The area defined as the Murraylands corresponds broadly with the Murray Lands Statistical Division of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but also includes an area of pastoral country extending north of the Statistical Division into the Olary Uplands traversed by the Barrier Highway between Peterborough and Broken Hill.
The region embraces three distinct types of country. North of the River Murray is a semi-arid and very sparsely settled area mainly devoted to pastoralism or conservation parks. South and east of the river is the region known as the Murray Mallee, a lightly settled grain farming and sheep rearing zone. Although occupying only a small portion of the total area, the outstanding physical feature on the map is the trench of the River Murray itself, together with adjacent irrigated uplands.
The South Australian section of the Murray Valley has two distinct parts. Downstream from Overland Corner the river occupies a narrow trench one to two kilometres wide and bordered by cliffs 30 to 40 metres high. Upstream from Overland Corner to the State borders with New South Wales and Victoria, the valley floor is considerably wider and the cliffs more subdued.
The entire area had a population of some 47,900, or 3.7% of the State total, in 1981. The area produced about 14% of the value of the State's farm output in 1981, a year of above-average rainfall. In the severe drought year of 1982 the figure was still 13% testimony to the stabilising effect of the irrigation areas which produce about two-thirds of the region's output. Rainfall varies from a mean of about 390 mm at Lameroo in the south to 250 mm in the Riverland, and is less than 200 mm in the northern pastoral zone.
The Murray Mallee
The Murray Mallee district is underlain by highly calcareous bedrock of Miocene age which has been masked by more recent deposits. These include a series of east-west trending sand dunes deposited during the earlier more arid climate. Between the dunes are broad flats of sandy loams and clay loams which give way in places to flat expanses of calcrete or sheet limestone. Until late in the nineteenth century, the region was covered with a dense mallee scrub with grassy openings. Today mallee remains only along roadsides, in the conservation parks, and on some of the dunes and calcrete areas.
Pastoral leases were first taken up in the 1850s along the River Murray. After 1860, underground water suitable for stock was located at depths of 50 to 70 metres. A sparse and not very profitable pastoral occupation spread inland on to the grassy openings, with wood-fired steam pumps operating on wells.
Major landscape changes followed the opening of the Lameroo-Pinnaroo district to wheat farmers in the 1890s. Early in this century the drier parts of the region south of Loxton and Waikerie were taken up by grain farmers, who were further encouraged to clear more scrub by the high wheat prices and good seasons of the early 1920s. Dust storms and drifting sand characterised the 1930s and 1940s, but these became less frequent with the stabilisation of dunes with cereal rye in the 1950s and the reduced frequency of tillage as medic pastures were incorporated into farm rotations. The term 'Mallee Battler' refers to those long-established farming folk, many of German descent, who have tenaciously survived the hardships of frequent droughts and fluctuating prices. There has been much farm consolidation and rural depopulation over the last forty years. Some farmers now own two or more separate farms. Increasing numbers live in the towns and drive out by car to work their properties.
The River Murray
The River Murray flows for 650 kilometres in South Australia, but falls only about 20 metres between the Victorian border and its mouth near Goolwa. Its present valley was cut below the regional land surface during the Quaternary lowerings of the sea level. The sea level has since risen more than once, and the valley floor has been covered with a considerable thickness of alluvium. The modern floodplain, with its lagoons, levees, swamps, flats and anabranches, is a distinctive landscape which had a particularly rich plant and animal life before European settlement.
The food resources of the Murray and its lakes supported a sizeable Aboriginal population. There may have been as many as 5000 people at the time of Sturt's journey in 1830. Smallpox and other epidemic diseases are thought to have caused massive depopulation soon after European contact.
From 1887 irrigated fruit and vine crops were grown, and since the 1940s the river has been increasingly important as a source of urban and farm water supply.
Early in the twentieth century locks and weirs were built to improve navigation and irrigation. Below Morgan most of the valley floor land has been inundated and now contains many dead river red gums. The better soils from Mannum southwards have been reclaimed for dairy farming behind earthen flood banks, and are irrigated by gravity sluices. This area makes an important contribution to the Adelaide summer milk supply.
The Riverland district upstream from Morgan depends on pumping water right out of the river alley to irrigate the higher land around it. About 22,000 hectares of irrigated horticultural land support some 2400 growers on blocks of 8 to 20 hectares. Farms are typically 'fruit salad bowls' with about 50% planted in vines for dried fruit, wine-making or table grapes; about 40% in citrus trees; and 10% in peaches and apricots. Almonds and vegetables, especially tomatoes for juice extraction, are also grown.
The tradition of labour-intensive horticulture on small blocks, which was fostered by Commonwealth and State governments in their soldier settlement schemes after two World Wars, has been slow to adjust to changing market conditions. As the original block-holders have retired many of their places have been taken by growers of Italian, Greek and Yugoslav origin, who have reduced operating costs by using family and communal labour, thus postponing the process of farm amalgamation which has proceeded over the last thirty years in most other farming areas in the State.
With fluctuating demands for the Riverland's wine grapes in recent years, and competition in Australia's traditional markets for dried and canned fruit, some sectors of the Riverland economy have been under stress. The physical basis of the economy is also under threat. The problems of sub-soil salinity are probably more acute in the Riverland than in most other Australian irrigation areas. They require careful management, including wider adoption of low-level sprinklers and drip irrigation. In the past, drainage from the irrigated farms has been to embanked evaporative basins on the river flats here the saline waters have killed nearly all the trees, and seriously threatened salinity levels for metropolitan water supplies.
Of the five Riverland towns, Renmark (population 3475) is the oldest, dating from the Chaffey brothers' settlement in 1887. Berri (3419) is the industrial administrative centre of the district, with a fruit-juicing plant, large fruit cannery, and the largest single winery and distillery in Australia. Barmera (2014) originated from the State-sponsored irrigation scheme after the First World War, and is now widely know for water sports at Lake Bonney Riverland. Loxton (3100) served the dry farming lands to the south from 1895, and irrigation development since the Second World War. Waikerie (1629) began as a co-operative village settlement in the 1890s and expanded after the Second World War with the Golden Heights, Ramco Heights and Sunlands irrigation projects.
For most of its length, the River Murray is a significant recreation and tourist resource, catering for picnicking, water-skiing, power boating, fishing, house boating, ship cruising and yachting. The southern sector is popular with day trippers from Adelaide; the Riverland, for longer stayers. The most popular aquatic centre is the 1600 hectare Lake Bonney Riverland at Barmera. House boating has grown rapidly in popularity among those attracted by a novel form of holiday, the calm weather and the solitude.