Driving the Darling River
Driving the Darling River is one of the best ways to experience Australia's most iconic rivers. A touring adventure through the upper Darling River region of Outback NSW taking in iconic towns like Bourke and Louth, while staying at wonderful places like Kidman's Camp at Bourke and Trilby Station at Louth.
We all have those special places that we go to that touches the spirit and replenishes the soul; places for reflection, places for inspiration or just places for a holiday in the true sense.
For some, it maybe coastal hideaways with the sound of the surf, while the inspiration from the majesty and beauty of an Alpine National Park is what many seek. For others though, the Outback and its ethereal waterways provide the perfect getaway.
I have been lucky enough over the past decade to have spent a lot of time along the Darling River working as a photographer capturing images of the Darling River and often when I would return from my trips my partner would often comment that I always return from the outback with a smile and more relaxed demeanour. But an explanation of why could never tell the full story. Like some many other travellers, one of the motivators of travelling is that of shared experiences. So it was time to take her to the outback to discover the essence of the land and its people.
For me, the Darling River Run is the best touring route in Outback NSW, and the best way to understand and appreciate our most iconic rivers.
So the choice was simple for our next trip, and made easier by the fact the long drought had recently broken and the Darling River was in full flow. What a perfect introduction to our iconic waterway, its history and they way of life in the bush.
Australia is a land of cyclic extremes and the plight of the Darling River has been etched in our memory though images of the river as little more than a dry creek. But nature always finds a way to balance itself out and with abundant rainfall in its upper tributaries over the last few years has seen the river and the land it supports spring back to life; and despite the cost to many that live in the surrounding areas of the flooding, there is the understanding that this is what the river is about and the outback character comes to the fore with the country resilience we so admire.
The persistent drought that gripped much of the Outback seems to be over, for now. To understand the boom/bust nature of this country is to understand Australia. Over the years, many have written about the dynamic nature of this country, but Dorothea Mackellar is probably the most poignant in her poem My Country:
I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!
The Darling River
The Darling River has always experienced the extremes, it is the nature of a river that is fed from the subtropics and in good times it fills and speeds across the flood plans and in hard times it little more than a creek. History confirms this; when the explorer Charles Sturt came to the area that is now Bourke in the 1820’s, it was little more than some bubbling mud that could be traversed by foot.
It is this ability for nature to restore the balance and restore the lifeblood of the outback that so many of us are drawn to the region by an unexplained intrinsic connection to the land. It is why I love the Outback so much.
From the fish traps at Brewarrina, the river port of Bourke, Wilcannia where the Barrier Highway crosses the Darling, the majestic Lakes of Menindee and the rivers' confluence with the Murray River at Wentworth. The Darling River is a truly remarkable waterway and a journey along it will touch the soul and replenish the spirit.
With only a week free, it was important not to spend too much time in the car in an attempt to see it all; a common mistake for the outback traveller in that more often than not, 'less is more'.
The options were many but the decision was easy Bourke, Louth and Trilby Station.
Bourke provides the perfect prologue to any outback visit. As Henry Lawson put it, if you know Bourke, you know Australia”. And, while the town of today is a shadow of its heyday, the region is one of the most significant in terms of indigenous, pioneering and pastoral history.
There are few things more pleasurable than country driving. As the journey unfolds, you feel the stress of the city slowly being left behind and the further you go the more it is stripped away. As the countryside unfolded, Elenor commented that she was not expecting it to be so green as she, like many others, thought it would be harsh, brown and. Often it is but now, with months of rain, the Outback has been transformed to verdant plains and flowing creeks.
We arrived in Bourke, which is not only at the crossroads of the Kidman Way and the Kamilaroi Highway but also where these great highways meet the Darling River.
Before checking into our cabin at Kidman’s Camp at North Bourke, the first port of call is the wharf to share with Elenor what is one of the best vistas of the Darling River.
The river is high and only about 3 metres from the top of the wharf; a magnificent sight to see the Darling flow with such majesty.
I have been to Bourke on occasions when the local kids have to descend three levels to get into the water for a swim. Today, access is simply a matter of several stairs to access their makeshift swing into the river.
Famous inland explorer, Charles Sturt visited the area on his expedition to discover the inland rivers and the fabled inland sea in the early 1830s. Major Mitchell ventured into the area in 1835 to continue Sturt's work and track the path of the river as it was believed the Darling somehow met up with the Murray River. Sturt had previously discovered a river flowing north from the Murray at what is now Wentworth.
Captain Sturt was known for his ability to avoid trouble with the indigenous groups but Mitchell was treated with a bit more hostility and had lost mean and supplies to the locals on previous expeditions. Upon reaching Bourke, he built a stockade 35kms downstream from Bourke's current location and this formed the basis of a future settlement; originally known as Prattenville it was later renamed Bourke in honour of then Governor of the Colony Richard Bourke.
Early pastoralists started to open up the interior as they saw the potential of sheep farming in the western regions but the challenge lay in accessing the markets and ports of Melbourne and Adelaide. The challenge was met when the first paddle steamer reached Brewarrina in 1859 (The Gemini skippered by William Randell) and the stage was set as there would soon be a means to transport the wool-clip to the shipping ports at Adelaide and Melbourne.
