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The Darling River

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 system is sourced primarily from the subtropical summer rains of South East Queensland (the Darling Downs), 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 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, as one, flows through South Australia's Riverland region onto Lake Alexandrina and into the Southern Ocean.

Early European exploration, 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:

Darling River - Quick Facts

  • How Long is the Darling River?

The Darling River is 1,472 km long when measuring it is a named river from the junction of the Culgoa and Barwon rivers 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 tributaries of these two rivers originate from 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 stopped flowing?

Yes, the Darling River has stopped flowing many times throughout history and pre-history. In fact,  the river has ceased to flow 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 about 13% of the Murray–Darling Basin, but only accounts for about 2.8% of the flow in the Basin; however much more water flows through the system with 99% of its flow is generated via the upstream catchments.

Darling River map of tributaries and sources. Outback NSW, Australia

See here for more information on:

Darling River History

  • The Indigenous Darling River (Baaka)

The First Nation people have an extended, living, cultural association with the Darling River, although 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 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.

Darling River in Crisis

In 1992, the Darling River suffered from severe cyanobacterial bloom 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 back into the Darling.

In 2019 the 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 there was at Menindee (Lakes). The drought of 2019 is being compared to the Federation drought of the early 1900s, the most severe in recorded history.

Darling River Course & Geology

One of the largest river systems in the world, 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, Southeast Queensland, and parts of 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 have a gradient of just 16mm per 1000 metres and 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, and the most significant regulation of the river was when the natural lakes around Menindee (known as the Laidley Pondage) were converted into the Menindee Lakes system in 1949. Originally, 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.