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The Murray River, Australia

Murray river at Echuca

The Murray River, near present day Echuca.

The Murray River

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

The Murray River

By Marco Stojanovik

The mighty Murray River, Australia’s longest river and main stream of the Murray Darling Basin, flows some 2,700 km across south-eastern Australia. Rising in the Australian Alps, it drains the western side of Australia’s highest mountains before meandering north westerly across Australia’s inland plains, forming the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria as it flows into South Australia to the Southern Ocean. The river has a strong and unique character encompassing environmental beauty, a rich heritage and history, busy townships, major regional centres, and world class agriculture, food, and wine regions.

This article is intended as background information for your tour of the Murray River. It explores the river’s history, economy, and key towns of Mildura, Wentworth, Echuca, and Beechworth. Odyssey Traveller visits the Murray River as part of our 15-day small group tour of the Southern States of Australia and our 16-day small group tour of Victoria.

Murray River at sunset – aerial view

Original Aboriginal Inhabitants

Being one of the major river systems on one of the driest continents on Earth, the Murray has significant cultural relevance to Aboriginal Australians. Archaeological suggests that Aboriginal groups populated the Murray 15,000 years ago after the once bountiful and ancient Willandra Lakes, which had drained into the Darling River and thereby to the Murray, dried up. For thousands of years since, up to the present day, various Aboriginal clans including the Ngarrindjeri, Yorta Yorta, Meru, Bakindji and more have lived on its banks and the nearby flood plains.

One of the largest clans were the Ngarrindjeri people who lived on and along the lands around the Murray and the Coorong and are today South Australia’s largest Aboriginal community. According to the Dreaming of the Ngarrindji people, the Murray was created by the tracks of the Great Ancestor, Ngurunderi, as he pursued Pondi, the Murrary Cod.  Ngurunderi pursued the fish on rafts made from red gums and continually launched spears at his target. But Pondi was a wily prey and carved a weaving path, carving out the river’s various tributaries.

Common to most Aboriginal groups on the Murray was a distinctive canoe culture which reflected the usually modest water flow and the prevalence of the red gum along the floodplain river. The canoe was made from a single sheet of red gum bark – cut, dried and shaped so that they formed shallow, punt-like crafts. The process left a bark scar but did not kill the tree, and so today many trees used for making canoes can still be seen along the riverbank today, decades or perhaps centuries after they were cut. The canoes were used for fishing, setting nets, and crossing flooded creeks.

Murray river shores and red gum at sunset, Riverland, South Australia

European Discovery

Hamilton Hume, William Hovell and their part of six others were the first Europeans to encounter the Murray, crossing the river where Albury now stands in 1824. Hume named it the ‘Hume River’ after his father, but when Captain Charles Sturt reached the river’s mouth in 1830 he named it the ‘Murray’ after Sir George Murray not realising it was the same river that Hume and Hovell had encountered further upstream. His quest for the colony’s rivers and their potential had led him down the Murrumbidgee, so the party’s first view of the Murray was some 300km west of the 1824 crossing.

Upon Sturt’s arrival he gazed in “silent astonishment on the capricious channel”, describing it in the now famous phrase as “a broad and noble river”. At this time, it was still a profoundly Aboriginal place, governed by laws and protocols established over generations. However, such was Sturt’s imperial mindset, nothing to him suggested their right of tenure, and so at the junction of the Darling and Murray river, the Englishman hoisted the Union Jack and it was claimed a possession of the Crown.

The area of the Murray Mouth was explored more thoroughly by Captain Collet Barker in 1831 and settlers soon followed. The first three settlers on the Murrary River are known to have been James Collins Hawker (explorer and surveyor) along with E. J. Eyre (explorer and later Governor of Jamaica) plus E. B. Scott (onetime superintendent of Yatala Labour Prison).

In 1836, a man by the name of Robert Brown built a shanty at the site of Hume and Hovell’s crossing, provisioning travellers heading south to Port Phillip, where settlement was legal from 1837. Brown acquired a dugout canoe cut by a fellow colonist from a red gum log, attached it to a rawhide rope stretched from bank to bank, and thereby established the first ferry service. It was a glimpse to come; 200 years later more than 50 ferries and bridges would cross the Murray.

House boat on Murray river near Gol Gol, Australia after recent heavy rains and flooding in early 2011.

Transport Route

Paddle steamer and paddle boats introduced new sounds and smells to the port towns along the Murray River In the mid-19th century. Each engine had a signature thumping rhythm that could be heard from afar, while the soft splashing of the paddles accompanied the arrival of a vessel. The first two streamers, Mary Ann and Lady Augusta, entered the waters in 1853. This began a transport revolution for the towns providing many thousands of new jobs and creating new settlements and industries along the entire length of the river Murray system.

