I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published February 17th 2019
Reliving Australia's historic riverboat era
The history of riverboats on the Murray-Darling system is the stuff movies and TV series have been made of and attracts thousands of tourists annually to the rivers and the historic old ports.
Visitors along the length of the Murray River are spoilt for choice when it comes to stepping back in time and experiencing the rustic riverboat trade which opened up vast expanses of south-eastern Australia and changed the lives of early settlers along the two great waterways.
Here are 5-Top Paddlesteamer cruise options to be had along the Murray.
The push for the introduction of riverboats on the Murray-Darling was led by the South Australian Government but at the peak of the river trade, Echuca in north-central Victoria was the biggest and busiest river port in the nation.
At its peak in 1872, two hundred vessels a week entered the Port of Echuca and a dozen timber mills felled trees in surrounding forests, cutting a thousand logs per week to fuel the boilers. A shipbuilding industry developed and in 1891 Echuca was even nominated as a contender for the site of the national capital.
Echuca, with its historic wharf and port precinct is home to the largest operational fleet of paddlesteamers in the world including the 105 year old CANBERRA .....
..... and PS PEVENSEY. Photo's Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Today the historic Port Precinct is home to the largest fleet of operational paddle steamers in the world and provides an amazing insight into 19th Century life on the river.
Murray River Paddlesteamers Echuca and Echuca Paddlesteamers operate restored vessels like the 105 year old PS CANBERRA, PRIDE OF THE MURRAY, PEVENSEY and ALEXANDER ARBUTHNOT along with the new kid on the block, the PS EMMYLOU, a 1980 recreation of a Murray-Darling riverboat, to offer a huge range of short sightseeing cruises, dinner cruises, winery tours and extended overnight cruises.
The options are far too many & varied to detail here, so check out the websites for full details, pricing and online bookings.
Getting There ..
Echuca is 223 kilometres north of Melbourne, about a 2-hour and 40-minute drive via the Calder Freeway/M79.
Mildura Paddlesteamers operate PS MELBOURNE, PV ROTHBURY and PV MUNDOO on twice-daily 2-hour cruises, winery, lunch and evening dinner cruises and wedding & convention cruises.
PS MELBOURNE was launched in Koondrook in 1912 and operated by the Victorian Government as a workboat winching fallen trees and debris from the river to ensure the main channel remained open to navigation. She later worked as a logging vessel out of Echuca before being sold to private owners and moved to Mildura. MELBOURNE completed her maiden trip as a tourist boat in January 1966.
The PV ROTHBURY was built as a powerful tug boat at Gunbower in 1881 and employed towing heavy barges laden with wool and timber. She arrived in Mildura in 1909 and spent many years in the timber trade and was still operating in her original condition in the 1950s.
ROTHBURY underwent restoration in 1968 before entering the tourism trade.
PV ROTHBURY departs Lock 11 on a cruise downstream from Mildura. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
PV MUNDOO is a steel recreation of a 19th Century paddlesteamer built at Goolwa, South Australia in 1987.
In 1999, she undertook a 900 kilometre cruise to Mildura and has been in commercial service there ever since.
Mildura is 542 kilometres northwest of Melbourne, just under a 6-hour drive via the Calder Freeway/M79. It is 396 kilometres east of Adelaide, about a 4½ -hour drive via the National Highway/A20.
PS INDUSTRY was built in Goolwa and commissioned in January 1911, a South Australian government workboat used initially to remove snags and later supporting the construction of weirs and locks along the river.
INDUSTRY was one of the last original paddle steamers to work commercially on the river, standing-by with steam up for several days during the severe flooding of 1956 ready to assist in evacuating Renmark if necessary.
Decommissioned in 1968, she was gifted to the town of Renmark to serve as a museum that opened in 1975.
In June 1990, the Friends of The PS Industry group set about planning the vessels restoration culminating in her being re-commissioned as a historic passenger vessel on 16th July 1995.
Renmark's PS INDUSTRY was one of the longest serving paddlesteamers on the Murray-Darling. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Today, berthed at the Renmark Paringa Visitor Information Centre, INDUSTRY is open for public inspection 7-days a week and conducts Steaming Days on the first Sunday of the month, long weekends and selected days throughout the year.
Cost is Adults $20, Children 5 to 13 Years $10, Concession $15 and a Family (2A 3C) $50.
For more information, visit the Renmark Paringa visitor Information Centre at 84 Murray Avenue, Renmark, telephone the Centre on 1300 661 704 or go to the website www.renmarkparinga.sa.gov.au
Getting there ..
Renmark is 260 kilometres northeast of Adelaide, just under a 3-hour drive via the National Highway A20. It's 679 kilometres northwest of Melbourne, around a 7-hour drive via the Calder Freeway/M79 and the A20.
PS PYAP was built at Mannum, South Australia in 1896 and served as a floating general store, travelling up to 500 kilometres a week up and down the river selling goods to locals at more than 60 settlements and landing places.
Today PYAP operates tourist cruises from the Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement departing daily at 2.30 PM and also at 10.30 AM on weekends, Public Holidays and during Victorian School Holidays for a 1-hour cruise up the Murray taking guests beyond historic Murray Downs Homestead and return.
A cruise on PS PYAP costs adults $23.50, Concession $18.50, Children $16 and Family $63. Prices are in addition to entry to the Pioneer Settlement.
At Swan Hill PS PYAP operates cruises from the Pioneer Settlement. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Swan Hill is on the Murray River 339 kilometres northwest of Melbourne, just under a 4-hour drive via the Calder Freeway/M79.
The PS CUMBEROONA is a 25.2 metre long paddlesteamer, a replica of the original CUMBEROONA launched at Echuca in 1866.
Construction was largely funded through the NSW Bicentennial Program and following her launch in 1987 CUMBEROONA operated on the Murray at Albury.
In 2014, she was sold and relocated to Yarrawonga where she now operates daily 90-minute lunch & sightseeing cruises and private charters from her berth near Bank Street on the Yarrawonga Foreshore.
Yarrawonga's PS CUMBEROONA is a replica of a vessel originally launched at Echuca in 1866. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
The daily BBQ lunch cost Adults $28 and Children $16.
Sightseeing only costs Adults $22 and Children $12 (Under 4 years free). Bookings are essential and full details may be found on the website www.cumberoona.com.au
Getting There ..
Yarrawonga is 275 kilometres northeast of Melbourne, about 3-hour drive via the Hume Freeway/M31.
Make your way to any of these ports and it could be you aboard a historic paddlesteamer, the deck reverberating beneath your feet with the swish-swish-swishing of paddle-wheels, the air full of the unmistakable smell of a wood-fired steam engine driving hot, oil-coated pistons and the shrill blast of a steam whistle echoing off the river bank each an opportunity too good to miss.