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The North Bourke bridge
 

Bourke (including Wanaaring)
Substantial township on the Darling River in far western New South Wales.
Located 789 km north west of Sydney, Bourke is situated on the Darling River 110 m above sea level. It is, by any measure, a thriving country town with a population around 3500 and a sense of prosperity which is the result of its geographic importance as the centre of a large wool, cotton and citrus area.

The prosperity of the town belies the assessments of the first Europeans who travelled through the area. When Charles Sturt passed through the district in 1828 he thought that the whole area was 'unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man'. Sturt, accompanied by Hamilton Hume, reached the Darling River (Sturt named the river after Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of NSW at the time) about 30 km north of the present town site and they followed the river downstream for about 100 km. They had arrived in the area during a period of drought and, although Sturt was to refer to the Darling as that 'noble river' he was to stop travelling down it because, at the time, it was saline and very low. He returned to Sydney with less that glowing reports of the area. Certainly he did nothing to encourage settlement.

 

A re-creation of the Old Fort at the site of the original building
 

It wasn't until 1835 that Sir Thomas Mitchell returned to the area and constructed a fort about 13 km south of the town site. Mitchell had bad relations with the local Aborigines and he felt a fort was suitable protection against their attacks. It was named Fort Bourke after the governor of NSW, Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855). Eventually the district and later the town came to be known by this name.

Fort Bourke was short-lived but it did establish the possibility of settlement in the area and over the next decade pastoralists (some of them speculators) moved into the area. It was marginal land and few prospered. However the history of the district changed dramatically when, in 1859, Captain W. R. Randall sailed the Gemini up the Darling from South Australia. Suddenly Bourke and Brewarrina and other centres along the river became vital transport nodes. For decades Bourke was the transport centre for the whole of south west Queensland and western NSW. Its port was the only efficient way to transport wool to the coastal markets and at its height in the late 1800s over 40 000 bales of wool were being shipped down the Darling annually. The river transport continued until the last commercial riverboat in 1931.

In 1862 the township was surveyed and the first businesses - 'Bourke Store' and 'Bourke' Hotel - were established. That same year, the town's first court case - a bushranging charge - was conducted in the open air. This was a boom time for the town with large landholdings being taken up by optimistic graziers. The unreliability of the rainfall - it averages 340 mm but is likely to vary from 150 mm one year to 800 mm the next - forced many of the optimists out of the area.

Things to see:   

Historic Buildings
There is so much to see of historical interest in Bourke. The town's history is genuinely interesting and the places of historical importance have been well preserved. The common sense first stop should be at the Tourist Information Office in the 2WEB building in Oxley Street east of the Police Station. The Tourist Information Office provides an excellent brochure, complete with a detailed map, which highlights the town's most interesting and important buildings.

The most interesting buildings in Bourke include the 'Lands Building', now Government Offices, which was built between 1863-1865 as the town's first Court House. It served the town for only a decade before the second court house was built in 1875. Today the first Court House has been beautifully restored and is one of the most attractive buildings in the town. It is located in Mitchell Street one block west of Richard Street.

One of the town's most impressive buildings, and certainly one of the most photographed, is the Court House at 51 Oxley Street which was built in 1899 - a true Federation building. The Court itself, which is open for inspection, is beautifully preserved and has an appropriate air of solemnity. This Court House must be one of the first 'project' court houses in the country as it is almost identical to the Wagga Court House which the architect, Walter Vernon, designed at the same time.

A little further down Oxley Street (the main street of town) is the Post Office which was built in 1879 with the upper floor being added some years later. It survived the 1890 flood (the town's worst flood when the river broke its banks and the levees which had been built) by building its own levee bank.

Much is made of the Carriers Arms Hotel (on the Mitchell Highway two blocks from Richard Street) in which Henry Lawson reputedly wrote some stories and which was a popular Cobb & Co stopoff point. Built in 1879, the building is now singularly unimpressive. When compared to the large number of old and interesting buildings in town it is a great disappointment.

 

Afghan Mosque/Bourke Cemetery
Bourke Cemetery has the graves of several Afghan camel drivers, as well as the corrugated-iron shack they used as a mosque. The local camel drivers once stationed over 2000 camels at a site just south of the town's present showgrounds.

 

The Bourke Weir
 

The Bourke Weir
The Bourke Weir (it can be reached by driving west along Anson Street and following the signs) was opened in 1897 and was designed to maintain a reasonable level of water in the river near the town. The lock was nearly 60 metres long and 11 metres wide and was the only one built on the Darling. It was concreted and converted into a weir in 1941.