The paddle steamers were used to carry passengers and various goods to market, including mail, wool, wheat, fruit, and livestock products up and down the river system including the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers. With no roads accessing the port towns, and the few tracks that led out of them quickly fading into the bush, the river traffic was all that they had.

Paddle steamer on the Murray River

Many of the family still living in the region can in fact trace their roots back to the early pioneers who depended on the river trade to get their produce to market,  or to early practitioners in the river trade itself, whether as vessel owner/operators, shipbuilders or wharf operators.

As technology evolved in the early 20th century, however, it became quicker and more economical to transport people and goods by road or rail. Unlike steamboats, steam trains travelled independently of the rivers capricious flow and soon became a preferred alternative.  The reliance on the paddle steamers began to diminish; as time went on, more and more steamers were abandoned on the riverbanks, waiting for work that never came.

Today, artefacts of this era have endured for a new tourist trade with a fleet of restored streams and carefully constructed waterfronts to be enjoyed.

The Murray river Echura Victoria, the wreck of the old paddle steamer Murrumbidgee has been in the mud flats for more than 100 years.

Murray River Water Resources

Small-scale pumping plants began drawing water from the Murray in the 1850s, and by 1886, 25 irrigation trusts were managing water in various schemes comprising channels, canals and pumping stations. The introduction of such promoted an expansion of farming and accelerated settlement. The best known of the early entrepreneurs are the Chaffey brothers, who established themselves at Mildura in 1887 and by 1980 had transformed a depleted cattle station into an irrigation colony of 3,000.

Yet, by the end of the century, the Murray had become a symbol of division as the New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia colonies debated over riparian rights and control of the Murray-Darling system. It was not until after Federation, in 1915, that the River Murray Waters Agreement concluded that water was to be shared at Albury between Victoria and New South Wales, each having exclusive rights to tributaries in their territories, while South Australia was to be assured of a defined flow.

The agreement also established a program of works including a series of storages, weirs, locks, and barrages to regulate the flow of water and reduce the effects of drought and flood. The largest undertaking was the Hume Dam at Albury, which created a reservoir containing 1,5000 gigalitres of water, roughly three times the volume of Sydney Harbour. Completed in 1936, it still stands as a gated grey concreted dam with a severe, futuristic stripped classical aesthetic.

Today, millions of people rely on the Murray as a source of water for domestic and industrial use, playing a significant part in Australia’s economy.

Aerial View of Hume Weir on Lake Hume at the Start of the Murray River, Albury, Australia

The Economy of the Murray Darling Basin 

The Murray River along with the Darling River make up the two main rivers of the Murray Darling Basin. The Basin is a large area of south-eastern Australia, covering most of inland New South Wales and extending from Queensland to South Australia, where water flows through a system of interconnected rivers and lakes.

A total of 3.6 million people (including the entire population of Adelaide which is not in the Basin) rely on water from the Basin rivers for many uses, including drinking, washing, farming and irrigation.

Known as Australia’s great food bowl, the Basin has by far Australia’s greatest area of irrigated crops and pastures, some 3.6 million acres (1.5 million hectares), more than 70% of the national total. It is the country’s second largest wine-producing region, while also responsible for other major products such as cattle, sheep, grains, and fruit. In all, the Basin produces $22 billion worth of food and fibre every year.

Elevated mid-air view of rich cultivated farmlands in Bowna creek at Hume lake and murray river in rural NSW during Canola plants blossoming season.

Highlight: Mildura

Mildura is a leafy oasis in the midst of a dry region and has been a magnet for tourists since the beginning of the 20th century. The centre of Mildura has a number of interesting architectural sites, grouped together as two major historic trails. The Chaffey Trail (guide) allows visitors to trace the history of the early irrigation settlement though a walking tour of historic architecture associated with the brothers.

While, the other walking trail is devoted to the Art Deco architecture of Mildura, which was prominent both in commercial and residential buildings in the area. Among a number of sites, the tour takes you to the Mildura Brewery, in a converted Art Deco theatre, the Former Capitol Theatre, with distinctive Mayan pattern, and to Etheringtons the Jewellers, established 1932, with original 1930s façade, interior, and fittings still in place today.

On the banks of the Murray River, Mildura also offers the opportunity to take a Murray River cruise in a paddle steamer. And it is home to a vibrant food and wine culture thanks to the irrigation agricultural projects and Italian migrant influence.

Anchored residential river house boats docked on Murray river at VIC NSW border in Australia during sunrise hour

Highlight: Wentworth

Wentworth is an interesting historic town on the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. It has a wealth of interesting historic buildings from the time when the junction was a vital port for paddle steamers plying the Darling River.

