Members Trips

stories from Australia


Darling River Run - May 2006

by John & Vicki


   Described as a very popular trip, the Darling River Run provides a gentle introduction to outback travelling for both 2WD travellers, and 4WD and camper trailer novices like ourselves.  On reflection it is the “gentle introduction” that gives the trip its popularity as well as the appreciation both of the river, its history and vast flood plains, and of the life and activities of the people who live out West.  By no means is it a run that is overwhelmed by traffic.  We followed the River Darling from Wentworth to Bourke, and of the five days that we were actually on the road, the busiest was the Saturday of the Bourke annual show when we saw four other vehicles.

     We travelled in a turbo diesel Hilux towing a Tvan, in tandem with friends in a turbo diesel Jackeroo towing a Gazal poptop caravan.  The latter is raised and strengthened for unsealed road travel, but it is not an off-road caravan.  While there is a lot of information on the web, the most value trip notes we found were those published by Tourism NSW on and also available from the Wentworth Visitor Information centre.  Ken and Renee’s Trip Notes on the Campertrailer group site were also a source of good information.

     We started our trip from Mildura, where we had to wait two days for the roads to open following rainfall.  It’s no effort to spend time in and around Mildura and Wentworth, although Stefano di Pieri’s Grand Hotel complex can be a trap for morning tea at the bakery, or dinner in the several restaurants – it’s called indulgence, readers, and it’s not a deadly sin and even hardened 4WDrivers who thrive on deprivation should try it.

     Our route took us from Mildura via Wentworth and then to Menindee.  We travelled on the eastern side of the Darling, giving us 152km of sealed road to Pooncarie, and then 123km of unsealed road to Menindee.  Soft sandy sections are few, and apart from occasional corrugations, the surface of the unsealed road would probably allow towing at 100km ph, although why anyone would want to tow at that speed is a reasonable question.  We sat safely on 70-80 with about 1km spacing to stay out of each other’s dust.  There are a number of opportunities to get to the river, and while the magnificent river gums clearly mark the river’s course, the road is not always close to the river.

     Small Visitor centres are always a wealth of local information if you are prepared to spend time chatting and Menindee is no exception.  We took the nod and wink advice to stay at Copi Hollow about 15km out of town and on Pamamaroo Lake (of dead tree and sunset photo fame).  Don’t be put off by the entry to the Caravan Park; the serried ranks of faded permanent vans and dusty ‘streets’ hide a grassed lakeside oasis as Ken and Renee describe – no doubt it is busy sometimes but in May we shared the large area with two motor homes and two camper trailers.  On reflection after a couple of days in Menindee we may have opted to stay in Kinchega NP with its many chapters of the history of the area and its camping sites right on the river banks.  It is disappointing to see large lakes like L Menindee as dry as a bone, and we experienced the same feeling a few weeks later as we returned to Canberra via Macquarie Marshes.  I can remember some 30 years ago reading about the issues around water use and conservation in the Murray-Darling basin, and still ‘we’ struggle to get a reasonable management plan implemented.

    Until Menindee we had determined not to be put off by the ‘bad press’ that Wilcannia attracts.  In Menindee we succumbed to quite strong arguments (both from fellow travellers and one local) not to stay in Wilcannia.  Regrettably our only contribution to the Wilcannia economy was to fill up (the BP Distributor was 8c / litre cheaper than the Shell station) with fuel.  We subsequently spoke to people who had stayed without incident (other than no hot water) at the caravan park, although they said that there was a bit of a wagon train mentality in the clustering of the small number of vans in the park.  The architecture in Wilcannia induces nostalgia for days of streetscapes that combine both function and character. We had travelled on the eastern side of the river from Menindee to Wilcannia, and then switched to the western side as we were headed for Idalia Station.  Again the unsealed roads presented no real problems although our friends’ van was suffering a bit from dust penetration and the water tank, although shielded, was taking hits from stones and losing water from hose inlets.