Just upstream at the Paddlewheel Carapark - tel: (02) 6872 2277 - boats can be hired for short trips on the river.

 

Grave of an Afghan camel driver in Bourke cemetery
 

Mud Map Tours
The Mud Map Tours, a brochure which is freely available around the town, offers a number of suggested tours around the area. Of all these the short journey out to Fort Bourke Stockade is probably the most interesting. On the way out to the stockade stop at the cemetery (the section closest to town is the oldest) where there are a number of graves of Afghan camel drivers. They are easy to identify because, unlike the Christian graves, they are all pointing towards Mecca. About 50 metres further across is the grave of John McCabe, a local policeman who was shot by bushranger Captain Starlight in 1868. The highwayman was captured nearly three months later and held in Bourke where he was charged before being tried in Bathurst (see Enngonia for further details).

 

Part of the wildlife refuge on the way to Fort Bourke
 

Fort Bourke Stockade
Ironically the trip out to Fort Bourke Stockade is actually more interesting than the reconstructed Stockade. About 15 km out of town the road passes around a wildlife refuge which is extraordinarily beautiful. The actual fort itself is nothing more than a few logs in the middle of nowhere. The argument, which is true, is that there is no accurate information about what Mitchell's stockade looked like but it is reasonable to assume that it looked nothing like this re-creation which would barely hold a single man for half an hour and certainly wouldn't have deterred the 'hostile natives' that Mitchell was so afraid of.

There are seven mud maps in the brochure with trips around the town which range from fishing to wildflowers and a trip out through the cotton growing areas. The map relating to Midnight's Grave is inaccurate (see Enngonia).

 

Wanaaring
Located on the banks of the Paroo River,195 km north-west of Bourke, Wanaaring was established in the 1880s as a service centre to the surrounding stations, which it remains today. Yellowbelly and yabbies can be caught in the river and it is possible to visit a local bee farm. There is also a modest local golf course, along with a hotel/motel, a general store and a campsite.

 

Cobb & Co Heritage Trail
The historic inland coaching company, Cobb & Co, celebrates the 150th anniversary of its first journey in 2004 (and the 80th anniversary of its last, owing to the emergence of motorised transport). The trailblazing company's contribution to Australia's development is celebrated with the establishment of a heritage trail which explores the terrain covered on one of its old routes: between Bathurst and Bourke.

Cobb & Co's origins lay in the growing human traffic prompted by the goldrushes of the early 1850s. As the Heritage Trail website states: 'The company was enormously successful and had branches or franchises throughout much of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. At its peak, Cobb & Co operated along a network of tracks that extended further than those of any other coach system in the world its coaches travelled 28,000 miles (44,800km) per week and 6000 (out of their 30,000) horses were harnessed every day. Cobb & Co created a web of tracks from Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria and Port Douglas on the Coral Sea down to the furthest reaches of Victoria and South Australia in all, a continuous line of 2000 miles (3200km) of track over eastern Australia from south to north, with a total of 7000 miles (11,200km) of regular routes' (see www.cobbandco.net.au).

As a major terminus on the coach line, Bourke has many Cobb & Co sites. These include the blacksmith's workshop and residence in Oxley St, which are largely unchanged. The workshop still bears the soot of its working days and a 19th-century grapevine can be seen by the house. The Carriers Arms Hotel (1879) was once a booking office for the coach service to Hungerford and Queensland and the old company foreman's residence can still be found in Hope St. Other extant buildings thought to be connected to Cobb & Co are the Fitzgerald Hotel (1888) in Oxley St, the post office (1879), the Telegraph Hotel (now the Riverside Motel) and Bourke Cemetery. Other Cobb & Co related buildings have disappeared, such as Richardson & Bennett's wagon and coach factory, which became the Cobb & Co stables, Sam Doughty's livery stable, the City Coach & Buggy Works, and the Steam Coach and Wagon Factory.

Furrther afield are such sites as the remains of the Dry Lake Hotel, the Warrego Pub (built on the site of the Salmon Ford Pub, which was once a Cobb & Co change station), Mount Oxley, where there was once a changing station (and where it is now possible to camp with a key and permit from the Bourke Information Centre), the North Bourke Billabong, where distinguished coach driver, Billy Armstrong, died after overturning his coach, the North Bourke Bridge (the second lift bridge in NSW), the ruins of the old changing station at Curraweena, the former site of the Pink Hills Pub, Wanaaring (which once received a Cobb & Co coach each week), Wangamanna Station, where Cobb & Co once obtained camels to pull their coaches during a drought, and Yantabulla changing station.

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Phone: 1300 136 559

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