Mannum and the Murray Riverboats: In the Marraylands region of South Australia
The Murray in all its expansive and fragile beauty is still the lifeblood of a town that helped write the first romantic chapter of the riverboat trade, and Mannum is setting itself for the 150th anniversary of the first paddle steamer, built by the father of this historic town. Just over an hour’s drive from Adelaide, its heritage buildings roll downhill towards the continent’s great waterway, and the riverboats of today regularly moor at the town wharf. The overnight cruise boats Murray Princess and Proud Mary pick up passengers here, while the Murray Venturer cruiser has room for large group bookings for lunch or dinner. Or you can join the jaunty Jester for an afternoon tea out on the water. This is still very much the port of Mannum.
Some of the old river red gums along the bank probably saw Captain Sturt and his whaleboat crew come past in 1830 on a long and harrowing journey that at last revealed promising territory beyond here. Sturt’s enthusiasm spurred the bankers and philosophers of London to turn their “South Australia” dream into reality, and so within a few years the first Europeans were coming into the lands of the Naralte aboriginal people. “Mannum” is derived from their word for camping ground and it is still a very good one for as long as you’ve got.
Today, the town of about 2000 happily greets the new era house-boat callers, but at the ferry end of the main street sits a huge symbol of its role as the birthplace of the great paddle steamer era. They called the Murray the “Mississippi of the South”, and some 69 of the flat-bottomed semi-trailers of the river trade were hauled into the massive Randell dry-dock that he had towed up from Milang to develop an industry in Mannum in the 1870s. Next to it on the riverbank was a shipbuilding yard, and so the town buzzed with carpenters and river men.
It was Captain William Randell who started it all. As a Gumeracha flour-miller, he wanted to find a supplier link to the Victorian goldrush diggers, and so he built the first paddle steamer on the Murray close by in 1853, effectively inventing a river-road that opened up the whole Murray-Darling basin for wheat and wool growers. Known as the “Father of Mannum”, his two storey verandah home was built just up the hill, giving him a magnificent view of the busy port.
The pretty river-bank bowling greens are on a famous spot too, as old photographs show the area crammed with agricultural equipment about to be loaded on barge and paddle-steamers. The Shearer brothers ran a blacksmith shop opposite under the mud cliffs and that soon grew into a factory producing hundreds of wheat-strippers and mallee ploughs for the farms expanding upriver. Then, in 1894, David Shearer built Australia’s first car here - a wagon-like, steam-driven monster, it is now preserved in Birdwood’s National Motor Museum, but it first rumbled into history along Randell Street in Mannum.
The historic town is graced with the presence of a grand old lady of the romantic paddle steamer era. At her own wharf in the Mannum Dock Museum grounds, PS Marion looks gracious nestling into the willows, and even spritely on one of her regular passenger cruises. But she has seen some hard times. Built as a river barge in 1898 at Milang, she was soon converted to a cargo steamer working up the Darling. Renmark irrigation pioneer Ben Chaffey owned Marion for a while, and she eventually served more than three decades as a three-storey passenger-carrying holiday cruiser in the format we can now inspect at its mooring. After a risky period as a floating flophouse upriver, the centenarian underwent thousands of hours of volunteer restoration in Mannum’s dry deck to emerge as the last wood-burning, steam-powered, passenger paddle steamer in Australia. PS Marion is a national treasure that still regularly lets off steam.
Arnold Park fills the gap between the Marion wharf and the double ferry service across the broad river to the houseboat fleet and holiday villages on the eastern side. It is a bankside picnic ground under the willows with a view of the cross-river traffic, and it’s named after another great Mannum boat builder, Captain Arnold. Originally a Swedish sea captain, he developed a river trading company that in one big year moved 750,000 bags of wheat down to the port of Goolwa and on to the flourmills of the world. The Mannum Dock Museum and Visitor Centre next door has all the information to get you onto the slow flow too. There are about 150 houseboats for hire at the bottom end of the river, for instance. The main street building was once a garage, but now it fuels visitors’ imaginations. Its counter is a resurrected boat that spent some time sunk on the other side.
While modern Mannum moves along with the new tourism trade, it also bathes in the glory of its nineteenth century commercial era. A long collection of character-filled Victorian-era buildings don’t face the river for nothing. Beside a tall old bank and substantial Institute, there’s no money left in the old Commercial Bank premises, but inside Rodney and Rosemary will share their lifesavings of Mannum’s marvellous photographic heritage over a real coffee. Down Randell Street, the hardware shop is housed in the old flour mill that ground away for more than a century. It was interrupted, however, by another Mannum claim to fame.
The massive 1956 flood brought thousands of sightseers to a town that refused to stop, despite losing the entire ground floor of several premises. The upstairs iron-laced verandah of the long two storey Mannum hotel is generously high, but the water still lapped just under it for months, as patrons came and went by boat or eased along high walls of sand bags. In its heyday after its construction in 1869, the hotel housed river visitors and workers, and after a long lull its accommodation has been refurbished for the new tourist boom.
Up the hill, the Pretoria Hotel has another elaborately ornate facade; it was completed a century ago and named for a famous Boer War victory. At last it has turned around and embraced the river view behind it with a major stylish extension. With a modern feel and copious deck for diners, it is no wonder it is attracting guests who linger over a long lunch. Day-trippers also take the chance to take coffee and cake, and the view through the gumtrees to the Murray suggests this could be a good spot to plan your walks along the banks and through the town that has several claims to fame…historic Mannum on the Murray.
Mannum Visitor Information Centre
6 Randell St
Mannum, South Australia, 5238
Phone: (08) 8569 1303
Fax: (08) 8569 2383