The Darling River, Outback NSW

Australian Rivers & Waterways

The Darling River holds the title of Australia's most iconic river, boasting the distinction of being the country's longest waterway when combined with its longest tributaries. It stretches from Queensland's Darling Downs, traversing Outback NSW, until it meets the Murray River at Wentworth in the southwest corner of New South Wales.

Exploring the Darling River

To truly appreciate the grandeur of Australia's greatest waterway, there one captivating journey to embark upon: the Darling River Run and the Source to Sea touring route, which covers the entire length of the river.

A Vital Part of the Murray Darling Basin

The Darling River is a vital component of the Murray Darling Basin, an extensive area spanning 1,061,469 square kilometres, covering approximately 14% of Australia's total landmass. Originating from Queensland's Darling Downs and the northern rivers region of New South Wales, the Darling River catchment shares borders with the Lake Eyre Basin's Lake Frome division, just north of Broken Hill and south of Cameron Corner. Surprisingly, the opal town of White Cliffs also falls within the Darling River catchment.

To gain insights into the region's captivating geology and hydrography, embark on the Watershed Loop touring route. This route not only connects the Darling River Run with other Corner Country touring routes but also provides a profound understanding of the land's formation and water flow.

Nature's Contrasts: Boom and Bust

While the Murray River receives its flow from the snowmelt in the New South Wales and Victorian alpine regions, the Darling River primarily relies on subtropical summer rains in the Darling Downs of South East Queensland. This fundamental difference gives the Darling River its distinctive boom and bust characteristics regarding its water flow.

The Darling River has always been marked by extremes, with periods of both floods and droughts. This inherent nature contributes to the ethereal majesty of our most iconic river. Flowing southwest across outback New South Wales, the Darling River eventually merges with the Murray River at Wentworth, situated on the New South Wales/Victoria border. From there, it meanders through South Australia's Riverland region, ultimately reaching Lake Alexandrina and finally the Southern Ocean.

The Indigenous Darling River (Baaka)

A Cultural Legacy Spanning Millennia

The Indigenous people, known as the Barkintji, have an extensive and living cultural connection with the Darling River, which they refer to as the Barka. Evidence suggests that their history along the river dates back over 45,000 years. To this day, the river remains the lifeblood of their rich cultural heritage.

The Indigenous cultures have left profound imprints along the length of the river, with notable sites such as the fish traps at Brewarrina and the world's oldest ritual burial ground at Lake Mungo. These sites, along with countless others, bear witness to the river's historical and sacred significance. For centuries, the river has provided a home, a fishing and hunting ground, and a trade route for Aboriginal groups.

The European Darling River

Explorers, Pioneers, and River Transport

European explorers arrived in the Darling River region with the hope of discovering the fabled "inland sea," mistakenly believing that all the rivers in eastern Australia flowed into a vast, interconnected body of water. While they were correct in their assumption about the presence of an inland sea, it existed around 50 million years earlier, during the Cretaceous period when Australia's center was submerged.

During the 19th century, the "Wild West" became a frontier for European settlement. Cattlemen established vast stations and forged stock routes connecting major commercial centers like Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne. However, they faced the challenge of establishing reliable road transport to access these service centers. Many believed that river transport could revolutionize the outback, providing a vital link from the farm gate to shipping ports in Adelaide and Melbourne, thus enabling transportation to England.

The dream of river transport began to materialize in 1859 when a riverboat named Gemini, captained by William Randell, successfully navigated the Darling River, reaching Brewarrina (formerly known as "Walcha Hut" and earlier as "Fishery"). This milestone confirmed the river's potential as a significant transportation route.

By the 1890s, river ports in Bourke, Wilcannia, and Wentworth were bustling, catering to the vast wool empires of Outback NSW and southern Queensland, which spanned over a million hectares. Wentworth, in particular, emerged as Australia's busiest inland port by the late 1880s. In 1895 alone, 485 vessels passed through the Customs House, with 31 vessels in a single week.

However, challenges arose due to the boom and bust nature of the river's flow, and the advent of railways in the early 1900s provided a more reliable means of transport. Consequently, the relevance of riverboats and ports began to decline.

Today's Darling River: A Precious Resource

The Darling River retains its integral role in the outback, indigenous culture, and pioneering history. Efforts are underway to better manage this invaluable resource, ensuring its availability for farmers, indigenous communities, and recreational enjoyment.

Darling River in Crisis

Environmental Challenges and Resilience

In 1992, the Darling River faced a severe crisis as cyanobacterial blooms, stretching the entire length of the river, occurred. These toxic algae blooms were fueled by the presence of phosphorus, while other contributing factors included flow rates, turbulence, turbidity, and temperature.

In 2008, the Australian government purchased Toorale Station in northern New South Wales for A$23 million, allowing for the return of eleven gigaliters of environmental flows into the Darling River.

In 2019, the Darling River once again made headlines when up to one million fish perished due to the drought and lack of flowing water, which stagnated the remaining water at Menindee Lakes. The 2019 drought was comparable to the severe Federation drought that occurred in the early 1900s, which stands as the most devastating drought in recorded history.

However, in March 2020, eastern Australia experienced a remarkable deluge of rain, offering respite from the drought and replenishing the Darling River and surrounding areas. This rainfall event was considered one of the most significant and comprehensive in living memory.

Fast forward to late 2022, and the Murray-Darling Basin has undergone a reboot, with the long and harsh drought finally becoming part of history for most.

Darling River Course & Geology

A Magnificent River System

As one of the largest river systems globally, the Murray-Darling Basin drains extensive regions, including all of New South Wales west of the Great Dividing Range, most of Victoria north of the Great Dividing Range, southeast Queensland, and southeast South Australia. The Murray-Darling Basin encompasses nearly 15% of Australia's total land area, spanning 1,062,025 square kilometers.

Measuring from its longest tributary to its mouth at Wentworth, the Darling River stretches over 2,739 kilometers, solidifying its position as Australia's longest waterway. Its course flows via the Condamine-Balonne Catchment, with the Condamine River originating near Killarney in Queensland. The Condamine River is joined by the Balonne River and the Culgoa channel before merging with the Darling River upstream of Bourke.

Other catchments within the Darling River basin include:

  • Paroo Catchment
  • Warrego Catchment
  • Moonie Catchment
  • Border Rivers Catchment
  • Namoi Catchment
  • Macquarie-Castlereagh Catchment

The Darling River catchment features relatively flat terrain, with a gradient of only 16 millimetres per 1000 meters. The river proper begins between Brewarrina and Bourke at the confluence of the Culgoa and Barwon rivers.

It's important to note that the Darling River is not an unregulated river. In 1949, the Menindee Lakes system was created through the conversion of natural lakes around Menindee, known as the Laidley Pondage. This system serves as the primary river regulation mechanism. Originally, the pondage consisted of a series of shallow ephemeral freshwater lakes connected to the Darling River, forming a storage system that allowed for controlled flows.

For more information about the Darling River, its tributaries, map, history, and the significance of the river to Indigenous cultures, please explore the following sections:

We invite you to discover the rich heritage, natural wonders, and ongoing efforts to preserve and protect Australia's iconic Darling River.