Exploring Australia’s river country
If you’re planning an expedition to Australia, there’s going to be a lot of must-see things that you’ll be wanting to include in your itinerary.
Australia is a vast continent. There’s no chance that you’ll be able to cover everything in one trip – if you get the chance, it’s likely to be a destination that you’ll want to return to again and again.
Your first few visits to Australia are going to be taken up with the big ticket items - the wildlife, the landscapes, the beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef. But once you’ve ticked off some of the major sights and experiences, the real pleasure in visiting Australia is to get under the skin of this place and its people – to see some of the smaller, more remote places, and to understand a bit more what it’s like to live here.
At some point, you’ll be wise to turn your attention inland. While most of Australia’s population lives around its coastline, inland Australia is a fascinating world that is well worth exploring.
The Murray-Darling river system is one of the world’s largest and, in years gone by, was the foundation of an inland transport system for much of Eastern Australia.
Wood-fuelled paddle-steamers plied the waterways, hauling bales of wool and other produce from the vast but isolated farming stations. The paddle-steamers brought goods into the main transport hubs where the produce would then be distributed for sale out to the wider world.
One of the main transport hubs on this river network was Echuca – the closest point on the Murray River to the city of Melbourne, the capital of the emerging colony that evolved to become the state of Victoria. At its peak, Echuca was one of the world’s largest and busiest inland ports.
Although the Australian economy and its transport networks have now moved beyond the slow, chugging river-boats, Echuca remains a thriving town, and the Murray River is still very much its beating heart.
Easily reached by bus, rail or car, Echuca is a 2.5 hour drive from Melbourne and is a popular weekend and mini-break destination.
The Port of Echuca
One of the key attractions of Echuca is that much of the original river dock, and a number of the paddle-steamers, have not only been preserved but remain operational – you can get a real sense of what life was like as you take a ride on the river, the tooting steamers boisterously breaking the calm silence of the surrounding red gum forests.
Over the Easter weekend, the Port comes alive with a massive fireworks display and a sail-past of all the paddle-steamers that call Echuca home. It’s an impressive sight.
Echuca was first established by an enterprising ex-convict called Henry Hopwood. Hopwood built a ferry here, charging for river crossings. A number of the colonial-era buildings and streets have been preserved, and you can get a real sense of what life was like for people living in a river port at that time.
Bird-life and Wildlife
The bushland and open plains that surround Echuca is home to an enormous array of spectacular bird-life. Kookaburras hunt amidst the waterways, sulphur-crested cockatoos preen in the red-gum trees, galahs feed on the seeds and grains, and in the evenings the skies are filled with noisy corellas finding a perch for the evening.
My favourites are the Murray Smokers – small, quiet parrots that seem to appear when you least expect them, surveying the surroundings inquisitively before vanishing into the tree-shrouded water-ways.
One of the best places to experience the bird-life of this region is the Reed Beds Bird Hide near Picnic Point – one of the key breeding grounds within the enormous Barmah-Millewa river red-gum forest.
You’ll also see plenty of wildlife such as kangaroo, emu, and possum.
Echuca is a popular destination for water skiing:
- You can either learn to water ski; or
- If you’re more experienced, maybe contemplate entering the Southern 80 ski race held in February each year
If you’re into golf:
- The Rich River golf course offers two 18-hole courses featuring large greens and wide fairways.
- In addition to golf, Rich River also offers croquet, lawn bowls, and tennis.
- Accommodation is available on site.
The flat road network that surrounds Echuca is also perfect for road cycling and major cycling events are regularly held in this area.
From high-end caravan parks through to riverside camp-sites there’s a range of outdoor accommodation options for you in the Echuca area.
If you feel like taking charge of your own river boat, houseboats are readily available for hire and enable you to quietly navigate the river, stopping at sandbanks along the way.
Echuca’s warm, temperate climate enables an outdoor style of living.
Although only a relatively small population, this is a tourist town and there are a surprising number of very good restaurants and cafes.
The region is also home to some excellent vineyards, which not only produce great wines but also offer dining and accommodation options.
Suggested options include:
- St Anne’s
- Cape Horn
- The Carriages
Where to eat
Morrison’s Winery overlooks the Murray River. Enjoy sharing plates of local produce, matched with glasses of tasty wine. You can take a paddle-steamer from the Echuca port out to the winery for lunch and then back again - the perfect way to tune into the pace and rhythm of the river.
Another good lunch option is Cape Horn winery. They’re serving up wood-fired pizzas in their riverside gardens.
Other recommended restaurants include :
- The Black Pudding - great coffee and best breakfasts in town
- Shebani’s - modern food with a strong Mediterranean flavour. Breakfasts are really good and this is also a popular place for a casual lunch.
- The American - a vibrant pub that serves good food.
- BYL - the cafe that probably has the best coffee in town.
- The Timbercutter – a restaurant at Picnic Point with great river views.