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Balranald, NSW

Peaceful town on the banks of Murrumbidgee River

Balranald is located on the western edge of the vast Hay plain at a place once used to ford the Murrumbidgee River. Today it is a service centre for the surrounding irrigation district. It is a quiet town notable for access to Lake Mungo and the newly established Yanga National Park. It is popular with anglers who can fish in any one of five rivers all within 30 minutes of the town. The Discovery Centre in Market Street offers an excellent historic experience with the old gaol, the school house, an historical museum and an outstanding Interpretative Pavilion.

Location

It is a comment on the flatness of western NSW that Balranald on the Murrumbidgee River is 60 m above sea-level although it is over 500 km from the mouth of the Murray River at Lake Alexandrina. The town is located 853 km southwest of Sydney and 555 km west of Adelaide via the Sturt Highway.

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Origin of Name

It was a Scot, George James MacDonald, the first commissioner for crown lands on the Lower Darling District, who named Balranald after Balranald House, his birthplace on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The name in Gaelic means the place of the Ranalds who were a branch of the MacDonald clan.

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Things to See and Do

Discovery Centre
Located at 83 Market Street is an impressive complex of buildings, sculptures and historic memorabilia. The Balranald Discovery Centre precinct includes three historical buildings - the Malcolm Building Museum, the Old Balranald Gaol and the first school in the area, the Wintong School building. The Interpretative Centre is open from 9.00 am - 4.30 pm.

Malcolm Building Museum 
The Malcolm Museum can be accessed by getting the key from the Visitor Information Centre. on the walls of the old A. Malcolm & Son building are a number of interesting boards which provide information regarding the Nimmie-Caira Project and the return of Mungo Man. There is also a well preserved Bills water trough and an unusual sculpture depicting a water bird in reeds - a symbol of the area's Nimmie-Caira wetlands.
Out the front of the Discovery Centre is an impressive sculpture titled "The Eagle is Landing" depicting an eagle landing on its nest.
Inside the museum "The front rooms are set out as they originally were as a Stock and Station Agency. The display room holds a mural of the history of horses and was created by local school students with the guidance of local artist Mrs Jan Lawler."

Mungo Man and Alice Kelly
Near the Visitor Centre is a fascinating sign recalling the return of the bones of Mungo Man to Lake Mungo. It explains: "This plaque is to commemorate Mungo Man's stopover in Balranald on 16th November 2017 on his journey back home to Lake Mungo and to honour the late Alice Kelly - Mutthi Mutthi elder and custodian of Lake Mungo National Park and the Willandra Lakes area" who ensured that the remains of both Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were returned to the area.
"Mungo Man was first discovered in 1974 by Geologist Dr Jim Bowler at the banks of Lake Mungo within the Balranald Shire. The discovery and subsequent research conducted by world renowned archaeologist Dr Alan Thorne changed our understanding of the antiquity of human occupation in Australia setting it back beyond 40,000 years.
"After spending more than 40 years in Canberra, Mungo Man's long awaited Return to Country acknowledges the Aboriginal Australians as the oldest living culture on Earth and the oldest modern humans outside of Africa and one of the first expressions of spiritual consciousness in humankind. The ancestral spirit of Mungo Man is about the soul of a culture, and a reminder that the spirituality & essence of a culture goes far beyond skeletal remains."

Discovery Centre Interpretative Pavilion
The Discovery Centre Interpretative Pavilion is a place where the visitor can spend hours learning about the history of the district through impressive multi-media and interactive displays There are sections devoted to the wood, wool and wheat which created the economic basis of the early settlement. The Chinese contribution and the history of the huge sheep stations – Yanga Station, Lake Paika Station & Clare Station. There are also displays about the local environment, the wetlands, the rich birdlife, the town’s symbol - the Southern Bell Frog - and the stands of River redgum beside the Murrumbidgee. Most impressive are the audio stories told by renowned local Aboriginal identities including the late Besley Murray and his son Ron Murray which recount stories from the Dreamtime.

