Life within narrow geographical confines has become the norm for all of us over the last six months or so, the further reaches of our country and the rest of the world have become the stuff of memory and imagination. Here in New South Wales the coronavirus is being carefully controlled, with the case numbers steadily dropping, so we decided this was a good time to pack up the camper trailer and head into the bush. With state borders still closed, our only option was within the bounds of New South Wales. Luckily it is a large state with plenty of variety of geography, so we decided to aim for the furthest north west edges, in particular to aim for the Darling River. The last time we were there was in 2018, in severe drought, the river was low and the countryside around dry and barren. (For my sketches from that trip see here.) Earlier this year there had been rain, and we had heard that there was more water in the Darling and the flowers were out. Birds were gathering wherever there was water and life was returning.
We left at the beginning of September, on Father’s Day, so after a celebratory breakfast with our daughter and her family we set off. We spent a couple of days camped in the Warrumbungle National Park, and this is where we began to see the flowers, broad sweeps of colour whether in the open or in the more forested areas.
The Macquarie Marshes are one of the largest remaining inland semi-permanent wetlands in south eastern Australia, and are of international significance. This year there is more water than has been for some time. We spent most of a day watching the masses of birds there – magpie geese, spoonbills, a variety of waders, hawks, cranes, black swans … and more.
From here we continued north west, to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town. The roadside flowers were prolific, but it became steadily drier as we travelled. We saw several emu families – that is, the male emu with a brood of 10-12 chicks, as he is the parent that raises the offspring. The next place we camped was Brewarrina, right on the edge of the Barwon River, which was flowing well. Here we were awakened by birdsong, some of the calls we couldn’t identify, one in particular was very beautiful, like the high notes of a massive church organ.
Leaving our camp at Brewarrina, we stopped in the town to see the fishtraps. Built in the wide flowing river thousands of years ago by the local indigenous people, they are still maintained. This is an ingenious system of interlocking pools built of river stones, which trap the fish where they can easily be collected. Pelicans had discovered how useful these are, and we counted about 18 of them, waiting on the stone edges of the traps to get an easy feed.
On to another riverside camp, this time on the Darling, at Dunlop Station. This had been a massive sheep property in the 19th century, running an extraordinary number of sheep, not sustainable nowadays. It was almost a village in itself, with a large shop that sold all the accoutrements local people needed for their everyday lives, pots and pans, nails, tools, food, a large sprawling homestead and woolshed with shearers quarters. The building that housed the shop is semi-derelict now, but the property is being restored, and the family do guided tours of all the buildings – a fascinating step back into the opulence of wealthy Victorian landowners.
Our camp was right on the edge of the river, with a steep bank down to the water. We were completely alone, so could ramble where we wanted, and swim in the river, then sit by our campfire in the evening, watching the glow of spiders eyes in the dark. We heard (and then saw) an echidna bustling around in the dark, searching for ants.
We were awakened early on our last day at Dunlop by the patter of rain on the canvas. We had been warned that a large storm cell was on its way, and it seemed that this was the beginning. If we had been caught in heavy rain there, we would have been unable to leave, as the fine silty earth turns very quickly to slippery mud, and even with a four-wheel drive we would have had difficulty getting up the steep dirt tracks away from the river. So a speedy pack up and off. Next stop was a small caravan park outside Wilcannia, also on the Darling, but not so close, and on a bitumen road, then on to Broken Hill for a few days to wait out the weather.
We spent five days in Broken Hill, and were glad we did. A chance to catch up on washing and supplies, and a bit of civilisation but also protection from the storm. We were sitting in a cafe, enjoying coffee and cake when the rain started. Light for a few minutes, then the heavens opened. We have never seen anything like it. Within minutes the streets were deep in water, the buildings across the street hidden by the rain. Then the cafe began to flood, so we were sent out into the street to shelter as best we could under awnings. We couldn’t get back to our car without wading through calf deep water, so we just watched … it wasn’t cold luckily but so dramatic! Once it eased a bit we decided to try to visit the Broken Hill Gallery, and after a short wait while they were dealing with flood water that had come in we were allowed in. It was a wonderful gallery, several different exhibitions of very high quality, such a pleasure to see.
Later, once we could reach the car we took a drive around town, through deep flood waters, too much for some small cars, and found that most of the roads were now closed. Since most of the roads out of Broken Hill are dirt – except the road south, to South Australia and the road east heading back towards Sydney, neither of which we wanted – we had to stay put until the roads we needed were once again opened. There are – justifiably – large fines for people who drive on closed roads, as they destroy the surface, and often have to be rescued at great expense.
After five days in Broken Hill, the roads we needed were open again, so then we set off for Mutawintje National Park. There is a small but well-set out camping area with pre-booked sites, toilets and solar powered showers – luxury! Here we were spoilt with birds again, seeing birds we have not seen in large groups before such as cockatiels. There were choughs, noisy, quarrelsome family groups foraging constantly with no fear of us, budgies, willy wagtails, a wonderful mulga parrot, brightly coloured and with red trousers. There were corellas, galahs, sacred kingfisher, butcherbirds, Australian ravens, zebra finches, tree creepers, and many more. The flowers were prolific and intense, great banks of Paterson’s Curse, Australian Hollyhocks, sennas, acacias to name a few.
There are two gorges in the park, so on the first day we walked through Homestead Gorge, along a creek that wound through high rock walls. We found aboriginal art under overhanging rocks, petroglyphs as well as drawings, and lots of hand stencils. The scenery was stunning, very like parts of central Australia. We scrambled up a high path that took us to the very top, where we could look out across the landscape on either side as well as back down into the gorge, then climbed down again into the gorge and walked to a large deep rockpool at the end of the path. We could have gone further but neither of us was keen on climbing down a rope ‘ladder’ that we were told was just a rope with knots in …
After a cold, wet, windy night, the next day was cool and overcast, but we decided to do the walk though Mutawintje Gorge anyway, wrapped up well. (After temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s we were back to winter again.) In fact, it was a perfect temperature for the walk. Once again a lot of climbing and scrambling – if there hadn’t been the rain that had brought the flowers, we would have been able to walk along the river bed, but that was impossible. It was worth it though, the dramatic beauty of the gorge was something to remember.
The next camp was at Goodwood Station, another bush camp on a river. We had chosen to go here because it was close to Peery Lake, an ephemeral lake that only fills every 10 years or so, and a significant wetland. We had been told that it was full of birds, up to 50,000, so we were looking forward to what we might see. We drove out there early, and looked for the birds … we counted about 6 on the water, as far as the eye could see. There were a few in the small trees around the lake, in particular a beautiful crimson chat and his family, but the expected masses were no longer there, although there was still plenty of water. However, it was an interesting place, with plenty of low growing flowering plants, so we took the opportunity to go for a long walk.
We had another night at Goodwood, then began the long journey home. Great experiences, dramatic weather and many changes of plan, but overall a wonderful experience, and it reminded us we can still find places within New South Wales we have never seen before, and several to revisit and explore more.