Back To The Past

Story and Photography by PATRICK HAYES

Australia is the only place in the world where you can go for an overnight cruise on a wood-fired paddle steamer

It's the peaceful atmosphere that gets to you first. On 1 January, fresh from the bustle of greeting the new millennium I am leaning on the stern rail, glass of red in hand, watching the Port of Echuca disappear in a late afternoon haze of river gums.

Emmylou Steams On

The quiescent Emmylou meanders upon the tranquil waters of the Murray (feeling relaxed yet?) 

The Emmylou's 1906 wood-fired steam engine whispers a comforting "whoosh, whoosh, whoosh" to the paddle wheels and the aluminium punt trailing along behind bumps over the wake with a gentle "plonk, plonk, plonk"

Most of the time, that's all you hear on this cruise. But, now and again, just to make sure the peace and quiet is appreciated, a mob of galahs will sweep past, yelling derision at the tourists trying to look like travellers, or a boat towing a water skier will zoom past to remind us that the 21st century is only just beyond our touch. Occasionally, as we splash towards a bend, the captain hauls on a rope to send a mournful hoot echoing across the river to alert any  water traffic around the corner.

This is the life! It's another, slower, more peaceful world that all of us need to visit from time to time just to get our priorities back where they should be.

We (that's me, my wife Phyllis and nine-year-old Kathleen, together with about 30 others) boarded the Emmylou at about 5.30 on a Saturday afternoon. Some of us were there for a cruise up the river and a gourmet dinner before being put ashore back at the port.

But for 18 of us that was just the start of the adventure. We then set out back up the river to spend the night afloat, sleeping in bunks in air-conditioned cabins, listening to the mating calls of frogs across the shallows and the occasional cries of the night birds. Next morning we enjoyed breakfast afloat, listening to the red gum forest around us stirring into life as the kookaburras made sure we were aware that  life really is a joke.

With that extrasensory perception that children appear to be born with, Kathleen immediately found David, another nine-year-old, among the passengers and they set off on a busy routine of inspecting every inch of the boat, helping the friendly captain steer his ship and sampling some of the boat's store of board games. After 10 minutes it seemed as though they had known each other all their lives. It's a pity we adults can't let our guards down quite so easily.

According to one of the Emmylou's owners, Vern Beasley, we can experience this adventure only in Australia. He says the Emmylou is the only wood-fired paddle steamer in the world that offers overnight accommodation. A couple of times a week it loads up 18 passengers at the Port of Echuca in northern Victoria and sets out for a cruise up and down the old River Murray.

It takes a while to accept that Victoria has a port so far away from the sea but the Murray used to be a bustling waterway in the 1800s. The first paddle steamer went into service in 1853 and by 1873 there were 240 boats plying the Murray's 2500 kilometres of navigable water, bringing essential items up from the coastal cities and shipping out the produce from the fertile soil of the newly established farms in inland Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

Eventually the extension of the railways put the paddle steamers out of business and the increasing number of dams across the Murray blocked their passage but even today there are  still about 1800 kilometres of navigable water in the Murray and the Port of Echuca still has the largest collection of paddle steamers in the world.

We had been on a leisurely caravan tour along the Murray and spent a few nights at the Echuca Caravan Park which has the advantage of being right on the river and within easy walking distance of the Port of Echuca and the main shopping area.

When we were ready to wander down and board the Emmylou, the park's genial host, Hugh Diedrich, arranged for our car and van to be kept safe and secure while we were cruising on the river. The people who run the Emmylou can arrange secure parking for passengers' cars.

Murray River Paddlesteamers, the partnership of Vern Beasley and Max Vulling that operates the Emmylou, has avoided the easy option of serving airline-style food on board. Instead, a chef prepares all meals individually in a tiny galley smaller than the cooking area found in most caravans.

The restricted space means that the meals might take a while coming but when they do they are of gourmet standard. And no restaurant has such a fascinating view to gaze out on while waiting for the food to arrive. There's a ratio of one staff to every four passengers so nobody lacks attention for long.

As the paddle steamer glides along the river, mother and father ducks shepherd their young in to the shore and kangaroos look up to check us out before going back to nibbling on the tender green shoots along the river bank.

The Emmylou goes through about a tonne of redgum a day, all of it culled from waste railway sleeper cutters have left behind  over the past 80 years in the vast forests lining the river.
Makes my Krupp's coffee machine look pretty sad

After dinner is finished and the meal-only passengers dropped off, the Emmylou heads upriver and at about 10pm pulls in to a tranquil shore. The boiler provides some glowing embers to set up a campfire on the bank, folding chairs are set up and out comes the port, the coffee and the tall stories about the mighty Murray and the fascinating events and people in its past.

If there is a real world out there with pressures and problems, we had forgotten all about it.

The Emmylou


Echuca is on the Victorian side of the Murray River, about two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Melbourne.


Accommodated steaming (the fancy name for overnight cruises) have two options: One night, departing 6pm Saturday and returning 10am Sunday with breakfast-only included from $135 per person (twin share, lower deck); or two night departing 6pm Wednesday, returning noon Friday with all meals included from $365 per person (twin share lower deck). Shorter cruises and “boatel and dinner” cruises are also available.


For more information on day or overnight cruises on the Emmylou contact:

(03) 5480 2237. 

Web site:


Echuca Fact File

As well as river cruises, Echuca and the surrounding area has lots to see and do. At the Port itself there are several museums, horse and carriage rides, a penny arcade and handcraft shops to explore.

Getting around by cycle or on foot is another great adventure, and five or ten kilometre walks or rides take you through, or to, some great places of interest. There are also some fantastic day-long treks to tackle from the comfort of your vehicle.

And then there are the wonderful forests and wetlands of the Murray River, including the largest river red gum forest on earth. There’s plenty of camping to be found, and all sorts of watersports to enjoy.

Contact Echuca-Moama Tourism for more information on

(03) 5480 7555 or 1800 804 446, or visit their web site at:

Contact the Echuca Caravan Park on (03) 5482 2157