Tuesday 1 February 2022

PS Murray Princess: History repeats on memorable river cruise

#expeditioncruising .

A leisurely cruise along the River Murray is a history lesson afloat

At more than 2500 kilometres, it’s up there with the Nile and Amazon and has sustained human habitation for around 40,000 years. Its catchment spans three states and provides water and irrigation to more than a million households, growing fruit, grain and vegetables to feed the nation.

Yes, the River Murray is, without doubt, one of the world’s great rivers and defines a large portion of our country.

The first documented discovery of the Murray River by Europeans was in 1824 by the famous but unlikely pair, Hume and Hovell, while making their way south from New South Wales. They named it the Hume River after making the crossing near present-day Albury. Five years later, the celebrated explorer and military man Captain Charles Sturt was the leading figure in the series of explorations that ultimately determined the rivers in the west of New South Wales and northern Victoria all fed into the primary watercourse which officially became the Murray River in 1830, named in honour of the then British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Sir George Murray.


It wasn't long until the mighty river was seen as a lifeline to the burgeoning agricultural and mining settlements springing up all along its path.

Riverboat history began in 1851 as a challenge between two entrepreneurial merchants in the infant colonies and quickly become a thriving industry for over half a century.

Spurred on by a prize of 4000 pounds offered by then governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Fox Young, William Randell and Francis Cadell kicked off the romantic and hectic era of paddlesteamers along the Murray River with their own modest vessels. Within just a few years, around 250 vessels were plying the river, carrying general goods, wheat, wine and other produce to market.

Paddle steamer, Nellie, moored at Herrmann's Landing, Nildottie SA c.1910

But the river, like any other, was fickle and prone to periods of high and low water. Boats were often stranded for weeks on end with perishable cargo on their decks. Before a series of planned locks could be completed, the river trade was overtaken by the more reliable modes of road and rail. Finding themselves obsolete. many boats were abandoned where they lay, left to rot in the mud.

Despite the rapidly dwindling river trade, demand from our first leisure travellers kept the big paddlewheelers turning. A leisurely cruise along the Murray River has been an Australian tradition for the best part of a century - with comfort and refinement gradually increasing to its peak with the PS Murray Princess, the largest and grandest vessel yet.

For example, two of the busiest ports from the heady days of 19th Century paddlesteamers, Mannum (SA) and Echuca (VIC), keep the tradition alive with both restored and replica vessels taking part in regular reenactments and tourist cruises.

Capable of carrying 120 passengers in comfort akin to an ocean-going vessel, the atmosphere aboard the PS Murray Princess probably hasn’t changed a great deal since her launch in 1986. And judging by the mood, there seems little incentive to modify the ambience. Sure, it’s tailored to an older demographic, 50-to-infinity, with everything you’d expect. Entertainer Bobby Hunter on keyboards, a self-confessed former ‘bodgey’, rips out all the nostalgic tunes with electronic assistance as well as calling the bingo and running the trivia quizzes. Gone though are the buffets, with all meals either plated or served and DIY coffee and tea now served at the bar.

These necessary COVID precautions mean we don’t see a lot of Captain Alina Herrmann and her officers, but it’s exciting to know we are under the command of one of the very few female riverboat captains ever to be appointed.

During the day, there are shore excursions like the woolshed at Sunnydale, Aboriginal heritage at Ngaut Ngaut (near Nildottie) plus town and museum tours of historic Swan Reach, Morgan and Waikerie. Many of these places formed my own childhood memories of weekends water-skiing and frolicking on the Murray in the ‘70s. But the majority of our time is spent in enforced relaxation as you watch the spectacular limestone cliffs roll past at six knots.


The PS Murray Princess offers 3, 4 and 7-night, all-inclusive itineraries departing Mannum, 50 kilometres east of Adelaide.

For more information and bookings, visit www.murrayprincess.com.au

This story was commissioned for Senior Traveller and appeared in the February 2022 issue

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