DAR­LING RIVER, NSW

Ron­nie fol­lows the Dar­ling River from Bourke to its junc­tion with the mighty Mur­ray.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TOS RON MOON

THE walk­ing trail winds over a low rock rise and then down the edge of a boul­der-strewn gully through an open for­est of na­tive pine and gum trees. While much of the grass had dried to a golden sand colour along the creek when we visited – in con­trast to the red and black rocks that dom­i­nated the scene – a thin strip of green in­di­cated water was still trick­ling down the brook amongst the sur­round­ing rocks.

The Mu­la­reenya Creek Art Site can be found at the track’s end, on the far side of the creek un­der an im­pres­sive and large rock over­hang. A view­ing plat­form gives you easy ac­cess and keeps reach­ing hands away from the del­i­cate an­cient art, which not only de­picts an­i­mal fig­ures, but dancers, hand sten­cils and hunt­ing tools.

The sur­round­ing creek and gorge area was once a sig­nif­i­cant Abo­rig­i­nal cer­e­mo­nial site, and once you have been there you can eas­ily un­der­stand why. In fact, the whole Gund­abooka Range, where this gorge and art site can be found, is still a highly sig­nif­i­cant place to the de­scen­dants of the Ngamba and Kurnu-baakandji peo­ple of western NSW, as it would have formed a rich oa­sis when the sur­round­ing plains would have been wracked with drought.

First seen and noted by Charles Sturt dur­ing his 1828 to 1829 ex­pe­di­tion, the Gund­abooka Range wasn’t taken up by pas­toral­ists un­til the late 1800s, when it was in­cluded in some of the large sur­round­ing pas­toral prop­er­ties. After WWI, these ex­ten­sive land hold­ings were sub­di­vided, and three sta­tions – Ben Lomond, Be­lah and Mul­go­wan – were estab­lished. In 1996, these sheep prop­er­ties were taken over by the state gov­ern­ment and united to form the Gund­abooka Na­tional Park.

In 2005, the ad­join­ing Gund­abooka State Con­ser­va­tion Area was founded and now links Gund­abooka NP with the even newer Toorale NP on the west side of the Dar­ling River. In all, the three parks pro­tect more than 1200km² of out­back coun­try wa­tered in­fre­quently by the Dar­ling River and its ephemeral flood­plain.

A small camp­ing area is lo­cated in the heart of the park at Dry Tank, where among the ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties is a five kilo­me­tre re­turn walk­ing trail to the top of Lit­tle Moun­tain. The nearby Ben­netts Gorge pic­nic area is a pleas­ant spot for a bar­be­cue and a won­der­ful spot for bird­watch­ing. The Val­ley of the Ea­gles walk, which starts here, is a fairly dif­fi­cult 5.7km re­turn walk ex­plor­ing the im­pos­ing Mount Gund­abooka, which rises about 500m above the sur­round­ing area.

Our lat­est jour­ney down the Dar­ling River had started the day be­fore at the his­toric town­ship of Bourke. This area of western NSW was first seen by Sturt in 1828, but lit­tle hap­pened here un­til Thomas Mitchell saw it in 1835. By the 1870s, the town was a trade hub for the re­gion and places fur­ther north and west, with paddle steam­ers thrash­ing their way north along the muddy, of­ten shal­low waters of the Dar­ling. The rail­way ar­rived in 1885, and in 1892 a young Henry Law­son ar­rived to get a taste of out­back life. Later bush po­ets, Harry ‘Breaker’ Mo­rant

and Wil­liam Ogilvie, ar­rived for the same rea­son. The town grew its rep­u­ta­tion as being on the edge of the out­back, and being out ‘the back of Bourke’ was seen as very re­mote and pretty darn close to the black stump.

Plagued by crime and Abo­rig­i­nal youth is­sues, there has been a con­cen­trated ef­fort by many peo­ple on both sides of the cultural di­vide to im­prove the town of Bourke, and I have to say we en­joyed our lat­est foray there. The Back O’ Bourke Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre is worth a visit, while a trip on the lo­cal paddle steamer is al­ways en­joy­able.

Just south of the town and ac­cessed via the River Road is Fort Bourke, built by Mitchell back in 1835 when he and his men feared an at­tack by lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nals. You can visit this site to­day, but it is ac­cessed via a pri­vate track and you need a key to the gate, which is avail­able from the lo­cal tourist of­fice.

Louth, a lit­tle fur­ther south along the River Road from the camp­ing ar­eas in Gund­abooka, is a small com­mu­nity of less than 100 peo­ple, and that’s in­clud­ing the nearby prop­er­ties. The town traces its be­gin­nings

back to 1859, when a pub was built here to ser­vice the pass­ing paddle steamer trade. To­day, the pub is still the heart and soul of the place.

The town is fa­mous for its out­back races held each year in Au­gust, as well as the unique cross-shaped head­stone, which re­flects the evening sun­light and is now a de­clared na­tional mon­u­ment. We threw down our swags on the ver­dant grass be­hind the pub, close to the river. Not want­ing to stretch our­selves too much, we opted for a few cold beers and a meal in the cool con­fines of Shindy’s Inn, as the pub is called these days.

