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Bourke, NSW

Historic town on the Darling River at the edge of the outback.

Bourke is located on the Darling River 110 metres above sea level. Lying on the edge of the desert and servicing the surrounding large pastoral properties, it is a town which is relatively prosperous due to tourism and people passing through on their way to or from Queensland. In recent times the impressive Back o' Bourke Exhibition Centre has drawn visitors eager to learn about outback Australia. The town was once an important port on the Darling River with wool from all across western New South Wales and south western Queensland being transported by bullock wagons and shipped down the river to South Australia. Consequently it has an impressive Court House, a number of impressive public buildings, and a solidity which is the result of its early prosperity. A visitor can spend two or three days exploring the town and surrounding countryside and "once you've crossed the North Bourke bridge" as the song goes "And stood on the dust of an ancient red ridge, the locals know the outback calls you back". As Henry Lawson wrote: "If you know Bourke, then you know Australia."

Location

Bourke is located on the Darling River 760 km north-west of Sydney and 110 m above sea level. It is 133 km south of the Queensland - New South Wales border.

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Origin of Name

In 1835 the explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell built a fort in the area which he named Fort Bourke in honour of the governor of NSW, Sir Richard Bourke.

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Things to See and Do

Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre
A modern "museum" with exhibitions which tell the remarkable story of Bourke from its origins to its heyday in the late 19th century. Here are detailed accounts of the life of Sir Samuel McCaughey (the inventor of the Tumbling Tommy plough and the owner of the largest sheep station in the world); of the poet Harry 'Breaker' Morant; of the bushranger Captain Starlight who, in 1868, shot and killed Constable John McCabe; of the wandering station hand and poet, Will Ogilvie; and, more recently, of the humanitarian eye surgeon, Fred Hollows. It also has excellent panels on the bullock teams which brought the wool from the outlying stations to the port in Bourke; and of Cobb & Co, the coaching company which linked the outback towns. It offers an excellent introduction to the rich heritage of the region. It is open seven days a week from 9.00 am -5.00 pm. tel: (02) 6872 1321. Check out http://www.backobourke.com.au/ for more details.

PV Jandra
A delightful way of experiencing the Darling River, and vicariously reliving the days when Bourke was an important port, is to take a one hour cruise on the PV Jandra, a replica of the old paddle vessels that plied the river. It runs twice daily from Kidman's Camp. For bookings and details ring the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre, tel: (02) 6872 1321. Check out http://www.backobourke.com.au/ for more details.

The Back O' Bourke Mud Map Tours
The best starting point for those wanting to explore the full range of activities around Bourke is to get a copy of the excellent Back O'Bourke Mud Map Tours brochure (the Mud Maps have been in use around Bourke for over 25 years) from the Bourke Tourist Information Centre. The brochure has a total of 11 Mud Maps including journeys to Mount Oxley, Brewarrina, Byrock, Gundabooka National Park, Louth, Cameron Corner, Enngonia and Hungerford.

The Mud Maps relevant to Bourke include:

Mud Map 1- Fort Bourke Stockade and Bourke Cemetery
The Fort Bourke Stockade is a re-creation of the stockade built by Major Thomas Mitchell when he was in conflict with the local Aborigines. The stockade is located 16 km out of town on a road that passes beside a particularly beautiful wetland alive with birds. The replica fort is little more than a few logs near the river.

The mud map also includes instructions on how to get to the Bourke Cemetery which is notable for three significant burial sites (a) the graves of Afghan camel drivers. They are easy to identify because they are all pointing towards Mecca. Nearby is a tiny corrugated iron shed which is reputedly both the smallest and the oldest mosque in Australia.  (b) the grave of John McCabe, a local policeman who was shot by bushranger Captain Starlight in 1868. Starlight was captured nearly three months later, held and charged in Bourke and tried in Bathurst. (c) the impressive grave of Fred Hollows, the eye surgeon and humanitarian, who worked in Bourke in the 1970s and asked to be buried in the area.

Mud Map 2 - Historical Lock and Weir
There was only one weir built on the Darling River. It was built in 1897 to control the flow of water down the river. It can still be viewed and this map provides directions to the lock and weir and identifies some of the best fishing spots near the town.

