By Julie Bates
Been a bit busy lately? Me too. I’ve had enough. I’m exhausted.
I’m laying on the couch on a Friday night after a 45-hour work week, dreaming of that (albeit) brief moment when I can take the pedal right off and just … float.
This is normally the moment I start planning my next holiday. Planning something I can look forward to, away from my desk, away from the stress.
“Just bloody book it!” – he yells. That’ my husband blurting out words from the kitchen as he’s pouring me another glass of wine. He knows me well. (I only briefly thought it was my ‘two-wines down’ subconscious screaming at me).
It’s time for a break.
BUT – before I book my holiday, I’m going to tell you about YOUR next break. It’s right here, in my backyard actually. Ok, not literally in my backyard. I barely clean up for friends.
No. What I’m going to tell you about is a little-known region that I think you guys, Aucklanders are going to fall in love with. It’s South Australia’s Murray River, Lakes and Coorong.
Yes, yes, yes, I know. We don’t have the golden surf beaches of the Gold Coast or sophistication of Sydney harbour. We’ve got something completely different altogether.
A holiday where you have the chance to slow down and experience a different style of wild in untouched places where you can wake up to scenery and natural beauty you never knew existed!
And the best part? You see it all in double. So what do I mean by “double” you ask?
That’s the magic of the Murray River, Lakes and Coorong. Whether you’re on the top deck of a houseboat, lazing from a hammock in front of your riverside holiday home, or opening a Shiraz from your cabin campfire, you’ll also be right alongside our beautifully still, freshwater paradise. Staring at the reflection of burnt orange cliff faces, all-season sunsets, River Red Gums or the historic Murray Princess cruising on by.
And I can assure you – despite popular fables, we DON’T have crocodiles in this fresh water body. In fact, with our protected waters and hibernating wakeboarders, the conditions are perfect place for on-water activities like kayaking and stand up paddle boarding (or skiing for those with the energy). In fact, you’re more likely to spot a freshwater turtle, pelican or Murray cod … possibly even one of our rare bird species, if you manage to get a tip from a local twitcher.
Making it even easier to come visit us is Air New Zealand’s new direct flight service from Auckland to Adelaide, meaning you can arrive in less than five hours (and no time-wasting transfers to deal with). There’s no language you need to learn before you come, no cultural niche to adopt, no long-haul flight, no epic road trip, and no need to squeeze your belongings into a backpack. Just book your trip, pack your case and come for a few nights of wild serenity.
But, aside from the practical sense of a direct (and well-priced) international flight, I know Auckland people will love this region. And here’s the Top 5 reasons …
1. Magic happens in Mannum
Mannum is the historic home of the paddlesteamer. But it’s also home to every other watercraft you can think of, including the largest fleet of premium houseboats from award-winning Unforgettable Houseboats. These guys have been nailing the houseboat trade for decades – and there’s a good reason for that. They’re good. Really good.
They also like do things in dozens at Unforgettable – a fleet of 12, with their biggest boat sleeping 12 people. So it’s you, and your mates heading off on a holiday. If you’re after something a little more intimate, then you can stick with Unforgettable number 12, a funky little four-berth vessel decked out with a jacuzzi, so you can soak up that spa feeling, sip your wine and watch the Murray float by.
(My tip though, if you’re hanging out for a luxury getaway with friends, the massive Unforgettable 11, with its revolutionary design and 360 degree top deck views, is probably for you.)
For those who prefer keeping their feet on dry land, the region has come of age in recent years in terms of premium residences set right along the River’s edge (see one pictured below, at Aruma River Resort).
The crew at River Shack Rentals have the lion’s share of them. But more about lions later (see reason #3).
Don’t be put off by the name … we promise the term ‘shack’ in Australia means GOOD things. These guys look after some pretty spectacular River houses, and from May to September, you can probably jag one for an excellent price. You can go big or small. Intimate, or group getaway style. If I’m honest, I’d tell you that the quant little retro river houses are my favourite – like this little beauty at Caurnamont (see below), just north of Mannum.
Or, you’ve got bigger holiday homes, right in the town of Mannum, that have such proximity to the water’s edge, you’re practically swimming at breakfast!
The other great thing about Mannum, is its small town, and genuinely friendly feel. You can walk down the street to the local ice-cream parlour, bakery or lolly shop, as you make your way to the famous Pretoria Hotel for a meal. This is on your way to the world-renowned Hermann Gass bird sanctuary, past the Mannum Dock Museum, with its interactive paddlesteamer exhibits. Or, if you've got the time, you can take a short drive (or long bike ride) out to the incredible Mannum Waterfalls located a few kilometres out of town. This is a favourite amongst local photographers, especially during winter.
