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July 14, 2019

Murray River Steamboat Cruise in Australia — Two Nights in the Museum

Murray River Steamboat Cruise.

Introduction by Ted Scull.

Steamboats have plied Australia’s Murray River since the mid-19th century. Today steamers range from wood-fired antiques, the topic of this report below, to modern replica sternwheelers. A handful make overnight cruises lasting from just two days and up to a week.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise aboard the historic Marion

Murray Princess. * Photo: Murray River Cruises

At landings along the way in the states of South Australia and Victoria, additional paddlers make day trips. In total, the Murray River basin boasts the world’s largest fleet of paddle steamers. Both the author of the featured cruise, William Worden, and I have additionally explored more of this fascinating navigable river — Australia’s longest by far — by car.

The cruise report, “Two Nights in the Museum,” provides the introduction to the subject, and here’s a link to additional Murray River trip options. 

The birds and animals, some peculiar to Australia and the Murray River, make for happy hunting.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise map

Map of the Lower River Murray. * Photo: Ted Scull

Two Nights in the Museum

By William Worden

Australia’s Murray River offers several opportunities for cruises, but one is unique: the chance to cruise aboard a museum. The paddle steamer Marion, launched in 1897 as a barge, was converted into a steamer in 1900. She was altered several times and achieved her present form by the mid-1930s, with three decks of accommodations for a maximum of 25 overnight passengers.

She cruised until 1952 when Murray Shipping, Ltd. liquidated and she became a houseboat. The National Trust of Australia bought her in 1963 and she steamed “one last trip” to Mannum, where she served as a static museum for several decades.

In 1989 it was decided that the best way to preserve the Marion was to restore her to operation. After much volunteer labor, Marion returned to steam in 1994.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise on the adorable Marion

Paddle steamer Marion. * Photo: William Worden

A Murray River Steamboat Cruise Based in Mannum

She remains based at Mannum, South Australia and runs day excursions as well as a few multi-night cruises every year.

Marion is a museum piece, preserved as she was in her heyday; luxury is not on tap. Her appeal is not in slick décor, but in the more fundamental pleasure of shipwright carpentry, the kind of appeal most of us find in simple, well-made, solid constructions of wood.

Cabins are typical of the time, about seven feet square with an upper and lower bunk, a small cabinet and shelf, a straight chair and hooks for hanging clothes. Suitcases fit under the bunks, and we packed light for our two-night trip.

Toilets and showers are down the open deck, positioned over the paddle boxes. There is a second deck forward lounge (with bar), and the former smoking saloon on the third deck aft (smoking is not permitted on this all-wood museum piece). The dining saloon is aft on the main deck. Pilot house and engine spaces are open to all to observe and inquire.

Typical of the Murray River boats, Marion’s engine is a Marshall “portable” engine and boiler from England. Originally set on wheels, it had its undercarriage removed and then was placed in the hull. Because the engine runs too fast for paddlewheels, there is a big gear and pinion reduction.

Marion is wood-fired and the wood bunker and the fire hold are open for passenger observation. Pilot house equipment is limited to a big steering wheel (Armstrong power steering), a throttle, and a speaking tube to communicate with the engineer down below.

Murray River Steamboat Cruise aboard the wood-fired Marion

P.S. Marion uses wood for fuel. * Photo: William Worden

100% Volunteer

The crew of the Marion is 100% volunteer. Without exception, they live up to the Australian reputation for informality and friendliness. Their love for their boat is worn on their sleeves. They go out of their way to make a cruise on her pleasant because her cruises raise money that helps to preserve her. Further, one and all, shy and gregarious, they seem to genuinely like their passengers.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the dining saloon, while a modest baked sweet is laid out for morning and afternoon tea in the lounge. Home cooking is the standard. If the word “gourmet” would not come to mind, “substantial,” “excellently-prepared” and “delicious” certainly would.

The bar in the lounge is stocked with a range of soft drinks, beers, ales, and ciders, as well as stronger alcoholic beverages.

Dining room on a Murray River Steamboat Cruise

Dining room aboard P.S. Marion. * Photo: William Worden

Entertainment is largely self-provided. A couple of very interesting videos about Murray River steamers were played in the lounge. One evening, the purser led games: a form of darts with Velcro instead of sharp points and, believe it or not, blindfolded pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. This seemed lame at the outset, but ended up in tears-down-the-cheeks laughter.

The lounge aboard the Murray River Steamboat Cruise vessel Marion.

Views to all sides from the lounge. * Photo: William Worden

Murray River Steamboat Cruise Itineraries

Scenery varies according to the Marion’s route for a specific cruise. Ours, from Goolwa, where the Murray spills into the Southern Ocean, to Mannum, began in some narrower channels leading to the crossing of Lake Alexandrina, a part of a large protected wetland.

Bird life is abundant on the crossing, both familiar types like pelicans and species unique to Australia. At Wellington, the steamer reached the river proper. We spent the night at Murray Bridge; some found a pub. We did a little shopping.

Murray River Cruise

Nankeen Night Heron

The morning found us upbound again in a narrower stretch of the river where limestone cliffs had been carved by millennia of flowing water. We arrived at Mannum, Marion’s home, not long after noon. After saying our regretful good-byes to Marion, her crew, and our new-found Australian friends, we visited the river museum and then headed off by car up the Murray. There we would experience short day trips on some of the other preserved steamers that proudly sail on Australia’s longest river.

The outside decks of the historic Marion, a Murray River Steamboat Cruise

Cabins open to a side deck. * Photo: William Worden

The Marion’s cruise itineraries vary in direction and length depending on the river events she visits. Ours was one of a pair of two-night sailings to and from the South Australian Wooden Boat Festival at Goolwa, a trip she seems to make every year in late April.

In the fall (Australian spring!) of 2019, she will make a similar pair of two-night trips upbound from Mannum to Morgan, a trip which, the crew assured me, is more scenic. In other years, she has offered cruises as long as eight nights when visiting very distant events.

The tied up Marion, a Murray River Steamboat Cruise

P.S. Marion ties up at night. * Photo: William Worden

The years’ schedule is posted early each year on the website:

To learn more about three additional sternwheelers with overnight accommodations and year-round cruises — Murray Princess, Proud Mary, Emmylou — see our QuirkyCruise Murray River Cruises review. or contact Murray River Cruises directly.

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