Wintong School
Located behind the Discovery Centre, the Wintong School has a detailed sign outside which explains: "Built in 1886 by 'John Wintong Murphy'. Originally it was used as the homestead on Wintong Station. John Murphy let men (called Duffers, as they sold their allotment to him for a tiny amount) stay in the building until the sale of land went through. It later became the Schoolhouse for the children who lived on Wintong Station.
"The teacher or governess lived in half of the building and the children were taught in the other half of the building. It was divided for the purpose by a curtain of hessian. The interior was sealed with hessian nailed to the walls and daubed with mud to make it rain, dust and windproof. Members of the Balranald Historical Society dismantled the building and numbered all of the pieces of wood and it was rebuilt during a DEET Scheme in 1995 with help of Mr A van Zanten. Campbell's Sawmills kindly cut pieces of timber to replace the pieces which were too badly dilapidated to be reused. The building is made of Murray Pine which was plentiful in those times."

Old Balranald Lock Up and Police Station
Located in the Discovery Centre complex, and facing River Street, is the Old Balranald Lock Up and Police Station which can be opened with a key from the Visitor Centre. It was built in 1887 and operated until 1977. The lock up had a police station and house attached.

Balranald and District Military Walk
This remarkable project, which starts outside the town's Services Club, is a collection of 45 signs each of which tells the story of an individual service person. The signs are spread over one kilometre. They stretch down Market Street, turn into River Street and then continue along Court Street until they reach the town's War Memorial. They have been set 22 metres apart so that anyone reading the very detailed plaques can pause and contemplate the sacrifices made by the people described.

Balranald Township Heritage Walk Sites
In 2001, as part of a Centenary of Federation initiative, a series of nine signs were placed around Balranald. They allow the visitor to walk around town and inspect the historic buildings, and locations, of interest. The walk takes around 90 minutes and places visited which include Court Street, the Balranald Wharves, the Australian Joint Stock Bank and Sturt's Crossing. All the signs have a map which shows the visitor where the next place on the Heritage Walk is located. Typical of the signs is the one relating to "The Australian Joint Stock Bank is an example of a John Sulman designed building. It was built in 1889 at the corner of Court and Mayall Streets. The Australian Joint Stock Bank was opened later that year with the first manager being Mr John Lindsay Waugh. On 1st January 1910 the Australian Joint Stock Bank merged with the Australian Bank of Commerce Ltd and became the Australian Bank of Commerce. On 17th November 1931 the Australian Bank of Commerce merged with the Bank of NSW where it remained in these premises until 1961 when it was moved to its current site in Market Street."

The Frog Sculptures
Looking for a novelty to make the town distinctive, Balranald opted for the Southern Bell frog. There are two frog sculptures cutting a huge log beside the river and a trio of frogs outside the Services Club. A Frog Sculpture Trail brochure includes twenty frogs around town including a pole dancing frog and a frog waiting for a bus.

Swampy
Located in the main street in the area in front of the Senior Citizens Centre is a children's climbing frame in the shape of a Southern Bell Frog. This amusing homage to the town's icon is a play sculpture. The sign notes: "'Swampy' is a Southern Bell Frog, also known as the Growling Grass Frog, who inhabits semi-permanent wetlands in the Balranald region. Although this large and iconic species was once widespread through the whole of south-eastern Australia, its population is now small and fragmented having disappeared from close to 80% of its original range over the last 40 years. Southern Bell frogs are listed as an endangered species.
"'Swampy' and his mates can sometimes be seen basking in the sun on the edge of wetlands. They are green and golden in colouration and have distinct 'bumps and ridges' on their skin. Their inner thigh is often a beautiful turquoise colour. The brightness of their colouring changes with their habitat."

Balranald Swing Bridge
Located at the bottom of Court Street, the swing bridge is a good starting point for a 2.4 km walk along the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. The wildlife that can sometimes be seen on the walk includes yellow rosellas, kookaburras, kangaroos and emus.

