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The Darling River

About the Darling River

Australian Waterways

The Darling River in 2008 during a high flow at Trilby Station, Louth, Outback Australia

The Darling River is Australia's most iconic river. When combined with its longest tributaries, it creates Australia's longest waterway stretching from Queensland's Darling Downs across Outback NSW to its meeting with the Murray River at Wentworth in the southwest corner of New South Wales.

One of the best ways to appreciate Australia's greatest waterway is to travel its length on the Darling River Run, or the entire length on the Source to Sea touring route.

Part of the Murray Darling Basin, which covers 1,061,469 square kilometres (14% of Australia's total area), the Darling River rises from Queensland's Darling Downs and New South Wales's northern rivers region.

The Darling River catchment borders the Lake Eyre Basin (Lake Frome division) just north of Broken Hill and south of Cameron Corner. A surprise to many is the opal town of White Cliffs is also with the Darling River catchment. 

A great way to understand the region's geology/hydrography is through the Watershed Loop touring route. The touring route also connects the Darling River Run to other Corner Country Touring Routes.

The Darling River system is primarily sourced from the subtropical summer rains of the Darling Downs (South East Queensland. Conversely, the Murray River receives its flow from the New South Wales/Victorian alpine region's snowmelt, and as such, the Darling River is more 'boom/bust' regarding its flow.

Darling River Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Darling River - FAQ & Facts

How long is the Darling River?

The Darling River is 1,472 km long when measuring it as the named river from the Culgoa and Barwon rivers' junction between Brewarrina and Bourke. But, if measured as a natural waterway from its source in south-east Queensland (The Condamine River) to the Murray-Darling confluence at Wentworth, it measures 2,739km making it Australia's longest waterway.

Where does the Darling River start?

The Darling River originates between Brewarrina and Bourke where the Culgoa and Barwon rivers meet. The two rivers' tributaries form in the ranges of southern Queensland (The Darling Downs) and northern New South Wales to the west of the Great Dividing Range. These tributaries include the Balonne River, the Macintyre River. The Gwydir River; the Namoi River; the Castlereagh River; and the Macquarie River. Near Bourke, the Bogan, Warrego River, and Paroo rivers also join the Darling River.

What is the gradient of the Darling River?

As the surrounding area of the Darling is relatively flat, the average gradient of just 16 mm per kilometre.

Has the Darling River ever stopped flowing?

Yes, the Darling River has stopped flowing many times throughout history and pre-history. The river has stopped flowing on more than forty-five occasions between 1885 and 1960s.

What rivers flow into the Darling River?

The Darling River system consists of over ten tributaries with the Upper Darling River (Barwon-Darling) being a complex waterway made up of many individually named waterways. The Barwon–Darling covers 13% of the Murray–Darling Basin, yet only accounts for about 2.8% of the Basin flow; however much more water flows through the system with 99% of its flow is generated via the upstream catchments.

The river has always been one of extreme, either in flood or in drought. That is the nature of the Darling River and provides the ethereal majesty of our most iconic river. After flowing southwest across outback New South Wales, the Darling River joins the Murray River at Wentworth on the New South Wales/Victoria border and flows through South Australia's Riverland region onto Lake Alexandrina and into the Southern Ocean.

Early European exploration, of the land and river, created the need for towns and ports along the water and today the towns of the Darling River have become synonymous with the outback.

From the source to the mouth of the Darling River, they include

  • Walgett (above the confluence)
  • Brewarrina
  • Bourke
  • Louth
  • Tilpa
  • Wilcannia
  • Menindee
  • Pooncarie
  • Wentworth

Map of the Darling River

See here for more information on

Darling River Anthropology

Darling River History

The Indigenous Darling River (Baaka)

The First Nation people have an extended, living, cultural association with the Darling River. However, they knew it as the Barka, and those most closely associated with the river are the Barkintji (meaning people of the river). Evidence reveals that indigenous history goes back over 45,000 years, and today, the river remains the lifeblood for their living culture.

