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WORDS AND IMAGES CHRIS BLAKEMORE

The beautiful Darling River has few equals. Its lifeblood sourced from outback tributaries, striving to survive over 1400km of blistering arid conditions before finally merging with the River Murray.

Standing at the juncture of these two mighty rivers, one could be forgiven for thinking the state of these river systems is perfectly fine. There is water as far as the eye can see, enough for big houseboats and canoeists to share.

However, all is not well with our Darling. The river is dying of thirst. Take this journey upstream to see what is happening.

RIVER RUN

The Darling

ABOVE Burke and Wills celebrated their last party right here at Tolarno Station on the Darling River banks

The journey starts at Wentworth, 30km from Mildura. Junction Island, otherwise known as Snake Island, is where the two rivers merge and can be accessed on foot only. It’s a narrow walking trail through thick scrub but the experience of standing at the major confluence of the longest continuous river system in Australia is worth dancing around stray reptiles.

The morning light splashed across the river poses an unrealistic impression of the rest of the course, but an introduction to Outback NSW conditions soon appears a mere six kilometres from Wentworth. The sprawling 160-hectare Perry Sandhills just west of town is a favourite with off-roaders. The continuous movement of red sand means you can walk around the canopy of a gum tree buried deep in the dunes.

The area was once home to giant mega-fauna around the last ice-age, but now only invasive weeds seem to survive well in these current conditions.

TRAVEL The Darling River

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The road along the Darling River’s eastern bank starts as bitumen and runs through irrigated areas to Pooncarie, a small township situated 118km north of Wentworth.

The town has a chequered history, most notably the burning of the paddle steamer Rodney during the shearer’s strike of 1894. Some suggest this event was the story behind the creation of Waltzing Matilda, our proxy national anthem.

But only a few kilometres north the road turns to gravel, and the further you go it becomes sandier and dustier, confirming you are definitely in outback NSW. Ensure your rig is suitable if retracing this route.

One of the first accessible stations is at Karoola Reach, where camping beside the riverbank is welcomed. Signs give an indication of studies being conducted into the river system, but there are clearer signs the river is struggling.

The renowned Tolarno Station further upstream warrants visiting when following the Darling River. Camping here is also welcomed and you can also join a guided tour of the property, with shearing starting in late August, an ideal time to be in this region weather-wise. Tours include the inner workings of the station, and of the rich Indigenous and settlement history.

Tolarno Station was settled back in 1851 as pioneers started working out their ‘runs’ in the area. Since then it continues to deliver exceptional quality Merino wool to the Australian and international textile industries, in fact around 200,000kg on average. That’s an awful lot of shearing.

BELOW The wild rally machines in the inaugural Sunraysia Safari Rally drew the crowds into the otherwise quiet outback towns

ABOVE Robert McBride welcomes visitors and happily shares his story of Tolarno Station and the Darling River system // BELOW The shearer awaits, his blade sharpened, as the flock is brought in from across half a million acres of land

ABOVE There are lots of places for bush camping along the Darling River, but respect station property // BELOW The Murray cod love a bit of cheese if you can’t find any Bardi grubs

BELOW If only a recipe could be found to utilise the invasive paddy melon, a blight on many sensitive landscapes in the outback

“The hospitality by locals ensures visitors are made welcome to what was a hard man’s drinking hole of old”

It’s these lower reaches of the Darling River, below the Menindee Lakes, where upper river industry is clearly showing its impact. Camping up on the flats above the river makes is enjoyable, but looking across the exposed banks is saddening.

Local station hands use their infrequent leisure time to chase Murray cod up the river in a tinnie, carefully motoring to avoid shallow depth logs and snags.

Even if your fishing skills are best at snagging a sausage from the esky, the atmosphere of a slow burning campfire among the old river gums is almost surreal.

It is difficult to imagine how paddle steamers once plied these waterways with large barges in tow full to the brim. Early river pioneers certainly earned their keep, but now only a few rusty relics are littered about.

Menindee Lakes system is the next major element up river. This system has evolved from naturally shallow, ephemeral lakes to becoming a highly modified and managed flood mitigation system for many communities in the region.

Looking across the almost barren landscape it is difficult to imagine large volumes of water are held back by low profile levee banks just outside of town. The self-drives and walks take in sections of the lake systems, and there is plenty to see.

ABOVE Following the Darling by the riverbank means being self-sufficient in many respects, it’s a big space out there

ABOVE It has been a while since this pipe drew water from the Darling River // BELOW Two men in a tinnie ply a dwindling watercourse where paddle steamers once sailed

ABOVE Lamb chops on a campfire by the river. Getting an early taste of heaven

ABOVE A mouth-watering recipe for Balkan ragout, right by the water

The river system now veers north east through more blistering countryside, with road conditions further deteriorating as Wilcannia appears in the distant haze. There’s no relief from the cattle grids that demarcate the boundaries of stations and paddocks and new arrivals relish the opportunity to plunge under a cascade of hot water from a showerhead.

