By: Joanne Brookfield

Somehow, I’ve accidentally bought myself a sheep.

After an innocent scratch of my cheek is mistaken as a bid, the auctioneer yells “sold!” and his finger is pointing straight at me.

“What?! Which one did I buy?!” I ask of the ‘racing’ sheep on offer.

Auctioneer David tells me I can take my pick – Mo, Curly or Mullet.

With just enough fleece remaining to resemble a lion’s mane, and looking utterly ridiculous, I pick the amusingly named Mullet.

“He’s never won a race in his life!” David bellows, and my fellow travellers erupt in laughter.

We’re in a sheep-shearing shed in what feels like the middle-of-nowhere outback South Australia.

Big Bend, Murray River
The Big Bend on the Murray River

It’s actually Big Bend on the Murray River, and the Sunnydale Shearing Shed Show.

Father and daughter farming duo David and Mardi have just given us an entertaining insight into life on the land, including a sheep shearing demonstration, and we’re now experiencing the energy of a livestock auction.

Mullet will soon be pitted against Curly and Mo and will do me proud by winning the race.

Life as the owner of a champion is short-lived, however, as our cruise director made it clear when we alighted the ship that no sheep were to come back on board the Murray Princess: Alas, I must leave Mullet behind.

This stop at Big Bend, which included a barbecue dinner and bush-dance with the crew, is one of several on our itinerary as we glide along the Murray on a replica paddlewheeler.

Cruising along the Murray River
You can see many boats like this cruising along the Murray

I’m on board for the four-night Outback Heritage Cruise, although Captain Cook Cruises also offer three and seven-night packages to experience this scenic stretch of Australia’s longest river.

Often fondly referred to as the Mighty Murray, the river never fails to surprise and delight.

Abundant wildlife creates an ornithological soundtrack. A massive flock of cockatoos, busily swapping spots on the branches of the gums at the river’s edge, share the indecipherable details of their lives at great volume.

There’s said to be 350 bird species along here, and others opt for more gentle twittering, while an occasional cheep-cheep will peal out from within the weeping willows, and then a raucous squawk will tear apart the sky as a pair of galahs cross above.

Pelicans are literally everywhere, and when we moor overnight, they gather by the spotlights of the Murray Princess, which illuminate this largely untouched landscape.

Pelican on water
Bird lovers won't be disappointed with the abundant bird species who live along the river

An impressive palette

This is the Australia the bush poets wrote about: that distinctly sunburnt colour palette, trimmed with towering eucalypts and, for long stretches of our return voyage from Mannum to Blanchetown, spectacular limestone cliffs.

Time is an imprecise sculptor but there is beauty in these craggy forms, with millions of years of history layered in the horizontal lines that detail these impressive geological walls.

We learn more about the ancient and indigenous history of the region when we stop for a guided tour at Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve, where we can see fossils in the sandstone and rock carvings close up.

Over the four days, we’ve also had the opportunity to sample wines at a cellar door, explore the museums of Swan Reach, take a nocturnal wildlife tour and have a bush-tucker breakfast.

On board, options have included trivia, bingo and a documentary screening. In addition to planned activities, there’s plenty of free time to photograph the scenery from the many shaded decks or use facilities such as the spa, sauna and gym.

Cliffs along the Murray River
There are plenty of opportunities to take in the outback scenery

The Murray Princess, with its 60 comfortable cabins and state rooms in the process of refurbishment, is the largest stern-wheeler in the southern hemisphere.

There’s a games room and library, with views through the double-level windows to the impressive paddle wheel. A free souvenir coffee mug is part of the package, and allows you to access the 24-hour complimentary tea and coffee, given the bar closes at midnight.

Passengers are predominantly retirees, although a couple of teen-aged grandchildren have been treated to a family holiday on this trip, and we are encouraged to mingle over breakfast and lunch in the formal dining room.

The crew cannot be faulted for their friendliness. Presentations, such as the initial safety briefing, are all done with good humour and cruise director Mick Reid is especially quick with the quips, delivering a mini-comedy performance with each engagement, much to the delight of the laughing passengers.

And he had the entire room in fits when he hosted the ‘Murray River Cup’ after dinner one evening. It did make me wonder just what he would have said had I actually brought Mullet back on board.

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