Bourke, New South Wales

Bourke, a historic settlement on the upper reaches of the Darling river. For escorted small group tours of upto 15 people for mature and senior travellers exploring Bourke is an important part of the Aboriginal, cultural and pastoral history of outback NSW.

6 Nov 20 · 5 mins read

Bourke, Outback NSW: Explored for small group tours

By Marco Stojanovik

“If you know Bourke, you know Australia,” wrote the famous Australian poet Henry Lawson in 1910. Lying on the edge of a desert at the start of Outback Australia, you can’t get much closer to the essence of the Australian land. Bourke is located where the Kidman Way meets the south bank of the Darling River, north-west NSW, 789 km north-west of Sydney and 133 km south of the Queensland NSW border.

Once a major 19th century river port and trading post centre, at its peak more than 80 boats transported wool from the town down the Darling River through the outback to major ports like Adelaide. Today, Bourke remains an inviting Australian outback attraction with impressive historic landmarks and stunning scenery for every visitor to enjoy.

Odyssey Traveller conducts a small group tour of Bourke as part of our our escorted small group tour of Western New South Wales. Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, we move in small groups limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers. We spend two days in and around the Bourke area exploring the town and nearby attractions such as the Brewinna Fish Traps and Gundabooka National Park where we take the Mulgowan (Yappa) Aboriginal Art Site walking track to see some ancient Aboriginal rock art up close. This article explores Bourke’s history to assist your tour.

Bourke, NSW, main street / Tim Keegan / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bourke’s Early History

The current township of Bourke is located on Gurnu – Baakandji Country and was home to the Ngemba group of the Wongaibon Aboriginal language group prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The first white explorer to pass through the district was Charles Sturt in 1828 who encountered the Darling River (which he named after Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of NSW at the time) and climbed Mount Oxley in the hopes of finding an inland see. Having arrived in the area during a period of intense draught and a low salty river, he dismissed the possibility of its habitability or potential to establish reliable industry, regarding the whole area as “unlikely to become the haunt of civilized man”.

With Sturt’s less than enthusiastic reports of the area, settlement was momentarily discouraged. This was until 1835 following Sir Thomas Mitchell’s return to the area during his expedition to explore the course of the Darling River from where Sturt had turned back. Following tensions with the local Aboriginal people, Mitchell constructed a stockade about 13 km south of the present town site as protection against possible attacks, and named it Fort Bourke after then governor of NSW, Sir Richard Bourke.

The fort became the foundation of a fledging community consisting of a small number of agricultural and livestock farms in the region shortly afterwards. Taking the same name as the fort, the district and later the town also came to be known as Bourke.

The Darling River, near the town of Bourke in New South Wales, Australia.

Key Trade Centre

The history of the district changed dramatically in 1859 when Captain W. R. Randall sailed the Gemini up the Darling River from South Australia. Bourke, Brewarrina and other centres along the river were established as vital transport nodes linking the outback agricultural industries with the east coast trade routes.

The Port of Bourke soon became the focus of the world’s wool industry with wool from all across western NSW and south western Queensland transported in by bullock wagons. The wool was then shipped via paddle steamers from Bourke’s port down the Darling to the Murray River to South Australia and onto Adelaide to then be shipped around the world.

As several transportation industries flocked to the town to set up branches it quickly became the trade centre of outback NSW, a position that was firmly cemented once it became accessibly by rail in 1885.

Paddle steamer “Bourke” alongside three barges in the Darling River about 1880 / State Library of South Australia

At its peak in the late 1800s, 40,000 bales of wool were being shipped down the Darling annually. But as the rail system in Australia grew to be more reliable than the river flow, trade gradually moved away from river transport routes and Bourke lost its position as the centre of the inland trade industry. By 1931, the last commercial paddle steamer had its final journey down the Darling River marking the end of the river cargo trade.

No longer the trade centre it once was, Bourke has since been transformed into a key service centre for the state’s north western regions with its primary industry comprising of sheep farming and some small irrigated cotton crops.

The heydays of the paddle boats can still be experienced though with a ride on the PV Jandra, a replica of an 1895 paddle steamer. Operating during winter you can take a trip to experience Bourke’s colourful past and learn more about the region’s rich river paddle boat history.

The North Bourke Bridge was built in 1883 and spans the Darling River

Historic Buildings

Today Bourke is home to a number of surviving historical buildings that were built after 1862 when the town was first surveyed.

The town’s first Court House, built between 1862-1865 and serving until 1875, has since been beautifully restored to be one of the most attractive buildings and a key attraction. The current Court House on Oxley Street built in 1899 is equally beautiful and is open for inspection during non-court times.

Court House, Bourke / Ian Sutton / CC BY 2.0

The Post Office built in 1879 with an upper floor added some years later also still stands preserved. The Police Inspectors Quarters, built in 1901, is an elegant wooden building now owned by the local historical society. And the Lands Department Building, built in 1898 as a single story building designed for long hot summers, is just as elegant.

Bourke Post Office / Stitchingbushwalker / CC BY-SA 4.0

Tour of Bourke

You can visit Bourke as part of our escorted small group tour of Western New South Wales. Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, we move in small groups of limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers. We travel for 14 days from Dubbo around the Southern edges of the Murray Darling basin and up to the upper southern part of this complex river basin north of Mildura, before heading back East towards Dubbo via Griffith.

Gain an understanding and appreciation of the complexity and features of the Murray Darling Basin through some spectacular scenery. The program skirts around the edges of the “Aussie Outback”, but is not an outback adventure for the traveller. Whilst the Murray-Darling begins in Queensland, by the time the river system reaches New South Wales it represents one the most complex river systems in Australia against which modern agriculture has placed substantial stress. We see the historic and contemporary evidence of this in the lakes around Menindee. and the many landscape changes including the Mallee, observing and learning about the river woodland galleries, arid lands, saltbush plains, agriculture practices; as well as the mining and railway history of Southern Australia

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations. Tours are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Broken Hill, Bourke, & back.

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