Key attractions include: the Wentworth Wharf, dating back to Wentworth’s time as the busiest port in NSW after Sydney and Newcastle; the monument to a tractor, commemorating their use to build levee banks to protect the town from flood in 1956; the Wentworth Gaol, Australia’s first Australian-designed gaol best example of a small Victorian-era goal in NSW; and the Wentworth Pioneer Museum containing 3000 items such as fossil remnants found at Perry Sandhills of extinct Australian megafauna including a giant kangaroo.

Highlight: Echuca

Ecucha’s warm climate and its location along the Murray River, lined with parks and native forests, makes it a popular destination for visitors with swimming, boating, and fishing popular activities.

A key attraction is Echuca’s port which not only serves as a great viewing deck of the Murray River and surrounding bush but also features a museum, historic buildings, equipment displays, and cruises on authentic paddle streamers.

Additionally, nearby Barmah Wetlands and Forest is home to Australia’s largest Red Gum forest. Many threatened native birds, plants, fish and reptiles make the forest and wetlands their home, while spring floods help to keep the red gums healthy.

The Murray River in Echuca

Highlight: Beechworth

Beechworth is a vibrant, lively place, and has been enriched by the contributions of people from many different cultures. The legacy of those pioneers is preserved in the many historic buildings and heritage streetscapes with their wide tree-lined avenues and shady wooden verandas

The Beechworth Historic and Cultural Precinct is a collection of nationally significant buildings telling the story of how Australia grew and prospered. Here you can find the Beechworth Historic Courthouse built in 1858 and in continuous service for the next 131 years. The courthouse saw over forty trials of various members of the Kelly family, though not the final trial of Ned Kelly himself.

The Robert O’Hara Burke Memorial museum, established in 1857, it is one of Australia’s earliest museums and known by many as “the museum of museums”. Museum boasts a fascinating and historically significant collection of more than 30,000 individual items and some linked to famous figures of history such as Dame Nellie Melba and Robert O’Hara Burke. Highlights include an extensive collection of Aboriginal artefacts; Chinese, Goldmining, Natural History and the 19th century Street of Shops.

Historic Beechworth town centre on a cold autumn day in Victoria, Australia

Tour of the Murray River

Odyssey Traveller visits the Murray River as part two tours: the 15-day small group tour of the Southern States of Australia and our 16-day small group tour of Victoria.

Our tour of the Southern States of Australia is designed to make you re-think the way you see Australia, breaking down traditional state lines, exploring the cultural continuities between Western Victoria and New South Wales and Eastern South Australia. Getting away from the major cities – Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide – our tour takes you through lesser-known parts of each state, uncovering fascinating local histories and making surprising connections.

The tour begins in Adelaide, heading east to Mount Gambier and along the Southern Ocean coastline to Port Fairy, Victoria. We then head to the UNESCO-listed Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, where we explore the fascinating history of this site with a local tour guide. From here we move to the town of Hamilton, from which we make a day tour to the Naracoorte Caves Park, home to fossils of ancient megafauna – Australian wildlife on a giant scale. We then head to Mungo National Park (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), where some of the oldest human remains in the world were found in the late 1960s.

From Mungo National Park we spend two days in Mildura, then head deeper into the Australian outback with a visit to Broken Hill. From Broken Hill, we head back into South Australia, visiting the railway hub of Peterborough and the outback town of Burra. Finally, our tour of Southern Australia ends in Adelaide.

Meanwhile, our tour of Victoria begins with three nights accommodation in Melbourne, giving you the chance to explore the city’s Victorian laneway architecture, and grand historic homes. We then head to the gold rush city of Ballarat, stopping off for a tour of Werribee Park and Garden. In Ballarat, we visit Sovereign Hill, and enjoy a guided walking tour of the city’s historic architecture.

From Ballarat, we head to the gold rush town of Castlemaine, stopping at the spa towns of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs on the way. Our time in Castlemaine also includes a trip to the well-preserved town of Maldon, where we enjoy a guided tour of an 1880s gold mine. After our time in Castlemaine, our guided tour heads to Echuca, stopping on the way for a day tour of Bendigo, where we enjoy a walking tour of this historic city. From Echuca, we make a day trip to the wetlands of the Barmah Forest.

After Echuca, the trip heads to the historic towns of Chiltern and Beechworth, stopping for a wine tour of the All Saints Winery on the way. The tour then heads to Benalla, home to an important regional art gallery with fascinating exhibitions, and Yarra Glen, in the Yarra Valley. Finally, our tour of regional Victoria ends in Melbourne.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia’s rivers:


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