Did you know that Murray River cod can grow up to 1.8m (5.9ft) long? I’d heard plenty about them on the 300km (186-mile) drive from the South Australian city of Adelaide to the tiny town of Morgan on the banks of Australia’s longest river, the Murray. They’re silvery grey, make excellent parents and are carnivorous. Carnivorous. That was the part worrying me as I contemplated the river’s murky brown depths. Carnivorous fish in a country home to nearly all of the world’s most deadly creatures, lurking in a river on which I’d be spending the next four days. At least there wouldn’t be any crocodiles. Just me, my family, a houseboat and a river full of big fish. What could possibly go wrong?
It was all in stark contrast to the first few days spent exploring the coastal city of Adelaide and its surroundings. Known as the ‘City of Churches’, its location on the southern tip of Australia and stiff competition from neighbouring Melbourne have meant it has gone largely unnoticed by the hordes of backpackers that flock to Australia each year. But to rule it out would be to miss a treat. The wide avenues and pretty squares (along with a convenient grid system that makes getting lost impossible) make it a pleasure to explore, whilst wine brought in from the surrounding vineyards and a quirky selection of bars and clubs make it an entertaining place by night.
Tourists that do visit tend to head straight for the glossy golden beaches on the Gulf of St Vincent, while the rest go to Kangaroo Island; a 240km-long (150 miles) stretch of offshore wilderness that is home to a huge variety of wildlife, including kangaroos, possums and koalas. But I didn’t have time to visit; a date with a houseboat and a river full of oversized fish beckoned.
Our home for the week was the Kanadah, a 10-berth flat-bottomed riverboat with a huge rooftop sun deck, two bathrooms and a large kitchen-dining room complete with pots, pans and a dishwasher. A selection of books (mostly Jeffrey Archer), magazines and CDs was on board. Luggage loaded and a supermarket’s worth of food later, we were set to go, pulling out of Morgan into a late afternoon sun that gave the brown water a honeyed glow. We were heading up river to a town called Waikerie, where I’d been promised a taste of the best pies in Australia. For now, I was happy enjoying a taste of the best wine in Australia courtesy of a Seasick Steve lookalike called, erm, Steve, who was the hard work and well-trained taste buds behind Danshi Rise: a blend hailing from the fertile McLaren Vale just outside Adelaide.
Overshadowed by the glowering bulk of Mount Lofty, the Vale looks like a curious mash-up of Provence and Texas, with rolling hills dotted with vines, broken only by tiny towns with clapperboard-fronted shops similar to those found in frontier settlements along America’s Bible belt. One of Australia’s oldest wine regions, it’s home to no fewer than 88 wineries (all of which let you come in and test their wares) and a smattering of small pretty towns including Willunga, a little gem packed with quaint pubs and wonderful views of the surrounding hills. We’d paid a visit to the Vale before heading into the bush and had found a rich, ruby red Shiraz good enough to give France’s finest a run for its money, and for a fraction of the price. Sipping it up on the sun deck, nibbling local olives and watching the still river sunset change from crimson to star-speckled violet was simply perfect.
Back downstairs, things were considerably less tranquil. Moored on a handy stretch of flat bank, the gangplank had gone down and someone had ended up in the mud. The sounds of splashing, laughter and chinking glasses fractured the tranquil peace, while the smell of barbecuing meat mingled with the green freshness of the bushes and the scorched earth scented breeze. It didn’t matter: apart from the pelicans, there was nothing around to hear it.
After a sunny breakfast on deck, we chugged off, passing red cliffs peppered with tiny shrubs and twiggy pelican’s nests. Tiny red-backed kingfishers swept low over the river in search of a meal, while flocks of grey parrots with vivid pink bellies squawked grumpily from the treetops. Further on, as the cliffs gave way to grassy groves of red gum trees, we spotted kangaroos bouncing along and shaggy emus digging in the red dirt. Underneath us lurked huge shoals of fish, occasionally breaking the surface but spotted more regularly on the onboard sonar. I hadn’t expected such an abundance of wildlife but perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Unlike the majority of European rivers, the Murray is almost entirely unpolluted and is protected along much of its vast 2,375km (1,476-mile) course. What towns there are, are tiny, with the largest, Wodonga, sustaining just 83,000 people. Our destination, Waikerie, didn’t even come close.
Two and a half days of birdsong, sunbathing and Jeffrey Archer novels later, we arrived at Waikerie. Wild gum trees transformed into manicured grass and white ibis fell away, replaced by cream-coloured houseboats. Above the tiny town we could see its lifeline – the Sturt Highway and its ‘road trains’ (long linkages of HGVs used for freight) – while down at the water’s edge, a flat bottomed cable ferry glided slowly back and forth across the honey-hued depths. With a population of less than 2,000 and an economy dominated by citrus fruit, the town and its famous bakery were a million miles from the glittering steel and glass of Sydney. It barely looked Australian, resembling nothing so much as a Deep South frontier town, with its hand-painted shop signs, dusty streets and pick-up driving locals. Disappointingly, the bakery had closed by the time we arrived, so we headed back to the boat where the boys had thrown carp and caution to the wind and were busy splashing about in the river.
It was hot, dusty and even the brown river water had started to look inviting. It was still opaque though, and deep – deep enough to hide the largest Murray cod. I sat on the swim deck and dipped my toes in. Would I take the plunge? I didn’t think so. But 10 seconds later, a hard shove sent me flying. Back on the swim deck, my brother and the rest of the family were laughing. I floundered around and was overtaken by a crowd of children, followed by my cousin, rod in hand, on a small inflatable boat. I headed back to the swim deck, thoroughly cold and slightly nervous about what was lurking in the water below. Just as I got back to the steps, my cousin shouted. He’d caught a Murray cod and was busy letting it go. I’d been right – they were hungry. Just not, thankfully, for human toes.
Need to know
The Kanadah and its smaller sister ships, Stargazer, River Spirit and River Mist, are available for self-sail river cruises of between three days and a week. Prices for a week’s hire start at AUD1,300 (approximately £860). See www.houseboathire.au for more information. Flights to Adelaide (via Singapore or Hong Kong) start at £639 with Qantas (www.qantas.com.au).