BACK 'O' BOURKE
If you like red dirt - go for it!
Here are two routes through Outback NSW that give visitors an excellent impression of this river country that has supported Aboriginal tribes and white pastoralists for eons.
NSW properly begins at the Darling River town of Bourke. From there we’ve selected a choice of routes: the shorter trip runs down the Darling, through
Wilcannia and Menindee to Lake Mungo; and the longer route heads west through Wanaaring to Tibooburra and the Corner Country, before heading south
east to join the shorter route at Wilcannia.
The relatively easy drive from Bourke, down the Darling River to Wentworth is a trip through Australian pastoral history. Side trips to White Cliffs and to Kinchega and Mungo national parks make the trip even more rewarding.
The Bourke to Wilcannia drive used to be a horror trip, but today the dirt and gravel surfaces are usually pretty well maintained. The roads are closed quickly in wet weather and that prevents rut damage. In dry weather you can easily complete this run in a softroader, provided you keep speed to less than 80km/h maximum, to minimise tyre stress.
You can avoid disappointment on the Darling River trip if you don’t expect to see the river all the time. Mostly, the road runs well away from the River, to ensure it’s not quickly inundated during times of flood. Also, pastoral properties are sited on much of the river-bank land.
There’s bush camping at many river-bank sites along the Bourke-Wentworth road.
The Barwon, the Culgoa, the Bogan and the Bokhara blend to become the Darling River just north of Bourke, forming Australia’s longest river, but when Charles Sturt passed through the district in 1828, during a period of drought, he thought that the whole area was ‘unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man’.
Sir Thomas Mitchell arrived in 1835, after better seasons, and constructed a fort 13km south of the town site.
The confluence of large rivers north of Bourke meant that paddle steamers could navigate the river most of the time, opening up pastoral country, before the coming of the railroad to the Outback. The first river boat arrived in Bourke in 1859, when Captain W R Randall sailed the ‘Gemini’ up the Darling River from South Australia.
Bourke became the transport centre for southwest Queensland and western NSW for decades, as river boats were the most efficient way to transport wool to coastal ports. In the late 1800s some 40,000 bales of wool were being shipped down the Darling annually. The last commercial riverboat made its run in 1931.
Bourke’s heritage is immortalised in poetry and song, and Henry Lawson lived in the town for some time.
There are many beautiful old buildings in Bourke, so make sure you have time to check out the history of the place.
The next significant stop down the Darling is the hamlet of Louth, with a population that rarely exceeds double figures. Louth was little more than a boat whistle stop in 1859 when T A Matthews built a pub to cater for the passing river and land-based trade. Louth was also a stopover on the Cobb & Co run and Matthews' son was a coach driver.
Today, Louth is best known for the famous Louth Picnic Races, held on the first Saturday after the August bank holiday. The town’s population during this annual event swells into the thousands and amber fluid is consumed in vast quantities. Attendance is not for the faint-hearted.
Louth’s entry in Australian history notes that, on a nearby property in 1888, mechanical shears were used for the first time anywhere in the world. The occasion warranted a visit by the Governor of New South Wales.
There’s a low-level river crossing at Louth, if you want to try driving on the western bank for a change, but the road passes closer to the river more often on the eastern side.
The next riverside pub is the Royal, at Tilpa, where there’s a weir and a high-level river crossing. The town’s claim to fame is being cut off by flood waters for a record five months, back in 1956. It’s also the only town with a memorial that mentions ‘Breaker’ Morant – officially disgraced after a questionable court martial and death sentence during the Boer War.
From Tilpa it’s possible to detour on reasonable roads to the west, intersecting the Wanaaring-Wilcannia Road and traveling south through the Paroo-Darling National park to White Cliffs. A highlight of this opal mining town is staying at an underground motel, originally formed from vacated mining claims.
Wilcannia has a caravan park situated on the banks of the Darling River and a main street lined with historic sandstone buildings. A short drive or walk around town is a good way to see the old sandstone buildings, the historic centre-lift bridge and the cargo wharf.
Wilcannia was the third largest shipping port in Australia – Echuca on the Murray was the largest Australian port at one time.
Unfortunately, the town has a poor reputation, thanks to unruly behaviour by some indigenous people, in contrast to the traditional Aboriginal craftsmen and women in Wilcannia who still practice their beautiful workmanship today.
The Darling River road continues southwest to Menindee from a right turn south of Wilcannia. This section of the road is rougher than the northern sections.
The Menindee Heritage Trail is a well-graded detour from the town into Kinchega National Park, to the Kinchega Woolshed, original homestead site and remains of the paddle steamer ‘Providence’. There’s a walk at Pamamaroo and Wetherell lakes, taking in the Burke and Wills Expedition site.
Menindee Lakes provide conditions for water skiing, sailing, safe swimming and fishing. There’s motel accommodation and camping in Menindee, or bush camping in Kinchega National Park, along the banks of the Darling River or shores of Lake Cawndilla.
Kinchega isn’t the prettiest national park, but it’s interesting for its arid nature.
