Take a weekend trip to where the waters of the Murray River meets red dirt, vineyards and groves, Noelle Faulkner explores South Australia's watery gem.
"I rise in the drought from the Queensland rain,
I fill my branches again and again;
I hold my billabongs back in vain,
for my life and my peoples the South Seas drain;
And the land grows old and the people never
Will see the worth of the Darling River"
- Henry Lawson, 'The Song of the Darling River'
Stretching, twisting and rolling 2520km from the Australian Alps to the ocean, the Murray River is one of our most precious waterways, it nurtures and feeds countless forms of life - from the humble, solitary platypus, to drought-stricken cattle to winemakers putting nectar on your table. Not only is this lifeforce with it's idyllic backdrop of twisting billabongs, red dirt, orchards and bush, a wonderfully spiritual place to escape to, but the towns it feeds are a prime destination for in-the-know foodies. [image credit: Noelle Faulkner]
North-east of Adelaide, close to the Victorian border, South Australia's Riverland is comprised of several small towns and follows the long, meandering Murray River, as it twists and turns. Home to many a vineyard, orchard and grove, the Riverland lends itself to adventure at all speeds: kayaking, bush picnicking, hiking, animal watching and fishing, but with added culinary indulgence. [image credit: The Frames]
The days here seem longer, sunnier and more spectacular, particularly when the sun shines through glass of wine or champagne into the red dirt below. If you're seeking a languorous weekend escape, consider punching this unspoiled locale into your next lunchtime vacation Google search.
The region stretches along the river, spanning close-to 20 towns, so there is a myriad of places to stay, from free campsites to luxurious houseboats, hotels and homestays. For those wanting to take in the waterway vistas at the source, hiring a houseboat is one of the most popular ways to do the Riverland, as the river is dotted with boats in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the lavish to the adorably dinky.
However, if a weekend of cosy luxury is more your speed, it's very hard to go past Renmark's The Frames. This intensely private property of three full-service retreats overlooks the river, and will get architecture lovers' hearts racing thanks to it's clean lines and smartly designed digs.
Set up so that you don't have to leave (or speak to anyone) if you don't want to, each of the three retreats (ranging from one to two bedrooms) includes a full kitchen (decked out with local delicacies), a beautiful private plunge pool, a spa, infra-red sauna (in two of the three), a bed that will blow your mind (and has an "antigravity" setting) and a private chef at your disposal, if you so desire (for an extra cost). Hotels often throw around the word "luxury", but it should not be taken lightly when it comes to this outback stay...
The retreat also offers majestic and romantic cruises and river tours on a gorgeous, fully restored antique gondola along the river or on the local tinny, giving you the chance to explore the twists and turns of the Murray River's backwaters up-close (you may even spot some local wildlife as you go - snoozing koalas and swimming emus and roos, anyone?). The small team may even set up a campfire bush lunch for you on the riverbed, if you ask nicely...
The Frames, LOT 7 Panorama Court, Paringa, SA 5340
This is South Australia, so one can expect the produce quality to be next level... In addition to that, the Riverland is home to an abundance of orchards - from citrus, to almonds, olives, dates, stonefruit and more, therefore, I recommend starting your morning by picking up some snacks and fresh fruit at the Riverland Farmers' Markets, which are on Saturdays 7.30am-11am at the Senior Citizens Hall in Berri or the Bermera Main Street Markets on the first Sunday of the month (9am-1pm, Barwell Avenue, Barmera).
1. The eco-friendly Banrock Station winery offers magnificent views of the wetland and wildlife-heavy area, wine tasting and exclusive vintages at their cellar door. Pop in for lunch, where the vineyard's restaurant (which also serves breakfast on Sundays) serves up a seasonal lunch menu and afternoon grazing menu (paired with wine, of course).
The tasting menu of duck terrine, roasted figs, local chutney, meats and cheese is a primo place to start. But for those who have worked up an appetite, try the aged, grain-fed porterhouse stead with garlic prawns or the local pork fillet with roasted peach, mascarpone and apple cider and star anise glaze.
As for the wines, Banrock Station is known for it's great value drops, but also the fact that each bottle generates funds that go towards various global environmental projects. Try the vineyard's Montepulciano and Pinot Grigio varieties.
Banrock Station Winery and Wetlands Centre, Holmes Rd, Kingston on Murray, SA 5331
2. Backyard Bread is a small, wood-oven fuelled condiment café boasting locally made and sourced chutneys, savory snacks, cheeses, breads and small bites (there's gluten-free options on offer too). Stop in here for a snack or pick up supplies for a sunset feast along the river.