Wilcannia has had its fair share of troubles in the past, but a new era of understanding from all camps, including travellers, locals and traditional landholders have brought about a much better experience for everyone.

Warrawong on the Darling makes visitors welcome with a regular evening get-together for gravel-weary travellers. The social event introduces you to some of the great characters of the outback, and there’s certainly plenty in this dusty corner of northern NSW. Then stand back and enjoy the glorious sunsets that cloak the horizon with colour.

If stopping in at Warrawong, this park also features natural beauty like the giant old gum tree and lagoon directly behind the park. The lagoon is a favourite with photographers as are many places along the entire river system if you are patient, so take a good camera and buckets of insect repellent.

ABOVE Cattle grids cross the roads regularly, as does the livestock. Exercise caution at all times // BELOW Stopping at a caravan park can be a great social event as well as a chance to wash off the dust

BELOW Riding on the sheep’s back. A mere 200,000kg AAA grade Merino wool clip is herded into the stalls

Further upstream, pop in at Tilpa and Louth, both great little stop-overs before reaching Bourke, one of the more famous towns along the riverbank. Again, the hospitality by locals ensures visitors are made welcome to what was a hard man’s drinking hole of old. The years have changed this place, but the rich history of a town built by pioneers in 1835 continues to awe visitors today. The township endured fierce battles and tough conditions in the early years, but now much of this history can be discovered via interactive display at the Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre.

A leisurely self-drive around town leads you to many of the original accomplishments of the early settlers, such as the unique Weir & Lock, Fort Bourke, North Bridge, and Australia’s only inland Maritime Courthouse. Bourke was ironically the world’s largest inland port, requiring such an institution in the day.

The final stage of the Darling River Run is along the road toward Brewarrina. The Darling River is the convergence of a number of rivers and streams running off the back of the Great Dividing Range in NSW and Queensland. The geographical point of this confluence is difficult to pinpoint from the roadside as private stations line the banks along the way.

As you cross this line it becomes apparent that this very precious watercourse barely visible from the roadside is about to make an incredibly difficult journey over the next 1400km. There is much debate around how the Darling River water is shared fairly among everyone and everything that needs it for their survival. Unfortunately, the river’s own survival may have been forgotten in the heat of the arguments, and meanwhile the burning summer sun is leaving a dry riverbed along many lower parts of this waterway that was once bustling with paddle steamers and marine activity.

ABOVE Warrawong on the Darling is home to this massive rivergum tree, surviving many years of changing conditions // BELOW Where the bitumen ends, the outback adventure begins. It’s all dirt along the Darling River

BELOW Fishing on the Darling River can remain a pleasurable past-time, if the river can be sustained and improved for the future

Arriving in Brewarrina delivers a pleasant buoyance from the dread felt for the Darling left behind. The Barwon river feeding through this town seems healthy and alive. The Aboriginal fish traps, the world’s oldest man-made structure at the township riverbank is well worth visiting.

Watching the water wash across the rocks and flow through the pools is as entrancing as sitting by a flickering campfire. Its nature at its best, beautiful in its raw, undisturbed course of life.

Both fire and water can be so powerful and destructive, yet almost fragile and simply erased.

The water of the Darling River was once a strong, powerful part of this amazing landscape, but its fragility has been exposed under the supposedly watchful eye of modern man. One can only hope we do not destroy what we came for.

Do the Darling River Run and enjoy the journey, but take only photographs and leave nothing but footprints by the bank.

ABOVE The Aboriginal Fish Traps at Brewarrina are a unique example of ingenuity and estimated to be around 40,000 years old // BELOW The beauty of the Darling River system will leave a lasting impression on you

DESTINATION DETAILS
The Darling River is 1472km long by its course, taking around three times the distance between the start and finish points by the way the crow flies.

The entire river height drops only 84m over its entire length.

The wharf at Bourke is three stories high to accommodate the once extraordinary changes in river heights between seasons and drought cycles.

The Menindee Lakes covers an area of over 47,500 hectares but the maximum depth is a mere 7m, and holds approximately 1,731,000 megalitres (1 million litres).

Tolarno Station is NSW largest private land holding at 275,180 hectares as combined with Peppora and Wyoming Stations, and once held three pubs, a school and own jail.

To visit Tolarno Station, contact Lauren Hughes on 08 8091 7416.

Junction Island is accessible from Hospital Rd, off the Silver City Highway.

Enter Wentworth St, Wentworth to commence following Pooncarie Road.

