Punkah Island Loop Trail (Chowilla) Riverland

This trail is a 2-day loop paddle around Punkah Island in the Chowilla Game Reserve starting and finishing at the Border Cliffs campground’s canoe launch site.

Paddle overview : Punkah Island

Punkah Island Loop Trail

Region Riverland
Nearest Town Paringa (265km from Adelaide)View in google map
Distance 29km return
Paddle Time Allow at least 2 days
Difficulty Easy – Moderate
Facilities Kiosk
Parking and Toilets
Conditions Visit BOM for weather conditions
Conditions Flatwater – see caution below
Parking Free parking with shady trees
National and recreation park link Chowilla game reserve


Even blue-tick telstra phone reception is unreliable in this area so satellite communication is recommended.
Overnight lightweight camping. Camping Permits available at National Parks and Wildlife Service at www.parks.sa.gov.au. Campsites need to be booked prior to arrival (see National Parks website). 

Note: be aware that access to campsites and tracks may be limited during periods of planned environmental flows of the river. Check alerts on National Parks SA website

National Parks will close Chowilla in high river levels because creek navigation becomes complex and the campsites become inundated.

For camping in Chowilla, a Trip Intention Form is required to be lodged with National Parks
Firewood must be carried in and fire regulations followed. 

Also the open season for duck hunting (designated dates in March through June) means that you may hear noise associated with hunting activities during those times (again check National Parks SA website for details).

NOTE: The “Shute” is recommended for experienced paddlers only. There is a risk of being forced against a fallen tree. Consider reconnoitring the Shute for obstacles on foot before starting. If the “Shute” is considered too hazardous for the skills of the group the alternative is to paddle upstream for approximately 1.5 kms to a portage point just before the 638 Km marker (Point W:  GPS: 33.9828 S; 140.9686 E).

There is a brief narrow, fast moving spot on Punkah Creek. Proceed individually and be careful not to be pushed into fallen trees at this point.

Trail Notes

Canoe Launch in Chowilla Game Reserve Border Cliffs campground
GPS: 33.9727 S; 140.9575 E

Paddle downstream to Suders Creek and enter the “Shute” (approximately 150m long). This is a fast-flowing, narrow creek (entered by leaving the main river on the right-hand side). The Shute connects the Murray River and Hypurna Creek. 

(NOTE: If the “Shute” is considered too hazardous for the skills of the group the alternative is to paddle upstream for approximately 1.5 kms to a portage point (watch for a small “portage” sign nailed to a tree) just before the 638 Km marker (Point W:  GPS: 33.9828 S; 140.9686 E). 

Portage into Hypurna Creek (approximately 75m) and then paddle back down to the junction of the “Shute”. This alternative route has an approximate distance of 2.2 kms in addition to the 75m portage.)

When you reach Hypurna Creek from the “shute” turn left and continue to the junction with Salt Creek (approximately 200m) at Point H (GPS:33.9711 S 140.9683 E). The stumps of an old footbridge can be seen in the water near this junction when the water is low.

Veer right into Salt Creek and continue to paddle along this waterway. You will notice that there are two branches of Punkah Creek that appear on the LHS approximately 4 kms and then again 750m later at Point J (GPS 33.9636 S 141.0016 E). 

Turn into either of these and head north about 3km to Point K (GPS 33.9427 S 140.9961 E). You will pass the old “scab inspectors” hut and nearby graves on the RHS but will not see them from the water (about 500m walk).

Camping is available nearby in the Littra campground.

The “Todd Obelisk” on the South Australian/ NSW border and the old coach road are located a 1.5km walk just north of Lake Littra.

From this point it is a 15km paddle to the next intersection which is with Slaney Creek at Point F GPS 33.9410 S 140.9326 E.

Turn left into Slaney Creek and travel 3.1km to the next junction at Point G GPS 33.9555 S 140.9531 E. Take the left-hand stream into Salt creek.

If you decide to go up the right-hand stream, fallen trees are blocking the stream and there is a difficult portage at the weir, so it is best avoided. 

Go along Salt Creek for about 2.9km and you will reach the junction with Hypurna Creek at Point H (GPS 33.9717 S; 140.9680 E). Turn right into this creek and paddle approximately 1.3km.  The portage point is marked by a rusted tin marker on your RHS at Point W (GPS 33.9828; S 140.9686 E).

This portage of 75m takes you back to the Murray River. Turn right and you will pass the Border Cliffs Boat ramp to reach the canoe launch.


picnicParkingCafeBBQToiletsWalking trails

Shady trees and toilet in the Border Cliffs reserve.
Kiosk at Customs House.
Grassy area, picnic table, BBQ at Customs House (ask permission for access)

Points of interest

  • Border Cliffs Customs House (GP 33.9745 S 140.9581 E)

Punkah Island Loop Trail (Chowilla)

The Customs House (under the Border Cliffs at Port Murtho) was originally established to take some control over the large volume of river craft travelling between various ports on the River Murray. New South Wales, which claimed the river as part of its colony, built customs houses at its state borders to impose duties on items being transported by river from Victoria and then from South Australia.  This caused much dissent and anger with other colonies and they too eventually established customs houses at state borders.

In January 1884 the SA Governor dispatched a party to establish a customs post on the SA/Vic border. On 8th April 1884, a reserve for a customs house to be known as Port Murtho was gazetted.  The Customs House was built by December 1884 at a cost of less than $1000 in current terms. The Customs House watched over river trade for about 20 years and was served by four customs officers in that time.

Legend has it that river-boat skippers objected to paying their way and often goods were smuggled over the state borders or dumped to avoid paying taxes. One skipper who objected to paying the then impost of 10 pounds as poll tax on his Chinese cook had the fellow walk through the scrub past customs, supposedly to rejoin the boat further upstream, however the cook never made it back to the riverboat – he was later seen working on a sheep station further north. 

At the time duty on a sheep was (in today’s money) 10 cents, pigs 50 cents, cows $2 and horses $4 – little wonder the skippers objected to paying! From time to time Customs Officers fired shots over the bows of passing steamers, whose skippers had ‘forgotten’ to call in and declare their loads.

In 1901, Federation brought an end to customs houses, free trade was allowed between states.  The advent of railways to river towns (especially in Victoria and NSW) saw the riverboat trade decline. In 1902, the Commonwealth Gazette announced The Customs House at Port Murtho in the State of South Australia was to close.

  • Border Cliffs Customs House Walking Trail
    (1 hours 30 mins return, 4km)

Located at the northern end of the Border Cliffs campground. Enjoy a one-and-a-half hour return walk from the car park and discover this special wetland system. Take the 350 metre detour to the lagoon and observe a variety of native birds including great egrets, superb fairy-wrens and white-faced herons.  Return to the main path and take-in excellent views of the Murray River sandstone cliffs in the distance.  

Along the way, watch for parrots, bats, possums, kookaburras, kangaroos, lizards and other wildlife.

If you have time there is a wet-land walk (approx 4 kms) extending into the Murtho forest. Water-birds abound. Ask at the Customs House kiosk for a copy of the trail guide.
See National Parks SA website for information.


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Paddling Trail South Australia has range of Paddling Trails to suit different abilities. These are easy to access kayak and canoe trails through the Adelaide, Fleurieu Peninsula, Riverland, Murray River and the Coorong.