By John Pedler
Published: Thursday, March 17, 2022
Calling all would-be riverboat captains! One of the great things about hiring a houseboat is you only need a driver’s licence to take the wheel.
Following a brief instructional tour with your host, your floating mobile home will be under your command. It’s a bit like the first time your parents gave you the keys to the family car.
Then it’s upstream, downstream, around in circles ‒ your itinerary is entirely up to you. You can choose to drive to a secluded beach and park there for the rest of your holiday. Swim, fish, play riverside bocce, get the barbecue cranking, and watch as the setting sun turns the cliffs a fiery orange.
Another option is to plot a course for more distant shores and spend each day discovering a new part of the river. The scenery constantly changes and, depending on where your trip starts, you’ll cruise past small settlements, fruit orchards, farms and dense native forest.
Birdlife along the Murray is prolific. Colourful parrots fuss about in gum trees, lanky spoonbills perch on slender branches, and comically-beaked pelicans somehow look graceful as they skim the surface of the water.
Evenings on the river are magical. The power boats and jet skis disappear, the rowdy birds return to their roosts and it feels like you have the Murray all to yourself. The nearest town might be only a short distance away, but it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
It’s a great time to sit back on the deck with a cool drink and embrace the timelessness of this ancient watercourse.
What floats your boat?
Houseboats come in all shapes and sizes, with a range of facilities available. Choose a boat that suits the number of people in your group, your interests or your budget.
If you’re after a cosy getaway for two, consider a small boat with similar equipment to a caravan. This usually includes a kitchen, dining table, bedroom, bathroom, heating and cooling, sound system and front deck with a barbecue.
A small houseboat can squirrel into riverside nooks that a larger vessel can’t access. It’s also the best way to go if you’re nervous about taking the helm of a bigger boat.
The next size up (four berth) is likely to include a larger indoor living area, more deck space and extra bedrooms.
Depending on the family dynamic, the age of the kids and the length of the trip, it’s worth considering separate bedrooms for each sibling, and a second toilet – when you’re mid-river and nature calls, this could be vital.
You’ll also need a good-sized living area, particularly if the weather turns sour.
Kids can be a bit restless and sometimes serenity and breathtaking scenery just aren’t enough. Be sure to pack some games ‒ conventional and electronic ‒ and include occasional riverbank stops for swimming, walking and general leg stretching.
Some luxury houseboats are huge and have more facilities than many family homes. You can hire a two-storey whopper with six en-suite bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen with an oven and dishwasher, laundry, jacuzzi, home entertainment system and cocktail bar.
Of course, rental and fuel costs for these vessels are higher than smaller boats, but when divided among several couples it’s an affordable holiday. When you’re travelling in a large group, it’s important that everyone has plenty of space.
Most houseboats have all the facilities needed for a comfortable trip. If you’re keen to add a bit more action to your cruise, consider taking or hiring kayaks to explore the river’s many billabongs and backwaters. If skiing’s your thing, some boats are fitted with a hitch for attaching a ski boat or dinghy.
For the full Huckleberry Finn experience, perch yourself on the riverbank with a fishing pole and try your luck at catching redfin and callop – rickety raft and straw hat are optional.
When to cruise
Houseboat rentals have a low, shoulder and high season, and there’s a significant price difference.
Not surprisingly, mid-summer and long weekends attract the highest rates and winter is much cheaper.
Although you may have to rug up in the cooler months, winter on the Murray can be delightfully sunny.