Friday, January 4, 2013

Cruising on the river

Yesterday, for something different, I took my three girls and their friend, who holidayed with us for two nights this week, on a boat trip.

I've always associated boats and cruises with holidays away from home. We did a family holiday in Echuca back in 2010, and the riverboat cruising was the highlight of that, with all the kids (even then-infant C) loving it. For some reason, it's never really occurred to me to think about water experiences that don't involve swimming here at home. This is kind of odd, given that Melbourne is a bay city served by several rivers, one of the largest of which (the Maribyrnong) is close to my house.

So when a friend told me that she and her kids had done a Maribyrnong River cruise and really enjoyed it, I thought, why not? The prices are extremely moderate - $20 for adults and just $5 for kids - and all four girls were intrigued and enthused at the idea.

Thus we set off yesterday morning, heat beginning to rise (it would eventually peak at 37, although it didn't exceed 34 down on the cool river), to take a 2-hour tour on the Blackbird, a pleasure boat that has been touring Melbourne's rivers for 33 years.

I wasn't sure what to expect, or how well the four kids, aged 9. 8, 7 and almost 4, would handle the extended time cooped up on fairly small boat with nowhere to go, but as it turned out, I need not have feared. The cruise was wonderful, relaxing and engaging for all of us, and the first thing the kids asked when we eventually disembarked was whether we could do it again :-)

We stopped at the Footscray Market on the way and bought sweet Vietnamese rolls, croissants, strawberries, apples and cherry tomatoes to picnic on the boat, and this turned out to be a really smart idea. The boat's captain was cool with eating on board and the flow of snacking helped punctuate the trip nicely for the kids.

Once we were on, almost straight away, the feeling of stepping out of the everyday world began to take hold. I have seen the Maribyrnong River so many, many times - heck, I drove over it daily when I was still working in North Melbourne - but I've never seen it as part of it before, and it really looks different at water level.

The extremely knowledgeable captain provided a fascinating commentary as we glided upriver, pointing out landmarks that, again, I know from a different perspective - the Buddhist temple, Victoria University, the rendering and tanning plants (eugh) and so on. Hearing about the historical uses of the land, versus the attempted gentrified reuses now, was both entertaining and engaged my inner cynic - when former munitions dumps and waste facilities are turned into luxury housing, you *know* you've stepped through the looking glass.

The kids were very, very taken with going under bridges - especially the Vline train bridge, where, to our delight, a train thundered overhead as we slipped along below. C, my youngest, was fascinated watching the life of the water - ducks, swans, a few flashing fish, and the human life brought by the river; other boats (a few), fisher-people on the banks (a lot), people cycling or jogging along waterway paths, and even some swimmers. We passed through a stretch in Maribyrnong itself where we even saw several dogs cooling off in the water, an occasion for much delight from my canine-loving C.

One landmark that we went past was the wonderful Living Museum of the West at Pipemaker's Park. I have read so many good things about this place and somehow have unaccountably failed to take the kids there yet. Seeing it from the water, I am resolved to remedy that this summer.

I think that one of the best parts of the trip for me was getting to see the water-side life of houses of which I could only have seen the road side in other circumstances. I had no idea so many houses had little jetties, or densely treed backyards that make the settled side of the river look almost as wild as the unoccupied side. We even saw a tent and campsite in one steep backyard, right next to the river and boat dock. It was so appealing and gave me a real Wind in the Willows sort of feeling. After all, “there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

The kids all got to have a turn at steering the boat, with the captain's genial assistance, and on the way back, we all drifted into contented, dreamy silence, broken occasionally with a request for water (of which the boat was plentifully supplied, with a large icy cooler full of water to keep guests hydrated) or someone pointing out something they'd spotted.

I would heartily recommend this boat trip to anyone in Melbourne. It departs at 1pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and returns you to dock at Saltriver Place (near the Footscray Arts Centre) by 3pm. They also offer another cruise, at 4pm, in the other direction, towards Docklands (we have tagged that as a future family expedition, as my husband wants to come too!)

Overall - great fun, amazing value for money, very informative (I learned all sorts of things I didn't know before!) and a really relaxing way to spend time together.

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