By the 1890s, river ports were established at Bourke, Wilcannia and Wentworth which could service over 1 million hectares. The boom was on and at its peak, the Port of Bourke reported was servicing over 80 paddle-steamers and was the focus of the world's wool industry.
The boom was short-lived though as the unreliable nature of the river soon became apparent and the railway system was spreading further inland and by the 1930s Bourke had seen its last steamer.
But that didn't spell the end of the town as it continued to be the main rail-head for the region until the late 1970s when road transport became the more viable option. Today Bourke is a service town with a great many things to see and do for the visitor.
Bourke prides itself on outback history and has over the years preserved the outback identity – both European and indigenous. Any visit to Bourke would not be complete with experiencing the recently re-opened 'Back of Bourke' Exhibition Centre at the northern end of town. It is a world-class facility with interactive installations and stunning visual displays cover the history of the region from both a European and Indigenous focus. It would have to be one of the best of its type in Australia.
Back at Kidman Camp sitting on the balcony overlooking the Darling, it becomes apparent to Elenor the majesty of the river. There are few sights so great as the Darling River in full flow!
With a few relaxing days in a cabin at Kidman’s Camp, it was time to venture downstream to Louth and then a few days camping at Trilby Station.
From Bourke, there are two options for the journey; the eastern or western side of the river. We opt for the latter as the western route is by far the more beautiful with its beautiful red soils synonymous with the region as well as the small range of hills for a great vantage of the surrounding country; not to mention the prospect of a photo opportunity at the iconic Toorale Station.
Set on the eastern side of the Darling, the tiny hamlet of Louth is a quiet service town with a wonderful history. Although it is quiet and sleepy for most of the year, there is one weekend a year when the town's population swells to over 4,000 as the annual Louth Races takes place.
The pub and general store, Shindy's Inn, provides the traveller with great meals and refreshments. It is one of those old country pubs with a priceless collection of photos and memorabilia accumulated over the years documenting the history of the region.
Originally established as a service point for the Cobb & Co coaches that serviced outback Australia, Louth founder T.A Mathews established a hotel and general store to service both the booming river trade as well as Cobb & Co.
I first heard about Louth many years ago when reading about the Celtic Cross, a seven-metre structure constructed by the founder of Louth, Thomas Matthews, who erected the monument as a perpetual memorial to wife, Mary Mathews, who died in 1866 at the age of 42. The Cross has become a dedication to the early pioneering women. Made of polished granite, the poignant homage to his wife sits proudly on the hill overlooking the town
The poignancy of his dedication to his wife is that on the anniversary of Mary's death on August 19, the setting sun is reflected from the cross to point where the front door of their house was located. Very moving!
Not only testament to the love and devotion of a husband for his wife, but the monument also demonstrates the accuracy of navigation technology of the 1800s. Its alignment was calculated by one of the river-boat captains of the Darling River.
Anyone visiting Louth can observe the occurrence and the locals have thoughtfully marked the places throughout the year that the visitor can experience the 3-minute light show.
The annual Louth Races is an annual weekend horse racing meet that swells the town's population from around 100 to over 4,000. It is a seven-race program that has been running for over 50 years; although race in Louth goes as far back as the 1880s and is probably the reason why Henry Lawson described Louth as 'a place the loved a pint and a punt'.
Refreshed, is time to head downstream and set up camp. 20km downstream is Trilby Station and three days of total relaxation.
Twenty kilometres south of Louth on the western side of the Darling River is a Trilby Station, a 5th generation 320,000 acre sheep property steeped in pastoral history. For those who visit while touring the Darling River, Trilby is known as the ultimate Outback experience!
Trilby Station had its origins as part of Dunlop Station which, in the 1880s was the first of the first mechanised shearing shed in Australia thanks to the innovative, and controversial, Wolseley shearing machines.
Today, Trilby Station's owners Liz and Gary Murray provide visitors with Outback accommodation ranging from river campsites to very comfortable converted shears quarters and cottages. Staying at Trilby provides an insight to the workings of a modern-day sheep stations as well its history with a unique interpretive tour of the historic homesteads of the property. With some of the best fishing and yabbying spots on the Darling River, it is easy to see why it is so popular with visitors.
After some quick introductions, it was time to go and claim our little piece of paradise beside the river. Even though it was mid-summer there were many others also seeking the serenity; campers and caravaners had set up on a newly created billabong on an old anabranch of the river. For us though, it was going to be a river site.
We set up with about an hour of daylight left and as the camp-fire was settling, we set up our chairs just above the water and take the place in. Sitting on the bank, the only noises are the birds and the whisper of the breeze in the trees.
Three days of this... 1,000km from the maddening crowd... appreciating all there is to the Outback and with the calming energies of the Darling a matter of metres away... we are truly blessed in this country.
There is nothing like camping on the Darling ......
Darling River Run Experiences and Activities
For those that wish to discover more of the Darling River and Outback NSW, the Darling River Run is the way to go... and here are some images to get you on the mood.
The Darling River Run is so much more than a drive along the Darling River. Driving through the centre of Outback NSW, along the ancient waterway that is the Darling River, is a great experience, but what adds to that experience is what to do it the various towns, National Parks, and station stays along the way. Whether it is for a driver break, an overnight stay, or an extended break, there is so much to do and experience while doing the Darling River Run.