Bourke, Outback NSW
© Simon Bayliss
Article in Australian Caravan & RV Magazine
One of the great things about travel is the 'shared experience' and there is no better example than sitting down during our much-loved happy hour to share our experiences of where we have been and where we are going.
Chatting and bonding over travel is a true joy and a question often asked about a destination is: "Would you return there or redo the journey?"
Back to Bourke
Interestingly, many great journeys and destinations are good once, but only a special few are worthy of a repeat performance. Some places can touch our soul in a way that a return visit, while familiar, still excites us as we discover new aspects to enjoy and reacquaint ourselves with the elements we enjoyed so much during the initial visit.
For many travellers, Bourke is one such place and a happy hour chat with fellow RVers confirms the notion that the region touches the soul of many to such a degree that they come back time and time again.
... the region touches the soul of many...
Often referred to the as the "gateway to the outback", Bourke is located on the banks of the Darling River at the crossroads of the Kidman Way and Kamilaroi Highway.
Bourke makes a perfect stopover when doing the Darling River Run, and is located on the western side/route of one of the most iconic Outback NSW touring routes.
Steeped in explorer, pastoral and indigenous history, the region has always had a lot to offer the traveller and, like many outback destinations, Bourke realises that a town can't rest on its past. Today's travellers seek not only a great place to stay, but somewhere that offers unique and evolving experiences. Bourke has come along in leaps and bounds in this regard as it's truly a place for an extended stay and not just an overnighter while enroute to somewhere else.
Henry Lawson & Bourke:
"If you know Bourke, you know Australia" is emblazoned across the front of the Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre and is a quote from our famous bush poet, Henry Lawson, who spent a lot of time in the area in the late 1800s. His adage not only sums up Bourke and Australia, but our intrinsic connection to the outback and its relevance to the fabric of Australian culture. In 1892, Lawson was given £5 (about $4500 in today's terms) and a one-way ticket to Bourke by the editor of the Bulletin magazine, F.J. Archibald. For nearly a year, he worked and wrote around the region, penning some of his most iconic works about outback Australia in the latter part of the 19th century. It was an area he loved.
"If you know Bourke, you know Australia"
But before Lawson, our early explorers were much less enamoured by Bourke. Charles Sturt passed through the region in 1828 and noted that the whole area was "unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man". Despite referring the Darling as a "noble river", the area was experiencing severe drought and his report, when he returned to Sydney, did nothing to encourage settlement.
Several years later in 1835, Major Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor General, went to Bourke and established a fort about 10km south of the current site of the town. Unlike Sturt, Mitchell encountered a lot of hostility from local Indigenous groups, hence the fort and, upon his return to Sydney, described the Aborigines there as " implacably hostile and shamelessly dishonest"; contrary to the accounts of others and further limiting early interest in settling the area.
Darling River Paddle Steamers:
By the mid 1800s, with the drought broken and the river in full flow, the fortunes of the upper Darling were forever changed when Captain W. R. Randall navigated his paddle steamer, the PV Gemini, up the Darling from South Australia all the way to Brewarrina. His achievement provided the realisation that the river could become a vital transport route that could open up the outback for pastoral activities by providing an essential link from remote farms to the shipping ports in Adelaide and Melbourne (via Echuca on the Murray which was linked by road and rail to the port of Melbourne).
By the late 1800s, wool was king and over 40,000 bales of wool were shipped down the Darling annually and, primarily, onto England. At its peak during the 1890s, Bourke was servicing over 80 paddle steamers per day and, along with ports at Wilcannia and Wentworth, became the focus of the world's wool industry.
... Bourke was servicing over 80 paddle steamers per day...
But, over that time the boom-bust nature of the Darling became apparent and many soon realised the unreliable flow would limit further development of the river trade. A more reliable transport network was needed and the expanding rail network connecting the river ports to the major shipping capitals sounded the death-knell for the river-boats – the last commercial riverboat ran in 1931.
Today, Bourke is a thriving service town and a mecca for RV travellers, due partly to its location at the crossroads of the northsouth and east-west routes of outback NSW. But it's also because of the ever increasing unique experiences on offer and it has one of the best outback RV parks.