And even if you do decide to stay on dry land, you can get a quick fix of boating luxury on board the Four Knots Murray River Cruises based at the Mannum Marina. Which leads me on to my next point.
2. A River cruise for all (BIG or small)
A short cruise with the Four Knots crew is another perfect way to get up close and personal with the Murray. You’re taken a world away from the hustle of life when you’re on one of their cruises. My personal favourite, is the sunset cruise. Leave me to sit on the deck, and float along the Murray with a wine in hand, and some cheese on the side, and I’m happy. The crew are locals, so they’ll also fill you in on the history of the region, take you past some amazing flora and fauna, and feed you some local treats as well.
These guys have some pretty Insta-worthy moments too, especially on their bird spotting cruise. During the two-hour cruise, you get up close and personal with active bird life, including white-faced herons, Australian white ibis, darters, cormorants, wood ducks and teals. There’s also daily feedings of the Black Kites and Whistling Kites up close. So get your phones out and ready (or go old school and bring a camera along).
Speaking of old school and photos, The Murray Princess has to be the most photographed boat in Australia. I can’t tell you this is the unequivocal truth, but just search for ‘Murray Princess’ on any search engine or social media app, and you’ll see what I mean.
This treasure of our region is not only a beauty to see from a distance (it really is a sight that stays with you forever), BUT it offers luxury cruises for guests who want to slow down even more. In fact, Phil Vine from the New Zealand Herald recently wrote an article on the magically slow pace of the Princess and all she had to offer.
“If ageing is an art form - and it probably is - the Murray Princess is a floating gallery, a boatload of portraits of our future selves. The perfect place to contemplate who you are, and the masterpiece you may become.”
Unlike some of its modern rivals, which only attach a paddle wheel for show, you can rest assured our Princess is an authentic paddlewheeler, propelled by its massive stern wheel. Once you’re on board, you can even view it in motion through the two-storey viewing window.
The Princess most often finds itself populated with a retirement-age population though, so depending on who you are, and what you’re after, it could be your perfect escape from reality, or simply a vision to marvel from the River banks.
3. We’re wild (in the best kind of way)
Believe this. We’re also home to one of the largest open-range zoos in the world, some of the darkest skies in the world, and one of the quirkiest Australian wildlife adventures you never knew existed.
I’ll tell you about Monarto Zoo first. Because let’s be honest, it’s not just one of the biggest, but also the most spectacular zoo on the planet. Spanning more than 1500 hectares, and home to more than 50 species of exotic and native mammals, birds and reptiles, it’s bloody impressive – and I should know, I get to visit this place regularly, just 10 minutes down the road from my office!
Monarto is home to one of Australia’s largest lion prides and giraffe herds, and now includes close-up experiences with the animals, including the new Lions 360 experience (I told you I was getting to the Lions). In this experience, you walk through a tunnel and emerge within clawing range of the lion pride. It’s a pretty crazy (but very safe) feeling being amongst these incredible predators.
Don’t worry though, it’s not all claws and predators. Monarto also has those magical and cute animal experiences for the faint-hearted, including the Meerkat Mingle, Giraffe Safari, Cheetah Experience and Meet the Chimps.
Monarto is just on the edge of historic Murray Bridge, home of the first ever bridge over the Murray (creative name hey?). If you get a chance to stop in town on your way to the zoo, make sure you drop by Sturt Reserve and take a peek at Bertha the Bunyip - our local River monster rising from her dark lair (at the press of a button). Old Bertha has just had a makeover and is more insta-worthy than ever before!
If it’s the Australian wildlife you want to get up close to though, then our quirky pals at Big Bend By Night might just be perfect for you. They offer nocturnal and sunset tours, champagne bush tucker breakfasts, outback pub tours and more. Depending on the time of day you visit, you’ll get thrown on a trailer being towed by a quad bike, and taken off into the bush to see red and grey kangaroos, wombats, foxes, owls and spiders.
Speaking of nocturnal activities, it’s worth knowing that we also boast some of the darkest skies in the world. Australian hit TV Show The Project recently ran a report on our astronomical masterpiece, and now we have star-gazers from around the globe to see the skies from our back paddock. So if you’re harbouring those science nerd tendencies, and are keen to see the stars in the best (or darkest) possible light, then we can accommodate you.
