Walgett, New South Wales

As part of a collection of articles about New South Wales for seniors interested in joining small group tours, couples or singles curious about learning and exploring.

10 Apr 21 · 8 mins read

Walgett

The sun strikes down with a blinding glare,
The skies are blue and the plains are wide,
The saltbush plains that are burnt and bare
By Walgett out on the Barwon side –
The Barwon River that wanders down
In a leisurely manner by Walgett Town.

Banjo didn’t mention it but Walgett town is centred on the Namoi River, near the junction of the Barwon and Namoi Rivers, 696 km north-west of Sydney. It also has an outlet from one of the largest freshwater basins in the world – its Burren Junction Hot Artesian Bore Bath was sunk in 1921, and continues to offer therapeutic benefits in the winter months with the water at a constant temperature of 41.5 degrees Celsius. The Great Artesian Basin contains approximately 8,700 million megalitres of water and underlies 22% of Australia and 26% of New South Wales. It is the deepest and largest artesian basin in the world, stretching from NSW to the Northern Territory, and the therapeutic waters are two million years old.

A former paddle-steamer port, the attractive riverside town Walgett is the northern gateway to the Darling River Run, as well as being the “Gateway to the Opal Fields” as it likes to describe itself – on the road to the famous opal mining settlement of Lightning Ridge and the smaller Grawin, Glengarry, and Sheepyard Opal Fields.

This article explores the history of Walgett to assist Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours New South Wales. An Odyssey small group tour of NSW seeks to go into outback NSW beyond the pristine beaches and major tourist attractions often listed as places to visit in NSW, such the Hunter Valley, Coffs Harbour, Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Byron bay or Bondi Beach. These are part of a portfolio of Australian Outback tours offered by Odyssey for likeminded people who are curious about Outback Australia.

We visit Walgett during our 15 day guided tour of Outback Queensland. We adventure away from the usual tourist centres to explore the stunning scenery and fascinating history of the outback communities of Western Queensland, as well as New South Wales towns on the Queensland border. Beginning and ending in Dubbo, we journey north to south into Queensland and back discovering the big skies, stunning landscapes of the great artesian basin, and fascinating history of the outback communities of Western Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, this small group adventure guided tour is limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers.

Namoi River in country New South Wales, Australia.

History of Walgett

Walgett is reputedly the Kamilaroi (Gamilaroi) word for “the meeting place of two rivers”. The history of conflicts between the Kamilaroi and white settlers is painful, and the worst episodes occurred in 1838 just as the first settlement appeared on the Barwon, followed in 1851 by the establishment of the colony’s outermost post office at a crossing point of the Namoi.

The location by these two rivers meant that a future town could host the paddle steamers that were starting to travel along the Murray-Darling system. The site was surveyed in 1859 and in 1861 the first steamer arrived. By now Walgett had a slab-hut police station, a court of petty sessions, and naturally the first store and hotels. As it gradually became the centre of a new police district, a proper courthouse and lock-up were added.

They soon had candidates for the gaol – Captain Starlight (Frank Pearson) and stockman Charley Rutherford who had robbed various premises and were heading to Enngonia, north of Bourke. The two police constables set out from Walgett, unexpectedly encountered the bushrangers at Enngonia’s Shearer’s Inn, and exchanged gunfire, but Pearson and Rutherford escaped, and PC McCabe’s chest wound proved fatal.

1874 saw the commencement of a regular coach service to Sydney, and two years later the first bank, a school and a hospital opened their doors. The town entered a boom period which lasted until the depression of the 1890s. Future prime minister Edmund Barton became the crown prosecutor at the first court of quarter sessions in 1878. Most importantly for station owners and shearers, Frederick Wolseley of Euroka completed work on the world’s first successful sheep-shearing machine on his property in 1885. The Wolseley Shearing Machine was patented in 1887, tested at Bourke in 1888 on 184,000 sheep and eventually revolutionised the shearing industry.

Walgett’s luck turned in 1890 when the town was devastated by a flood which peaked at 13.84 metres. A brass plate on the old Post Office at the corner of Fox and Wee Waa streets denotes the height of the water in the town at that time. Other major floods followed in 1921 at 13.33 metres and in 1950 at 13.46 metres. After the 1950 flood tenders were called for the construction of a levee bank. Work started in 1961 and it took 22 weeks, using scrapers, bulldozers, graders and water carts, to construct the first permanent levee bank in Australia. It was 8.2 km long. In 1903 the office of the local newspaper burnt down, and the arrival of the railway in 1908 meant the end of the river port.

Before the first train though, Walgett possessed a railway viaduct: the Two-mile Creek Underbridge. This is a rare example of a timber through truss from the post-Whitton era, built by the Public Works Department railway construction branch in the early 20th century between 1905-1907. (John Witton was Engineer-in-Chief and called The Father of NSW Railways. When he started his job there were 64km of railway lines, when he retired there were 3,555km.) It is a highly visible and accessible example of early 20th century bridge technology used as an economical solution in the development of a Pioneer line. The viaduct carried the trains across the 2mile Warrambool watercourse into the Walgett Railway Station. It has not been used since the 1970s when the last passenger train ran.

