Everyone’s heard of the Colorado River’s famous horseshoe bend, with its sweeping torrents carving through rich orange rock as the river does a 180-degree turn back on itself forming a natural horseshoe bend. The superficial features of this river are explicitly associated with American landmarks, but what about Australian ones?
In Australia, in a tiny forgotten corner of the Murray River’s long flow exists Australia’s own horseshoe bend. It may lack the size and tight curvature of America’s bend, but by no means is it any less spectacular. Referred to as the ‘big bend’, you can find it on any google search if you scroll through enough pages – content relating to this Australian landmark starts to appear at around page seven. It signifies the location of the highest cliffs of the Murray River and also boasts the unique appearance of an ‘S’, whereby the river curves back on itself twice, although this can only be seen from the sky. However, a horseshoe bend can be seen when standing atop the cliffs.
The cliffs, with their red limestone face and an extensive view of the landscape stretching out for 100’s of kilometers, are spectacular. To further the beauty of this location, it also plays host to a large swathe of wildlife. The cliffs are home to a large colony of bats, 1000’s of members strong. Large flocks of Pelicans and many other birds spend their days gliding and paddling across the water’s surface looking for fish. At night, owls are a constant presence, with many all-too-keen to have a nosy at what’s cooking on the fire, and accompanied by kangaroos that warily look from a distance. If you look close enough at the river you can see the mouths or spines of fish breaking the surface. It’s no wonder this area is so revered by the local aboriginal community, the Meru, whom consider it sacred, and whose markings can be seen on the walls of caves in the area.
Where can I find it?
Just a short drive from Nildottie, about a two and a half hour drive from the closest airport in Adelaide, this marvel has laid hidden from many people, even few locals know of it. Despite this, it’s not all that difficult to find. There’s only 3 or 4 turns when driving from Adelaide and smooth, paved roads, on which you can drive 110km/h, stretch all the way to the big bend.
All major GPS’s have it listed and this is the easiest way to find it. Although, there’s some issues with this. When driving from Adelaide, note that the cliffs that define the uniqueness of the area, are on the right-side of the river, whereas a flat and relatively barren landscape stretches out to the horizon on the left-side. Before departing you need to decide whether you want to camp at the base of the cliffs staring up at them on the left-side or nestle on top of the cliffs on the right-side. Make sure you don’t get caught on the wrong side of the river because the only way to get to the other side of the river is on a ferry about 60km away in Mannum.
Another warning to heed; make sure to type in the ‘Big Bend Lookout’ in google maps and not the ‘big bend’ because the second option will take you to the front doorstep of some less than approachable characters, whom do not take too kindly to strangers coming up their driveway.
What are the campsite options?
There are two options; either set up camp in the bush or hire a campsite. One option is not strictly illegal, but you may be asked to move on, whereas the other one will see no such issues but is a distance from the actual cliffs. This next section is based on personal preference.
Setting up camp on the big bend is the most visually appealing option. Just off the road, hidden away in the dense shrubbery, exists a rocky outcrop stretching about 30 meters back from the cliffs. The outcrop is relatively flat and makes an ideal area to sleep for the night and awake to the rising sun. While it’s hard to divulge if this is a designated campsite, there is no signage nor recognizable laws that would forbid such a location being your temporary campsite for the night. The nearest police station is about 60km away, along kangaroo riddled roads and on a slow ferry ride, in Mannum. You are not going to see any police in this area.
If formalities are more your thing, a few verified campsites exist in Nildottie, about 5 mins from the ‘big bend’. There’s a site that provides power for a small fee and a free one that offers nothing more than a place to set up camp, but gives you the comfort of knowing that you will not be awoken by a spotlight vigilante demanding you vacate the area. If you’re expecting to spend a little longer here and wanted something a bit more luxurious than a tent and a log, and aren’t afraid to pay a bit more money, numerous holiday shacks dot the banks of the river and can be rented for as long as desired. They start at around $150 AUD and summit at $750 AUD a night.
It’s an amazing location to watch the sunset, not so much the sunrise!
Sticking to my usual routine, I got up at 6 am to watch the sunrise, expecting the first light to illuminate the valley with a rich orange glow; as the sun rises, all manner of creatures begin to stir. There is the typical reflection of the sun off the water as the fog slowly dissipates giving way to another amazing day. This is what I was expecting, or at least something of the sort. What I got was darkness. For you see, the location of the cliffs coupled with the trajectory of the suns path means that the cliffs hide the river and much of the valley from experiencing the magnificent morning rays.
There was life stirring; birds were flying; fish were swimming; kangaroos were hopping. It was great to know that, at least, this much of what I had hoped for occurred. But as great as it was to know that it’s happening, it’s hard to truly value it if it occurs in darkness. Essentially, the sun rises in the completely wrong direction. It rises in the south and sets in the north and the cliffs run perfectly parallel to this, from West to East. It was a bit of a disappointment.
On the other hand, this slight dilemma that befell me means that sunsets are extraordinary because the sun sets directly parallel with the cliffs. And it is magical, you can even sit there and watch as a line of darkness slowly creeps down the face of the cliff and eventually meets its base. There is something relaxing about such an experience and one that should not be missed. Just remember to pack a lunch, sleep in and have a great day exploring the amazing area until dusk.