We’re coasting through olive-green waters, enveloped by what might just be the most quintessentially “Aussie” scene I’ve clapped eyes on. To my right, a mob of grey kangaroos is bounding along beside us in the dappled light of river gums while a swamp wallaby perches on the nearby bank. To my left a sulphur-crested cockatoo is squawking. The sky is cobalt blue. For many of my fellow travel companions, however, these painterly scenes are not the draw.
Instead, they’ve come for our river boat, the Emmylou. Thought to be the only wood-fired cruising paddle steamer in the world, the Emmylou in all her timber-decked, butter-yellow, 19th-century-styled glory, is a sight to behold. But the jewel in the crown of this old-world watercraft is hidden inside – a restored, wood-burning steam engine dating back to 1906.
The engine has courted the attention of many on our four-night voyage. Some admirers pause to talk to Andy – the engineer tasked with operating this fine piece of machinery. Others simply gaze in quiet contemplation at the nuts and bolts and brass and gauges. A few pace back and forth, waiting patiently until it’s time for the boiler to be restoked once again. “Steam is the feature – that’s what everyone’s here to see,” says Andy. “The engine takes up more than half the boat. If we didn’t have that, we’d probably have another 20 people on board and a nice big dining room!”
Many who live in Southern Australia take to the Murray for pleasure-cruising or a weekend away on a houseboat. But news for cruisers – especially those from overseas − is that, instead of spending just one or two nights on the river, visitors can now board the Emmylou for up to four days at a time. The extended itinerary offers a chance to scratch the surface of the region and delve into its history while enjoying the languorous pace of life on the river.
Winding its way through three states (New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia), and at nearly 1,600 miles long, the Murray is Australia’s longest river. Another superlative feature of this lengthy ecosystem is the Barmah-Millewa forest, straddling the river where it forms the Victoria and New South Wales border; it’s the largest river red-gum forest on the planet. The densely forested banks provide shelter for countless mammals and birds. Cockatoos, wallabies and kangaroos aside, it’s possible to see eagles, kookaburras, platypus, currawongs, emus, koalas, possums, echidnas and plenty more here. To be precise, the region is in fact home to 236 bird species, 50 mammals and more than 500 plant species.
On an excursion into the Barmah wetlands on day two we learnt more about the flora and fauna. Slipping through the creeks and narrows in the tiny MV Kingfisher (a custom-designed motor vessel with a shallow draught) we came eye-to-eye with the silver limbs of the red gums that have dipped their feet in the waters, and the pockets of weeping willows which cascade over the river’s banks.
At the boat’s helm was Benita, one of the first guides in the country to gain eco certification in 2001. She told us that the Murray is estimated to be between 60 and 100 million years old, and that we were riding through its narrowest section.
While we didn’t see much wildlife (though I feel fortunate not to have got too close to a tiger snake on Snake Island), we certainly heard it. From the guttural, stuttering croak of the Peron’s tree frog to the high-pitched whistle of the treecreeper, the bush was alive with noise.
Sampling the fruits of Australia’s vineyards was another perk of the voyage
The Old Winery
A two-course lunch and tasting on a terrace overlooking the vines was scheduled at Morrisons Riverview Winery. Later, we poked around Perricoota station, where a faded, once-grand, mid-1800s homestead sits on the grounds of this former sheep farm. The adjoining packing shed has since become a restaurant with French doors opening on to a wide deck that fronts the Murray. It’s a fine spot, but unfortunately the head chef had walked out shortly before our visit, which meant dinner was cancelled.
Thankfully, the food in the Emmylou saloon was rather good.
On our first night we sat down to a five-course dinner that included crispy arancini served with aioli with a hint of citrus and Victorian eye fillets seared until tender and still blushing inside. The menu suggests wine pairing options and the vast majority of reds, whites, sparkling and fortifieds were from the region’s esteemed vineyards.
The best thing about dining on board, however, is the sense that you’ve gone back in time to a more glamorous bygone era conjured by white linens, gleaming silverware, candles and the occasional hoot of the steam whistle. The sound of water rushing beneath the floorboards and an uninterrupted panorama of the river and its banks unfolding before you is blissful.
The cabins have benefited from a revamp. Gone are the paddle steamer’s once spartan interiors, replaced with modern, cosy and cleverly designed rooms that feature all the trappings of a (very compact) boutique hotel room. And shared bathrooms are no longer part and parcel of a cruise on this 98ft by 32ft boat, with seven of the nine cabins now with en suites.
What promised to be the most spectacular evening of the trip – a riverside campfire and dinner under the stars the following night – was rained out. The friendly crew saved the day, bringing our food back on to the boat along with a local musician. We don’t get to sing river shanties around an open-air fire, but the warmth of the hardworking steam engine does just fine.
Echuca has plenty of old school charm
A folksy chocolate-box town, Echuca (pop 12,906) is a surprisingly charming place to while away a day. The names of ice creameries, bakeries, book shops and pubs are stamped on to glass windows or hand-painted on to wooden doors of single-storey buildings. Just a two-and-a-half hour drive from state capital Melbourne, and Victoria’s closest gateway to the Murray, the port has seen its fortunes rise and fall plenty over the past 150 years. The river was “discovered” by Charles Sturt in 1830 but it wasn’t until 1853 that it was first navigated by settlers. By then, much of the Aboriginal population had been wiped out by non-native diseases.
A four-night cruise on the Murray River aboard the PS Emmylou costs from £758pp. Includes excursions (0061 03 5482 5244; murrayriverpaddlesteamers.com.au). Departures are year-round. Return flights from Heathrow to Melbourne from £685 per person with Etihad (0345 608 1225; etihad.com).