The not so Grey Wanderers - Murray paddlers of the Bottom End by Winsome and Graeme AndrewsIn 2009 over three issues of Afloat, we discussed some of the varied paddle boats and paddle steamers of the ‘top end’ of the Murray River. Our wanderings located many such craft, most of which operated within a few river kilometres of Echuca in Victoria and sister town Moama in New South Wales.
With this in mind we decided to poke around the ‘bottom end’ of the Murray-Darling system particularly in the area generally east and west of Mildura and including Wentworth on the Darling River.
Twenty five odd years ago there was an eclectic mix of commercial passenger paddle boats offering trips of several days duration along the Murray. Of these only one was powered by steam and that was the then new Emmy Lou based in Echuca, powered by a rebuilt, veteran steam engine.
Downstream could be found the rebuilt oldies Wanera and Coonawarra, powered by modern diesel engines, both working around Mildura. The modern motor paddlers Murray River Queen and the Mississippi look-alike Murray Princess, and the motor vessel Murray Explorer were also working the area.
Much has changed since then. Wanera was burnt out many years ago and Coonawarra is afloat in commercial use in a static role. Murray Explorer now works on Port Jackson as Captain Cook Cruises’s Port Jackson Explorer. Murray River Queen is in use as a floating motel at Waikerie, South Australia and the massive Murray Princess is the only modern commercial paddler in scheduled use as I write. Younger Australians seemingly, are no longer interested in travelling in Australia.
One of the paddler crews made the comment that “the Murray is high but so is the Aussie dollar so Australians are going to Bali and we’re going broke!”
But, for those people who would like the idea of interesting days aboard a passenger steam paddler, there are still several such craft available, if you know where to look and can plan well ahead.

Pyap heads downstream from the Pioneer Settlement, soon to join the Murray River for an hour or so.
Although there are only two commercial passenger overnight paddler steamers – Emmylou and Hero – at the top end around Echuca, there are several paddlers running day trips. Some of them are reconstructed for public use, others are in near or as-original condition as far as modern safety laws allow. (See Afloat issues 246, 247 and 251 of 2009).
About a thousand river kilometres down river there is considerable paddle activity, especially since the Murray River rose with fresh flood water. Commercial paddlers can be found at Swan Hill, Mildura and at Wentworth on the Darling River, near its junction with the Murray.
A little further downstream as the Murray flows through South Australia, preserved operational steam paddlers can be found at Renmark and at Mannum. At Goolwa near the mouth of the Murray another steam paddler is operational in a heritage role.
In this issue we will tell the tale of the overnight and day paddlers generally between Swan Hill, Mildura and Wentworth.
Swan Hill upriver from Mildura is the site of one of Australia’s more authentic and better-run folk heritage ‘villages’. For about 40 years, since it was built on the then outskirts of Swan Hill, on the local Murray anabranch, it has been a ‘must-see’ for those interested in Australiana. The city of Swan Hill has caught up to Swan Hill Pioneer’s Village now and has physically continued on past it.
Disregarding the other village itself we’ll mention just the village’s two paddleboats. The larger, in fact the largest passenger paddle steamer ever to run on our inland rivers, is PS Gem. Sadly she sits in a man-made puddle, lacking either engine or boiler to provide visual honesty. Gem was built in 1876 and worked as a passenger vessel for much of her life during which she was extended in length and volume several times. She became part of the display in 1962 after being rejected by the good people of Mildura.
The mighty paddle steamer Gem looks somewhat forlorn in a pond at Swan Hill Pioneers Settlement.Running from a wharf near Gem is the one-time steamer Pyap, now much rebuilt as a day-tripper, her paddles driven by modern machinery. Pyap was built in 1898. She provides a very interesting 90 minute run up the Murray from Swan Hill.
Mildura is a much bigger city than is Echuca and, although it has lived with paddlers for more than 150 years, the paddle steamers of then and now seem never to have been as important to the town, with its irrigation and other industries, as they were to the Top Enders around Echuca.
Several of the present heritage paddlers spent many years lying at Mildura, rotting away, long ignored before some-one from out of town recognised their worth (See Footnote). One such was Gem already mentioned.
Another perhaps the most important of these is the almost as large Ruby of 1907.
The big passenger steam paddler Ruby is one of the largest steam passenger paddlers to work the big river. After many years laid up at Mildura she was towed to Wentworth in 1962 and established in a local park as part of the local Rotary Club’s efforts to provide a tourist attraction.
Blowing steam paddle steamer Ruby nears Mildura in 2010.Twenty odd years of neglect and weather brought Ruby to the stage where she was in danger of being demolished as a risk to the public.
In 1996 local enthusiasts started the long job of rebuilding Ruby and placing back into work. By July 2004 she was afloat in her own river bank inlet and by 2008 she was afloat and looking much as she did in her prime. Ruby and her volunteers were working her way through the problems of passing survey as a vintage ship in a modern world.
During March and April 2011 paddle steamer Ruby carried almost 30 paying passengers on 13-day cruises to and from Morgan in South Australia. Several other paddle steamers joined her there and took part in various displays.
Ruby carried paying passengers in both directions and along with the other paddlers ran day trips from Morgan and from Mannum and Renmark along the way.
Rebuilding and maintaining such a large veteran paddle steamer in operating heritage condition is an expensive activity and Ruby and some of the other paddlers carry paying passengers regularly, if one knows where and when to look.
Ruby will probably carry out a similar cruising programme in 2012. As an example the 13-day leg to Morgan cost about $3,700 all found. One hour day trips along the way were $20.
[Questions concerning Ruby’s programme can be addressed to PO Box 371, Wentworth, NSW, 2648 or phone (03) 5027 3624; email: tourism@wentworth.nsw.gov.au]
Awaiting a night function the modern steel motor paddler Mundoo is seen at her home base.Working from Mildura for almost 50 years is the paddle steamer Melbourne. She was built in 1912 and was converted into a day passenger paddler by Albert Poynton around 1965 and has been running local day trips ever since.
She runs up river past the town of Gol Gol and also works downriver through the local weir when the weir is in use. The family also operates the diesel-powered Rothbury of 1881 on similar cruises and the modern steel motor paddler Mundoo of 1987 as a function vessel. Mundoo was built in Goolwa using a vintage steam engine but this was unsatisfactory and she now has a diesel replacement.

Motor paddler Rothbury glides in towards Mildura wharf to collect another batch of visitors.Footnote. One of the biggest cargo and towing steam paddlers on the Murray River is the Pevensey. Built in 1910 she too was laid up neglected at Mildura before being taken to Echuca during the 1970s and full restored to operational condition. Pevensey maintains a near original condition. When we saw her at Echuca in 2009 she was out of service, needing survey and slipping. She has been returned to service.

In Part Two we’ll discuss the operational paddle steamers down-stream of Mildura and look at some of the considerable flotilla of privately-owned small paddlers, some of them also powered by steam.