Ben Scott Memorial Bird Trail
There is a delightful bird trail which is a combination of tracks and boardwalks through the wetlands near the town (the trail starts at River Street and is clearly signposted). It takes around 45 minutes and keen birdwatchers can see such unusual birds as Spotted Harriers, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Yellow Throated Miners and the Striated Pardalote.

Southern Cross Plane Replica
Located at 118 Market Street, the Southern Cross Exhibition contains a replica of Kingsford Smith's famous Southern Cross plane which was built for a documentary and purchased by a community group, Balranald Southern Cross Inc. It recalls the time - 11 November, 1933 - when Sir Charles Kingsford Smith landed the Southern Cross near Balranald.

Grave of Josiah Viles
A rare piece of local eccentricity. Australia has no history of town criers and therefore the grave of Josiah Viles, which is located in the Church of England section of the Balranald Cemetery, is worth visiting. Viles was an eccentric and much loved town crier who used to carry a rifle which he fired when he needed to make an important announcement. He died in 1925.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Five Rivers Fishing Trail
Within 30 minutes of Balranald you can be fishing in the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Wakool, Edward and Murray Rivers. The Visitor Information Centre has copies of the Five Rivers Fishing Trail. Ideal advice for anglers looking to enjoy the rich harvest of native fish which are added to the rivers by the local fishing clubs.

Yanga National Park
Located to the west of Balranald, Yanga National Park is one of the state's newest national parks. Established in 2007 it covers 667,334 hectares, mostly wetlands, with 170 km of the Murrumbidgee River. The government purchased the land primarily because “It is one of the most significant wetland habitats for waterbirds in eastern Australia and has supported some of the largest waterbird breeding colonies in Australia and is home to the State’s largest known population of the endangered Southern Bell frog.
Check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/parks?keyword=Yanga%20National%20Park for a comprehensive list of things to do in the park. These include: Regatta Beach which is ideal for swimming, boat and bird watching; the historic Yanga Homestead (built around 1870) which was reputedly the largest freehold property in the southern hemisphere. One of the first telephones in Australia connected the homestead with the men's quarters. It was installed by Alexander Graham Bell's nephew. Today there is a guided tour (check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/yanga-national-park/yanga-homestead/historic-site) of the stables, rose gardens and outbuildings each morning at 10.30; the Yanga Lake walking trail; the Yanga Lake Red Gum bird hide; the Yanga Woodshed; and the Yanga Lake viewing deck.
Part of the purchase included a very historic home – the Yanga Homestead was built around 1870 out of Murray pine – and a woolshed which was built in the early 1900s and, in its heyday, housed 3,000 sheep which were being shorn by up to 40 shearers, using blades not machines, at any one time. The homestead offers superb views over Yanga Lake which is rich in birdlife.

Yanga Woolshed
The Yanga Woolshed, which is located on 2 km from Balranald (the signpost is on the Stuart Highway east of the town), is the best introduction to 19th and 20th century shearing that you will find anywhere in Australia. It is a model of how to make a shearing shed interesting.
From the car park the visitor walks about 200 metres to the shed, enters the shed where, for the next half hour or hour, they experience a multi-media interpretative display (touch screens reveal actual footage of shearing activity with an informative commentary on all aspects of shearing); lots of information about Yanga Station and the river boat trade on the Murrumbidgee which flows only a few metres from the shearing shed (how brilliantly convenient – sheep go in one end, bales of wool come out the other and are loaded onto river boats to be shipped out); information on life on the western Riverina; and geological explanations of the Murrumbidgee Floodplain.
The route is circular and the visitor, having passed through the 100 metre long shearing shed, arrives at River Viewing Platform before returning to the car park – with a vast amount of easily absorbed and fascinating information about shearing and processing wool. The signage at the shed points out that the shed is "aligned east-west to minimise heat" and that "In the 1922 shearing season, 93,386 sheep (75,016 adults and 18,370 lambs) were shorn at the Yanga woolshed, producing 2,002 bales of wool.