Pooncarie to Bourke is predominantly unsealed roads, ensure vehicle or van is suitable for outback conditions.

TRAVEL The Darling River

Standing at the juncture of these two mighty rivers, one could be forgiven for thinking the state of these river systems is perfectly fine. There is water as far as the eye can see, enough for big house boats and canoeists to share.

However, all is not well with our Darling. The river is dying of thirst. Take this journey upstream to see what is happening.

The beautiful Darling River has few equals. Its lifeblood sourced from outback tributaries, striving to survive over 1400km of blistering arid conditions before finally merging with the River Murray.

WORDS AND IMAGES CHRIS BLAKEMORE

RIVER RUN

The Darling

The journey starts at Wentworth, 30km from Mildura. Junction Island, otherwise known as Snake Island, is where the two rivers merge and can be accessed on foot only. It’s a narrow walking trail through thick scrub but the experience of standing at the major confluence of the longest continuous river system in Australia is worth dancing around stray reptiles.

The morning light splashed across the river poses an unrealistic impression of the rest of the course, but an introduction to Outback NSW conditions soon appears a mere six kilometres from Wentworth. The sprawling 160-hectare Perry Sandhills just west of town is a favourite with off-roaders. The continuous movement of red sand means you can walk around the canopy of a gum tree buried deep in the dunes.

The area was once home to giant mega-fauna around the last ice-age, but now only invasive weeds seem to survive well in these current conditions.

ABOVE Burke and Wills celebrated their last party right here at Tolarno Station on the Darling River banks

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The road along the Darling River’s eastern bank starts as bitumen and runs through irrigated areas to Pooncarie, a small township situated 118km north of Wentworth.

The town has a chequered history, most notably the burning of the paddle steamer Rodney during the shearer’s strike of 1894. Some suggest this event was the story behind the creation of Waltzing Matilda, our proxy national anthem.

But only a few kilometres north the road turns to gravel, and the further you go it becomes sandier and dustier, confirming you are definitely in outback NSW. Ensure your rig is suitable if retracing this route.

One of the first accessible stations is at Karoola Reach, where camping beside the riverbank is welcomed. Signs give an indication of studies being conducted into the river system, but there are clearer signs the river is struggling.

The renowned Tolarno Station further upstream warrants visiting when following the Darling River. Camping here is also welcomed and you can also join a guided tour of the property, with shearing starting in late August, an ideal time to be in this region weather-wise. Tours include the inner workings of the station, and of the rich Indigenous and settlement history.

Tolarno Station was settled back in 1851 as pioneers started working out their ‘runs’ in the area. Since then it continues to deliver exceptional quality Merino wool to the Australian and international textile industries, in fact around 200,000kg on average. That’s an awful lot of shearing.

BELOW If only a recipe could be found to utilise the invasive paddy melon, a blight on many sensitive landscapes in the outback

ABOVE There are lots of places for bush camping along the Darling River, but respect station property // BELOW The Murray cod love a bit of cheese if you can’t find any Bardi grubs

ABOVE Robert McBride welcomes visitors and happily shares his story of Tolarno Station and the Darling River system // BELOW The shearer awaits, his blade sharpened, as the flock is brought in from across half a million acres of land

BELOW The wild rally machines in the inaugural Sunraysia Safari Rally drew the crowds into the otherwise quiet outback towns

“The hospitality by locals ensures visitors are made welcome to what was a hard man’s drinking hole of old”

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

It’s these lower reaches of the Darling River, below the Menindee Lakes, where upper river industry is clearly showing its impact. Camping up on the flats above the river makes is enjoyable, but looking across the exposed banks is saddening.

Local station hands use their infrequent leisure time to chase Murray cod up the river in a tinnie, carefully motoring to avoid shallow depth logs and snags.

Even if your fishing skills are best at snagging a sausage from the esky, the atmosphere of a slow burning campfire among the old river gums is almost surreal.

It is difficult to imagine how paddle steamers once plied these waterways with large barges in tow full to the brim. Early river pioneers certainly earned their keep, but now only a few rusty relics are littered about.

Menindee Lakes system is the next major element up river. This system has evolved from naturally shallow, ephemeral lakes to becoming a highly modified and managed flood mitigation system for many communities in the region.

Looking across the almost barren landscape it is difficult to imagine large volumes of water are held back by low profile levee banks just outside of town. The self-drives and walks take in sections of the lake systems, and there is plenty to see.

ABOVE Following the Darling by the riverbank means being self-sufficient in many respects, it’s a big space out there

ABOVE A mouth-watering recipe for Balkan ragout, right by the water

ABOVE Lamb chops on a campfire by the river. Getting an early taste of heaven

ABOVE It has been a while since this pipe drew water from the Darling River // BELOW Two men in a tinnie ply a dwindling watercourse where paddle steamers once sailed

It’s these lower reaches of the Darling River, below the Menindee Lakes, where upper river industry is clearly showing its impact. Camping up on the flats above the river makes is enjoyable, but looking across the exposed banks is saddening.

