The drive from Echuca to Albury Wodonga leads you past some great national parks and reserves, spectacular free camps and charming country towns. It also gives you the opportunity to enjoy local beer, wine and produce from several farm gates between Tocumwal and Rutherglen. Welcome to Sun Country on the Murray, where the Mediterranean meets Victoria.
First stop is the Barmah National Park and a trip up the Murray with Kingfisher Cruises. The cruise takes off from the Barmah Lake Day Visitor area that’s accessed from Barmah. Turn left at the pub onto Moira Lakes Road and then follow the signs. A couple of hundred meters past the day visitor turn off is a track that leads to the Barmah Lakes Picnic and Camping Ground where there’s loads of room to enjoy a few relaxing days.
Benita was our captain and a very knowledgeable guide. Barmah Lakes is a RAMSA site with world significance, however, Barmah Lake is silting up at such a fast rate that it is estimated it will be a grassy plain within fifty years. We had to keep a lookout for kingfishers as we made our way slowly up the Murray Choke. Here, the Murray is at its narrowest point for 8km and so the water flows at just under double the speed as at Echuca, Swan Hill and Mildura.
We finally spotted one of the tiny kingfishers as we headed back to base. A stunningly beautiful bird, they are shy and very hard to spot. The trip back was quicker, going with the current, the river red gums watching over us. There are a plethora of snags, but Benita skilfully dodged all but four. I really enjoyed the tour and learned a little more about the mighty Murray River.
Heading back to Barmah, it was still a little early for a beer at the Barmah Hotel, so I jumped on the Picola-Barmah Road to see what I could find. The hamlet of Picola has a pub that serves counter meals and there is a nice picnic spot with clean amenities across the road. The long straight road leads to the Murray Valley Highway and I suggest turning left to head to Nathalia and check out the Barmah Forest Heritage & Education Centre.
This is also a good place to begin the Farm Gate Trail. Taking the Katamatite – Nathalia Road to Numurkah will lead you to Eden Farm Produce, a great place to stock your fridge and pantry with some biodynamic produce. Locheilan Farmhouse Cheese and Monichino Wines are nearby, and Cactus Country is in Strathmerton, to the north. Tocumwal is a favourite town of mine, just across the river in NSW, it has great camping along the river and the pub has a great beer garden, perfect in the warmer weather.
There are a couple more farm gates on the drive to Tocumwal, Kensal Estate Winery and The Big Strawberry. A little further south via the Benalla – Tocumwal Road is Katamatite Garlic, the best place to buy homegrown garlic in Australia. Cobram is another river town that is worth a visit. Jump aboard the Cobba Paddleboat and discover all the beaches and some awesome free campsites that dot this section of the Murray.
Just off the Murray Valley Highway on Campbell Road, you’ll find Manto Produce where you can buy a range of fruits and vegetables directly from the grower. Back on the highway and heading toward Yarrawonga is Byramine Homestead & Brewery, good for a spot of lunch and to explore the old homestead built in 1842.
Approximately 8km from Yarrawonga is Rich Glen Olive Estate. There is a farmgate store and café as well as beautiful gardens to just sit and relax. Just past Rich Glen is Forges Pump Lane that provides access to some spectacular free campsite along the river at Forges Beach No.1 and Forges Beach No.2. My timing was perfect with the sun beginning to set just as I finished setting up and I enjoyed dinner cooked on the fire as it warmed my feet.
I was awoken early by the birds, pelicans and whistling kites, cockatoos and crows as they welcomed the warming sun. I stopped in Yarrawonga for a coffee, sitting by Lake Mulwala as I sipped. Continuing along the Murray Valley Highway, I turned off at the Lower Ovens Wildlife Reserve and discovered some more cracking campsites along the banks of the Ovens River.
Warrabilla Wines is the most easterly Farm Gate and my favourite by far. If you like big, bold reds like me, then you must try winemaker Andrew Sutherland’s Durif. Warrabilla is also at the gateway to the Rutherglen Wine Region. One of Victoria’s premium wine growing areas, Rutherglen is famous for its Muscat but there is more to it than that, with over 20 award-winning wineries producing other varietals. No wonder I want to live here.
The historical town of Howlong is up the road and across the river and when I visited in autumn, was awash with colour. There is a self-guided walk around town and the ruins of the Howlong Flour Mill on the outskirts.
Back across into Victoria and a little further up the Murray Valley Highway is another amazing free camping area at Doolans Bend. I followed the track right to the end as there were a few caravans in the first section. I enjoyed the peace and quiet, camped alone perched right on top of the bank overlooking the river. A white-tailed water rat came out hunting for food as the sun went down, splashing amongst fallen logs in the river.
Next morning, I awoke to the sun beaming into my swag and mist rising from the water. The serenity was breathtaking as the coffee pot began to boil, steam filling the air. Cows in a nearby paddock mooed as they slowly grazed. This is the life and a great way to start a day. I was certainly in no rush to pack up, this was a great camp spot, but as I finally drove out of the reserve, I wondered what adventures I’ll get up to today.