Roaming in the Riverland

It is dawn. The sun sits like a navel orange on the horizon, reflected in the dimpled river. The air is crisply cold, but that doesn’t seem to bother the pelicans swooping low and dipping for breakfast. Two wrens dash through the reeds and a pair of black swans fly across the sun like shadows. It’s 6 a.m. on the Murray. While the avian world is already bustling about with raucous caws, carolling and tweeting, the only sound of human activity is our own soft whispers as we sip our tea and watch two pelicans flirting on the opposite bank, while fish leap, flashes of silver in the sunlight.

We are camping at Plush’s Bend, just outside Renmark. In search of some obscure family history, we have found an unexpectedly leafy corner of South Australia. Renmark is the last town on the Sturt Highway before it crosses the border into Victoria. Brothers John and Robert Robertson settled in the area in the 1860s. In 1887, two Canadian  brothers, George & William Chaffey, arrived, with plans to establish an irrigation system that would allow crops to thrive in an otherwise dry and dusty landscape. Today, the area is a cornucopia of fruits, nuts and flowers: citrus and stone fruits, pistachios and almonds, roses and grapevines. The grassy riverbanks in town roll down to the water’s edge like green carpet.

Renmark was proclaimed a town in 1905 and connected to Adelaide by rail in 1937. Now the train line is defunct, but the road goes all the way to Sydney, crossing the River Murray on the Paringa Suspension Bridge, built in the 1920s for the trains. One of only four suspension bridges over the Murray, it opens twice daily to let the paddle steamers through.

The day brightens. A houseboat, squat and broad, meanders upriver, the hum of its engine disturbing the peace, and competing with the thrum of a tiny biplane overhead. Crows caw on the wing. Ducks squabble. Pelicans glide.

After a slow, lazy start, we pack up camp and drive back into town. As in so many country towns, the roads are broad, and parking the campervan is a piece of cake. We cross the suspension bridge to neighbouring Paringa. Two huge silos have recently been decorated: a dozen painted pelicans photo bomb four river scenes of paddle steamers, fishermen, houseboats and an odd-looking man I will later spot on the cover of a library book in Berri. ‘A Man called Possum,’ was a local recluse who lived off the land along the Murray for fifty years.

Around the corner sits the huge black stump and root system of a 600 year old red river gum. As I read the story on a signboard, I am interrupted by the eccentric storyteller himself.  Frank ‘the Chookman’ Turton and his wife spotted the fallen gum tree 35 miles upriver almost forty years ago. Cutting off the trunk, they attached a dozen 44 gallon petrol drums and a tiny two stroke engine to the stump. Frank then perched on the stump in a deckchair, and guided it downstream to the Paringa bridge, where a crane heaved it from the water. The stump – eight metres across – now sits outside his home on Murtho Road. His other home, the heavily decorated houseboat, “Willitsinkorwon’tit,” has been serenading Renmark pedestrians from the riverbank opposite the Renmark Hotel most of the day.

Established in 1897, the Renmark Hotel was the first Community Hotel in the British Empire, and its first licensee was actually a woman, Jane Meissner, almost 70 years before women could enter a public bar in Australia. In 1937 it was redesigned in the Art Deco style we see today, and an extra floor was added. Two years ago, the hotel opened a small museum on the first floor, to exhibit memorabilia from the hotel’s past.

Renmark is home to Angoves Winery and the 23rd Street Distillery. It also has an excellent book shop, a pub, a number of small cafes and a great Thai restaurant that is – of course – closed on Tuesday nights. There is also a plethora of small churches. Anglican, Uniting, Catholic, Methodist, Greek Orthodox and the tiny church on the hill at Renmark West. One church – possibly Congregational – has been converted into a family home. Another was recently demolished. Once upon a time, when the settlements along the river were barely there, a small steam launch was converted into a floating chapel, and would visit the embryo towns to conduct christenings, weddings and confirmations.

The people here are friendly & helpful. I share travel tales and bird stories with the local doctor and talked antique books and local history with the bookshop owner. The One & Only exchanges tips on planting vines with a local carpenter, while I admire his beautiful, rustic furniture, and wish there were space in the campervan to take some home. The receptionist at the Murray Pioneer office is happy to show me copies of the local paper from 1917, delicate and fragile as they are. The waitresses at the pub may be too busy to chat, but always smile as they approach our table. The young woman at the Information Bureau is the font of all wisdom and delighted to share all she knows about the area, its attractions and its history. And while I am busy exploring the town’s history, the One & Only  wanders along the five-kilometre riverfront walk.

And then onwards, to a soft pink sunset just beyond Berri, in the Murray River National Park. A kangaroo and its joey check us out from the edge of the campsite. The water on Katarapko creek is as smooth as glass, reflecting the gnarly gums like a mirror. We have gathered up bark, fallen branches and dry leaves and built a bonfire in a fire pit provided by the rangers. We will light it as soon as we have poured a couple of glasses of Riverland Tempranillo. Then we can keep our toes warm as the sun finally drops below the horizon, and the temperature with it.

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