If you thought the Aussie interior was waterway-free, think again. South Australia’s Murray River meanders through some of the most beautiful remote landscape and historic townships in the country – and you can see it all from the deck of a paddle steamer

It’s 7pm and I’m standing, stiff as a scarecrow, in the middle of a shiny dance floor, in front of an audience of 60 diners. A man in full captain’s regalia is asking if the crowd thinks my Annie Oakley get-up is any good. I’m playing dress-ups; he’s not. He’s the captain of the PS Murray Princess, an old-fashioned paddle-steamer that pootles about on Australia’s most famous river. The captain is also judging tonight’s fancy-dress competition.

I don’t win. That honour goes to a deliriously happy 1920s flapper.

Churning up the Murray. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Churning up the Murray. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

There is much satisfaction to be had on Captain Cook’s four-night Outback Heritage Cruise aboard the Murray Princess. A lot of it can be found in the dining room. Hot buffet breakfasts are followed by two-course lunches and three-course dinners. The meals are varied and tummy-warmingly yummy.

When, at the Captain’s Dinner on our final night, the galley’s shutters are raised to reveal a gargantuan seafood banquet steaming with dry ice, everyone present emits a childlike “Ooooooh!”

View from the deck. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
View from the deck. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

When I’m not eating, I spend my time on the Princess’s sun deck, looking out over a perfectly quiet vista of salt flats, mallee scrub and knotty stands of river red gums. I watch the Murray River twist, turn, narrow and widen around me, and steep sandstone cliffs slide on by.

Every now and then, tiny townships dotted with colonial cottages appear and disappear. Flocks of swallow-tailed fairy martins race the bow of our great big boat, as dolphins would if we were at sea. I am utterly relaxed – until the captain sounds the ship’s air horn to blast a heart-stopping hello to approaching boats, ferry masters or women in bikinis on houseboats.

Bells and horns – the only disruptions to an otherwise peaceful cruise. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Bells and horns – the only disruptions to an otherwise peaceful cruise. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Our route meanders from the Princess’s home port of Mannum, South Australia – 85 kilometres east of Adelaide – up to Swan Reach via Younghusband, Piggy Flat, Bow Hill, Nildottie and the astonishingly beautiful Big Bend, a sweep of 50-metre-high limestone cliffs.

At sunset, the cliff face glows poker-red as hundreds of sulphur-crested cockatoos squawk and swoop into bird-size cavities in the cliff face, each finding its own spot to nestle in for the night.

Big Bend at twilight. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Big Bend at twilight. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Near here, we are treated to a shearing demonstration at Sunnydale Station, a working farm and wildlife sanctuary. The charismatic owner and his equally engaging kelpie also host a nocturnal wildlife tour, under the moniker Big Bend By Night.

A bunch of us boaties perch in a trailer fitted with bus seats, taking a torchlight tour that exposes a glistening carpet of trapdoor spiders’ eyes and a few southern hairy-nosed wombats, which blink lazily in our direction before squeezing back into their burrows. We chase after bounding red kangaroos then spot a ghostly albino grey, which looks for all the world like a concrete statue before coming to life and leaping away.

A llama, a sheep and a passing emu at Sunnydale Station. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A llama, a sheep and a passing emu at Sunnydale Station. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

This part of the Murray holds many attractions, including tastings at the Burk Salter boutique winery and walking tours around the back-in-time town of Swan Reach. At Ngaut Ngaut (pronounced Nort-nort) Conservation Park, we meet a Nganguraku elder, who shares local legends with us.

We’re supposed to be on shore, being guided around one of Australia’s most significant archaeological sites, but the council has closed the park, citing the “possibility of rock fall”. Instead, Aboriginal cultural tour leader Cynthia Hunter comes on board to share her wisdom.

Hopefully visitors will be allowed to alight here again soon, because there is a lot to explore in this part of the world, and so much of it is a delight.

Big Bend by night: Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Big Bend at night: Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

About the ship

Maximum passenger number: 120
Length: 67 metres
Width: 15 metres
Average speed: 6 knots
Lift access: Yes. This is a great cruise for mobility-impaired travellers. There were many guests in wheelchairs on my visit, and the staff treated them with great care, helping them on and off the boat with great humour in some steep and muddy conditions.

An outback house. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
An outback house. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Do it yourself

• Captain Cook Cruises: Four-night Outback Heritage Tours costs from $950 per person, including coach transfers from Adelaide; for more information, click here

• Big Bend By Night hosts nocturnal wildlife tours, bush-tucker breakfasts and private tours to the Barossa; bigbend.com.au

Moored for the night. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Moored for the night. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Note: This story was originally published in Australian House & Garden magazine. Price correct as at September 2015, but check website for updates