4. Unrivalled, untouched Coorong
The Coorong. Most famous for being the location of the Australian film institution Storm Boy, and secondly for the being home to one of the biggest pelican colonies in the world. But here’s what you might not know.
It’s a place of true, unrivalled and untouched beauty.
Sections of the Coorong National Park are like nothing you can find anywhere else in the world. It’s listing as a globally recognised RAMSAR environment is testament to the true magic of the Coorong, but I’m still amazed at how little attention it seems to get from visitors. The locals love it – they get it all to themselves most of the time (except Easter, when most of the State descends upon it. That’s a good time to stay away).
The Coorong is breathtaking. Everyday.
Some people know it to be a place of true tranquillity and calm. Others know it as a 4WD, fishing and adventure-lovers paradise. Either way, there’s plenty of space for you to choose.
The wilderness of the Coorong, includes a long, narrow lagoon, running parallel to the coastal dunes for 140 kilometres. You can drive along the beach and see where the Murray River ends and opens to the sea at the Murray Mouth in Goolwa.
From Goolwa, you can choose to hang around at the wharf area and dine in at the famous Hector's at the Wharf restaurant (try their duck spring rolls or seafood special), followed by a local gin from the local distillery across the road, or a quick wine and cheese board from the Wharf Barrell Shed 100 metres down (which also hosts live music on most weekends).
OR, if you're feeling a bit more adventurous, you can book a trip with the Spirit of the Coorong and head out for a long or short cruise upon their luxury boat. Or for those with the energy, the award-winning crew at Canoe the Coorong will take you on a tour to some of the Coorong's most magical spots (see video below), only accessible by kayak (so you have to work for it).
The Coorong is flanked by our Lower Lakes – a lovely couple named Albert and Alexandrina. Between all of these waterways you’ll find a vast wetland ecosystem of both fresh and saline water, again with birdlife which has travelled from as far away as Alaska and Siberia for a look at this wonder.
On a still day, the shallow pools of the Coorong are like glass, making them a photographers dream! Also, depending on how saline certain pools of the Coorong lagoon is, you’ll see every shade of pink and green, inviting you to dip your feet in for the perfect salt-soaked snap.
(A little tip: If you do take the day trip to the Coorong while you’re here, make sure you swing past Meningie for a Coorong Mullet sandwich. They’re as fresh as you can get, and famous in culinary circles.)
5. We’re home to Australia’s best winemakers
And while we’re on culinary delights, it’s worth knowing that you can’t come to South Australia without spending time in one of its wine districts. We’re lucky enough to have the boutique Langhorne Creek Wine Region just around the corner, and what a local tipple to indulge in! Spend one day cruising the River in its glory, and the next amongst the vineyards drinking wine made by some of the best winemakers in the world! Step aside Barossa and McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek is the new mecca in SA winemaking.
This year, Bleasdale head winemaker John Hotker deservedly took out the prestigious 2018 James Halliday’s Winemaker of the Year! Down the road, you’ll find sisters Lucy and Rebecca Willson at Bremerton Wines’ beautiful vintage stone cellar-door. Go far enough, and you’ll come across the award-winning Lake Breeze wines (pictured below) with its incredible varietal wines and some of the best cheese platters to match.
And that’s just a few of them. Langhorne Creek is also home to The Winehouse, a cellar door, craft beer brewer and restaurant. So if you’re thinking about a long day in the vines, lunch with these guys should be on the agenda.
Looking back on this, I’m thinking that a quick visit must just be enough to dip your toe in the water (literally and metaphorically speaking). But the point is, you need to get over here in the first place and take a look around at our magical Murray River, Lakes and Coorong.
So book your flights and start planning your itinerary.
I know you Aucklanders will love it.
PLAN YOUR ITINERARY
BOOK YOUR FLIGHT: Air New Zealand
LOCK IN A CRUISE: Four Knots Cruises
HIRE A HOUSE: River Shack Rentals
CHOOSE YOUR EXPERIENCE: Monarto Zoo
About the author
Originally hailing from the city, Julie Bates now resides with her family in the heart of the Murray River, Lakes and Coorong region, with property only metres from the world-famous Monarto Zoo. Julie has fallen in love with the region, and has been lucky enough to combine her experience in tourism, with her passion for bringing more people to the region she now calls home. Julie knows every stretch of the region, and the characters who live and work along it. If you ever meet her, she’ll tell you about the great places to eat, play and explore; the magical scenery she gets to see every day at work; AND with her tribe of three kids, she can fill you in on the most family-friendly itineraries for a weekend (or week) away.