The Darling River

Murray-Darling Waterways

The Darling River, Australia. Photographed at Trilby Station, Louth, NSW Outback

The Darling River is Australia's most iconic river and when combined with its longest tributaries 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.

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

The Darling River river system is sourced primarily from the subtropical summer rains of South East Queensland, as opposed to the Murray River which receives its flow from the New South Wales/Victorian alpine region's snowmelt, and as such is more of a 'boom/bust' with regards to its flow.

The river has always been one of extremes, 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, as one, flows through South Australia's Riverland region onto Lake Alexandrina and into the Southern Ocean.

The Indigenous Darling River

The Darling River has always been an integral part of the Indigenous culture, a culture that can be traced back at least 45,000 years and today, the river remains the lifeblood for their living culture. To the indigenous, the river had various names according to the local communities along the river, but the European name attributed to the river when it was 'discovered' by explorer Charles Sturt in 1829 was in honour of Sir Ralph Darling, the then Governor of New South Wales.

Evidence of its importance to the Indigenous cultures can be seen along the length of the waterway 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 rivers of eastern Australian all ran into a vast inland sea. The early explorers were correct in thinking there was an inland sea, but they were about 50 million years too late as the climate was vastly different during the Cretaceous period when in fact the centre of Australia was a vast inland sea.

The 'Wild West' was a frontier for European settlement in the 19th century and cattlemen began to carve out vast stations and forged stock routes to the major commercial centres of Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. But the challenge faced by the pastoral pioneers was how to access these commercial centres via road transport which at the time 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'), and with this first successful navigation of the Darling River, the potential for it to become a major transport route was realised.

By the 1890s, the river ports of Bourke, 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 days of the riverboats and ports were numbered.

Today, the Darling River is still an integral part of the outback, indigenous culture and pioneering history. Attempts are being made to manage this wonderful resource better, so it is available for not only the farmers and indigenous cultures who rely on it but also those who enjoy it recreationally.

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