The real way to experience the Murray is to go with the flow on a wood-fired paddlesteamer, Sue Preston reports.
The young guns on the jet skis think they’re onto something. At full throttle these motorcycles of the water carve a swathe through the gentle river sending the birds scattering.
They are gone in a matter of seconds but in their wake is all the things they’ve missed; all the things they’ll never see at the speed of life they’ve chosen.
There is a bird nesting high in the branches of a majestic river gum and the slow passage of our paddlesteamer, the PS Emmylou, enables us to watch it as well as a mother duck and her baby ducklings paddling by.
There’s a fisherman on the banks of the river and he is giving us a friendly wave, pleased that we won’t disturb the cod he’s hoping to hook and even a swimmer – a woman in a purple cap – confidently swims by, uttering a cheery, “Hoy there”.
The mighty Murray River deserves to be done slowly. The world’s third-longest navigable river is home to the world’s largest red-gum forest and World Heritage-listed wetlands and, while there is a myriad of ways to enjoy it, there is arguably no better way than from than the decks of one of the few wood-fired paddlesteamers offering onboard accommodation in the world today.
If the name sounds familiar it is because the Emmylou became the most recognisable paddlesteamer in the country when she starred in the TV series All the Rivers Run as PS Providence.
Named after the American country singer Emmylou Harris, the paddlesteamer is powered by a restored 1906 steam engine and has nine compact but lovely cabins which were recently refitted with ensuites.
I’m on board for an overnight dinner cruise with fellow guests taking up the eight other cabins on the top deck. Joining us tonight is a group which will disembark after dinner, leaving the rest of us to enjoy the overnight mooring and roaring campfire.
We tuck into an excellent five-course dinner and a glass or two of local wine as the side-wheeled Emmylou slowly takes us along the river. She’s a handsome vessel and campers on the riverbank run for their cameras.
“Look, Mum, look”, the children cry as they run along the riverbank.
Just as the sun is setting, we cruise past the historic Echuca wharf, home to the largest collection of paddlesteamers in the world, and attract even more admirers.
As we tie up for the night, the dinner guests depart, with regretful glances. We lucky ones make a beeline for the campfire where Skipper Warren, who has kept the big wheel moving, brings out his guitar and launches into John Williamson’s signature tune, “Hey True Blue”. Engineer Scotty stokes the fire with some of the lengths of red gum that fuel the steam engine.
At first there is a companionable silence as we stare into the fire or ‘bush television’ but soon we are swapping stories of the land and things we’ve seen and it is only the raucous sounds of nearby youthful campers that drive us finally to bed.
Early next morning, I open the double doors of the Emmylou Queen Suite to reveal the river in all its quiet glory. Our neighbours, the young revellers, are still asleep – missing out once more, this time on the best part of the day on the river.
Drive: Emmylou is based at Echuca, about three hours’ drive from Melbourne. If you’re coming from NSW, you will embark your cruise at Moama Wharf on the NSW side of the river due to border restrictions.
Cruise: There are lunch and dinner cruises, as well as overnight dinner cruises and cruise packages from two to six nights taking in winery visits, riverbank campfires and cultural experiences.
More: Explore Echuca and its historic port, art galleries and cafes on an overnight stay. Book at echucamoama.com
Explore more: 03 5482 5244; murrayriverpaddlesteamers.com.au