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Wentworth, NSW

Historic town at the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers.

Wentworth is an interesting historic town on the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. It is the popular access point for people wanting to explore Lake Mungo and Mungo National Park. It is ideal for visitors wanting to hire a houseboat and travel along the rivers and it has a wealth of interesting historic buildings from the time when it was a vital port for paddle steamers plying the Darling River. It would be easy to stay in Wentworth for three or four days and not exhaust the attractions in the district.

Location

Wentworth is located 1038 km west of Sydney via the Great, Mid Western and Sturt Highways; 572 km north-west of Melbourne; 400 km east of Adelaide;  and it is only 37 m above sea-level although it is nearly 400 km from the river's mouth.

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Origin of Name

In 1858 the Murray-Darling crossing known as Hawdon's Ford was officially surveyed. It was named Wentworth the following year after William Charles Wentworth, a prominent politician and an explorer who had been part of the team who were the first Europeans to cross the Blue Mountains.

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Things to See and Do

Wentworth Branch of National Trust Heritage Drive Trail
This very comprehensive guide to the main buildings and places of interest in Wentworth can be downloaded at http://www.visitwentworth.com.au/downloads/6/Drive%20Trail.pdf. It includes a total of 32 places. Those of particular interest include:

6. Wentworth Wharf
Located just downstream of the town bridge, the Wentworth Wharf, which was built in 1879 when the inland port was booming - it was the busiest port in New South Wales after Sydney and Newcastle. The original wharf was demolished in 1983. This is an accurate replica of the original wharf.

9. Monument to a Tractor
Located on the corner of Adelaide and Adams Streets is a TEA20 Ferguson tractor. It might seem odd to celebrate a tractor and the people of Wentworth do point out that it is probably the only monument to a tractor in Australia - and probably the world. It commemorates the fact that tractors saved the town in 1956. During that year the floods kept rising to a point where the entire town was threatened. The locals, using about 35 Ferguson tractors, worked day and night to build levee banks. It was widely accepted that these levee banks, built mostly by Ferguson tractors, saved  the town. A fitting monument with the quotation: "By God and by Fergie we beat the flood".

21. Old Wentworth Gaol
The National Trust-classified Wentworth Gaol was designed by Colonial Architect James Barnet (famous for Sydney's GPO and Customs House) and built with one million bricks brought from Malmsbury in Victoria and slate brought from Wales as ship's ballast. It is reputedly the first Australian-designed gaol. The result is considered the best example of a small Victorian-era gaol in New South Wales. It was built from 1879-1881 and was subsequently copied by the gaols built at Hay and Dubbo. It was a small prison for  serious offenders with 10 male and 2 female cells, massive 45-cm thick walls, lookout towers, a stretching rack, a whipping stool, stocks, and shackles set into a boulder in the unshaded centre of the courtyard. The gaol closed in 1929. The gaol, located in Beverley Street, is open every day from 10.00 am - 5.00 pm, tel: (03) 5027 3337.

22. Wentworth Pioneer Museum
Located at 117 Beverley Street, opposite the Gaol, is the Wentworth Pioneer Museum. Run by the Rotary Club of Wentworth it has 3000 items including fossil remnants found at Perry Sandhills of extinct Australian megafauna including a giant kangaroo. It has a huge collection of river boat photographs; models of megafauna; an extensive collection of folk and pioneer memorabilia; and fossils from Lake Mungo. It is open from 10.00 am - 5.00 pm daily. For more information tel: (03) 5027 3160 or check http://www.visitwentworth.com.au/Service.aspx?s=3&id=32.

23. Perry Sandhills
Located 5 km north-west of the town via Old Renmark Road, the huge and impressive Perry Sandhills cover 10 hectares. They are a remarkable landscape of rolling red sand hills dating back to the Ice Age (40 000 years ago) which contain evidence of early Aboriginal occupation, as does nearby Thegoa Lagoon. They also have been a location for the discovery of a wide variety of bones of megafauna including kangaroos, lions, emus, wombats and giant goannas.

25. St John the Evangelist Anglican Church
Known originally as St John's Church of England, this historic church was erected in 1871 of stone and mud mortar with bricks around the edges. It was the first church to be built on the banks of the Darling River with the many of the materials brought to the town by barge.

30. Fotherby Park
(i) Paddle Steamer Ruby
Located on the shore at Fotherby Park, the PS Ruby was built at Morgan in South Australia in 1907 specifically to carry passengers and cargo from Morgan to Swan Hill. In 1995 the process of restoration was started. It is now a fine example of a typical paddlesteamer at the turn of the century. The PS Ruby now operates as a cruise vessel. For more information about times tel: (03) 5027 5080. Check out http://www.murrayriver.com.au/ps-ruby-wentworth-inc-1241.

