Photo: SATC

In early November, Murray River Trails was crowned winner in the Ecotourism category at the 2021 South Australian Tourism Awards, as it has been every year since environmental scientist Tony Sharley started the business in 2016. The four-day walk meanders upstream beside the Murray from the town of Renmark, but follows no formed tracks. Instead, guides pick their way along animal foot pads or faint paths tracing the river’s edge, with each trip’s course as ephemeral as the river’s flow. Accommodation is on a houseboat that follows guests along the river. When they leave, there is no sign they were ever there.

But the environmental footprint is only one aspect of ecotourism. There needs to be a reason for people to visit a destination – a social, cultural or historical theme – and that reason needs to be communicated clearly, so they can take something away, and hopefully even give something back.

On the Murray River Walk, the theme is river stewardship, and guests learn the “life cycle” of Australia’s most famous river. Sharley says that after seeing the benefits to the environment of periodic high flows that break the banks and spill on to the floodplains, revitalising the river red gums and stimulating breeding for birds and fish, guests leave with a desire to take up advocacy for the waterway. “People develop [a sense of] ownership. If you don’t understand something you can’t care for it. That’s what ecotourism is.”

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