Two Mile Creek underbridge, Walgett

Walgett’s history also includes the Freedom Rides in the mid-1960s. The Freedom Riders, consisting in the main of Sydney university students, including Charles Perkins, protested outside the Walgett RSL Club because they had been told the club was refusing to admit Indigenous ex-servicemen. They also reportedly picketed a ladies’ dress shop (Sheehan’s), protesting the fact that the proprietor would not allow Indigenous women to try on dresses. After their protests the Freedom Riders left town and headed for Narrabri, when a short distance from Walgett their bus was allegedly forced off the road by a car driven by a local farmer. This event led to Walgett, the Freedom Riders and the plight of Indigenous Australians receiving national and international media attention

Walgett continues to be a regional hub for wool, wheat and cotton, and lucerne in times of drought, and is the Gateway to the Opal Fields as it is on the road to Lightning Ridge and the Grawin, Glengarry and Sheepyard Opal Fields. The Grawin field was where ‘The Light of the World’ (450 g) opal was found in 1928.

Within the Shire the Come-By-Chance name stands out. The property was named when, in 1862, George and William Colless bought a sheep farm in the area, and called it by that name after their great surprise at being able to actually buy something, anything, in the remote area. All the land was thought to be selected for settlement but as the name suggests this one had not been. The town was eventually called after the sheep station. Mr Colless later owned the post office, blacksmith shop, cemetery and other building blocks. Come-by-Chance was reputed to be the only privately owned village in the Southern Hemisphere.

In 2020 Walgett remembered Jimmy Little. The Jimmy Little Memorial Mural on the Walgett Water Tower celebrates Australia’s first, hugely successful First Nations musician who lived in Walgett for a while after marrying a local, Marj Peters. Jimmy Little was voted a National Living Treasure in 2004 and awarded the APRA prestigious Ted Albert Award for this Outstanding Services to the Australian Music Industry in 2010.

Walgett Small Group Tours New South Wales

Odyssey Traveller visits Walgett as part of our small group tour of Outback Queensland. Get well and truly off the beaten track on Odyssey Traveller’s 15-day small group Australian outback tours of Queensland. Away from the usual tourist centres – Brisbane, the Gold Coast, the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Port Douglas, Mt Isa and the Daintree Rainforest – our Odyssey Travellers will discover the big skies, stunning pastoral and desert landscapes, and fascinating history of the outback communities of western Queensland and Northern New South Wales with your tour guide. 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.

Travellers with an interest in touring New South Wales may want to check out some of our other tours including:

  • Small group tour of Southern Australia, including World Heritage sites and more. Designed to make you re-think the way you see Australia, our tour focuses on the borderlands between South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales. Beginning in Adelaide city, our tour heads east to Port Fairy, before heading to the Budj Bim World Heritage Site, an important place of Aboriginal aquaculture. We then go on to Mildura and the mallee, touring the spectacular scenery of Mungo National Park on a day trip from Mildura, before heading to the outback city of Broken Hill. Finally, our tour takes us through South Australia‘s spectacular Flinders Ranges and to the mining town of Burra, before returning to Adelaide city.
  • Small group tour: Broken Hill and Back. This off the beaten track small group tour enables the traveller to journeydeep into the outback NSW on a 13 day 3,200 kilometre round trip, tri state safari beginning and ending in Broken Hill , or ‘The Silver City’. It then tracks on North, just over in the Queensland border, up to Birdsville, before going deep into outback South Australia, and then heading up to Cameron Corner, corner country. Cameron corner is unique, it is the junction of the three states: New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia. The tour heads south from here returning to Broken Hill.
  • The Darling River Run Tour. This small group tour travels along the Darling, through amazing landscape settings that have shaped the country of New South Wales including the Mallee forests in Malle country. We visit Aboriginal sites of importance, stay at station homesteads, and regional historic hotels, meeting the people and encountering the wildlife of the Murray Darling Basin and learning of the riverboat history of the rivers.
  • Small group tour to the Southern Highlands and Canberra. This tour takes you out of Sydneyand away from the beach culture to journey to some important cultural and natural attractions in the beautiful Southern highlands of regional New South Wales including historic Berrima, Kangaroo Valley, Bowral and the Blue Mountains.
  • Small group tour of Western New South Wales. 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.
  • Small group tour of North East New South Wales. This 16 day tour stops at some of the memorable and iconic destinations and places to visit in New South Wales, completing the loop from our start and end destination, Dubbo. We explore the local culture in New England, the North Coastand the Orana regions of New South Wales, including historic towns of Armidale, Tenterfield, Yamba and Mudgee and sections of the mid North coast as well as inland areas. Travelers also time to explore with a local guide the National trust houses including the Saumarez Homestead and the Dundullimal Homestead and properties of Morpeth, Mudgee Rylstone and Gulgong which is home to around 130 National Trust-listed buildings.

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 Outback Queensland:

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