Kidman's Camp, at north Bourke, is a large RV park with all the facilities including a pool, entertainment room, laundry, kitchen, beautiful gardens and plenty of shading trees.
Although 5km to the north of Bourke, access to the attractions of the town is easy thanks to several courtesy buses operating throughout the day and into the evening.
The jewel in the crown for Bourke is the recently developed Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre, a world-class facility with interactive installations and stunning visual displays covering the Indigenous and European history of the region. It would have to be one of the best of its type in Australia.
... with the wonderfully rhythmic beat of the paddles hitting the water...
But no visit to Bourke would be complete without experiencing a trip down the Darling on the PV Jandra, a faithful reproduction of an 1894 steam paddleboat that was used to collect wool bales along the route. Just sit back while the old paddleboat weaves its way along the river, with the wonderfully rhythmic beat of the paddles hitting the water, and listen to the informative narrative of the captain on the history of the river, paddle boats and life in the region over a century ago.
To gain a perspective of the area from the land, the Mateship Country Tour is a must, taking in citrus and grape farms, irrigation, and cotton farms with large water storage. It provides a great insight into the history and heritage buildings of Bourke.
Images of Bourke, NSW:
While cemeteries are not normally high on travellers' lists, a visit to Bourke cemetery will not disappoint. With its bushrangers, drovers, cameleers, river boat men, lost children and local heroes, it also contains the burial site of famous eye surgeon Fred Hollows who first visited the area in the 1970s and developed a strong bond with the region and its people.
... a visit to Bourke cemetery will not disappoint...
The last couple of years has seen Bourke tourism and local businesses putting in a lot of effort into increasing visitor options with some great new and unique experiences; of particular note is 'Poetry on a Plate' and the 'Outback Show'.
For many years, Kidman's Camp hosted a bush poet a couple times a week during the tourist season. It was a great success but it seems the visitors wanted a bit more. Enter 'Poetry on a Plate', an evening of original contemporary Australian bush poetry and music by Andrew Hull, complimented by a wonderful meal prepared by Andrew's wife, Sarah. Poetry on a Plate is on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights at Kidman's Camp.
Another new event in town is the Outback Show, featuring camels, bullocks and horses. It tells the story of early bullockies, cameleers and teamsters with live displays of the beasts of burden and some very funny tales and poems by Luke Thomas who runs the show daily at the Exhibition Centre.
While eating and dining have always been available in Bourke at places like Morrall's café, the Bowling Club and the Port of Bourke pub, the old RSL club has been transformed into a lovely restaurant and bar known as 'Diggers on the Darling' that serves up great breakfast, lunch and dinner. Owner Phil Parnaby runs a courtesy bus to and from all accommodation places, so getting there is easy.
Bourke is well catered for when it comes to accommodation with two RV parks, several hotels/motels as well as some great free-camping options.
May's Bend on the Darling:
Probably one of the best free-camping options is at Mays Bend, about 10km out of North Bourke, where you can camp right on the banks for the Darling. A cautionary note though, the area is characterised by black soil that, after rain, can make it inaccessible even in a 4WD and, more so, with a caravan.
... the best free-camping options is at Mays Bend...
For a totally unique experience, a short drive out of Bourke is Mount Oxley, which provides 360 degree views of the area and a wonderful place to set up camp. Access is limited and bookings are essential (Food & Huts by Mt Oxley). Facilities at the top include a camp kitchen.
Nearby Gundabooka National Park is another great place to camp, either at the foot of Mt Gundabooka (Dry Tank Campground) or beside the Darling River at Yanda on the road between Bourke and Louth. Bookings can be made at the National Parks office in town or via the National Parks website.
... it's easy to understand why many so travellers can't wait to get 'back to Bourke'...
Bourke has always been an icon of the outback, but today's traveller needs more than just icons, and it is great to see the effort of Bourke tourism and local businesses to increase visitor enjoyment. With some of the best outback experiences to be had, and some new ones on offer, it's easy to understand why many so travellers can't wait to get 'back to Bourke'.
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