The next morn­ing we checked out the free camp­ing on the west side of the river (Louth has one of two bridges across the river be­tween Bourke and Wil­can­nia), be­fore cruis­ing south where quite a num­ber of red kan­ga­roos watched us from the side of the road, while emus ran around like chick­ens with their heads cut off. How one or more of them didn’t end up spread across our bull­bar, I’m not sure. We stopped in at the even smaller set­tle­ment of Tilpa, where the sec­ond bridge across the river gives ac­cess to the tin shed of a friendly pub.

South from here, the River Road passes through a sec­tion of the Pa­roo-dar­ling

Na­tional Park, with

this sec­tion cen­tred on the old Wilga Sta­tion. This 1780km² park is dis­jointed and has only one of­fi­cial camp­ground, that being in the Wilga sec­tion at the Coach and Horses Camp­ground, which isn’t far from the old home­stead, on the river bank.

We know this sec­tion of the park very well, hav­ing hunted pigs on it for many years be­fore it be­came a park, but ac­cess is well-re­stricted these days to the camp­ing area. So not want­ing to be dis­ap­pointed and pre­fer­ring to re­mem­ber it as it once was, we pushed on.

At the out­back town of Wil­can­nia, we filled up with fuel, bought a few things from the poorly-stocked store, checked out a cou­ple of the old his­toric build­ings that line the main street, and then con­tin­ued south, stick­ing again to the east side of the river. The gravel and graded road was much the same as be­fore and it only rarely de­gen­er­ated into a well-used and nar­rower track. It can be cor­ru­gated and chopped-up in some ar­eas, de­pend­ing on what the weather has done and when the graders were out last.

We pulled up for the night on the edge of Menindee Lakes, find­ing our­selves a camp not far from where the Burke and Wills ex­pe­di­tion had set up a ma­jor camp back in the 1860s. Water was pour­ing into the lakes from the Dar­ling, bring­ing life­giv­ing suc­cour to these huge man-made, or at least mod­i­fied, pools that act as a vast shal­low reser­voir for Bro­ken Hill, less than 100km away.

The next morn­ing, we went ex­plor­ing to see how many of the lakes were fill­ing (it is all con­trolled by weirs and gates these days) and we were pleas­antly sur­prised at how much water had al­ready flooded into the sys­tem. Herons and pel­i­cans pad­dled around in the stirred-up waters, wait­ing to feed on any stunned fish be­low each of the weirs. Copi Hollow, one of 10 lakes that flood from the Dar­ling and prob­a­bly the small­est of the lot, has long been the hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion of choice for many Bro­ken Hill res­i­dents. It was brim­ming with water and, even with­out any more in­flows, the lakes will have water in them for a num­ber of

years, which is great news for lo­cals and vis­i­tors.

Four of the lakes a lit­tle fur­ther south-west are in­cluded in the ex­pan­sive Kinchega NP that takes in the old Kinchega Sta­tion, which once cov­ered one mil­lion acres and ran 143,000 sheep. We wan­dered the back roads of this out­back park, check­ing out the im­pres­sive wool­shed that has seen more than six mil­lion sheep lose their wool here over its 97-year history. The shed was once twice the size it is now and han­dled 64 shear­ers.

There are a cou­ple of camp­grounds in the park – one on the edge of Lake Cawndilla, which is a de­light when there is water in the lakes, and an­other camp is closer to town on the edge of the Dar­ling River where it pours into Lake Menindee. Still, we pre­ferred our camp on the edge of Lake Pa­ma­ma­roo out­side the na­tional park.

The next stop on our River Run was at the small town of Poon­carie, where the Poon­carie Ho­tel has been a long-time favourite for a cold beer and a meal. Nearby, there’s a va­ri­ety of spots to throw down the swag or pull up the camper, while the seg­re­gated ceme­tery is wor­thy of a wan­der.

The fol­low­ing day we drove into Went­worth, where the Dar­ling joins the mighty Mur­ray. The town, the big­gest we had seen since leav­ing Bourke, owes its ex­is­tence to being an im­por­tant camp on the over­land route for drov­ing cat­tle be­tween NSW and Ade­laide back in the 1830s and 1840s.

First known as Haw­don’s Ford, it was later called Dar­ling Junc­tion be­fore tak­ing on its Went­worth moniker in 1859, by which time it was the most im­por­tant paddle steamer port on the two rivers.

This is where our river-run down the Dar­ling ended, but it was one we en­joyed so much it prob­a­bly won’t be the last. Give it a go: it’s a great out­back trip, whether you have done it many times be­fore or it’s your first ex­cur­sion to Bourke and the Black Stump.

Don’t be sur­prised if you bump into a few red ’roos in this area.

WE EN­JOYED THE RIVER RUN SO MUCH, IT PROB­A­BLY WON’T BE THE LAST The walk­ing track into the art site is a bit scram­bly in places.

The In­dige­nous art and lo­cal history are wor­thy at­trac­tions.

For an early morn­ing coffee, stop at the Tilpa Ho­tel. Mon­u­ments pay homage to his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant events.

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