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Murray River Houseboat

Cliffs at sunset along the Murray River, South Australia. (Photo: AAP Image)
Cliffs at sunset along the Murray River, South Australia
"Anyone with a car or motorbike licence can skipper a houseboat, but you'll still need a thorough lesson on driving and mooring techniques, river conditions, safety procedures, boating rules and etiquette."

This is not a weekend packed with itineraries. Do not expect a retinue of directions, meeting times and entry fees. Daily touring schedule? Nuh-uh!

This weekend is about blissing out on a houseboat — specifically, your houseboat, the houseboat under your captaincy which you're using to navigate a short stretch of Australia's largest and possibly prettiest river.

This weekend is about the pleasure of not really knowing what's going to happen next. It's also about the simple stuff that comes from cruising sedately up a massive body of water lined with ancient gum trees and red cliffs. Stuff like taking a morning shower by jumping overboard; firing up a barbecue or making a campfire on a bank of river sand; rich sunsets and cold beers; lying on a midnight deck looking at the stars; falling asleep to the sound of water slapping on a fibreglass hull.

We give you only one piece of direction and that's Mannum — the historic heart of Murray River history, as well as your starting and end point for three days afloat.

Tempted? Well, good! But before you do anything else, we suggest you go directly to the "Where to stay" section for some practicalities relating to this rather unusual weekend escape.

Getting there

Mannum is 80km west of Adelaide and an easy hour's drive. Take the scenic route out of Adelaide along Greenhill Road via Gumeracha and Birdwood, or the simplest route via Glen Osmond Road, the South Eastern Freeway and a left-hand turn at Murray Bridge.

Before you get there

Call into any large supermarket in Adelaide (keener prices, better choice) and buy provisions for three days. It's a bit of fun, this — and your purchases (or lack of) are guaranteed to haunt you at some stage during the proceedings. ("What do you mean you didn't buy milk?") Fishermen: if your boat isn't equipped, think about whether you'll need some gear; for details on fish species and the best bait, check out this River Murray fishing guide.

When you get there

Firstly, marvel that there's water in the Murray. You've heard a lot of bad news about drought conditions, over-allocation of irrigation water and the abysmal state of the Lower Lakes. And, yes, they're all clear and present dangers, but the Mighty Murray is still flowing. Those locks weren't built for nothing!

You're probably already getting a great vibe from Mannum, a hardworking but pretty little town with an historic main street and houses perched high on the river cliffs. You should immediately consolidate this with a trip to the excellent and rather evocative Mannum Dock Museum and fully restored Paddle Steamer Marion.

This is where Australia's Paddle Steamers were born. They blazed a trail and you're following it, and we bet our muddiest bottom dollar you'll appreciate it more if you know the history. (Did you know Mark Twain sailed the Murray?)

When it comes to long-weekend houseboat hire, the magic hour is 3pm — it's when the owners chuck you the keys. Leave some arvo time to find your craft, learn the ropes and get settled in.

Anyone with a car or motorbike licence can skipper a houseboat, but you'll still need a thorough lesson on driving and mooring techniques, river conditions, safety procedures, boating rules and etiquette. This is also the time you'll be appraised on the river's sweet spots — the best places to moor, the places to pull over for a swim, and the honey holes, where the biggest Murray cod hang out.

After that, the river is yours!

Be prepared to take it slowly, since most houseboats do about 7km/h flat out. But rest assured, within an hour you'll feel like Huck Finn. And don't be surprised to be making "How-de-do" small talk with other boaties en route. There's good camaraderie on the Murray.

Be sure to moor well before dark. Why? (1) It's illegal to cruise at night. (2) The Murray is at its most beautiful at dusk — the time for long shadows, silhouettes and bird life. It's also a good time for barbecues, a spa bath (if you're boat is so equipped) and some fine local wines.

Saturday

The Murray and its whopping great gum trees are teeming with birdlife at daybreak and a dawn hike is the way to experience it. There's no danger of getting lost, just follow the big, wide, wet thing. When you return, stoke up the onboard barbie with bacon and eggs and wonder why you hadn't done this years ago.

Head upstream towards the towering cliffs around Bowhill and Purnong, about five or six hours' sailing, north of Mannum. Along the way, you'll pass eclectic riverside shacks at Younghusband. Wave. Find a spot. Moor. Enjoy!

Sunday

If you like your fish fresh, reel in your own breakfast before heading back to Mannum by mid-afternoon … Heading back? Returning to Mannum? But it's only Sunday!

There are two good reasons for the early return. Firstly, you'll be sure of meeting the Monday 10am deadline (the houseboat equivalent of Cinderella's midnight, after which your budget turns into a pumpkin). And secondly, you'll also have the experience of (legitimately) sleeping outside a pub.

For dinner, we suggest tying up as close as you can to the riverside Pretoria Hotel (built in 1900 and named in honour of the British victory in Pretoria during the Boer War) then celebrating the fact you've earned your skipper's ticket on the Murray.

The pub offers a wide selection of unpretentious bistro fare at reasonable prices (400g rib eye fillet $28), local, national and international wines and live music every weekend. Dine inside or out under the gums on the riverbank — then sleep it off at the end of the pub's rather lovely garden.

What to bring home

Photos of a weekend you never thought possible.

What to splurge on

A jet ski, canoe (or canoes) or dinghy are optional extras which allow you to explore the river in ways you hadn't anticipated.

Book a deal to the Murray River with Expedia .

Got any other suggestions? Share your insight below.

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