Pooncarie is the next stop, on the Menindee-Wentworth road. This tidy town is in the middle of a pretty rough dirt commute between Menindee and Wentworth, but is well worth a visit. Pooncarie boasts a friendly pub, a general store, service station and a beautiful riverside camping area.
A detour via the northern end of Mungo National Park is an alternative to staying on the Darling River road. The road from Pooncarie to the top of Lake Garnpung was in terrible condition when we last drove it. The original clayed surface was breaking up or had vanished in most places, but by keeping the speed down to 40-60 km/h we managed to pick a safe path through the bulldust hazards. The locals had poked tree branches into the biggest holes, marking them for avoidance.
An alternative route is the southern entrance to Mungo, via Top Hut.
The oldest Aboriginal evidence
NSW’s Mungo National Park is well known, but not so well known is its connection with the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. By travelling to Mungo National Park from the north you journey to Lake Mungo via the original water course that once connected a lake system more than 100 kilometres in length.
There’s not much publicity given to the Willandra Lakes area, despite its World Heritage status, and there are no tours outside the Mungo National Park boundary. Also the access roads at the north end of Willandra Lakes are decidedly unkempt, compared with the well-graded dirt access roads south of Lake Mungo that lead to Mildura and Balranald.
The turnoff south to Willandra Lakes is well signposted and the road surface is better.
A hint of the lake country ahead is provided by the outfall of Willandra Creek near Balmoral Station. The Creek spills onto a small lake bed in a model of the water flow patterns of ages gone.
The dry expanse of Lake Garnpang runs to the horizon, with shimmering white sand hills to the east and red ridges to the west. Just as at Lake Mungo, the white sandhills are the eroding ancient beachfront and the red ones are the encroaching sands, driven by the prevailing west winds.
It’s easy to imagine this vast expanse of saltbush covered by metres of water, lapping the fertile shores that were once home to thousands of Aborigines. Today the former lake system is arid, reliant for its moisture on occasional rain showers and soaks.
The twin-tyre track runs across Lake Garnpang for more than 12 kilometres, before climbing the sand ridges that separate Lake Garnpang from Lake Leaghur - noticeably drier than its more northern neighbour. A narrow sand mound separates Lake Leaghur from Lake Mungo.
Having seen the expanse of lakes to the north of Lake Mungo it’s easy to appreciate how significant this area is as a record of human occupation of Australia. The continually eroding eastern shores of the lakes give an ongoing picture of life as far back as 60,000 years ago, including the oldest recorded human cremation.
From Mungo you can return to the sealed Pooncarie-Wentworth Road, or take the well-graded dirt road to the city of Mildura. Wentworth is a beautiful river-bank
town with good camping, motels and excellent pub food.
The long blow
long Cut Line drive from Bourke to Tibooburra serves well to illustrate the vastness of this brown land.
Tibooburra is the aboriginal word for ‘heaps of rocks’ and there could hardly be a more appropriate name for the town. For 25,000 years the Wangkumara and Maljangapa groups have roamed through this rocky region.
The explorer Sturt was followed by Burke and Wills, who passed through the district on their ill-fated expedition in 1860.
Today, Tibooburra is home to the most remote Outback School of the Air location and is the only one that doubles as a face-to-face school.
The Museum is well worth visiting, as are the old drive-in cinema and the NPWS office in the restored court house. The Family Hotel is best known for its Clifton Pugh murals.
A two-day drive circuit from Tibooburra heads out to the three-State border at Cameron Corner, returns to Middle Road, runs east to the Jump Up Loop Road and then south back to Tibooburra. There are camp grounds with gas BBQs, water and drop dunnies at Fort Grey and Olive Downs, or you can stay at the Corner Store.
Not far south of Olive Downs camp ground is one of the highlights of the Corner Loop drive: the road crests a rocky ridge in the Grey Range and opens up a vista of the Jump Up country.
Our suggested route runs south from Tibooburra to Milparinka. This town’s name is a corruption of the local Aboriginal word for ‘water may be found here’ and the nearby waterholes have been frequented by wandering Aborigines for thousands of years.
The explorer Charles Sturt was the first white man to pass through the area, in 1845, on his way to find the anticipated inland sea. Sturt was forced to camp at nearby Depot Glen for six months, awaiting drought-breaking rain to replenish his depleted water supplies.
During this enforced stay Sturt’s second in command, James Poole, died of scurvy and was buried beside a grevillea that still bears the blaze mark and the initials ‘JP’.
The township at Milparinka was established, like so many other bush centres, as the result of a gold strike. Today, the most prominent remaining buildings are the Albert Hotel and the fully restored court house and police barracks. One of the banks still stands in the main street.
From Milparinka our route leads down the Silver City Highway to the White Cliffs turnoff and thence to White Cliffs.
Outback NSW offers a blend of desert, lake and river bank scenery, pastoral land and Aboriginal and white settlement history. Make the trek during the cooler months, don’t rush and you’ll love it.
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