Backyard Bread, 7302 Sturt Highway, Barmera, SA 5345
As the sun sets, particularly if you're visiting during daylight savings time, the landscape along the river and the surrounding lands shimmers and glows a beautiful honey hue, and comes alive as the wetlands birds start to roost. Hence, I highly recommend staging a picnic of local delicacies, found at many of the roadside markets, cafes and cellar doors or signing up for a sunset cruise to enjoy it.
For a dining experience you're not going to forget anytime soon, swing by the infamous and award-winning The Mallee Fowl Restaurant. Built on the red dirt, in a corrugated iron settlers cottage-like shack, with a campfire out the back and grounds dotted with kitsch-cool Australiana bits and bobs, this bush-themed diner will melt your brain, overload your senses and have you smiling for hours.
Bizarre paraphernalia hangs from the ceiling, country music (and often live bands) rings over the speakers and the ever-changing menu is rich (and bloody delicious) with local fare. It's even run 100% off-grid. This year, the restaurant is opening up its grounds to RVs and campers as a free pit-stop, complete with Billy Tea breakfasts and it'll also see brand new wildlife sanctuary open up. Pull up a table under all the junk or "do it rough" outside under the stars and soak up the happy-go-lucky outback vibes.
Malee Fowl Restaurant, 19042 Sturt Highway, Monash, SA, 5343 Australia
***Oh, and if you see yabby on any of the menus while you're dining, do it - the Murray-Darling is famous for them.
The Riverland is one of Australia's biggest regions for vineyards and with plenty of boutique and major wineries along the highway and surrounds, you're never that far from tasting a delightful drop. May I suggest:
1. Caudo Vineyard [pictured], Section 278 in the Hundred of Cadell, Cadell Valley Rd, Cadell, SA 5321
2. Angrove Wines, Bookmark Avene, Renmark, SA, 5341
3. 919 Wines, 39 Hodges Rd, Glossop SA 5344
4. Berri Estates, Old Sturt Hwy, Glossop SA, 5344
5. Whistling Kite Biodynamic Wines
*Visits to the biodynamic vineyard are by appointment only
(08) 8584 9014, whistlingkitewines.com.au/home
Breweries and Distilleries
The area is also home to some fantastic craft breweries: The Wilkadene Woolshed is a must-do for hopaphiles. Located in an old shearing shed overlooking the river, this brewery is almost as famous for its "Hard Lemonade" as it is its ales.
Wilkadebe Woolshed Brewery, 65 Wilkinson Road, Murtho, SA 5341
If you're more of the distilled botanicals persuasion, a trip to the very chic 23rd Street Distillery is in order. This boutique distillery only just opened up last year (after a 14 year hiatus) and makes a product that is very hard to top. The distillery produces two fantastic brandies, a whiskey and a rose vodka, but it is the signature gin that really shines - pick up a few bottles as you pass through, because trust me, if you don't, you'll regret it.
23rd Street Distillery, Corner of 23rd Street and Renmark Ave, Renmark, SA 5341
The area is best done by car, so if you're flying in to Adelaide from interstate, I cannot express how important it is to hire a car - that way you get to explore the best the area has to offer (and don't have to rely on the handful of cabs and courtesy buses - though they exist). While there are some more "tourist-y" attractions, like the open range Monarto Zoo, the Big Olive, a bowling alley and theatre, vaarious museums and small art galleries and the historic paddle steamer that trundles down the river (which is a fun time), in my opinion, the Murray River and the Riverland is spent best in the great outdoors. [image credit: Noelle Faulkner]
The river is packed with ways to get out and into it, such as row boats and kayaks for hire, fishing spots to conquer, swimming holes to dive into, dirt roads to explore (including some great 4WD tracks) and kilometres of jaw dropping scenery to trek by foot (check out walkingsa.org.au for some suggested walking trails).
For a spiritual experience, it's hard to ignore the beauty of the Nguat Nguat Conservation Park in Nildottie, the ancient home to the Nganguraku people. Ripe with wondrous ochre-coloured rockfaces and a history almost as old as time itself. As this is a sacred site, you'll need to call ahead and book a guided tour with the Mannum Aboriginal Community Association on 0407 006 651. [image credit: National parks South Australia]
In the town of Mannum, you'll find the tranquil Mannum Waterfalls -where you can enjoy a picnic alongside fresh pools of water underneath the gums where the koalas and kookaburras perch. All along the river, you'll find delightful little waterholes, billabongs, magnificent red cliffs and lush bush - so it's worth simply exploring the river at your own pace, whatever that may be. [image credit: Walking SA]
For more info on the Riverland region in SA, visit southaustralia.com
Buro 24/7 Australia travelled to The Riverland as a guest of South Australian Tourism