All the Rivers Run
20 December 2011
There is a saying in outback NSW that you're not really in the outback until you have dunked your head in the mighty Darling River; something I have done several times a year over the last decade, and just one way to connect with the majesty and energy of the outback.
It was on the Murray, just downstream from the Darling, where I recently caught up with some friends at Buronga Riverside Tourist Park, across the river from Mildura. With the Murray flowing at its peak and the beautiful PS Melbourne dropping off its passengers from the day's last cruise, it was one of those 'traveller's idyll' settings that we all seek out, particularly now that the rivers of the eastern states have come back to life.
I first met Phil and Lyn at a Jayco Club rally and this time round they had a few days to kill before heading to the annual rally at Cowra, so they decided to take the 'long way' round as they had never been along the Murray or seen the Darling River. When I heard they were going to be in the area, I thought I would meet them at Mildura and show them one of my favourite spots, the Murray-Darling confluence at Wentworth.
Lyn and Phil were suitably impressed with Buronga; something I don't need too much convincing of as it has been a favourite of mine for many years, but they were not too confident that where I was taking them was going to be in the same league. I was quietly confident that the next stop would knock their socks off and would meet them there after I completed a quick trip further downstream.
As someone who is very familiar with the Darling River, having travelled and worked in the area over many years, I have built up a few little rituals not only limited to the previously mentioned head-dunking in the Darling. Another rite whenever I go to Wentworth is to visit Junction Island, the point at which the Murray and Darling rivers converge. At the very tip of the island, one can sit on the bank and place their foot in the Darling River and the other foot in the Murray. Doing it late afternoon with the sun setting over the river is a truly magical experience!
As planned, Phil and Lyn arrive at the Willow Bend Caravan Park, and after a quick chat with our hosts Donna and Andrew Smith, I take them to the river sites and their immediate reaction is simply "What a setting! Let's get set up so we can take this all in".
Without delay, their RV was deftly reversed into position by Lyn, and perfectly positioned for a bit of late-afternoon shade from a mighty old river gum and the awning facing across the river, taking full advantage of the beautiful late-afternoon light up the gum tress and willows on the opposite bank of the Darling River.
Phil has long had a saying "work is that thing that gets in the way of enjoying ourselves". Phil and Lyn made camp and with a few hours of sunlight left, and ones not to miss an opportunity, they set their chairs up right on the bank and Lyn added, "Sitting by this river is so relaxing and the afternoon light is mesmerising".
For me, nothing is more beautiful or spiritually moving than being near these great waterways of ours; the smell of the water, the scent of the river red gums and the sound of the birdlife is truly exquisite and quintessentially Australian. As a photographer, I am constantly challenged by the notion that images cannot convey the true beauty of such scenes, but I will always try.
It is not just the modern-day traveller who is moved by this notion of sheer beauty around the Murray and Darling rivers, for it was one of our famous explorers who recorded their impressions of the area. In 1830, Charles Sturt noted, 'magnificent trees droop like willows to the water's edge with evening's mildest radiance in their foliage, throwing a soft haze over the distance'. A poignant reminder of the area and the man within the grounds of the caravan park is 'Sturts Tree', where in 1830 he and his crew moored their whaleboat and set a flag on the opposite bank as they had discovered the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers.
Originally named Hawdons Ford, Wentworth was named after explorer, journalist and politician William Charles Wentworth in 1858, and soon became one of Australia's major inland ports.
Before the opening up of the Darling by the likes of Francis Cadell and William Randell (PS Augusta and PS Mary Anne), Wentworth was the hub to which much of Australia's wool clip was brought for shipment either upstream to Echuca (for transport to Melbourne) or downstream to Morgan (for transport to Adelaide).
As the river transport extended up the Darling to Bourke and beyond, more and more outlying pastoral companies had access to a quick and efficient way to transport their wool clip. By the 1880s, Wentworth was Australia's busiest inland port. So busy in fact that in 1895, records show 485 vessels passed through the Customs House, 31 in one week alone.
Today, Wentworth is a service town with all goods and services for the traveller, but not so large to have lost that country hospitality we all seek. The first thing you notice about the town is a strong link to the trusty old Massey Ferguson tractor, as highlighted by several monuments. It was the 'little grey tractor' that saved the town from the 1956 floods – not just one, but a whole 'fleet' of Fergies, or whatever the collective noun is for a lot of tractors. Like the little steam engine that could, the little tractors built the levee bank that saved the town when both the Darling and Murray rivers burst their banks. As a result, every few years, Wentworth holds a rally to honour the classic machine, and while attempting the world record in 2006, they had an amazing 350 lined up on the main street.
