melanie ball

Water wheels (Cycling Echuca, Victoria) Published in Royal Auto, July 2014 
The pedals are steaming on this bike tour through Victoria’s paddlesteamer capital. Story and photos: Melanie Ball


Cycling is a fun way to explore Echuca – except for the bike bell. A metal-on-metal trill as you pass pedestrians and other riders lacks the gravitas of a steam whistle, which evokes the era when the Murray was a trade route and Echuca one of our biggest ports. But a handlebar-mounted steam whistle would block our vision – and probably upset our balance – so we must make do with the unromantic alternative to signal our passage through a history crowded with paddlesteamers.

This month’s easy pedal (about 12km) starts at the visitor centre, beside the cast-iron Moama bridge, where we collect a map on which a staff member highlights several routes. (Scenic rides are described at www.echucamoama.com/bike-tracks.) From there we wheel along Murray Espl to the Historic Port of Echuca precinct, via Australia’s only National Trust-classified brothel.

In the late 19th century, when hundreds of boats a year landed wool, wheat, timber and people from far-flung river stations on Echuca’s 1.2km-long wharf for train transport to Melbourne, the two-storey building with a weatherboard facade in Little Hopwood St was a hotbed of sin.

We cycle through the port now, with the surviving three-tier red-gum wharf on our right and 19th century custom house, bond store and hotels on our left; in the Star Hotel (one of 78 at Echuca’s peak), we visit the tunnel through which drinkers escaped police raids after the establishment was de-licensed in 1897 (entry by Port of Echuca ticket). Access to the wharf proper is via the new Port of Echuca Discovery Centre: we’re talking historic boats (Echuca-built PS Adelaide is the world’s oldest-operating wooden-hulled paddle­steamer), audio histories and river characters – Black Alec was the greatest swearer and worst cook on the Murray.

We’ve got a lovely cycle now, on unsealed vehicular tracks through scruffy eucalypt forest on the Murray’s Victorian bank. Kookaburras and yellow rosellas fly above us as we follow the river on a lazy loop to the Campaspe River junction, where centuries-old gums cling to the eroded banks with arthritic-looking roots. We follow the Campaspe upstream back into town, leaving the Murray tributary at Crofton St and visiting the Victoria Park monument to Henry Hopwood (the unofficial “King of Echuca”). A transported convict, ex-policeman and entrepreneur, in the 1850s Hopwood built punts across the Campaspe and Murray rivers and an inn to serve waiting travellers.

Dickson St brings us almost back to the port area and we turn right into Warren St at the old red-brick police station, now a museum full of original river charts, family histories and old photographs celebrating the teams that brought inland wealth down the Darling, Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers. Warren St takes us past the National Holden Motor Museum and Cock’n’Bull Boutique Hotel. Built as a hotel in 1876, this establishment now offers accommodation in five suites, two of which are dog-friendly – liver treats on check-in, woof!

Over the Campaspe, we veer left and follow a sealed cycle path upriver, crossing back on a timber bridge. From there, bike lanes lead through Echuca’s main shopping area to the Moama bridge and a sweeping view down to the old wharf. In NSW we loop left and under the bridge to a boardwalk providing a bumpy ride across a lagoon to the Murray.

​Rather than embark on a longer loop ride through these pretty wetlands, we duck back under the bridge and down the parallel corrugated dirt road to the signed slipway. High and dry here is the barge Ada. We can also watch commercial paddle­steamer cruises come and go. But the main appeal of this spot is the view of Echuca wharf, with its massive red-gum uprights planted deep in the opposite bank. Moored beside it is Echuca’s fleet of paddlesteamers, including the tiny mission boat Etona (c.1899), which tended to inland folks’ spiritual needs from 1899 to 1912.

That’s a sobering thought for our backtrack to the car.

WALK IT
Allow at least a day to enjoy Echuca on foot. Tread the old wharf, which emerges from morning mist like a living creature, and climb down among its timbers. Drop into premises along Murray Espl and finish up on High St: Shebani’s (#535) serves delicious Mediterranean food. 
DRIVE IT
In homage to the river gum, whose timber contributed to Australia’s early development, drive downstream to Gunbower Island or upstream to Barmah National Park, checking out weirs, wetlands, towns and river beaches along the way. Barmah forest has special significance for the Yorta Yorta people whose ancestors inhabited the area for 40,000 years.

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