Evidence of its importance to the Indigenous cultures can be seen along the waterway's length and probably the most visual are the fish traps at Brewarrina, to the most spiritual at the world's oldest ritual burial ground at Lake Mungo. In between there is a vast array of historical and sacred sites, For centuries the river had been home, fishing and hunting ground and trade route to the Aboriginal groups. 

The European Darling River

The relative newcomers to the area, European explorers, set out to find the fabled 'inland sea', believing that the eastern Australian rivers all ran into a vast inland sea. The early explorers were correct in thinking there was an inland sea. Still, they were about 50 million years too late as the climate was vastly different during the Cretaceous period when Australia's centre was a vast inland sea.

The 'Wild West' was a frontier for European settlement in the 19th century. Cattlemen began to carve out vast stations and forged stock routes to Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne's major commercial centres. But the challenge faced by the pastoral pioneers was how to access these service centres via road transport, which was not well established. Many realised, and hoped, the river transport could further open up the outback and provide a vital link from the farm gate to the shipping ports of Adelaide and Melbourne that would provide transportation to England.

The dream began to become a reality when in 1859 a riverboat called Gemini skippered by William Randell reached Brewarrina (formerly known as 'Walcha Hut' and earlier as 'Fishery'). With this first successful navigation of the Darling River, the river's potential as a significant transport route became a reality.

By the 1890s, Bourke's river ports, Wilcannia and Wentworth were busy servicing the 1+ million hectares wool empires of Outback NSW and southern Queensland. By the late 1880's Wentworth was Australia's busiest inland port. In 1895, 485 vessels passed through the Customs House (31 in one week alone).

But the days of the river being the primary form of inland transport were full of challenges from the boom/bust nature of the river and the realisation that flow of the river restricted reliability and created uncertainty. By the early 1900s a new and more reliable form of transport, railways, was spreading inland. The decline in the relevance of the riverboats and ports commenced.

Today, the Darling River is still an integral part of the outback, indigenous culture and pioneering history. Attempts are underway to manage this precious resource better, so it is available for the farmers and indigenous cultures who rely on it and enjoy it recreationally.

Darling River Floods and Droughts

Darling River in Crisis

In 1992, the Darling River suffered from severe cyanobacterial blooms that stretched the length of the river. The presence of phosphorus was essential for the toxic algae to flourish. Flow rates, turbulence, turbidity and temperature were other contributing factors.

In 2008, the Federal government purchased Toorale Station in northern New South Wales for A$23 million. The purchase allowed the government to return eleven gigalitres of environmental flows into the Darling.

In 2019, Darling was back in the news when up to 1 million fish died due to the drought and lack of flow that stagnated the little water at Menindee (Lakes). The 2019 drought was comparable to the Federation drought of the early 1900s, the most severe in recorded history.

And like it has done so many times before, in March of 2020, eastern Australia experienced one of its most significant (and most comprehensive) dumps of rain in living memory. The drought that had such a tight grip on the country was doused with lifesaving rainfall over a few days over March's first week.

The Darling River had been 'rebooted', and the long, harsh drought (for most) is now in the history book.

Darling River Course & Geology

Darling River Course & Geology

One of the largest river systems globally, the Murray-Darling basin drains all of New South Wales west of the Great Dividing Range, most of Victoria north of the Great Diving Range, south-east Queensland, and south-east South Australia. The Murray-Darling basin covers almost 15% of the total land area of Australia (1,062,025 km2).

As a waterway, as measured from its longest tributary to its mouth at Wentworth, the Darling is Australia's longest at 2,739km. This course is via the Condamine–Balonne Catchment; the Condamine River (sourced near Killarney, QLD), Balonne River, and the Culgoa channel to join the Darling River upstream of Bourke.

The other catchments of the Darling are

The Darling River catchment is relatively flat with a gradient of just 16mm per 1000 metres. The river proper begins between Brewarrina and Bourke at the confluence of the Culgoa and Barwon rivers.

The Darling River is not an unregulated river. Created in 1949 with the conversion of the natural lakes around Menindee (known as the Laidley Pondage), the Menindee Lakes system is the most significant river regulation. Initially, the pondage was a chain of shallow ephemeral freshwater lakes connected to the Darling River to form a storage system, the damming enabled flows to be controlled.