Mud Map 3 - Wharf - River Walk - North Bourke Bridge - Relic of the PS Wave
This 24 km trip includes most of the attractions on the Darling River upstream from the town. The wharf was built in 1898. The North Bourke bridge was built in England and shipped up the Darling in sections. The large billabong was where John Hallahan was drowned in 1892. Henry Lawson used the drowning in one of his most famous stories - The Union Buries Its Dead. And the PS Wave was a paddle steamer which was stranded in the 1929 floods.

Mud Map 11 - Historical Buildings of Old Bourke
This map identifies 27 places of interest around Bourke. Of particular interest are:

2. Police Inspectors Quarters, Mertin Street - an elegant wooden building which was built in 1901 and is now owned by the local historical society.

3. The Western Herald Building, Mertin Street - which is widely regarded as the oldest building in Bourke. It was originally the Methodist Church and subsequently became the home of the local newspaper which was first published in 1868.

5. Post Office, Oxley Street - 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.

8. Court House, 51 Oxley Street - it was built in 1900 for £9,500. The Court itself, which is open for inspection during non-court times, is beautifully preserved. This Court House is almost identical to the Wagga Court House which the architect, Walter Vernon, designed at the same time. The crown on the spire indicates that it was a Maritime Courthouse - the furthest from the coast.

12. Poet's Corner, Mitchell Highway - a simple reminder that around the end of the 19th century a number of poets lived in, and wrote about, the area. The poets featured are Henry Lawson, Will Ogilvie and Harry 'Breaker' Morant.

18. Lands Department Building, Meek Street - one of the most elegant single story buildings in town. It was built in 1898 and designed to keep cool in the long, hot summers.

22. Carriers Arms Hotel, Mitchell Highway - it is said that, because he lived over the road where there is now a supermarket, Henry Lawson spent many hours in the Carriers Arms and reputedly wrote some stories in the building. It was once a Cobb & Co stopping point. Built in 1879, today it is closed.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Toorale Station
The huge Toorale Station was established to the west of Bourke in 1857. It was sold to Samuel McCaughey in 1880. McCaughey was an Irish Presbyterian from County Antrim who had arrived in Australia in 1856. He was an optimist and a committed entrepreneur. By 1860, only four years after his arrival, he had purchased 42,000 acres in the New South Wales Riverina and by 1871 he had expanded his property holdings to 137,000 acres.
In the early 1880s he purchased 2,500,000 acres west of Bourke on the Warrego River. By the mid-1880s he had expanded into southern Queensland and owned a staggering 3,250,000 acres.
When he died in 1919 McCaughey left an estate worth £1.6 million and, because he had never married, he gave it away to schools, the Salvation Army, Burnside Homes and the Universities of Sydney and Queensland.
But this is only half the story. The home he built outside Bourke on Toorale Station still stands and, although it is rundown (and in desperate need of repair), it has a huge ballroom and is a strange reminder of what life was like for the wealthy in the outback in the 1890s.
In 1894 over 265,000 sheep were shorn in the Old Shearing Shed. Around this time Henry Lawson worked on the property and wrote poems – A Stranger on the Darling, Bosses Boots and others – about the experience.
In 2008, after seven years of drought, Toorale was sold at auction and purchased by the Commonwealth Government. It is slowly being turned into a National Park with the huge dams that McCaughey built being demolished.
Amusingly the locals call it “Penny’s Place” because it was Senator Penny Wong who made the purchase. It can be visited. Check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkHome.aspx?id=N1144 for details. It can only be visited when accompanied by a National Parks ranger. Details are available at http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/Whats-On/nsw-discovery-program.

Wanaaring
Located on the banks of the Paroo River, 190 km north-west of Bourke on a predominantly unsealed road, Wanaaring was established in the 1880s as a service centre for the surrounding stations. It is a tiny township with few services. A map in the main street indicates the locations of the Outback Inn hotel-motel, the police, the primary school, the general store, free camping, the park and BBQ area and the local bee farm.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Darling River at Bourke was home to the Ngemba group of the Wongaibon Aboriginal language group.

