Are you looking for a holiday that is relaxing but also full of activities? Want to see multiple places but don’t want the hassle of changing accommodation?
Houseboating on the River Murray is all of these things, and all at once.
From the comfort of your hired home, you can travel up and down the river, relaxing as the scenery slides by, or you can choose to go kayaking, hiking, water skiing, bird watching or tour a country town. It’s the perfect holiday for those who want a little bit of everything or those who have to please multiple personality types in one group.
With more than 650 kilometres of the world’s third-longest navigable river located in South Australia, the River Murray (elsewhere called the Murray River) has plenty of interesting spots to visit by houseboat. Because of the distance, houseboat hire terms and the river lock system, it is unlikely that you will see more than one section per trip; but that’s okay since you are likely to enjoy houseboating so much you will want to go again.
To make the most of your trip, there are some things to keep in mind.
15 Things to Know About Houseboating
1. Make it (at least) a long weekend.
You need more time than you think to enjoy the river by houseboat. Houseboats move slowly – at an average speed of 7km per hour – and the river has a lot of bends, so it takes a long time to get from one point of interest to the next. While you can do a shorter trip, there is a surprising number of things to do and having the extra time allows you to truly appreciate the beauty of river time and make more unplanned stops along the way.
Country towns and their nearby attractions often have additional activities available during public holiday long weekends, which means even more fun things to do.
2. Public Holiday long weekends have some disadvantages.
One disadvantage of travelling on an official long weekend is that the river will be busier. This means a greater likelihood of speedboats on the river (more in some locations than others), and more houseboats competing for places to moor for the night.
Some attractions and stores are closed on the official public holiday, so check in advance to make sure you don’t miss out. Public holiday long weekends are also considered peak hire season, so hiring rates will be more expensive.
3. You can’t drive the boat at night.
You must be moored – tied up to trees or posts on the bank – between sunset and sunrise. Therefore, you have more potential boating time during the summer months.
4. You probably will only be allowed to do one section of the river.
The houseboat hire companies know the river well, and what their houseboats can handle. They will put restrictions on which direction you can travel based on this knowledge. To avoid disappointment, make sure to enquire about this before hiring the boat.
I originally thought we could check out the towns in either direction of Paringa when we hired our houseboat, but we weren’t allowed to take the houseboat downriver through the locks.
5. Be aware of bridge and lock opening times.
The River Murray is controlled by a system of locks and several highway bridges cross the river as it winds through the state. If you are allowed to take your houseboat through a lock or need to travel under a low bridge, be aware that they only operate at certain times of the day.
To get upriver from Paringa the boats have to go under the low highway bridge, which only operates twice a day, and only when someone has booked a bridge raising in advance. The hire company will take care of all of this, but it does put restrictions on times you can start or finish your trip.
6. Mobile service might be spotty.
The River Murray travels through country Australia. While some parts travel past several towns, parts of the river are very isolated and you may be out of mobile range. On our trip, those with Telstra had better coverage than those with Optus.
7. Don’t plan to stop somewhere on the way back, just take advantage of what you find and stop when you can.
The river looks different at different times of the day, and you never know what might take your interest later in the trip. If you see a spot that looks like an interesting place to kayak or hike, pull over when you see it and take advantage of the freedom that a houseboat allows. There is no guarantee you will find the same spot on the return trip, or that the weather will be suitable to stop when you do.
8. Make sure you have more than one driver.
That way you can keep the boat moving when you want a break, need a nature break, or want to cook. It’s also good to have more than one driver so that you can take turns drinking at the wineries, breweries, and distilleries along the way.
9. Anyone with a driver’s license can drive the boat.
A boat license is not required to drive the houseboat. Anyone 18 or older with a normal car license is allowed to drive. The same restrictions and rules apply to driving the houseboat as they do to driving a car, such as not driving under the influence. (Hence point number 8.)
10. There’s a lot of stuff provided on the boat.
Every company is slightly different, so make sure to check on what is included. However, most will include linens, pillows, bath towels, toilet paper, lifejackets, and have a fully equipped kitchen.
11. Make sure to hire a kayak or two.
Most houseboat hire does not include kayaks, but most companies can provide this add on for a small additional cost, and it is well worth it. The kayak will be tied up to the back of the boat and you can explore interesting places on the river that the houseboat is too big to go.
12. You will need to buy some ice.
This typically isn’t included but some of the houseboats have eskies as well as the refrigerator in the kitchen. You’ll need to buy ice if you want to use the esky.
13. Remember to consider what fruit and veg you can bring into the Riverland.
South Australia has restrictions in place to prevent the spread of fruit fly. The Riverland is considered a protected area because it is a large fruit and vegetable growing area. Make sure to check the current restrictions to ensure you are not bringing in fruit from a restricted area. This does mean that you might need to purchase some of your groceries for your houseboat trip on your way or during the trip.
14. Most hire companies will store your car securely while you are hiring a houseboat.
Check in advance if you can store your car with the houseboat hire company. Most will have a secure place to park your vehicle while you are travelling on the river, but you will probably need to book in advance.
15. Generators have limitations.
The onboard power for the houseboat lights, air conditioning and kitchen appliances is run by a generator. They work well but have limitations. They might not be able to power multiple appliances at once, and some appliances may not work on the generator power at all. Make sure to check in advance with your hire company what can be brought on board. The generator will also need to be run a few times a day to make sure it works when you need it.
There are several places in South Australia to hire a houseboat. The northernmost portion of the River Murray in South Australia runs between locks 5 and 6, from Paringa to the Victorian border. Paringa and Renmark are about 3 hours, or 260 km, northeast from Adelaide.
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 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, public holiday long weekends are popular and usually cost more as they are considered peak periods. 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 the 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.