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Wentworth, New South Wales

Article for mature and senior travellers travelling on a small group tour to this historic town situated on the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers in southwestern New South Wales. Once Australia’s busiest inland river port frequented by paddle steamers. Many historic buildings remain today from its heyday including the Old Gaol, the Courthouse, the Convent and the Customs House, defining the character of this New South Wales Town.

9 Feb 21 · 8 mins read

Wentworth

Wentworth is a charming historic town situated on the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers in southwestern New South Wales. Once Australia’s busiest inland river port frequented by paddle steamers, many historic buildings remain today from its heyday including the Old Gaol, the Courthouse, the Convent and the Customs House. Situated in a region of great diversity, it offers visitors the ideal introductory experience to Outback Australia.

This article explores the history and attractions of Wentworth 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.

Odyssey visits Wentworth during our Darling River Run Tour. This small group adventure tour travels along the Darling, through amazing landscape settings that have shaped the country of New South Wales. 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. We travel to Wentworth after re-joining the Darling River near Mildura following a day tour in the nearby Mungo National Park. Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, this guided tour journey moves in small groups limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers.

Mungo National Park
Mungo National Park, New South Wales.

Wentworth’s History

First and foremost Wentworth embodies the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers, and the closeness of all three states: NSW, Victoria and South Australia. The SA border lies 100km west, while the Murray draws the line between NSW and Victoria. It was named in 1859 after the explorer, author and politician William Wentworth – who rather appropriately was born on the water when his mother was anchored off Norfolk Island.

Water has played a defining role in Wentworth’s history. After the search for an inland body of water in 1829 had yielded the discovery of the Darling River, Charles Sturt was spurred to trace the Murrumbidgee River which led him to the “broad and noble” Murray, which in turn led him to the confluence with the Darling. Sturt’s river pioneering in a 25 foot whaleboat, assembled en route overland, is celebrated by a plaque at the very point where he weighed anchor. Wentworth’s situation on not just one important river, but at the meeting of Australia’s two largest rivers, meant that it was poised to become a very significant centre of transport and trade in the era of river boats.

Originally Wentworth was known as Hawdon’s Ford, the camp site established by Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney who drove cattle overland from NSW to Adelaide along the Murray in 1838. The small European settlement became the Darling Junction, then McLeod’s Crossing in the mid 1840s.

The year 1853 marked the turning point for the future Wentworth with the arrival of paddle-steamers. It was full steam ahead for a river port with huge demand and huge potential. The township was built on the Darling, about half a mile from the river junction, on rising ground to be out of reach of flood waters, and by 1876 its population of 4-500 were prospering.

Echuca paddle-steamer
Paddle-steamer on the Murray River, Echuca.

One of the town’s inhabitants was a certain John Egge, who arrived from China in 1852, worked as a cook on the paddle-steamers, set up food businesses with his English wife, bought various boats and became one of the biggest traders on the river. During a particularly high flood one year he exuberantly floated one of his boats down the main street. Wentworth remembers him fondly with a statue on the Wentworth Wharf.

The wharf became the nucleus of the town and the region, where bullock teams hauled in the wool from outlying stations to load on board the steamers and barges. In the 1890s there were 92 paddle steamers working the Darling, and between 1890 and 1900 Wentworth became the largest river port in Australia with over 400 craft using it in a year. In some years these craft shipped over 12,000 bales of wool from the Darling River woolsheds.

For many years Sydney and Newcastle were the only ports in New South Wales to handle more cargo than Wentworth, and to the inconvenience and annoyance to trade (as a local journalist remarked in 1876) Wentworth’s Customs Office became the busiest in New South Wales outside Sydney and Newcastle. Even berthing a boat in the different colonies incurred a poll tax.

Wentworth’s lofty civic status was evidenced by its Customs House, Gaol, Courthouse, Convent and a branch of the Australian Joint Stock Bank. Its St John’s Church of England was erected in 1871 of stone and mud mortar with bricks around the edges. It was the first church to be built on the banks of the Darling River with many of the materials brought to the town by barge, and is a National Trust building. The gaol housed inmates from as far afield as Broken Hill and Wilcannia, and is classified by the National Trust as being essential to Australia’s heritage as its best example of a small gaol of the Victorian era in NSW. It closed in 1927, but reopened for a short time in 1962 when fruit-pickers proved troublesome.

Also troublesome were the variations in the region’s lifeblood: the river levels. Repeated droughts and floods, however, failed to stop Wentworth Shire from continuing to thrive, and gradually measures were put in place to regulate water flows. In the early 1900’s the first irrigation settlement in New South Wales was commenced at Curlwaa, seven kilometres east of Wentworth. Irrigation breathed new life into the district which led to pastoral properties being divided into smaller allotments.

By 1929 a series of locks and weirs, to assist navigation and pumping, had been completed on the Murray River. The new century also brought improved roads and rail networks, slowly rendering the paddle steamers obsolete. One that has been salvaged for posterity is Wentworth’s PS Ruby from 1907, which worked the river until 1941 – it was once the fastest passenger/cargo paddle steamer on the Murray – and these days can be visited in a riverside park.

1956 was a particularly memorable year for Wentworth. As originally suspected by Charles Sturt, the Darling is the main outlet for tropical rains from Queensland (he had first witnessed the Darling in its drought state near Bourke). Indeed its headwaters and tributaries are fed by monsoonal downpours in in north-eastern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and when in flood it becomes an inland sea which can reach as far as Walgett.

In 1956 both Darling and Murray flooded simultaneously after 3 months of heavy rain, which affected many towns in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Flood waters moved down the rivers for seven months – it is still considered the biggest flood in the recorded history of the Murray, and South Australia’s worst natural disaster. Ultimately in Wentworth it was cause for celebration after the mammoth efforts by local farmers, helped by army and navy forces, to build retaining levee banks were successful.

Every five years a tractor rally is held to celebrate the indispensable role played by Massey-Ferguson tractors (the next one is scheduled Saturday, June 12, 2021), and the world’s first monument to a tractor marks the level of the threatening flood. A third of Wentworth had gone under water, and authorities were urging evacuation, but the light and manoeuvrable Fergies were worked 24 hours a day to fortify the levees and save the town.

Attractions Nearby

Just 6km west of Wentworth the land offers a total contrast from the riverscape. The Perry Sand-Dunes are red, rolling dunes of impressive stature, up to 20m high, covering an area of approximately 160 hectares (400 acres). They date back to the Ice Age of 40,000 years ago and contain tantalising remains of prehistoric animals (megafauna) and evidence of early Aboriginal occupation.

Perry Sand Hills

As the sand continues to shift in the wind more remnants of past geological times are revealed. (The archeological treasure trove of Lake Mungo is only 120 km away.) Nearby Thegoa Lagoon, at the Murray and Darling junction, has great archeological and cultural significance to the Barkindji people, as it is where the last great corroboree of a group of over 500 Aboriginal people was held in the 1860s.

Wentworth Small Group Tours New South Wales

Odyssey Traveller visits Wentworth as part of our Darling River Run small group tour. This 14 day small group tour begins and ends in Sydney, travelling 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.

The Darling is referred typically as part of The Murray-Darling Basin traversing much of outback NSW. This basin is unique and contains much of importance in Australia’s Aboriginal and European heritage, from the earliest days of Aboriginal life, to the European exploration and then on to the present day. It could be considered to be part of the essence of Australia – the cultural and historical heritage of the people, the riverboat trade, station life and the life of the towns is revealed in so many places via the river system.

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.
  • 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 to the Darling River.

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