The Darling River
Part of the Murray Darling Basin, which covers 1,061,469 square kilometres (14% of the total area of Australia), the Darling River is sourced from Queensland's Darling Downs and NSW's northern rivers region. The Warrego and Culgoa Rivers bring water from south-east Queensland while the Barwon, Gwydir, Namoi, Castlereagh and Bogan Rivers of northern NSW flow north-west joining the flows from the Darling Downs to form the Darling River.
At 2,739km from its source to the confluence with the Murray River at Wentworth in the states south west corner, the Darling River is Australia's longest river.
The 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 was assigned it was 'discovered' by explorer Charles Sturt in 1829 who named it in honour of Sir Ralph Darling, the then Governor of New South Wales.
The Darling River is primarily fed from the subtropical summer rains of South East Queensland, as opposed to the Murray River which is sourced from the NSW/Vic high country's snow melt, and as such is more of a 'boom/bust' with regards to its flow. Many think it is a river of extremes, either in flood or in drought; that is a nature and majesty of this great river.
At Wentworth on the NSW/Victoria border, the Darling River joins the Murray River and as one, flow through South Australia's Riverland region onto Lake Alexandrina and into the Southern Ocean.
The area is steeped in Aboriginal culture from the fish traps at Brewarrina, a vast array of historical and sacred sites, through to the world's oldest ritual burial ground at Lake Mungo. For centuries the river had been home, fishing and hunting ground and trade route to the Aboriginal groups.
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. 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.
Today we can travel in the comfort of modern motor vehicles, but spare a thought for those 'strangers' to land who explored the interior. People like Sturt, Mitchell, Dowling Burke and Wills are as synonymous with the modern history of the region as are many of their ill-fated and planned expeditions.
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 transport 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 there was the potential for it to become a major transport route.
By the 1890's, 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 were recorded as passing through the Customs House (31 in one week alone).
But the days of the river being the major form of inland transport were full of challenges from the boom/bust nature of the river and it was realised that flow of the river limited reliability. By the turn of early 1900's a new and more reliable form of transport, railways, was spreading inland. The days of the river boats 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 better manage this wonderful resource so it is available for not only the farmers and indigenous cultures who rely on it but also those who enjoy it recreationally.