The Grey Wanderers - Murray Paddlers of the 'Bottom End'

In earlier issues of Afloat we discussed the various commercial and semi-commercial paddle vessels of the Murray River ‘Top End’ and later, the area from Swan Hill to Wentworth which could be described as the top of the ‘Bottom End.’

Now we’ll take a peek at the rest of the Murray’s ‘Bottom End’ the run to the mouth at Goolwa and we’ll toss in a visit to the ‘Top End’ of the Darling River. Confused? We press on, along a river which now has South Australia on both sides.

The first commercial paddler we meet as we head downstream from Wentworth is the Murray River Queen. She was the first of the modern commercial paddlers and started work in 1973. After several owners she’s now in use as a static motel and function site at Waikerie, downstream from Renmark, in South Australia.

Industry blows off near Renmark. 2011.Here the river is broad and beautiful but an attempt to run regular services with her failed during the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and stayed so, mainly because so many Australians prefer Bali to Australia! MRQ is a modern paddler with all mod-cons and with luck her paddles will turn again.

At Renmark we find the veteran paddle steamer PS Industry. This big paddler was built for the state government as a work-boat. She pushed construction barges, pulled out snags and carried work parties to remote locations when weirs were being built or repaired.

Industry was built in 1911 and is 33m long. She was retired in 1969 and was kept in reasonable repair, afloat at Renmark, as a tourist site. In 1990 local enthusiasts, encouraged by the Renmark Council, started on her resurrection. In the remarkable time of just five years she was back in commercial survey.

Industry runs morning and afternoon tea cruises on the first Sunday of each month at $20 for adults and is open for inspection during normal working hours.

Mannum is home base for two paddle ships. The largest river ship ever built for the Murray River is the ersatz Mississippi River stern wheeler Murray Princess. This luxurious 1500 tonne 67m ‘liner’ can carry 120 passengers and runs a variety of cruises, including five days, from Mannum. She is run by Sydney-based Captain Cook Cruises. In addition to the company’s web-site, information can be had from the Mannum Visitor Centre at 08 8569 1303.

Sharing the Mannum waterfront is the 1897 Marion.

Murray Princess at Mannum in 1989. Note that enormous stern wheel.Marion can carry up to 27 overnight passengers and at 32m is rated at 157 tonnes gross. In June 1963 Marion made her last commercial passenger run on the Murray and was laid up in a graving dock at Mannum. We visited her in 1970 and again in 1984 and it was then obvious that she was still receiving lots of local love and affection. A visit in 1995 found her afloat and ready to work. She is fully operational as a passenger vessel.

Marion offers special-interest overnight cruises on a regular basis. Details can be had from the Mannum Visitor Centre at 08 8569 1303 and by visiting info@marion.com

A main highway towards Adelaide passes through Murray Bridge and as you hurtle over the bridge you might spot the motor paddler Captain Proud. Built in 1977 as Proud Lady she runs a range of short lunch day cruises, night functions and sometimes overnight trips in conjunction with various motels along the route. Captain Proud may be contacted at Murray Bridge, SA or mobile 0486 304 092.

Marion 60 odd years ago at Murray Bridge.  / Marion in April 2011. 

TV viewers may have noted that the Murray River mouth near Goolwa has opened, that there is, once again, water in Lake Alexandrina at the real bottom end of the Murray. People of Goolwa and of the area around the Coorong area are excited, probably no more so than the crew and operators of the magnificent paddle steamer Oscar W. Built in 1908, this 83 gross tonnes tow boat ranged widely, including as far up-river as Bourke on the Darling River.

Oscar W exists because of the tenacity of the late Alan E. Moritz. Despite lack of money and advancing years he kept Oscar W intact and safe. It seemed that no-one really wanted an old river boat but Moritz stuck to his task for some 20 years. When he died in 1984 his boat suffered for a few years but became, eventually part of the Goolwa area heritage display and has been kept in active use ever since.

Oscar W is in commercial survey and is used for short cruises of about 90 minutes on the third Sunday of each month.

From near the mouth of the Murray we now move way, way upriver, up the Darling River, to Bourke in NSW. Over recent years the Darling has suffered from drought and the water needs of up-stream cotton plantations and rarely reached the top of the weir at Bourke.

About 2001 local enthusiasts started to create a local paddle vessel, using the name Jandra. Jandra was the name of the paddler in the book Dreadnought of the Darling by C.E.W. Bean. Our copy was printed in 1956 and those interested in stories of our rivers could do worse than search out a copy.

Captain Proud at Murray Bridge.  / Jandra potters along the Darling near Burke in 2002. 

The new Jandra is an ultra-low draft motor paddler. She draws about one metre, loaded! She has individual paddle motors in order to provide better manoeuvrability when she cruises on the pent up waters of the local weir. The slightest cross breeze affects her when she’s running and the crew need plenty of local know-how for their job. Jandra is about 23m long and can hold a tourist bus load. Along her route she passes under the old bridge, passes the re-created Bourke river wharf, then nears the site of the remains of the Wave.

A little downstream can be seen the Bourke weir with the remains of the lock that allowed paddlers of the past to continue up-river, sometimes actually into Queensland.

The Darling can, sometimes, become a very large and wide river and it was not unknown for paddle steamers to lose their way looking for the actual river’s track. One such was the 1886 15m hawking and firewood steamer Wave. She ended up well away from the river’s course when the river went down in 1921.

For many years she was used as accommodation for a local family and became known locally as ‘Noah’s Ark’. A bush fire did away with the combustible bits and now all that remains is the engine mount, boiler, paddle frames and various gears – it’s well worth the visit.

In a later issue we’ll offer a pictorial of just some of the amazing range in shapes and sizes of private paddlers along the Murray River, not all of them powered by internal combustion engines.