Wentworth is not only about the confluence of our two great rivers or Fergie monuments, so we decided to investigate more of what this hidden gem has to offer. First stop, the Old Wentworth Goal. Built in the early 1880s, it is the oldest Australian designed jail and probably one of the best preserved. It served as a jail until the late '20s, after which it was used as a school until the early '60s. While some attractions like this can be a little predictable, the Old Wentworth has an amazing collection of photographs, artefacts, bottles and memorabilia, as well as an indigenous section and a statue of Harry Nanya, the last full-blooded free-roaming local Aborigine.
If you are into antiques and bric-a-brac, the main administration area is full and most items are for sale. Also, to get visitors in the mood, the jail provides replica outfits to get you in the spirit – not much prompting was needed by Lyn and Phil.
Across the road from the jail is the Pioneer World Museum, which is one of the best in outback NSW. With more than 30,000 pieces housed here, it is a great place to explore the old photographs, models and relics.
There is one standout for me, though. Back in the early 1970s, a local farmer felled a tree on his property. The remaining stump revealed an intriguing secret, as in the centre was an axe-cut tree that had been embedded with the growth of the larger tree around it. Even today, the possibility of finding something similar is very remote, but as the tree was aged over 100 years, it is even more astonishing as the inner stump would have been cut in the 1860s. Not too many Europeans were around then, but one famous one was. While it could never be proven, many believe that either Charles Sturt or one of his party must have felled the original tree.
About 10 minutes drive out of town is a truly remarkable site, the Perry sand hills. Experts believe the sand hills originated around 40,000 years ago at the time of a severe ice age, and have resulted from thousands of years of wind erosion picking up and depositing the fine sand forming the shifting dunes.
When travelling through this great country, there are elements to towns that truly reflect their character. For Wentworth it be could the MF tractors, but it also has another. PS Ruby is an original paddle streamer that, in almost total disrepair, was towed to the town to be put in the local park as an attraction in 1968.
After many years sitting in the park and her condition further declining, the town rallied to preserve the once majestic PS Ruby and ensure she was a permanent fixture on the river where she belonged. Not an easy prospect after nearly 30 years sitting on dry land. The restoration project commenced in 1996 and Ruby was refloated in 2002 on Australia Day, and after several more years of sweat and toil by the restoration team, was surveyed and relaunched as a passenger vessel.
Today, Ruby sits proudly in dock when not plying the river on one- and two-week cruises. The restoration of the PS Ruby is another example of the determined character of this little town at the junction of our two great rivers.
HOW TO GET THERE
Wentworth is located on the Sturt Highway, 30 minutes from Mildura, three hours from Broken Hill, five hours drive from Adelaide, seven hours from Melbourne, and 12 hours from Sydney. It is also located at the southern end of the Darling River Run.
RIVER JUNCTION AND VIEWING TOWER Apex Park, Wentworth
PS RUBY Entry: free (donations welcome) Fotherby Park, Wentworth
PERRY SAND HILLS Entry: free Old Renmark Road, Wentworth
WENTWORTH GAOL Entry: $7 Beverley Street, Wentworth 10am – 5pm every day
Ph: (03) 5027 3337
PIONEER WORLD MUSEUM Entry: gold coin Beverley Street, Wentworth 10am – 4pm every day
Ph: (03) 5027 3160
RIVER JUNCTION AND VIEWING TOWER
Apex Park, Wentworth PS RUBY Fotherby Park, Wentworth
PICNIC AT LOCK 10 Cadell St, Wentworth
PERRY SAND HILLS
WILLOW BEND CARAVAN PARK
Darling Street, Wentworth, NSW 2648
Ph: (03) 5027 3213
CURLWAA CARAVAN PARK
Silver City Highway, Curlwaa, NSW 2648
Ph: (03) 5027 621
FORT COURAGE CARAVAN PARK
Old Renmark Road, Wentworth, NSW 2648
Ph: (03) 5027 3097
Thanks to Donna & Andrew Smith from Willow Bend Caravan Park for making our stay a pleasure.
Willow Bend CP: Darling Street Wentworth, NSW
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIMON BAYLISS