Updated: Jul 31, 2021
A definition of Iconic in English can be explained as being very famous or popular, especially with certain opinions or at particular time.
Now there are plenty of Iconic drives in our outback following explorer routes but I reckon the Darling River explore should be up there in the iconic class.
The Darling River which happens to be the third longest river in Australia is well known for various reasons from its poor health and management in recent times back to hundreds of years when the Barkindji people lived along its systems.
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.
Now I’ve done this drive a few times and it never seems to disappoint. 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.
But he was wrong, very wrong as the next few years the area grew and and the river was used intensively for trade. In 1880 Bourke was the transport centre for SW 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, but also to explore the history around town. Theres 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 main part of town.
When we visited the river was in flood and rising so the chance of riding the paddle steamer wasn’t available.
Heading south from Bourke along the Darling River Road we crossed through the stunning Gundabooka NP where theres 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.
Sign posted about 10km out of Gundabooka, right beside the road, is an important marker where in 1829 explorer Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume discovered the Darling. The info board has some very interesting invites to what happened here.
Our first stop was to check out Louth, about 100km down stream from Bourke. It’s here that Henry Lawson wrote poems about drinking and partying especially when the only service here was the pub that was a stopover for Cobb & Co coaches plus the river trade back in the late 1880’s.
Today its still a great place for a stop over with Shindy’s Inn right on the river bank and when the races come to town theres definatly 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.
Dont forget to visit the local cemetery where theres 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.
Theres plenty of camping here or at nearby stations but with the slow flood that the Darling was creating we decided to head further along. 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 aren’t just any outback roads, these are local roads to stations and services.
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 of the shortest heritage walk in Australia, luckily its just across the road from the pub so you won’t get to thirsty.
Our plan was to originally 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.
White Cliffs has been a significant opal mining settlement since the late 1880’s and today also thrives on tourists coming to explore the area and maybe finding a fortune in opal bearing rocks that date back 100 million years ago when this area was covered by the ocean.
More often than not this doesn’t happen but its pretty cool place to visit. The town is surrounded by a pockmarked landscape with over 50,000 disused mines.
Theres a heritage trail around the mines and town where you can discover the old buildings, crazy 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 locals live underground where the daily temps are pretty stable, local Aboriginals never settled here for that reason ( plus theres 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. With the suns heat boiling water creating steam it powered an engine and generator for the towns power.
Over the 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 but this time at Wilcannia. Once a major port along the Darling River, today the town has heritage listed buildings along the banks and through the town centre.
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.
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 its one of only two remaining on the river ( 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 a technically sophisticated structure 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 required to operate it.
Today they are recognised as being of NSW State significance, heritage listed as it contributed significantly to the social and commercial development of north western New South Wales and opened up the ‘back country’ in the late 1800’s.
The final stint of our trip was to continue along the Darling southwards towards the Menindee Lakes 150km away. With the high rainfall that happened in the north months ago water was flowing freely into the four lakes after being dry for nearly many years.
Covering a staggering 475 square km and an estimated three times the size of Sydney Harbour theres about 17 billion litres a day flowing into the lakes swelling them towards capacity.
Life is now returning back to the lakes with birds, fish, frogs and blue yabbies. We were staggered to see the amount of water in the lakes covering land for as far as we could see.
In the past years theres been controversy and blame for the mis-management of this river and lake system lets hope lessons are learnt. The lakes were built in the 1950’s - 1960’s to capture and retain flood waters and to regulate water supply to Broken Hill, nearby mines, stock and irrigation use.
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 day 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, wether you're into the history, the outback way of life of just want to tick off another iconic drive, the Darling River will never disappoint.