(ii) The Possum Statue
It is unusual for a town to celebrate its "characters" but in Fotherby Park there is a bronze statue of David James Jones, known as "The Possum" and described as "A will-o-the wisp nomadic recluse who lived for 54 years in the bushland downstream of Wentworth." It is said that Possum slept in trees which is how he got his name. He worked for local graziers but would only start working when they went to town.

32. Junction Island and the meeting of the Darling and Murray Rivers
There are two ways of experiencing the junction of the Darling and the Murray. There is a viewing platform which runs off Cadell Street directly opposite the Nature Reserve. For those with a sense of recent history it was here that Bob Hawke launched his Environmental Statement Policy by planting ten red gums as part of his billion-tree program. A true "whatever happened to" political moment. And if you cross the bridge across the Darling and head towards Mildura on the Silver City Highway and take the road towards the Wentworth Town Hospital you will notice a path which heads out to the Nature Reserve on Junction Island and passes a canoe tree where local Aborigines removed a section of bark to build an Aboriginal canoe.

Other places not mentioned by the National Trust but also worth visiting include:

Sturt's Tree
Located on the bank of the Darling River and known as Sturt's Tree it still retains his mark and can be inspected at Willow Bend Caravan Park at the southern end of Darling Street. There is a plaque recalling the event.

Hawdon's Ford
There is a plaque at the junction of the Murray and the Darling where "On March 1, 1838 Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney crossed their cattle ... on their droving trip from near Albury to Adelaide. Two months afterwards Edward John Eyre used he same route to be followed still later by Captain Charles Sturt, both with a herd of cattle. To these leaders and their men we pay tribute as the first of the 'overlanders'." It is an important location in Australian history. Of course the weir has changed the level of the river. It would be impossible to  cross at a ford now ... even during a drought.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Lock Number 10 and Weir
Follow Cadell Street past the Viewing Platform and across to Junction Island and opposite the town cemetery is Lock Number 10 and Weir which was built in 1929. It was built specifically to maintain and control the level of the water and there is a special "fishway" to allow fish to move up and down the river past the weir.

Harry Nanya Tours and Lake Mungo
Located at 384 Silver City Highway, the Harry Nanya Tours, run by Graham Clark, are recognised as the best and most comprehensive tours of 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 http://www.harrynanyatours.com.au/html/mungo-tours.htm for details and prices.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the banks along the Darling and Murray Rivers were home to the Barkindji Aboriginal people.

* The explorer Charles Sturt reached the junction in 1830 and identified the Darling as "a new and beautiful stream coming apparently from the north". He marked a tree which is still standing. He was also greeted with considerable antagonism by the Barkindji people.

* In 1836 Major Thomas Mitchell travelled down the Darling to its junction with the Murray.

On March 1, 1838 Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney crossed their cattle ... on their droving trip from near Albury to Adelaide.

* In May, 1838  Edward John Eyre used he same route to be followed still later by Captain Charles Sturt, both with a herd of cattle.

* By 1840 the junction became known as Hawdon's Ford. At the time it was possible to ford the river and Hawdon used it as a spot to take his stock across the Murray.

* Cattle drovers established a camp at the junction in the 1840s.

* The Barkindji did not welcome the settlers. The government stipulated that local property owners had to furnish the Aborigines on their properties with provisions and permit the hunting of traditional game. In one infamous incident Avoca station garnished the Aboriginal bread with arsenic and the entire tribal group was found dead the next morning.

* The first houses were built in Wentworth in 1851.

* In 1853 William Randell's river steamer Mary Ann sailed from Mannum near Adelaide to the Murray-Darling junction. In the same year Francis Cadell's Lady Augusta travelled 2,400 km upriver and was rewarded with £2,000 by the South Australian government.

* In 1856 both Randell and Cadell opened store at the junction.

* A survey was made of Hawdon's Ford in 1858.

* It was proclaimed as Wentworth in 1859.

* In 1860 Wentworth was formally laid out, a police officer arrived, a postal service was established and a stage coach service began operating between Wentworth and Mt Murchison.

* A wharf was erected by 1860. It was dismantled in 1982 but a similar red gum wharf was built in its place.

* By 1879 Wentworth was proclaimed a municipality. It was, at the time, the busiest inland port in Australia.

* In 1895 485 vessels were recorded as passing through the Customs House with a record 31 in one week alone.

* In 1929 a lock and weir were built below the town.

* In 1956 the town was seriously flooded by one of the biggest floods in the area.

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Visitor Information

Wentworth Visitor Information Centre, 66 Darling Street, tel: (03) 5027 5080.

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Useful Websites

There is a useful local website. Check out http://www.visitwentworth.com.au/ for details. The local council website - http://www.wentworth.nsw.gov.au/history - also provides good information about the history of the town.

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