David Whitley discovers the importance of Australia’s longest river


I have to confess that, before I visited, I didn’t understand why Australians mythologized the Murray River so much. In Australia, the Murray is regarded as the blood that pumps through the nation’s veins. It is almost always known as the ‘Mighty Murray’ and its fortunes are a constant source of debate. But the river’s significance isn’t something you see – it’s something you hear. Stood amongst hundreds of red gum trees in a patch of forest along the Murray’s south bank, I finally understand as dusk falls. The sound of the birdsong is cacophonous. Cockatoos and galahs screech away as if they own the place, and it’s to a degree that I’ve never witnessed elsewhere in Australia. It’s the sound of life – and the Murray River is what provides it.


The Murray is often called Australia’s lifeblood, and its role in Australia’s evolution from backward penal colony to first world nation cannot be overstated. It opened up farmland well beyond the confines of the Sydney area and became the continent’s major trading route. To find the source of the Murray, you just have to look at a map of Australia. The border between New South Wales and Victoria starts out as a straight line from the coast, then suddenly goes wiggly as it reaches Mount Pilot in the Australian Alps. This is where the 1,476 mile long Murray River starts – and the border follows the river until it crosses into South Australia. Once in South Australia, it empties into a series of lakes and a surprisingly feeble river mouth to the south-east of Adelaide.


The Murray’s dual role as a border and a trading route accounts for the number of twin towns that are stretched along it. Until the river hits South Australia, the Murray tends to have settlements lined up opposite each other. Originally, this was all about money. Victoria and New South Wales were separate colonies, while tolls and import duties were easy sources of revenue. As wool, wood and other goods chuntered up the river, the river towns acted as gateways to the other state – and places to ensure that the government got its rightful cut.


Since federation in 1901, these twin towns have gradually become single entities. You’re more likely to see Albury-Wodonga than the two listed separately, and the same applies to the likes of Robinvale-Euston, Yarrawonga-Mulwala and Echuca-Moama. Given that none of the river actually runs through Victoria – the state border is technically the high water mark on the Victorian side – it is a strange quirk that most of the Murray River towns worth visiting are in Victoria. One of them is Echuca, once the third biggest port in the whole of Australia. Its key position on the closest part of the Murray to Melbourne made it a major trading hub. Goods would be taken up from Melbourne by road or rail, then distributed along the river system to the rest of the country.


Nowadays Echuca is an immediately engaging town. It’s green, has something of an alternative edge to it, and has definite signs of life in a series of cracking pubs, cafés and restaurants. If you had to pick one Murray River town to stay in, rather than hopping along it and visiting a series of destinations, Echuca would be it. Echuca’s main trump card is its magnificent port. Usually than word conjures up grim images of shipping containers and cranes, but Echuca’s port is stuck in a spellbinding timewarp.


It is dominated by a giant wooden wharf. Built in 1865, it stretches over three levels. The theory behind this was that it could still operate, irrespective of what level the river was at. The old train tracks still head towards the station in town (and thus the rest of the Victorian rail network), but the main cargo handled here is now people rather than wool. To get an idea of how busy the port was in the pre-Federation days, consider that the wharf was once five times longer than it is now. These days, it weighs in at a sizable 75.5m long but it’s not a patch on what it was. 


The street on the landward side of the wharf is lined with wine tasting cellars, craft shops and historic pubs. One of these is the Star Hotel, which in the 19th century built an underground bar as a refuge from the intense summer heat. The pub lost its licence in 1897, but the underground room was retained and it became an illegal drinking den, connected to the outer world by a tunnel network. If the police arrived, drinkers simply disappeared into the tunnel. The Star now has its licence back, but visitors can go for a peek at the subterranean boozer.


Most people come for what’s on the water, however. Echuca is the paddlesteamer capital Australia, and a flotilla of the old time vessels plies up and down the river from the wharf. The PS Adelaide is the oldest timber-hulled steamer still operating in the world, while the PS Pevensey was the star of 1984 mini-series All The Rivers Run. I end up on the PS Alexander Arbuthnot. It was the last steamer built for the riverboat trade in Australia, and dates back to 1923. The 76-foot old dame has been restored and now ferries daytrippers around rather than the charcoal and firewood it originally carried. As with many of the other steamers, it was built specifically to work on the Murray. Its hull has shallow drafts and broad beams – ideal for scraping over sandbars. 


It’s a real joy, clanking down the river as the engine kicks out an almighty racket. Steam billows out of the side of the Alexander Arbuthnot as we trundle past people out in their tin boats with a beer in hand. All jolly good fun for the cruisers, but not so much for the poor chap downstairs, sweating next to the engine as he keeps it stoked...On the wharf itself there are a number of attractions to poke your nose around, including engine displays, a sawmill and a guard’s van from the old trains.


But most interesting of all is the cargo shed, which has been converted into a museum which tells the story of the Murray River. The Murray-Darling basin, we’re told, covers around 14% of the country and most of its fertile land. It stretches into southern Queensland. But more importantly, it’s in trouble, as a video called “A message from downstream” demonstrates. Prolonged drought and controversial irrigation schemes have meant that the Murray is struggling. The children in the video say that the mouth of the Murray is sometimes just a series of dirty ponds, with no birdlife around. They claim the water isn’t safe to swim in and nothing goes into the sea.


It’s a desperately sad state of affairs, and one that I get to witness for myself a week after Echuca. The town of Murray Bridge in South Australia is the last major crossing before the mouth of the Murray. The bridge in question is enormous, but much of the ground underneath it is dry. Part of the charm of the Murray River towns is that they have preserved history. But Australia has some tough decisions and changes to make if it is going to preserve the one thing that this history is based around. The lifeblood is an incredible natural phenomenon, and one that’s enchanting to visit – may the Murray long remain mighty.