Local station hands use their infrequent leisure time to chase Murray cod up the river in a tinnie, carefully motoring to avoid shallow depth logs and snags.

Even if your fishing skills are best at snagging a sausage from the esky, the atmosphere of a slow burning campfire among the old river gums is almost surreal.

It is difficult to imagine how paddle steamers once plied these waterways with large barges in tow full to the brim. Early river pioneers certainly earned their keep, but now only a few rusty relics are littered about.

Menindee Lakes system is the next major element up river. This system has evolved from naturally shallow, ephemeral lakes to becoming a highly modified and managed flood mitigation system for many communities in the region.

Looking across the almost barren landscape it is difficult to imagine large volumes of water are held back by low profile levee banks just outside of town. The self-drives and walks take in sections of the lake systems, and there is plenty to see.

ABOVE Cattle grids cross the roads regularly, as does the livestock. Exercise caution at all times // BELOW Stopping at a caravan park can be a great social event as well as a chance to wash off the dust

BELOW Riding on the sheep’s back. A mere 200,000kg AAA grade Merino wool clip is herded into the stalls

It’s these lower reaches of the Darling River, below the Menindee Lakes, where upper river industry is clearly showing its impact. Camping up on the flats above the river makes is enjoyable, but looking across the exposed banks is saddening.

Local station hands use their infrequent leisure time to chase Murray cod up the river in a tinnie, carefully motoring to avoid shallow depth logs and snags.

Even if your fishing skills are best at snagging a sausage from the esky, the atmosphere of a slow burning campfire among the old river gums is almost surreal.

It is difficult to imagine how paddle steamers once plied these waterways with large barges in tow full to the brim. Early river pioneers certainly earned their keep, but now only a few rusty relics are littered about.

Menindee Lakes system is the next major element up river. This system has evolved from naturally shallow, ephemeral lakes to becoming a highly modified and managed flood mitigation system for many communities in the region.

Looking across the almost barren landscape it is difficult to imagine large volumes of water are held back by low profile levee banks just outside of town. The self-drives and walks take in sections of the lake systems, and there is plenty to see.

ABOVE Warrawong on the Darling is home to this massive Rivergum tree, surviving many years of changing conditions // BELOW Where the bitumen ends, the Outback adventure begins. It’s all dirt along the Darling River

BELOW Fishing on the Darling River can remain a pleasurable past-time, if the river can be sustained and improved for the future

It’s these lower reaches of the Darling River, below the Menindee Lakes, where upper river industry is clearly showing its impact. Camping up on the flats above the river makes is enjoyable, but looking across the exposed banks is saddening.

Local station hands use their infrequent leisure time to chase Murray cod up the river in a tinnie, carefully motoring to avoid shallow depth logs and snags.

Even if your fishing skills are best at snagging a sausage from the esky, the atmosphere of a slow burning campfire among the old river gums is almost surreal.

It is difficult to imagine how paddle steamers once plied these waterways with large barges in tow full to the brim. Early river pioneers certainly earned their keep, but now only a few rusty relics are littered about.

Menindee Lakes system is the next major element up river. This system has evolved from naturally shallow, ephemeral lakes to becoming a highly modified and managed flood mitigation system for many communities in the region.

Looking across the almost barren landscape it is difficult to imagine large volumes of water are held back by low profile levee banks just outside of town. The self-drives and walks take in sections of the lake systems, and there is plenty to see.

ABOVE The Aboriginal Fish Traps at Brewarrina are a unique example of ingenuity and estimated to be around 40,000 years old // BELOW The beauty of the Darling River system will leave a lasting impression on you

DESTINATION DETAILS
The Darling River is 1472km long by its course, taking around three times the distance between the start and finish points by the way the crow flies.

The entire river height drops only 84m over its entire length.

The wharf at Bourke is three stories high to accommodate the once extraordinary changes in river heights between seasons and drought cycles.

The Menindee Lakes covers an area of over 47,500 hectares but the maximum depth is a mere 7m, and holds approximately 1,731,000 megalitres (1 million litres).

Tolarno Station is NSW largest private land holding at 275,180 hectares as combined with Peppora and Wyoming Stations, and once held three pubs, a school and own jail.

To visit Tolarno Station, contact Lauren Hughes on 08 8091 7416.

Junction Island is accessible from Hospital Rd, off the Silver City Highway.

Enter Wentworth St, Wentworth to commence following Pooncarie Road.

Pooncarie to Bourke is predominantly unsealed roads, ensure vehicle or van is suitable for outback conditions.