After years of drought, the Darling River has surged to life, so now is the time to explore.
The definition of ‘iconic’ can be explained as being very famous or popular, especially with certain opinions or at a particular time. Now there are plenty of ‘iconic’ drives in our outback, but I reckon the Darling River Run should be up there with the best.
The Darling River, which happens to be the third-longest river in Australia, is well known for various reasons, from its poor health in recent times to thousands of years ago when the Barkindji people thrived along its shores. Our early explorers followed the river and used it as a base when seeking out new pastoral land, and in later times, the river was used as a transport system. Without water, expeditions couldn’t move forward or survive, so by following and using the Darling, they could expand into areas that haven’t been mapped out.
I’ve done this trek a few times, and it never disappoints. This time our starting point was in the beautiful town of Bourke. Charles Sturt passed through the area just before 1830 when he was looking for the inland sea and actually quoted in his log that the area would be unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man.
He was proven wrong. In subsequent years the region grew, and the river was used intensively for trade. In 1880 Bourke was the transport hub for south-west Queensland and western NSW, with bulk wool being transported down the river each year.
These days, Bourke is still a hub for travellers to top up with food and fuel before hitting the dirt and exploring the history around town. There’s plenty to see and do, including the Darling River wharf system, the centre lift bridge, outer stations and the majestic buildings with heritage listings in the central part of town. When we visited the river was in flood; unfortunately, a paddle steamer ride wasn’t possible.
Heading south from Bourke along the Darling River Road, we crossed through the stunning Gundabooka NP. There are options to explore remote campsites, hike out to Mt Gundabooka or even camp beside the river at nearby Yanda campgrounds with beautiful River Gums lining the Darling.
Signposted about 10km out of Gundabooka, right beside the road, is a crucial marker wherein 1829 explorer Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume discovered the Darling.
Our first stop was Louth, about 100km downstream from Bourke. It’s here that Henry Lawson wrote poems about drinking and partying – understandable when the only service here was the pub! The pub was a stopover for Cobb & Co coaches and the river trade back in the late 1880s. Today it’s still a great place for a stopover with Shindy’s Inn perched right on the riverbank. Plus, when the races come to town, there’s definitely plenty of partying.
Inside Shindy’s, the walls are packed with interesting items from decades gone by, pictures of massive floods and a few quirky tools. Don’t forget to visit the local cemetery where there’s a 7.5m granite monolith known as the Shining Headstone. Built by Thomas Matthews, who loved his wife so much he had the cross made, and it’s positioned in a way that on the anniversary of his wife’s death, the reflected light from the cross shines to the house where they once lived.
There’s plenty of camping at the pub or at nearby stations, but we opted to continue on our journey with the floodwaters rising. For most parts of the year, the roads along the river are in pretty good nick, but when it does rain, they get closed sooner than later because these are critical to locals and service providers.
Tilpa, located on the western side of the river, is a must-do for anyone in the area. This pub is one of those iconic spots where the beer is always cold, the meals are huge, and for a donation that goes to the RFDS, you can write your name on the inside walls, that’s if you can find a spot!
Established in 1894, as another service stop for the shallow draught paddle steamers, Tilpa is now home to the shortest heritage walk in Australia. Luckily, it’s just across the road from the pub, so you won’t get too thirsty. Our plan was to initially head all the way down the Darling and follow the flow from recent rains in far north NSW, but we decided to head across through the Paroo Darling floodplain to White Cliffs before the area was shut with the flood water moving south. It’s always a good run west across the plains and generally only takes a couple of hours.
White Cliffs has been a significant opal mining settlement since the late 1880s and today also thrives on the tourist trade. Visitors come to explore the area, and maybe finding a fortune in the rocks that date back to 100 million years ago when this area was covered by the ocean. This doesn’t happen often, but regardless it’s a pretty cool place to visit.
The town is surrounded by a pockmarked landscape with over 50,000 disused mines. There’s a heritage trail around the area where you can discover the old buildings, crazy and unique shanty mine dumps, and it even highlights areas where you can fossick for free. Mind you, it gets bloody hot here in summer, and that’s why the locals live underground, where the daily temps are pretty stable. Local Aboriginals never settled here for that reason (plus there’s no permanent water), but they did pass through heading towards the Darling River.
White Cliffs built its own power station in 1981, but they generate power from the sun with 14 dishes measuring 5 metres in diameter. The sun heats boiling water creating steam which powers an engine and generator. In past years it was closed down, but later in 2006 it was recognised as the worlds first solar power station and is now heritage-listed!
After a few days checking out White Cliffs, we headed back across towards the Darling River and Wilcannia. When the paddle steamers came up from South Australia, Wilcannia was deemed extremely important and soon became the third-largest port on the river and soon became known as the Queen City of the west. Once a major port along the Darling River, today, the town has heritage-listed buildings along the banks and through the town centre.
The town lists some amazing facts like in 1887, over 220 paddle steamers passed by, a brewery was built to service the passing trade, a customs office was built to gather taxes on passing trade, and it once had 13 pubs. Wilcannia has a heritage trail where 18 sites can be visited, including heritage-listed sandstone buildings dating back to 1880.
Included in the trail is the Wilcannia bridge built in 1896. Now closed off to traffic but restored and open to walkers, it’s one of only two remaining on the river (the other is on the Barwon River at Brewarinna). These centre lift bridges opened in the centre to allow paddle steamers to continue up and down the river. These bridges were technically sophisticated structures when built back in 1889. They required two men to wind a pulley mechanism to lift the spans – but this was later modified in 1913 so that only one person was needed to operate it. Today they are recognised as being of NSW State significance, heritage-listed as they contributed significantly to the social and commercial development of northwestern New South Wales and opened up the ‘back country’ in the late 1800s.
The final stint of our trip was to continue along the Darling southwards towards the Menindee Lakes 150km away. With the high northern rainfall in prior months, water flowed freely into the four lakes after being dry for nearly many years. Covering a staggering 475km2 and an estimated three times the size of Sydney Harbour, there are about 17 billion litres a day flowing into the lakes, swelling them towards capacity.
We were staggered to see the amount of water in the lakes covering the land for as far as we could see. There’s been controversy and blame for the mismanagement of this river and lake system lets hope lessons are learnt. The lakes were built in the 1950s-1960s to capture and retain floodwaters and to regulate water supply to Broken Hill, nearby mines, stock and irrigation use. Life is now returning back to the lakes with birds, fish, frogs and blue yabbies.
But before this, early explorers made this area their first port of call when travelling ups from Adelaide as it was a guaranteed water source from where they could refill and rest up for a few days before heading into the extreme country to the north. The first recorded Europeans that used this area as a lifeline was back in 1835 with expeditions that included Sturt, Mitchell and the infamous Bourke & Wills trip.
The whole area has a fascinating and inner beauty about it, whether you’re into the history, the outback way of life or just want to tick off another iconic drive, the Darling River will never disappoint.