The wild country: Sarah Siese cruises along the Murray River in south-east Australia on a houseboat, stopping each day to go on a guided hike We are clearly not the only ones to have the idea. As we reach the summit of the riverbank cliff face, a kangaroo and her joey are poised at the lookout point, staring at us and across the canopy as the sun creeps above the horizon. Located in south-east Australia, the Great Murray River stretches as far as the eye can see, with pockets of mist evaporating like a special effect in a film. My foggy breath drifts in the breeze, as do the groggy cries from pelicans. An awakening cackle from an Australian raven, punctuated by high chirps from the fairywren, means the morning is no longer still as a whistling kite floats past at eye level, checking out the Caspian tern. This event is so spectacularly special that I wonder why, apart from these rare occasions, I miss out on seeing a new day dawn. A sound interrupts my thoughts again. It’s my favourite call of all: the distinct song of a little rufous whistler. My walk along the Great Murray River began the day before at Hotel Renmark, where I collected my rucksack and picnic and met eight fellow guests. Our group includes a nurse, and a bunch of Australian retirees, the eldest of whom is a fun-loving, tough little lady aged 83. The September mornings are chilly so, despite the raging summer temperatures, I wear a base layer, fleece, puffer jacket, hat and gloves. He’s no botanist or naturalist but Drew, our 27-year-old guide, knows how not to get lost in the outback and is happy to share his local history knowledge. We hopped on to the cruiser for a one-hour glide before starting the eight-hour hike that ended at teatime when we reached High River – our home for the next three nights. These traditional Murray River houseboats offer the best of all worlds: spacious comfort, en suite bedrooms, complete silence and waking in situ for each day’s hike. It’s also a rare digital escape, with no Wi-Fi or phone signal for four days. Birdlife is possibly the biggest magnet for walkers and twitchers on board are thrilled by the iconic soundscape of the laughing kookaburra, crimson rosella and whistling kite, if a little disappointed that the exotic-sounding Major Mitchell’s cockatoo and tawny frogmouth owl remain elusive. We don’t see them but the echo of their reports rolls along the river magnificently. And in between the solemn stillness, the wild, sweet musical notes of the black swan are heard overhead. Amusement comes in the form of a rippling splash in the wake of a houseboat braking against the banks, momentarily disturbing the small mob of kangaroos debating whether to enter and a willie wagtail up on the cliff shaking his tail feather. In fact, it’s the birdlife that brings the colour to this arid zone, which has little variation in vegetation. Our walk is between locks five and six and we see intermittent dams and regulators to control water levels. Each morning we set off on a path marked by pink ribbons tied to black box and river red gum eucalyptus trees every few hundred yards, like a Hansel and Gretel escapade ever deeper into the forest. Disorientation is easy. The oxbow lake often befuddles walkers as it looks every bit like a flowing river. What you think could be the Murray is often a creek or tributary. I duck regularly to avoid the swaying edges of hanging eucalyptus bark and learn about the emu bush so loved for its seed. Grunting pelicans, disturbed by our walking, flap and launch their improbable undercarriages eastwards. We pause for tea and banana cake opposite a white- bellied sea eagle’s nest – it’s an escalating penthouse with a new storey built each year. The temperature rises in hot pockets and the springtime sunshine also brings out the ever-present snakes. Pausing to take in the scale of an ancient, giant eucalyptus, Drew picks up the shell of a long-necked water turtle, a show-and-tell which also marks the way back to the river. We learn the difference between wild pig and kangaroo scat and stop to look at a lace monitor lizard asleep in a tree. Everywhere, gigantic river red gums dominate the shoreline – you can guess their age as each metre of circumference equals a hundred years. Lunch is at Woolenook Bend, a campsite occupied during the Second World War between May 1942 and May 1945 by Japanese pearl divers who were interred and paid to cut timber for the pumping stations and river steamers. The remains of several wooden and iron buildings, constructed for the mess and kitchen areas, suggest a basic but calm life. The so-called scar trees that line the riverbank are mature eucalyptuses carefully selected by indigenous Australians who removed the bark for the creation of canoes and shelters. They’re among the easiest-to-find archaeological sites in Australia and I can see the deep cuts made with a stone pickaxe 200 years ago. Drew explains that tribes would wait for the wet season, choose the damper side and then ascend, carving out a template using just their toes for grip. A crafted builder could make two in one day. The rails of the canoes were only six inches high – pioneers of the stand-up paddleboard, perhaps. There are also remnants of false sandalwood brought from elsewhere to be burnt on the canoes at night – almost smokeless and bright, it reflects the backs of the river fish. My understanding of the river grows with each step. There is sick and injured wildlife and wild pigs who mess things up. There are trees hit by strikes of lightning and those that have simply drowned during high-water years. I have one more morning to take in springtime on the Murray as it comes to life. Water levels are rising from last winter’s rain and wetlands are filling. Purple pigface flowers carpet the floodplain and yellow, poached-egg daisies create mosaics of colour. Ducks are pairing to breed as excited frogs join our conversations.