It was like something out of a Monty Python sketch.
It was late at night when the rain had started falling. I lay in our Trakmaster, listening and thinking about the dirt track across the black soil we had slipped onto to get away from the bitumen and thrum of passing traffic. The narrow track ended at a steep muddy channel, so I knew that wasn’t an escape route.
Waking Viv up, I was greeted by, “You gotta be kidding!” That was a negative, so putting on our best bush night attire, we went out in the drizzle and fired up the ‘Cruiser. While Viv wandered down the track with a torch directing, I edged out of our narrow single lane track, dodging a tree and following the curl of the track, both sides of which were bordered by a shallow, muddy ditch. It would have been easy in the daylight, but in the pitch black it was another ballgame. It was a tense 10 minutes before we were back at a safer, firmer spot I could more easily get out of if the rain continued.
It did, and next morning we fishtailed, slipped and slid over the graded dirt road for the few hundred metres back to the blacktop. We realised our plan to follow the Macquarie River to its final meeting with the Barwon River was on hold for a day or two.
THE JOURNEY’S BEGINNING
Our journey along the Macquarie started in the inland city of Bathurst a few days earlier when we had pulled into the showgrounds and set up camp.
Founded in May 1815 by then Governor Macquarie a couple of years after the Blue Mountains had been crossed, the town is the oldest inland European settlement in the country and therefore has a unique position in Australian history.
Originally this area was part of the lands of the Wiradjuri groups, but the rich plains were soon colonised by Europeans, with the Governor helping the first settlers with grants of land, cattle and grain to grow. It quickly became a major base for settlers and explorers, including Charles Sturt, who struck out into unexplored country along the Macquarie River in 1828. Gold was discovered in the hills north of the city in 1851 and the fortunes and future of Bathurst were confirmed.
Today, Bathurst is more famous for the great car race on the legendary Mt Panorama circuit, but the town has a lot to see and do, including some fine old buildings to admire around the Town Square and along George Street and Keppel Street.
However, the building and display we wanted to check out most was the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum. This collection of some of the finest and most historic minerals, gemstones and incredible fossils you will find anywhere, is the lifetime work of Warren Somerville. This amazing collection, which was valued at over $15 million some years ago, was gifted to Bathurst and is housed in a spectacular series of displays in the 1876 Public School building. Being a bit of a dinosaur nut (who isn’t?) we were particularly interested in the skeleton of ‘Rex’, the mighty tyrannosaurus rex which is probably the best rex skeleton in Australia. Originally discovered in Arizona, where it roamed the swamps and forests some 70 to 65 million years ago, it is amazing!
For art lovers there’s the regional art gallery and a local arts trail where Bathurst artists open their studios to the public on the first full weekend of the month. If you are looking for good food and wine, try Maloufs Mediterranean/Lebanese restaurant in George Street, or Dogwood BX, an American style restaurant in Keppel Street. The ribs are to die for, as is the crispy southern style chicken, while the bar serves ice-cold beer, fine wine and some gob-smacking cocktails.
We tore ourselves away from Bathurst, our rough plan to follow Charles Sturt’s journey north along the Macquarie River to the Darling River. A couple of hours driving along backroads brought us to the impounded waters of Lake Burrendong, the only major dam on the Macquarie, though there are a number of smaller weirs and dams along its length. On the lake’s western shores is the Lake Burrendong State Park and Recreational Area and here there is a large caravan park along with a well-serviced boat ramp. However, the river below the dam wall was just flowing and our thoughts of a canoe jaunt were dashed.
We didn’t linger, instead pushing on to Wellington which is the second oldest inland settlement in Aus. The town, situated on Macquarie River, has a couple of heritage listed buildings and a huge correctional centre just north of the town. We stopped briefly for lunch on the side of the depleted stream at the John Oxley Reserve, where there is a freecamp nearby.
Cruising the blacktop we bypassed Dubbo, even though it has a host of things to do and see, none more so than the Western Plains Zoo, which from a past visit we knew, is a beauty. Just downstream from Dubbo is the Terramungamine Reserve, a registered Indigenous heritage site that protects a large number of grinding grooves where Aboriginal people once formed and sharpened axe and spear heads. Nearby close to the river is a large parking area which is a popular freecamp for travellers.
Our camp that night was further downstream at the Gin Gin Weir, where a goodly amount of water was running over the wall, other streams having joined the Macquarie below the Burrendong dam wall — thank goodness.
