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Wilcannia, New South Wales

Wilcannia was once the third largest inland port in all of Australia. During the great river boat era of the mid-19th century, the port thrived as wheat and wool was transported along the Darling River by paddle-steamer. Article explains the town history and place in Aboriginal and the colonial period for mature and senior travellers on a small group tour of New South Wales.

6 Feb 21 · 9 mins read

Wilcannia

Although only a small town on the edge of the New South Wales outback, 948 km north west of Sydney, Wilcannia was once the third largest inland port in all of Australia. During the great river boat era of the mid-19th century, the port thrived as wheat and wool was transported along the Darling River by paddle-steamer. Today, its streets are lined with remnants of its glory days – an interesting collection of late 19th century heritage buildings constructed from locally quarried sandstone. The town is populated by an emerging movement of local artists, as well as many Aboriginals helping to recover its Indigenous roots.

This article explores the history of Wilcannia 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 Wilcannia during our guided tour of Western New South Wales after visiting the Aboriginal rock art at nearby Mount Grenfell, en route to the opal mining town of White Cliffs. This small group adventure lasts 14 days as we journey from Dubbo to 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. Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, this tour moves in small groups limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers.

Highway through vast Australian outback. Location: Wilcannia, Outback NSW, Australia

History of Wilcannia

Wilcannia is a small town with a big history owing to its felicitous location on the Darling River at a time of stirring exploration, development and invention by Australia’s new inhabitants. Before the arrival of Charles Sturt in 1828, then Thomas Mitchell in 1835, this part of the Darling River had been the undisturbed home of the Barkindji peoples (also written Barkandyi or Paakantji) for at least 35,000 years. Baaka or Paaka meant river, so they were the River People. Travelling between Wilcannia and Menindee and Wentworth the Barkindji used bark canoes and elaborate stone fish traps and lived on fish and crustaceans – the large number of middens and stone relics encountered today provides evidence of their strong ties to the river.

When Surveyor General Mitchell travelled down the eastern side of the Darling from what is now Bourke he crossed the Darling after about 300km and climbed a hill which he named Mount Murchison after Scotland’s eminent alpine geologist. His first contact with the local inhabitants was unfortunately marked by a misunderstanding which led to the deaths of a number of Barkindji people. Some years later other pioneers followed the Darling River in search of pasture for sheep, and during the 1850s the Mt Murchison Station took shape. By 1860 the Barkindji people were on better terms with the Europeans, and one of their men joined the Burke and Wills support expedition, and rescued explorers Lyons and MacPherson south of Cooper Creek.

In January 1859 a paddle steamer, the Albury, had navigated the river from South Australia as far as Mount Murchison Station. The need for a steady transport link was born of the wool shorn from sheep on “runs” that measured millions of acres, and the new highway had been forged along the Murray and Darling rivers. Paddle steamers with barges worked their way along the narrow winding watercourses to supply stations and towns with their needs, and to carry wool and other products of the surrounding land to market.

Paddle steamer “Bourke” alongside three barges in the Darling River about 1880

Most of the steamers that operated on the Murray-Darling river system were side-wheelers, which could manoeuvre narrow twisting waterways. After much experimentation, the best design was held to be a shallow draught side-wheeler with a broad beam, a powerful engine and a composite hull: 10cm thick red gum on the bottom and iron sides above the waterline. This could carry a considerable amount of wool on deck and also tow barges, transporting up to 2000 bales of wool (carried from distant stations to town by camel) which today would require 20 semi-trailer trucks. In the opposite direction they could transport machinery, roofing iron, window glass, and even pianos.

It was 1866 when the growing township – no longer an outpost for a sheep station but an increasingly important business hub – turned to the language of the original inhabitants and took the name Wilcannia, meaning roughly “a gap in the bank where flood waters escape”. The gazetting of the settlement must have been celebrated with a few drinks as within a couple of years the population of 150 had a choice of 3 pubs. In fact Wilcannia was later deemed the best place for beer entrepreneur Edmund Resch to build his first brewery in Australia in 1879. River traffic was also encouraged by the gold rushes in western NSW and Victoria from 1851 onwards.

When Wilcannia was finally incorporated as a municipality in 1881 it was well on its way to becoming the third largest inland port in the country (Wentworth being the busiest) and the 3rd largest port in NSW after Sydney and Morpeth (near Newcastle). It now had a population of 3000, comprising mostly Australian-born men and women, English, Irish, Scots, Chinese, Germans and Afghans. There was much opportunity for craftsmen and stonemasons as they quarried local sandstone to construct the elegant Victorian civic buildings that remain today in good condition, making Wilcannia one of the best preserved historic towns in Australia.

The port would have been a fascinating spot for a bystander : for example in 1887, 218 steamers and their barges unloaded stores weighing 36,170 tons, and 222 boats loaded wool and other produce weighing 26,552 tons. No wonder Wilcannia was known (only slightly tongue-in-cheek with a nod to Cincinnati) as “the Queen City of the West”. It was undisputedly one of the major ports of the Murray Darling system, handling most of the wool from north western NSW, with 90-100 paddle-steamers plying the Darling, and up to 30 steamers loading or unloading at one time. For those that travelled back to Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray it was a distance of 1110 river miles, though most wool was offloaded at South Australian railheads at Morgan and Murray Bridge.

The town of Wilcannia in the far outback of New South Wales on the banks of the Darling river.

If Wilcannia was the Queen, Menindee was the Dowager of the river, being the oldest European settlement in western NSW (from 1852) and the first town to be established on the Darling River. Menindee was also an important river port and telegraph station, servicing primarily Kinchega sheep station, which stretched from Menindee to the South Australian border. It has a dramatic relic of the history of the riverboats: the remains of PS Providence, which blew up in 1872 and killed some of the crew. It was said that the crew were drunk and forgot to fill the boiler.

It was, however, the discovery of gold to the north in the late 1870s and 1880s that lured labourers and station workers away from the Menindee area, and cemented Wilcannia’s position as the main river port for the region. The gold rush at Mount Browne only increased traffic and trade through Wilcannia, with Cobb & Co. coaches running three times a week from Milparinka to the river port.

When opals were discovered in White Cliffs in the 1890s Wilcannia also became the supply depot for the opal miners. In 1896 the bridge that was built across the Darling was designed with a central section which could be raised to accommodate barges with high loads of wool – it is now classified by the National Trust. It was during the 1880s that the railways began to make an impact on the indispensability of the paddle steamers.

The Federation drought that finished in 1902 reduced the population of Wilcannia significantly. The river did not flow for 364 days, a record that still stands.

By the 1920s, with the arrival of reliable road transport, the town’s importance as a port declined, and a decade later river transport ended. Wilcannia’s current population of around 550 (as per the 2016 census) is recovering its indigenous roots and is rightly proud of its history.

Storm approaching at Wilcannia

Wilcannia Small Group Tours New South Wales

Odyssey Traveller visits Wilcannia 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

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

  • 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 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 Australia:

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