Capt. Eddy Hazelman looks out over the wheel of the paddle steamer Melbourne and talks about Australia's Murray River with a fond, faraway look in his eyes.
She's a shallow one, he says. And with a passable channel only four feet deep in some places and few navigational aids, "We have to know every inch of the bottom like the back of our hands."
With much of his life spent on the Murray, Capt. Eddy recalls the days when paddle boats were used to transport red gum trees down the shallow Murray to Echuca, Victoria. Now, just as on America's Mississippi River, the grand old steamers carry only tourists. And the Melbourne, docked at Mildura, Victoria, is one of only a few steam-powered vessels left on Australia's most famous river.
The "mighty, muddy Murray," as river folk call it, once served as a great highway to the interior. In the mid to late 1800s (a period of Murray history depicted in the recent TV series "All the Rivers Run") more than 300 paddle boats like those Capt. Eddy remembers traveled many of the river's 1,600 miles. They made their way through three states--New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia--collecting crops and wool and delivering household goods to settlers.
The river Capt. Eddy cruises today is a serene, muddy waterway, slowed by weirs and dams and stretching to the sea from its source on the southern slopes of the Great Dividing Range.
From Goolwa, on Lake Alexandrina near the mouth, to Echuca, 1,066 miles inland, the Murray is one of Australia's most appealing attractions. Winding slowly past red cliffs or low banks lined with green willows and red gum trees, the river is home to many animals and birds. At dawn and dusk, kangaroos feed near its banks, and in its billabongs and shallows are black swans, water hens, egrets, herons, ibis, black cormorants, long-beaked black and white pelicans and other native fowl.
Paddle boats such as Capt. Eddy's Melbourne offer visitors an old-fashioned way to see the gracious, slow-moving river. Day trips or weeklong cruises are available on several old side-wheelers or, from some ports, on conventional cruise boats.
At Goolwa, the Arona and the Mary Ann operate short luncheon and afternoon cruises on Lake Alexandrina and the mouth of the Murray. Upstream at Murray Bridge, South Australia, the Proud Mary offers a two-day river trip for $295 and a five-day jaunt for $610, both with meals included. Ports of call include Mannum, the site where the first Murray paddle steamer was launched at Noa No landing in 1852, and Blanche Town, once an important watering stop for mail coaches on the Sydney road.
Those with a taste for luxury can choose from two cruise ships owned by Murray River Developments. For a fare of $375 to $675, passengers enjoy six days of riverbank barbecues, European-style cuisine, live entertainment and all the comforts of a five-star hotel on the Murray Explorer or the Murray River Queen.
The Explorer, a Rhine River-style boat based at Renmark, a citrus town, stops for tours of a winery in Loxton and a fruit-juice factory at Berri. But the highlight may be the barn dance in the 100-year-old Chowilla Woolshed. The Queen, a steamer docked at Goolwa, visits a floating museum aboard the paddlesteamer Marion in upriver Mannum and the towering riverside cliffs at Big Bend.
Mildura, a northwest Victoria town noted for dried fruits and grapevines, is home port to four paddle steamers. Capt. Eddy's Melbourne leisurely cruises the river at 5 m.p.h. on a two-hour trip twice daily. Tourists who prefer to dine while watching the river scenery can choose lunch or dinner aboard the 107-year-old Avoca.
Two paddle boats, the Wanera and the Coonawarra, offer five-day journeys on the Murray in the portion of the river where it meets with the Darling, Australia's longest river. Other stops include Mildura Winery, one of Australia's largest at Merbein, and the Wentworth Services Club, a private club with legalized poker machines or pokies , as the Aussies call slot machines.
In "All the Rivers Run," the home port of many steamers was Echuca. This northern Victoria city still has the Emmylou, a steam-driven paddle boat that offers a $245 two-day cruise. Downstream, Swan Hill serves as home for the Pyap, a steamer giving a two-hour river tour past scenic Murray Downs.
Exploring the River
Visitors with longer vacations and no love of crowds can choose to see the river from the sunny deck of a rented houseboat. Vacationers can select the portion of the river they want to explore, fish and swim. In Victoria, houseboats are available at Mildura, and in South Australia in Renmark, Berri, Loxton, Blanche Town, Mannum, Murray Bridge, Tailem Bend and Kooringal Park.
Prices range from $300 to $900 a week depending on the season and the number of berths desired--four to 12.
Paddle steamer cruises and houseboats give visitors a chance to view the Murray firsthand, but there's another way to sample the flavor of the great river: taste the delectable fish that call it home.
Yabbies, fresh-water shellfish, have been a favorite of Murray aficionados for years. Capt. Eddy remembers catching "two- to three-inch yabbies" at Swan Hill. "You bait a bit of string with meat," he explains. When they bite, "you catch them in a net and scoop them out."
Broiled, boiled, fried or baked, they are delicious. And no one knows how to cook them better than the chef at Yabby City, a tiny storefront restaurant at Clayton, near Goolwa at the Murray's mouth. The unassuming eatery has no sign, but advertises its best catch with a bigger-than-life-size yabby statue--bright red.
Way upstream, from Swan Hill to Echuca, Capt. Eddy has caught Murray cray "similar to a sea lobster and up to 15 to 20 inches long." The melt-in-your-mouth cray is available at many river-town restaurants, along with other Murray natives such as the light white Murray cod, scallop, redfin and perch. These and other fish are also favorites with anglers all along the river.
Information about paddle steamer cruises, houseboats, river restaurants and fishing areas can be obtained from the Australian Tourist Commission, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1740, Los Angeles 90010. Prices quoted may vary because of fluctuating exchange rates.