Going with the flow – lazy days in Murray River country

The countryside is richly green as we head towards Murray River country from Melbourne on a late winter’s day.

It has been a very wet season (or two), and lakes are filled to the brim, while the Loddon and the Murray rivers are swollen with water.

We’re starting our getaway near Lake Charm, about 300 kilometres from Melbourne, in an area known as the Gannawarra.

Kerang Lakes is a network of 23 lakes and swamps – some salty, some freshwater ­– and then there are the rivers and creeks.

Ever been there? No, neither had we and we were surprised – shocked actually – to find so many spots for fishing, boating, kayaking and bird watching.

Keen birdwatchers might make for the ibis rookery at Reedy Lake for a spot of twitching, but we see ibis, egrets, a hawk wheeling overhead, even when we’re just driving along.

There are walking and cycling trails too. Lake Charm and Kangaroo Lake are known for freshwater swimming and water sports, and there are caravan parks and camping grounds. There’s even some short-term free camping if you’re watching your travel dollars.

Tiny house sleepover

We’re staying at our first ever tiny house and we see why people love them. They are so cute!

Gaby and Lindsay Hogg, who run Charm Lodge, greet us. The property is a wedding venue and has a modern house where guests can stay (with a pool and spa).

The aptly-named Charm Lodge is the ideal base for Murray River exploration.

They also have a genuine retro caravan, Flo, on the site, tucked among flowering wattle trees, that is proving a huge hit with young couples (“it’s booked out every weekend,” says Gaby). With its rustic verandah, fire pit and outdoor bath it’s an Instagrammer’s delight.

But we are cosy and comfy in our tiny house. Black outside and crisply white inside, it’s as neat as a ship’s cabin.  When the sun sets we settle into Adirondack chairs on the lawn in front of a glowing brazier, and stargaze into the dark sky.

Next morning, Gaby delivers a breakfast hamper loaded with warm rolls and pastries, home-made jam, boiled eggs, fruit, yoghurt and even honey from the property’s hive.

From Charm Lodge it’s about 40 minutes’ drive into Swan Hill. We have coffee at Spoons Riverside on the deck overlooking the river and the river red gums.

The cafe is near Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery, which is known for its prints and drawings and regional art.  The building itself, inspired by a wool shed, is mainly hand-made mudbrick, with beams and columns hewn from local red gum.

Olives and Esmee the donkey

About 20 minutes’ drive from Swan Hill is Chasney Estate at Tresco, a boutique property owned by the endlessly energetic Isabel and Gary Chasney.

Having moved from Tasmania, with no real farming knowledge, they have created a property that‘s all about diversity, natural farming and sustainability.

They produce olives and olive oil from their olive trees, they make lavender essential oil, soaps, gin, scones and even gelato from their lavender bushes (they grow 15 varieties) and they invite people to pat their adorable grey donkey, Esmee. They’re planning on starting a small petting zoo as they also have goats and sheep and soon there will be fields of sunflowers growing.

As the weather warms, visitors can have scones and tea on the lawn or pop into the small Farm Shop to taste their olive oil and stock.

Isabel and Gary even have two ‘tiny houses’ in their olive groves, where African daisies bloom beneath the trees. Chasney Estate opens weekends and school holidays (best to check the website before visiting).

Spectacular Swan Hill. Photo: Murray River Tourism

Heartbeat of the Murray

In the evening we’re off to see the sound and laser show Heartbeat of the Murray at the Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement.  There’s a nightly show, starting at 6.30pm (bookings essential).

Walking past the Settlement’s dimly lit, old-world streets feels eerie – lights shimmering through the towering gum trees, and there’s a rustling of wildlife. The tiered seating overlooks the river (take a rug if it’s chilly).

The show itself is immersive, a story of ancient Indigenous heritage and the Dreamtime, of settlers arriving and the river’s paddle-steaming heyday. Sound, water, fire and lasers combine to explain the region’s long history.

Winery,  walking and wetlands

If you go to the country and you don’t go to a winery, have you even been to the country?

So we add a trip to Restdown Wines at Caldwell.

For oenophiles, no visit to the country is complete without a winery visit. Photo: Restdown Winery

Don and Jo Hearn’s farm is certified organic and they bring a quiet passion to their care for the land.

They run Hereford cattle for organic beef and produce organic wine, hand-picking the grapes, using an old Italian basket press and French oak barrels.

We can vouch for the results – the 2018 Wild Merlot is an excellent drop. You can book for a wine tasting and some “seasonal morsels” or lunch from the organic kitchen garden.

On a guided walk of about an hour through the timeless landscape of the Restdown Wetland, Don shares his knowledge about the traditional custodians, the Barapa Barapa, cultural sites, and the link between the wetland ecosystem and farming. We also get to do some wildlife spotting. Bookings are essential for all visits. 

Kayaking in Gunbower Forest. Photo: Murray River Adventures

And then we try to kayak

Although the heavy rain has caused problems, flooding does have benefits.

We join Shannon O’Brien from Murray River Adventures at Cohuna to kayak into the heart of the Gunbower Forest.

Most of the time the forest requires hiking boots or a 4×4, but at present it’s a flooded retreat for birdlife, with the peaceful, tannin-stained waters reflecting towering gums and clouds scudding across the sky.

Shannon bravely agrees to let me wield a paddle, and it’s a mighty ungraceful style I bring to it. I’m hopeless!

My kayaking partner and I trail endlessly behind the rest of our small group, frequently crashing into trees but all in all, it’s a fabulous experience. I’d highly recommend it (even if I still had blisters days later!).

Margaret Barca was a guest of Murray River Tourism.

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