species that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for survival. Other activities that afternoon include a surprisingly competitive game of bocce and a fishing competition to see who can catch the biggest carp (which no one won because we didn’t catch any).
Driving Murray Princess is a full-on job, there is no autopilot, and the flat-bottomed boat is very susceptible to wind and currents so when it is on the move, there is no time for a rest for Capt. Mathew and first officer Alysha but they still encourage passengers to visit the wheelhouse which I take them up on.
“Mathew and I started as deckhands at the same time and now they have left us with the boat,” says Alysha while adjusting the course during her turn at the wheel. While Alysha steers the boat, Mathew tells me that he has lived and worked on the Murray River most of his life. Before joining Captain Cook Cruises, he captained smaller boats but quickly progressed to first officer and captain of Murray Princess.
When I ask him, what is so special about the Murray River he says: “It just draws you back, you travel for a week on it and it is like changing continents, I see new things every time I travel along the river. I’ve seen it in drought and in flood and it is pretty special no matter which way you see it”. “I get it,” I think to myself. On the river things slow down to an easier pace that allows you to observe and relax as you cruise along.
Any visit to South Australia must include a trip to the Barossa Valley. Naming the Barossa Valley as Australia’s richest and best-known wine-making region may risk upsetting some of our fine WA winemakers, but the internationally acclaimed wine region located less than an hour’s drive from Adelaide has a lot going for it. I join the Barossa Wine and Heritage Tour for a visit to the renowned Jacob’s Creek winery for a wine tasting and history lesson on the origins of this iconic winery.
Later, at Maggie Beer’s Farmshop we are treated to a cooking lesson in the kitchen where the popular Cook and the Chef series was filmed. The kitchen, a replica of Maggie’s own, is located at one end of her retail shop where you can buy all of Maggie’s products.
The lunch stop on our tour is at Lambert Estate, located in a particularly picturesque part of the Barossa. Jim Lambert, originally from Wisconsin in the US, fell in love with the Barossa Valley during a business trip. He returned with his wife Pam to realise his dream of starting a vineyard.
They run the successful business with their son Kirk and his Peruvian wife Vanesa. There are more than 150 wineries and 80 cellar doors in the Barossa plus a host of small food producers and farms selling a range of products from dried fruit to chocolate.
Kangaroo Island is the third largest island off the Australian mainland after Tasmania and Melville Island. It is seven times the size of Singapore and it was uninhabited when it was discovered by Matthew Flinders in 1802.
About one third of the island still has native vegetation so it is an ideal place to see wildlife in its natural habitat. There are about 18 mammal, 250 bird and 900 plant species found on Kangaroo Island — 60 of them are endemic.
A visit to the island has been high on my “to do” list for a long time. Images of the Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch in Flinders Chase National Park are stored away in my brain alongside images of some of the island’s diverse wildlife.
So it goes without saying that I’m pretty excited as I wait to be picked up outside the Majestic Rooftop Hotel in Adelaide for SeaLink’s two-day Best of Kangaroo Island Tour. The bus drive from Adelaide is spectacular in its own right.
The picturesque Fleuriau Peninsula and the McLaren Vale are looking splendid as we head towards Cape Jervis where we meet the SeaLink ferry for the 45-minute crossing to Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island.
The island doesn’t disappoint, I love the rugged coastline, scenic farmlands and the diverse wildlife and the Remarkable Rocks really are remarkable.
- Murray Princess departs weekly from Mannum, South Australia, with a choice of three, four and seven-night itineraries. Early Booking Saver Fares start at $849 per person, twin share, for a three-night cruise including transfers to and from Adelaide or secure car parking in Mannum, onboard accommodation, all meals, onboard activities and most shore excursions. For more information, phone Captain Cook Cruises on 1300 729 938 or visit murrayprincess.com.au
- SeaLink’s 2 Day Best of Kangaroo Island Tour departs daily from Adelaide. Prices start from $629.50 per person, twin share including morning pick-up and evening set down at selected Adelaide CBD and Glenelg hotels, return SeaLink coach and ferry travel to Kangaroo Island. Phone SeaLink on 13 13 01 or visit sealink.com.au