Gateway to the Outback
Welcome to Bourke – Gateway to the Real Outback – the sign yells out from the side of the road. I hadn’t been aware I was in the fake outback, but yes, this is definitely the Outback made famous by poets, movies and popular culture.
Bourke is a long way from Sydney. It’s a long way from anywhere. Right now it’s surrounded by water from the mighty Darling River. A major flood has isolated many properties and some roads are still closed. They’ll remain that way for a long time. The township itself is protected by a levee so has escaped inundation; this time.
Unlike coastal flooding which tends to be fast and furious with little warning, the community here knows well in advance when the peak will arrive and leave as the water languidly rolls down the ever so slight slope towards the ocean. Menindee Lakes, already at full capacity, will release more water to allow the current flow to pass. At Wentworth there’ll be a problem because the Darling needs to empty into the Murray. The Murray is also in flood and it’s expected the muddy water will back up and spread even further. The good folks around Wentworth would do well to prepare for the worst.
I’m here as an SES volunteer at the Bourke airbase. Helicopters are taking supplies to families, transporting people to and from vital medical appointments as well as acting as very high tech school buses as kids from boarding schools try to get home. A roust-a-bout and his two dogs are being picked up each day and taken to another far-west property so he can assist farmers muster their stock and get them to drier ground. You’ll notice I said drier ground not higher ground because it’s flat out here, there is no higher ground. The water will eventually end up in South Australia. In the meantime trees drag their branches in water as it spreads further and further from the river banks.
It’s not all bad. Floods like these fill the artesian basins that will later return that stored water for irrigation. Water birds are starting to appear from who knows where. Straw-necked ibis are feasting on the fish that are flopping their way across the roads.
A potted history of Bourke.
Bourke, like the nearby flood waters, is past its peak. Charles Sturt first came across the Darling River back in 1828. It was during a drought and he declared the area uninhabitable. Mitchell arrived around 1835 and the original white settlement was established as a stockade to “protect” troops from the local people. It was named after the Governor – Robert Bourke. Later, the potential of the river was realised, and the town surveyed and established in 1869. Bourke became an inland transport hub with wool being sent to the coast in paddle steamers and other goods brought in by coach and rail.
A lift-span bridge was built in 1883 across the Darling at North Bourke. The middle span opened to allow the 200-odd paddle steamers to pass through as they went from western NSW to the Riverina. The bridge was in service up until 1997. The rail line came through in 1885, although it closed again in 1975 and the once grand station buildings are now gone and the more modern replacement; derelict. It goes without saying that the settlement of Europeans in the area was not a positive thing for the local Ngemba people. They were sent off their land, and lost most of their cultural and family ties. Many were moved to reserves by the Aboriginal Protection Board.
Agriculture, tourism and trouble.
Grazing and irrigated cotton are the major economic activities in the area. Tourism is also important and the Darling River Run promoted by the NSW tourism authorities, is
a spectacular drive that follows the beautiful Darling to the Mighty Murray, yielding thermal springs, historic outback treasures and ancient Aboriginal heritage along the way.VisitNSW website
Like most country towns, the main street has some architectural treats with a range of styles. Several are heritage listed. Come closing time, the shops just don’t shut, they are shuttered, creating an unfriendly streetscape and a feeling of anxiety. The supermarket has a security guard. Nearly every house has a loud barking dog. Reports of rising crime against nurses at the local hospital are alarming. The solution can only come from long term measures that reduce the level of disadvantage and involve the traditional landholders.
Things to do in Bourke
Walking around the main streets will only take a short time. When it’s not flooding there is a walking trail from Bourke to North Bourke (around 7 km). There are several galleries, a Back o’Bourke Exhibition Centre and a few cafes. The menus at the local pubs are limited to standard “olde-timey” pub food – that is; plenty of meat, chips and if you’re lucky a small salad. You can find a list of things to do over at the VisitNSW site and at the Aussie Towns blog. There are two electric car charging points near the historic wharf. There is a very good free tourist guide available from the Back o’Bourke exhibition centre.
So where is the Back o’Bourke?
If you ask an older Aussie about a remote and isolated place, they’ll say something like “oh it’s out the back o’Bourke” – meaning it’s a long way away. The original saying is from a poem by Will Ogilvie
According to the regional tourist guide
“Back O’Bourke is more than a geographical location. Back O’Bourke is a deep innate , gravitational pull that most Australians feel toward the vast centre of the continent: the bush. The undeniable knowledge that, just over the mountains, just beyond the fences, lawns and bustle of our cities and towns, lies the real Australia.”Visit Bourke Tourist publication
Facts and Figures about Bourke
Distance from Sydney: 770 km
Median Age: 38
House prices: 3 bedroom family home is less than $200,000
Despite our professed love of the ‘bush’ more than 85% of Australia’s population lives within 50km of the coast.
Bourke was and always will be the traditional land of its custodians the Ngemba people.