In a mere half-heartbeat, as the moon floats above the trees in dreamy darkness I sense the skin of the river tighten beneath the houseboat.

The water is rising. Years of deluge to the north have taken their toll and the vast Murray Riverland with its oxbow lakes and floodplain is now the line of least resistance. The people who live here are versed in its rhythms. They do not panic.

Cue the houseboat-dwelling stranger – here, as I am, “on safari”. It’s all too easy in wide-eyed ignorance, to magnify effects, succumb to fancy, to sentimentalise the inevitable drowning of kangaroo, koala, echidna, or to poeticise the beauty and the stillness. This thought is a caution as I gaze from my bed at the gleam of South Australia’s great river artery, its breastplate of moonlit brilliance curling off to some distant vanishing point between silhouetted gum trees. Pinprick stars hang like specks of shrapnel yet to drop from their black infinity, dead already. Dwarfed by it all, yet wanting so badly to stay awake, I fall asleep.

At 4.58 I open my eyes to a tangerine dawn above the gums. Strong undercurrents, stirring the river’s sediment have clouded it oxtail brown. Twenty-four hours ago this riverscape and floodplain had been unknown to me, now I’m picturing the muscular Murray cod, the crab-like yabbies, amphibious snake-life, all aswim in these soupy shallows touching the edge.

Back then, a day ago, my companions, at present enjoying the decent comforts of this boat known as High River, had largely been strangers. Latched to the bank, we are secure. Our ensuite rooms afford us space, capacious beds and wide-angle views of sky and water.

The Herald: Murray River Walk houseboatMurray River Walk houseboat (Image: Luke Tscharke)

From the moment of our pick-up, at the river town of Renmark the previous lunchtime, it had been clear this trip would be special. Our upriver journey was skippered by Kym, lithe, muscular in his archetypal bush gear, he seemed heroic, a man on a mission, skimming the river’s wider reaches at the wheel of the small support craft that would nose us into the river’s shallowest creeks, glide over sand bars, or speed us safely past debris and branches.

My companions – a quartet of Aussie women here to encounter species as rare as themselves plus a singular married couple from England – come bristling already with acres of knowledge. I offer only spectacular ignorance, plus an armchair familiarity with 230 years of colonial history coloured by bush tales from my childhood – mainly gleaned from old Australian Woman’s Weeklies.

Kym probably knew all that stuff too. He seemed to know everything, but wore it like a feather. Heading upriver he steers astutely, Leica eyeballs clocking each detail. The others, keen on tracking and classifying, rely on brains full of ornithological footnotes and high-spec binoculars. “Good spotting!” becomes the mantra of the morning. Where I detect little more than the restless world of birds – mere punctuation marks fluttering off from the crooked branches of box trees or gums – they see dashing bee-eaters, cockatoos, corellas, galahs. Kym sees more. He moors the craft, and filling our mugs with steaming tea, he mentions “ring-trees” – pleased I suspect to have found our blind-spot.

Ring-trees, the work of Aboriginals, have branches purposely split, then realigned to grow new shapes. They signify knowledge, or sacred meaning, or mark boundaries, or indicate places of spirit power. “No-one is certain,” Kym says. “A ring-tree might show a burial place, or the edge of something, or specify a danger.” He points to a perfectly sacred oval among tight tree trunks. No-one speaks.

The Herald: Murray River TrailsMurray River Trails (Image: SATB)

After that, we spot maybe three that whole afternoon, but are soon absorbed by the lure of sightings – of long-tailed possum, high-trotting emu, ‘roo and goanna. I’m scanning for snakes – but thinking of Sturt.

Charles Sturt predates us by 200 years. He came commissioned by the Crown to chart the Murray from source to sea. With only nine convicts (who built the boat), and three sturdy troopers, he conquered the currents, warding off “throngs” of Aboriginals, buying safe passage with gifts for chiefs, placating his crew with copious gallons of strong English tea and endless tobacco. The job was done in barely four months.

I feel him closest the morning we kayak in pairs downriver, paddles dipping, seeking the nondescript shallow creek where, days before, Kym found a goanna hiding in branches. This is brown-snake terrain, a possible haven for skink – sinuous swimmers – and grey-plated turtle. But we find only disappointment.

Once back on land the natural marvels reappear. A royal spoonbill family nesting its chicks in a gum tree, and, almost adjacent, a regent parrot.

Then, through the miracle-lens of a telescope, zips the rainbow-blur of a kingfisher, perched on a tree trunk that might be its pulpit. A giddy excitement overwhelms me. I am transported, and transportation – real, metaphorical, astonishing – lies at the heart of our four-day immersion, reaching its zenith, at least for me, when, unforeseen we come upon shearing sheds at Chowilla.

Hopping off-deck, we trawl the compound, the tin-roofed buildings, the old machinery reeking of oil, deserted sheep pens; a faded cutting on a spar records the shearing tally for 1881. A yellowed photo depicts bales of wool heaved towards a waiting Murray steamer. The moment freezes, the whole place alive with acoustic ghosts. Time owns this landscape, unmarred by telegraph pole or pylon. The Aboriginals call Chowilla “place of the spirits”. Their manifestation lies in memory and lore, in the thousands of years of nocturnal hunting, or in a spoonbill’s egg, cracked and hatching in a tick.

The Herald: All the rooms on the houseboat are ensuiteAll the rooms on the houseboat are ensuite (Image: Luke Tscharke)

Our sense of privilege – which is what this journey amounts to – hangs unspoken, yet apparent, in the babble of satisfactions over “spottings” each night at dinner, or during Kym’s updates on the floods. Each bedtime brings stars and a realisation that biographical time, mythological time, historical time and dreamtime exist together. A head-thumping thought.

I turn to my phone seeking swift distraction, finding at once (a shot my companions have eschewed), a “dirty angel” and “savage seagull” – taken hours before near the river. You will not find them in any guide book. I shall take them to the Murray mouth (as Sturt once did), the safari’s promised end. And what happens there is, as they say, another tale.


Tom travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission and Murray River Trails.
All the experiences offered by Murray River Trails are along the mighty Murray River in South Australia and include luxury houseboat accommodation with a small group. All the rooms on the houseboat are ensuite and you travel on a fully inclusive basis so guests have the touring, guiding, food, local wines and beers and so on all included.
Murray River Trails offers:
– a four day/three night Murray River Walk
– a three day/two night Murray River Safari which includes some of the highlights of the walk but also some kayaking
– a five day/four night Safari to Rivers End experience
– Murray River Escapes (bespoke houseboat hire with a guide for those wanting a private experience).
Tom travelled on the Safari to Rivers End experience which costs from £2,250. 

For further information:

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