Yanga Lake
A short walk from Yanga Homestead, the viewing platform overlooking Yanga Lake not only offers an impressive panorama of the lake but, in the distance on the islands in the lake, can be seen the vast numbers of migratory and wetland birds. The sign at the viewing platform explains: "When full, Yanga Lake is 1,246 hectares in area, has a maximum depth of five metres, holds around 55,000 megalitres of water and is 24 kilometres around the perimeter. It consists of two connected sub-basins forming what was referred to in the nineteenth century as a 'spectacle' lake (shaped like a pair of glasses). Current scientific information suggests that it formed around 128,000 years ago. The regular filling and draining of the lake, stimulating plant growth and attracting animals and birds, in addition to the abundance of fish, turtles and yabbies in its waters, would have made Yanga Lake an 'oasis' for Aboriginal people for 40,000 years.

Nimmie-Caira Project
Located to the east of Balranald, between Balranald and Maude, is the Nimmie-Caira Project. There is a detailed description on the side of the Malcolm Museum near the Visitor Centre which explains: "Through the Nimmie-Caira Project the NSW and Australian Government purchased the land and water in the area to protect and restore the Nimmie-Caira environment. The Project aims to balance the protection of environmental and Aboriginal cultural heritage values of the Nimmie-Caira area and create an asset for the local community and the Murray Darling basin ... The Nimmie-Caira area covers over 84,000 ha and forms a large and important wetland habitat for more than 100,000 waterbirds such as glossary ibis as well as threatened species such as the Southern Bell frogs. ... Aboriginal people lived in the area for many thousands of years and the area contains important cultural heritage sites including mounds, scar trees, ancestral burials and stone tools."

Lake Mungo
Located 150 km north of Balranald is Lake Mungo and Mungo National Park. Lake Mungo is a relic of life in Australia 30,000 years ago when the area was defined by a series of large, deep, interlocking lakes "teeming with large fish. The now dry bed of Lake Mungo would have been 20 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide, with a depth of some 15 metres. On its eastern side sand dunes provided sheltered campsites by the lake shore" is the way archaeologist Josephine Flood described the area in Archaeology of the Dreamtime.
Aboriginal hunters and gatherers, accustomed to walking from water hole to water hole, settled on the shores of the lakes and established semi-permanent campsites where they could rely on the freshwater lakes for fish and crustaceans. The local fauna, drinking at the water's edge, supplemented their food supply.
About 16,000 years ago, as the whole area became more arid, the lakes dried up. All that was left was a 25 km-long sand dune, called a lunette, which stretched along the eastern edge of the lake and was, in places, up to 40 metres high.
When shepherds, many of whom were Chinese, arrived in the area in the 1860s they called the lunette the Walls of China.
Today that landscape remains unchanged. Arrive at Lake Mungo and from the Mungo Lookout above the Visitor Centre, you can gaze across the flat, barren bed of a long-departed lake with some heavily weathered sand dunes rising on the eastern horizon.
Lake Mungo is one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia and it is worth visiting – but only if you are accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who can explain the region's uniqueness and significance.
Lake Mungo's claims are threefold. It has "one of the longest continual records of Aboriginal life in Australia" having been occupied for over 50,000 years. The skeletons found in the sands of the lunette are the "oldest known fully modern humans outside Africa" and, most importantly, the skeleton of Mungo Woman (or Mungo I as she is officially known), which has been radiocarbon dated to around 26,000 years ago, "has provided the oldest evidence of ritual cremation in the world."
Josephine Flood has written of the discovery: "It is interesting that it is a woman who was cremated. Although no conclusions can be drawn from a sample of one, it at least shows that 26,000 years ago women were considered worthy of complex burial rites. What emotions inspired those rites – love, fear, or religious awe – we will never know, but all show a concern for the deceased which is the essence of humanity."
The way to make sense of Lake Mungo is to gaze across the dry lake bed, walk up the dramatic and unusual lunette, and silently contemplate the idea that once, tens of thousands of years ago, at this lonely, haunted place, Aborigines painted themselves with ochre, ate fish and mussels from the lake, buried and cremated their dead, cooked meat in simple hearths and ovens, sewed skins into cloaks and shaped bones and stones into tools and weapons. There is a unique magic about the place, a strange spirituality which is particularly apparent at dawn and dusk.
If you want to glimpse what life was like for Aborigines when our European ancestors were still living in caves then Lake Mungo is a genuinely unforgettable experience. Check out https://www.mungoguidedtours.com or tel: (03) 5029 7297 for details and prices.

