Where the Rivers Run

By Harry Wooller

Early one spring morning the coach started from Canberra.  On the box seat were the driver and the camp cook.  Behind them were the nine passengers.  

Following a short diversion to the village of Gobarralong, east of Gundagai, to view the remains of the chromite mines, the exploratory party made good time along the Hume and Sturt highways heading towards Wagga Wagga where they boiled the billy and had lunch.  Beside the road east of Hay there was a small cemetery where, in the nineteenth century, the owners of Burrobogie Station had kindly buried young travellers who would not pass that way again.

The afternoon was spent crossing the Hay plains towards Balranald, a sleepy town on the clay coloured Murrumbidgee.  Billy, a local horse trainer, and his wife Pam welcomed them to the ‘Colony Inn’, where they were made more comfortable than those on the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition of 1860.

Next morning a visit to Waldaira Station showed the skills of Australian shearers with four stands in use.  Covering 90,000 acres, Waldaira is located at the southern extremity of the Willandra lake system.  Home of the Mutti Mutti people, an extended exploration on foot allowed our intrepid travellers to observe many stone artefacts at Box Creek and scarred trees along the banks of the dried out Lake Waldaira.

After a further night in the comfort of good lodgings, it was time to throw caution to the winds and head northwest up the track to Mungo National Park and the ancient dry lakebed of Lake Mungo.  The party found it hard to imagine a different time when the lake was full, the climate was temperate and the oldest Australians thrived on its shores.  They walked on the eastern lunette, a high sand and clay structure formed by the prevailing westerlies and saw for themselves middens, fireplaces and stone tools from this habitation.

The cook had excelled herself at Mungo and, although loath to leave, our intrepid adventurers were looking forward to the next township of Mildura (aboriginal for ‘red earth’) on the banks of the mighty Murray.  They marvelled at the opulence of the Royal Hotel and the beauty of the river explored aboard the paddle steamer ‘Mundoo’.  Bird life was in great abundance, which pleased those with an ornithological bent.  That evening master chef Stefano provided in his restaurant in cellar of the Royal Hotel a splendid degustation menu.  The party ate and drank well under the careful guidance of manager Brendan who hailed from Greece.  Maybe the history books are wrong and Italians and Greeks do get on!

Next day saw the travellers on the Chaffey trail heading for Wentworth.  Here the Darling enters the Murray and the port that developed in the 1850s was second only to Sydney for cargo handled.  The remnants of the old wharf and bridge reinforced the importance of the Murray and its tributaries in the settlement and commerce of the region.  A brief visit was made to the Perry Sandhills, a strange vista indeed emerging from the waterless scrub, before leaving for Broken Hill via Menindee.

The coach handled the dirt road well as they followed the Darling and soon there was much discussion about Broken Hill where that icon of commerce, the Broken Hill Propriety Company, was founded.  Some of historical bent were keen to promote the importance of Sir Thomas Mitchell, the NSW Surveyor General, who explored the area in 1841 and Charles Sturt who three years later recorded the name ‘broken hill’ in his diary. Like Burke and Wills the adventurers arrived hungry and thirsty at the Menindee Hotel five minutes before the cook was about to leave at 2.00 pm.  Their leader was at his most persuasive, cook remained and some memorable tucker was eaten.  With much Burke and Wills portraiture looking on from the dining room wall it was natural to wonder what part this hotel played in the disastrous decisions Burke made in October 1860 and the effect these had on the ultimate outcome of the expedition. Then it was onwards to Broken Hill, the ‘silver city’.

In January 1884 Charles Rasp found a rich vein of silver contained in an ore body that was 7.5 km long and 250 m wide.  The resulting mine opened in 1885 and underpinned the growth and success of the city.  Within eight years the population was 20,000, just as it is today.  All were impressed with the outstanding examples of late Victorian architecture to be seen in the many hotels and magnificent town hall.  A giant mullock heap dominates and physically divides the city.  It is from the Miner’s Museum on the summit that one can get the best view of Broken Hill and surrounds.  Mining is the glue that binds this community. Even the street names, such as Argent, Cobalt, Crystal, Beryl and more remind one of this heritage.

The travellers had an invigorating stay enjoying the museums, art galleries and coffee shops.  But three expeditions out of town will be long remembered: the Broken Hill Sculptures, the Daydream Silver Mine and the visit Mutawintji National Park.

On April Fools Day 1993 some 53 tonnes of sandstone boulders were converted by sculptors from diverse countries into magnificent works of art.  From the well-chosen hill site, the results of this ‘Sculptor Symposium’ were observed late in the day.  The many gathered noticed how naturally the varied cultural statements complemented each other as the setting sun lit the scene with many changing colours.

Just off the road to Silverton sits the Daydream Mine, a living museum that allows the visitor to experience the working environment of the nineteenth century miner.  The group donned hard hats and descended on foot the narrow shafts to the darkness below.  It was hard to imagine that 8-year-old boys had been employed in the mine.  There is nothing so black as a mine without lights and lighting a candle seemed to make matters worse.  It was a fascinating visit but all were pleased to reach the surface.

Situated in the Bynguano Ranges, Mutawintji (‘place of green grass and water holes’) has been a place of ceremony and celebration for nomadic people of the surrounding waterless plains with evidence of continuous use over at least 8000 years. Burke and Wills described it as a ‘dark and gloomy place’ but the visitors found it to be beautiful and uplifting.  The local guide showed the travellers rock engravings, stencils and paintings as evidence of this long occupation.  As they left Mutawintji they were enveloped in a violent dust storm, which made driving difficult and dangerous.  The red dust stung their faces and filled the interior of the coach.  This natural event added to the feeling that they had experienced the real outback.

It was time to leave Broken Hill and once again the travellers found themselves following the Darling, described by Henry Lawson as “…either a muddy gutter or a second Mississippi”.  At Wilcannia the river was more like a muddy gutter with very little evidence of a once thriving port that in the 1880s sometimes had thirty river steamers loading or unloading.  Edmund Resch built his first brewery in Wilcannia and it seemed appropriate to sample his golden fluid at dinner.

Turning south they headed south along the Cobb Highway (mostly dirt) to reach the Willandra National Park.  This huge pastoral lease (circa 13000 hectares) was opened in 1869 by the Haines family and continued to prosper under various managers until the lease expired in 1970, when it was returned to the crown and proclaimed a national park. It can be recommended as a well preserved example of how the squattocracy lived and managed the land, complete with a fine homestead and tennis court, men’s quarters, shearing shed, ram shed and various cottages.  Careful examination of Willandra Creek revealed evidence of indigenous occupation and later European settlement, including the remains of a smart Chevrolet sport sedan circa 1939.  

After two nights it was time to make the return journey to Canberra via Narrandera where a convivial farewell dinner was partaken.  The adventurers had travelled some 3,000km, 1,000km on unsealed roads.  On reflection the educational process inherent in the title of this expedition was made painless by the leadership of Mr Chris Carter and the enthusiastic involvement of pleasant and knowledgeable companions.  One hopes it will be repeated in the future so that more may partake of the benefits to be gained.

Wildiaries •