Resting on a quiet bend of the Murray River is the town of Echuca, once a bustling centre for trade as steamboats carried produce and timber up and down the water ways. Today the lovely old boats still paddle their way under the power of steam, but the modern cargo is decidedly more romantic.
On the back deck of PS Emmylou a handful of tables are set each night for the evening cruise, complete with candles and a suitably satisfying wine list featuring the best of the Murray vintages. As the sun dips low behind River Red Gums the scenery is bathed in yellow, corellas cackle in the tree tops and the last of the boats have called it a day at Port of Echuca. All except for one.
For a lucky few aboard this steamer the river will be an exclusive indulgence, sailing on a turn of the century design built into a masterpiece of timber, steel and steam. The whistle sounds three times, the paddles begin to crank and within minutes we’ve slipped out of town to wind through long stretches of forests without another vessel in view. Even those tin-clad house-boats, that gather near river holiday parks like floating caravans, are tied up for the evening, out of the way and out of sight. Once under steam the combination of gentle breeze over the water and the cool of the early evening makes the PS Emmylou the most comfortable location to sit and watch the day fade away. The ever changing shoreline provides a backdrop to this beautiful boat, while the burble of its steam engine provides a backdrop to intimate conversation.
Sunset fills in the gap between entree and mains, with dessert arriving before darkness does. On the forward deck there is room for quiet contemplation of the colourful horizon, with nothing but miles of Murray up ahead in the fading light. Once the sun is nearly done the galahs screech their final objections for the night, and head to bed. The PS Emmylou and its passengers enjoy a peaceful ride home with the current behind them and lanterns illuminating the river ahead.
Captain Andrew Cook is a regular on PS Emmylou and grew up near the banks of this river. He’s seen it flood and watched the effects of drought, but he’s never seen it without water. Despite what you may have heard, this particular stretch of river is flowing at its usual level as the Echuca section is adequately fed by other tributaries in the region.
Andrew was a shipwright in Echuca, making paddle boats for the Murray. Now he enjoys sitting back and steering Emmylou through the bends. Watching the sun retreat behind towering River Red Gums from the deck of a century old steamer is one of Australia’s most unique experiences. “Why would you want to travel faster than 6km/hr?”, asks Andrew, as he pulls the whistle and lets out a toot to signal our arrival at the port.
The river boats are the life-blood of Echuca, they are the essence of the town’s character. Their enduring presence on the water brings the traditions of the past out of the history books and into the real world. Thanks to these boats the entire town has retained its vibrant charms.
Day cruises come and go from Port of Echuca, the first boat scheduled to depart at 10am. Akin to something out of a Henry Lawson poem a few reliable kookaburras crank up their laughter each morning as the PS Emmylou steams up river. In the following hour the other boats take their leave, PS Canberra, PS Pevensey, PS Hero and the Pride of the Murray. You can stand on the river banks and watch another one leave every 15 minutes, like watching a postcard come to life.
Back on shore the Port of Echuca is the heart of a heritage district simply called the Esplanade. Once there was a dock here that lined a mile of the Murray, built from the trunks of red gums and tall enough to withstand all but the flood of a century. Today the port is more modest and the crowds more agreeable, but the streets of the Esplanade continue to be graced by period shopfronts, horse-drawn carts and a few characters who look as old as the town itself.
Buster is a generous local who devotes his life to rescuing injured wildlife. You’ll find him on the Esplanade most days sharing his playful pets with passing passengers. Rocky the corella is the local rockstar, a chatty and charming little fellow who goes along with Buster’s antics to play dead, cheer a few footy teams and pose for family photos. Like many of Buster’s rescues, Rocky only has one leg and was nursed back to health with a kind hand and a determined spirit. Donations for Buster’s busking aid the welfare of dozens of other native birds in need of shelter.
Behind the riverfront is High Street and its charming Victorian-era buildings. Old shops are home to new arrivals such as the bitter-sweet artistry of Echuca Chocolates and landscape photography by Matt Handby. Several elegant facades are matched with fine dining menus, and Left Bank is of particular note if your idea of romance requires the cuisine to better the scenery. Echuca caters to all tastes however, and there are several licensed hotels around town that offer honest country grub that you’d expect from an honest country pub.
n the heydays of Echuca the pubs were much more than a watering hole, they were a home away from home to the riverboat crews. Accommodation, sustenance and a chance to lose part or all of your pay cheque with the help of some illicit alcohol. During the Prohibition the basement bars were hidden from the street, complete with secret passages to help a few notorious individuals evade the long arm of the law. It’s some trick to hide grog in a hotel and testament to the pioneering nature of Echuca’s residents.
There’s no need for clandestine gatherings to sample a local drop these days, with several wine bars and cellars prominently located near the Port of Echuca. Two celebrations take over town each year, with big crowds to share wine, food and music. In winter the blues scene joins the scenery, and for summer the jazz bands hit town for a little jubilation. The music pours out of restaurants, clubs and wineries. Even the steamboats get into the act with some rambling down the river. Sweet notes echo off the decks, mingling with the high pitch of the ships whistle.
If you want to enjoy iconic sights of the Murray with a band on board then the festivals are for you. The alternative is to slip into the serenity of a steamboat at sunset, accompanied by good food, great wines and flocks of native birds playing a few colourful songs of their own.
ON THE RIVER MURRAY
The twin towns of Echuca-Moama are half way between Albury and Mildura, and are host to annual jazz festivals every summer, and blues festival every winter. The music rambles down the river, in the towns and at nearby wineries.
PS Emmylou paddles the Murray most evenings. Couples can opt in for the dining cruise which includes meals and a selection of local wines.
WHERE TO STAY
Quest Echuca have serviced apartments in a great location near the Port of Echuca.
Photography by Ewen Bell.