Originally constructed to divert the river’s waters into Crooked Creek for irrigation purposes the wall was badly breached in the floods of 1903. Now just a few metres high, the stretch of water behind the wall is used as a pumping pool for the surrounding farms, while the area immediately downstream has a sandy beach and a few pleasant campsites.
In Warren, which touts itself as the gateway to the Macquarie Marshes, we stopped at the Windows on the Wetlands centre where, on Saturday mornings, it seems to be the place where local ladies meet for a coffee. However, the info boards at the Wetlands centre are well worth a study, while the nearby easy walking trail is a great introduction to the marshes and their wildlife.
THE NEXT LEG
After a re-supply in Warren we took the road north to the hamlet of Quambone, the town and even the pub being quiet as we drove through.
Taking to the dirt we turned west, onto the road that takes you through the heart of the Macquarie Marshes, which is about the only spot you can get up close and personal with the vast swamp. In a wet year, with the river in high flood, the marshes take up nearly 200,000ha while the nature reserve (closed to the public) covers 22,000ha, the rest being held in private hands.
The reserve is listed under the international Ramsar Convention as an important wetland, and the area plays host to nearly 300 species of birds including migratory wanderers, that come from as far away as Siberia, dozens of fish species and a number of reptiles, amphibians and mammals.
We stopped at the observation platform on the side of the road, but with little water around it, there wasn’t much to see. In fact, we’ve been here three times now and the result has always been the same — no water, while elsewhere there generally is. Maybe they put the platform in the wrong place, or the river flow has changed.
Luckily, just up the road, water was flowing, and birds could be seen in the open stretches of water nearby, while shyer ones flitted nervously through the tall reeds that surrounded us. We crossed the main channel of the Macquarie River a short distance further on.
GETTING BACK OFF THE BLACKTOP
Skirting the western edge of the swamp, that night we stopped just outside the small town of Carinda where our black soil and rain drama occurred. Forced on the blacktop, the next morning we made our way to Walgett and then Brewarrina where we checked out the fish traps used by the Indigenous people.
Next day, with the country drying out. we headed back to Carinda. taking the Billybingbone Road (don’t you love the name), crossing the Macquarie River just west of Carinda, and turning north on the dirt towards the Brewon homestead. The country out here is flat, and you have to look closely at the river to see if there is any flow.
The stream — it’s hard to call it a river — loses itself somewhere in the Ginghet Nature Reserve where there is no public access. It seemingly reforms again, and we crossed it just east of Brewon and then again just north of the homestead, where the waters flow in a shallow, muddy gutter, fringed by old red gums and gnarled coolibahs.
Somewhere nearby on the flat plains the Macquarie and Castlereagh River and Marthaguy and Briery creeks coalesce during flood into an inland sea of lignum, reed and canegrass, their waters oozing together into a similar looking Barwon River to form the bigger, more pronounced and important, Darling River.
Back on the blacktop once more we hummed our way back through Brewarrina and onto Bourke where we pulled up into the Kidmans Camp Caravan Park. We stayed a few nights so we could enjoy this famous outback town we often pass through on our way north, but rarely stop to savour.
Sturt had come this way too, back in 1828–29, discovering and naming the Darling, before heading south along its banks and turning back about 60km south of the present-day town. Mitchell followed, building a fort a few kilometres south of Bourke, which, with a key and directions from the info centre, you can visit.
THE OUTSKIRTS OF BOURKE
Just on the outskirts of town, the Back of Bourke Discovery Centre is a beauty, and while it may seem a little expensive, it was worth it. In days gone by, when the paddle steamers thrashed up the Darling to take the huge wool clips the vast sheep stations were producing, water flowed from hundreds of artesian bores, and the railway line had just arrived in the town, people were sure Bourke was going to be the ‘Chicago of western NSW’. Henry Lawson came and wrote some of his most celebrated works here, while Will Ogilvie penned his most famous poems and ‘Breaker’ Morant wooed woman and broke horses’ hearts before he went off to the Boer War and helped change Australian Military Law forever.
History is still being written here and we paid homage at the grave of the famous eye doctor, Fred Hollows. Fred did some of his most important work in and around Bourke, and he is near idolised here. Luckily for many, his work and legacy continues today.
For our last night in Bourke, we went to the Port of Bourke hotel. It’s a little expensive, but fresh vegetables don’t come cheap in Bourke. The old pub is one of the many historic buildings in this outback town that will enthral people who give it time to seep into their being, and it is vastly different to the more settled regions of Bathurst. Both have their attractions and both towns are different from one another — make sure you stay long enough to notice the difference!