A sense of calm comes over me as I lean back in the chair, having given the large wheel a slight nudge to the left. My feet and beer up on the dash, I gaze at trees on the riverbank as they slowly slide past.
With nowhere specific to be for four days, we glide down the River Murray at a leisurely pace. Our only task is to keep the boat near the middle of the river, which requires little more than the occasional minor adjustment to our course. Our only decisions are when to eat and where to tie up for the night.
Steering a houseboat is relaxing and surprisingly easy.
Our three-bedroom home for the long weekend has an average speed of just 7 km per hour. At that speed, the river is peaceful and birds land on our railing to join us for part of our journey. The houseboat allows us to reach otherwise inaccessible scenery and wake up surrounded by nature. It is sort of like camping, but with a full kitchen, dining table and sofa, two bathrooms (including hot showers), a BBQ, eskies, and a sundeck. Houseboating is like glamping on the move. The houseboat we have hired is relatively modest. They can range from small two-berth, one-room homes to 12-berth/six-bedroom luxury vessels with spas and on-board exercise equipment. Regardless of the size, they are a fantastic way to see the river.
The Mighty Murray
The River Murray (called the Murray River outside of South Australia) is the third-longest navigable river in the world and snakes its way across three states. More than 650 kilometres of the ‘Mighty Murray’ wind through South Australia alone: from Customs House on the South Australia-Victoria border in the north to the river’s mouth at Lake Alexandrina in the south.
The SA portion of the river passes through nine national parks, dozens of towns, and several agricultural regions. It is famous for its towering limestone cliffs but it also has marshes, grassy parks and sandy beaches.
Our four-day trip is taking us north from Paringa (near Renmark) to Chowilla Game Reserve and back. The riverbanks are guarded by river gums and the occasional willow draping over the water. We watch the trees for the kilometre markers, erected every 2 kilometres, to give us a sense as to how far we have travelled and where we are on the hand-drawn river navigation guide. The guide notes the shallower sections of the river and possible snag points to avoid, as well as points of interest.
Before we set out, I was worried that we would cover the river section too quickly and run out of things to do. I was wrong.
We have chatted and enjoyed the scenery as we pushed slowly up the river, kayaked through adjoining waterways and a marsh, and strolled through Renmark. We spent a relaxing afternoon on the deck of the Woolshed Brewery tasting beers, hard lemonade and pizza; the shade of a large gum tree kept us cool from the hot afternoon sun while we looked out over the river.
The brewery, which is 20km from Renmark, was packed for the long weekend, with most people arriving by car or bus. When they left, they had to pile back into hot vehicles to drive home on country roads. When we were ready to leave, we meandered back down to our houseboat and continued on our way, the cool air kissing our faces as we walked around the deck.
Our nights have been spent in relative solitude and calm. The river is still and barely laps against the underneath of the boat at night. We spent one night with no one else in sight, the reflection of the nearly full moon on water. We spent another night in the shadow of the spectacular orange and white Headings Cliffs – the nearest boat visible but well out of earshot. In the morning, a chorus of birds sang to each other while we made our breakfast.
Reflecting on the trip so far, I watch for the next kilometre marker and check the navigation guide for any points of note on the slowly nearing bend. There is a floodplain off to the side with a squadron of pelicans sunning themselves on tree branches poking out of the water.
The river continues to move at its own pace, and I settle back in to its rhythm. We are slowly making our way back to Paringa; but we are on river time, and we will get there when we get there.
Paringa and Renmark are about 3 hours, or 260 km, northeast from Adelaide, close to the Victorian border.
Part of the beauty of houseboating on the Murray is the chance to see different towns. Renmark has free moorings in the centre of town, so you if are already on the river, houseboats can be moored along the Renmark Riverfront for up to 96 hours.
Stateliner offers regular intrastate bus services to Renmark, which take about 4 hours.
Driving is the best and quickest way to get to Riverland boat marinas to start your houseboating adventure. There are a few possible routes from Adelaide, but the quickest is via the new Northern Connector and the Sturt Highway.
From Adelaide, head north on South Road (A2) towards Gawler via the Northern Connector and Northern Expressway (M2). Continue on the Sturt Highway (A20) past Gawler all the way to Renmark.
If you are picking the boat up in Paringa, stay on the A20 through Renmark. Just over the river, take a right on Lock 5 Road, where most of the houseboats are moored.
There are plenty of wonderful country towns to stop in on the way to Renmark. Even though you can probably make it from Adelaide without stopping, it is always safe to have a rest and taking a few stops along the way just makes the trip more interesting.
- Nuriootpa: One of the many towns in the Barossa Valley wine region. Stop here for wine tasting, craft spirits and boutique eateries.
- Waikerie: At the start of the Riverland with a nice, grassy park along the river which makes for a good spot to stop for a packed lunch.
- Barmera: A decent sized country town with a bakery, café, hotel and Foodland all on the main street. A good spot to grab fruit fly free fruit and veg before getting on the boat.
When to Go
It is possible to houseboat any time of the year. However, long weekends are popular and usually cost more as they are considered peak period.
Winter is peaceful and quiet, but it is more likely to rain and the shorter daylight hours also mean less time you can be on the move.
Summer means longer days and more potential travel time, it is also a great time of the year to enjoy the other water sports available on the river, such as water skiing, kayaking and swimming.
Houseboat hire costs range in price depending on the style of houseboat (budget accommodation to luxury vessel) and the time of year (low, normal or peak). However, the average is about $50 per person per night.