* The explorer Charles Sturt passed through the district in 1828. He climbed Mount Oxley hoping to see the inland sea, and he named the Darling River after Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales at the time. Sturt wrote that the whole area was "unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man".

* In 1835 Sir Thomas Mitchell returned to the area and constructed a fort about 13 km south of the present town site. Mitchell felt a fort was suitable protection against possible attacks from local Aborigines. The district, and later the town, came to be known as Fort Bourke.

* The history of the district changed in 1859 when Captain W. R. Randall sailed the Gemini up the Darling from South Australia. Bourke and Brewarrina became important inland ports.

* In 1862 the township was surveyed and the first businesses -  the 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.

* In 1868 Sergeant Andrew Cleary hunted and captured Captain Starlight. The first local newspaper was printed.

* Between 1868-1878 both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches were built. Also the Court House and the Gaol were built.

* The town was surveyed in 1869.

* In 1879 the Post Office was built.

* In 1880 Samuel McCaughey purchased Toorale Station.

* In 1883 the North Bourke bridge was completed.

* The railway reached the town in 1885.

* By the late 1880s Bourke had become the transport centre for south west Queensland and western New South Wales. At its peak 40,000 bales of wool were being shipped down the Darling annually.

* In 1892-1893 Henry Lawson lives and works in the area.

* A heatwave during the summer of 1895-1896 led to the deaths of 47 people in the Bourke area.

* By 1931 the river cargo trade had stopped.

* In 1946 the Aboriginal Protection Board established a reserve for Aborigines near the town.

* In 1962 local athlete Percy Hobson became the first Aborigine to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal.

* By 1975 passenger services on the railway had been cancelled. The line was eventually closed in 1989.

* In 1993 noted eye surgeon and humanitarian, Fred Hollows, was buried in the Bourke cemetery.

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Visitor Information

Back O' Bourke Visitor Information Centre, Kidman Way, tel:(02) 6872 1321. It is open from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm daily in winter and 9.00 am - 4.00 pm in summer.

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Useful Websites

There is a useful and comprehensive local website. Check out http://www.backobourke.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.

6 suggestions
  • I lived in Bourke from 1946 to 1954 and experienced the 1950/51(?) floods when the town was saved by the building of the levy banks around the town. In fact my father was very very instrumental in the design, overseeing and management of the building of the levy banks and the subsequent saving of the town. As can be seen now the levy banks are still standing. The town rewarded my father in appreciation for his work with a silver tea service which is engraved and which I have. His name was Tom Mackintosh and he was the District Engineer for the Public Works and Department of Main Roads for the Bourke District.

    John Mackintosh
  • We recently travelled through Wanaaring and stopped & camped beside the Billabong Paroo River on the western side of the township, there was ruins & very old car bodies near where we camped, I was wondering if anybody could tell me what these ruins were?

    Sheryl Preston
  • John Mackintosh, I experienced the 1950/51 flood. Access was via Nth Bourke. I was sent by my Company, Dangar Gedye & Malloch to install Fogging machines to treat sheep for lice. Tooraie, and at five other stations from Hungerford to Wilcannia, were other installations. I had an amazing time making life long friends. We lived at Edgecliff and our neighbour was Mrs Robinson, niece of Sir Samuel McCaughey who wanted to hear about my visit to Tooraie. I stayed in the old house with Brian Stally. Theres much more. Cheers.

    Peter Ryrie
  • I am transcribing some audio tapes for a family history. The speaker mentions a property in the Bourke district which she pronounced as “Mackay-en-gai”. Does anyone recognise the name? If so, can you please advise me of the proper spelling and also the location of the property.

    Ian Grinblat
  • I wish to comment on your information in “Things to see & do”, in the Back of Bourke Exhibition. It is mentioned twice that Captain Starlight killed Sergeant Cleary, however this should read Constable John McCabe who died from gun shot wounds on 1st Nov 1868 from Captain Starlight. Sergeant Andrew Cleary captured Starlight on 25th Dec 1868 & brought him back to Bourke, before taking him to Bathurst where he was tried for murder. Sergeant Andrew Cleary is my great grandfather’s brother. Andrew Cleary died in Redfern in 1917.

    Thanks so much. These corrections have been made … really appreciate this kind of feedback.

    Georgina Peachey