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History

* Prior to European settlement the area around Balranald was originally occupied by the Mutthi Mutthi First Nation people, who called the area 'Nap Nap'.

* In 1817 John Oxley travelled down the Lachlan River reached a point 23 km upstream from the junction with the Murrumbidgee but was stopped by an impassible sea of 5-metre high reeds in the Great Cumbungi Swamp. He reached the false conclusion that "the interior of this vast continent is a marsh and uninhabitable". He turned round before he reached the Murrumbidgee.

* In January 1830 explorer Charles Sturt, approaching from the Murrumbidgee, rowed through the intersection of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers in a whaleboat. They passed the site of modern day Balranald and camped nearby.

* In 1836 Thomas Mitchell, also investigating the river system, camped at the ford that was to become the site of the future township. Mitchell was accompanied by an Aboriginal guide Yuranigh who preferred to be called John Piper. Two streets in Balranald, Yuranigh and Piper, have been named in his honour.

* The first runs were taken up along the river front in the early 1840s.

* The first settler was George Hobler in 1845.

* The town site came into existence because peddlers, shepherds and itinerants crossed the river and established a settlement of simple, rough shelters.

* The first store and the Balranald Inn appeared in 1848. The site was named Balranald that year. At the time it was hoped that the town would become an important river port.

* In 1850 a post office opened and the first district constable was appointed.

* The site was laid out and gazetted in 1851.

* In 1858 a Sydney Morning Herald article described Balranald as: "This obscure and miserable township situated on the Lower Murrumbidgee is here attracting a considerable share of attention as being one of those rowdy places for which the Australian bush in the interior has become so famous".

* In 1859 Cobb & Co started a regular service to the town and the first punt was established. It was becoming an important port.

* In September, 1860 the Burke and Wills expedition crossed the Murrumbidgee on the Mayall Street punt and camped on the riverbank in front of the Balranald Inn.

* In 1865 the first National School was opened.

* A new post office was built in 1871.

* By 1873 the town had a population of 350.

* A bridge across the Murrumbidgee was built in 1880.

* Balranald was declared a municipality in 1882.

* In 1888 a courthouse was built.

* The railway arrived in 1926. This was the end of the town's role as a river port.

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Visitor Information

Balranald Visitor Information Centre, 78 Market Street, tel: (03) 5020 1599 or 1800 444 043. Open from 9.00 am - 4.30 pm Monday to Friday and 9.00 am - 1.00 pm Saturday and Sunday.

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Useful Websites

Australian Heritage offers a good potted history of Balranald at http://www.heritageaustralia.com.au/search.php?state=NSW&region=104&view=509#a. Check out http://www.visitbalranald.com.au

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

5 suggestions
  • Is the lift structure at the caravan park part of the history of the river?

    Alex Anstee
    • The lift structure at the caravan park is from the original bridge beside the park. It dates back to the days of paddle steamers when the middle span had to be raised to allow the boats to pass through

      Mrs Joan Purton
  • Very RV friendly town. Beautiful little town with lots of quirky cool shops.

    Toni Fairbairn
  • Mungo National Park is also part of the Balranald Shire and tours to the area are run from Balranald.

    Mrs Joan Purton
  • I am very interested in the green frog photos I am going to write an article for a Spanish Community town and I am talking of the wonderful idea of try to preserve the green frog. I am need the photos of some of the frogs sculptures, please!

    Emilia Franklin