    Idalia Station is one of three that provide traveller accommodation and van sites between Tilpa and Louth.  We can’t comment on the others, Kallara and Trilby, but Idalia is everything it promises in its marketing.  We stayed four days and camped on the banks of the Darling.  We used Idalia as a base for a return trip to Bourke (for the annual show of course); a round trip to south to Tilpa and north up the eastern side of the river to Louth then back south again to Idalia; a visit to the remains of historic Dunlop station; walking on the banks of the Darling; chatting to Jane and Tim who run the property; and enjoying the company of other travellers who came and went while we were there.  We also had the chance to practise our camp oven cooking in the fire pit, and see Jane and Tim’s nine year old son Dermot undertake his high-tech distance education, in between driving his old- tech Holden and giving enthralled ladies lifts from the homestead to the camp site (er .   . .all of 200 metres).  Dermot sometimes forgets that his relatives occasionally fly over the station and spring him doing donuts behind some gum tree in the far paddock – he gets grounded.

    The eastern road from Louth to Bourke is probably the roughest of the whole run.  Paradoxically it has some short sealed sections, notably before and after the entrance to Gundabooka NP, but it also has some soft sandy stretches and some quite rocky stretches.  Nothing to get really concerned about, but a couple who were at Idalia (Subaru Forrester and standard sprung poptop van) had bogged in sand when they pulled off to watch a snake.  Stones eventually broke the hose fittings on our friends’ van and other owners of standard vans had experienced the same problem, losing all their water before realising what has happened.  Dust was also a problem for the standard caravans on the Run.  Happily, our Tvan remained free of dust inside.

    Bourke – what can we say about Bourke? Plan to spend about a week there; make sure you get the Back o’ Bourke Mud Map Tours booklet and try to do most of the tours especially to Mt Oxley; go with Stuart on the Mateship Country tour and be amazed at the variety of primary production in the area (and despite Stuart’s passion for his town and area and his facts and figures think about the water used to sustain the production); look at the photos in hotels (oops – more indulgence) of the river in flood and be amazed at the difference compared with the landscape of the current drought; and think about what leads to a main street that has to be boarded up and kept under video surveillance.

    In conclusion, about 575km of unsealed roads that require respect but are no problem for 4WD or 2WD vehicles; dust and underbody damage are likely to be issues for conventional caravans unless some thought goes into protection; you will enjoy the people and the environment, and the history of the river and its towns is ever-present.  The pubs at both Tilpa and Louth are ‘must visits’, and the ‘must’ includes a drink and a meal if you want to really get into conversation.  We set out at the beginning of this trip to not have a timetable, and it worked a treat for us.  You will get the impression that we are into indulgence – perhaps that’s the advantage of retirement.

    From Bourke, we went on to Brewarrina, Walgett, and Lightning Ridge before heading back south to Macquarie Marshes, Dubbo, Forbes and Canberra.  For those interested in farmstays, Willi Retreat is a top spot and Phillip and Myra are wonderful hosts.  You do need to apply your imagination to build a picture of what the Marshes would look like if the cotton growers didn’t have rights to so much water.  In May 2006 it was a very dry landscape, and according to Phillip it has been that way since 2000.  Those readers who are members of the National Parks Association will be aware of the action being taken to ensure that the Macquarie Marshes get a fair share of the water from the River Macquarie.  We’re not pushing a point of view, and we appreciate that the outback can be harsh and that drought impacts severely on the environment, but here is a wetlands system that is described as an ecological wonder, it’s almost dry, and that has not come about naturally.

    On a lighter note, we drove into Brewarrina on Mothers’ Day, just as the pub (the green one on a corner) was packing up from its Mothers’ Day breakfast event.  With not much pleading, we put one of the guys (“it’s a new machine and I’ve never used it before”) under instruction and he produced the best cup of coffee we had on the trip.  We only saw three bunyips on the way to Walgett, but gee, they were biggies!!

               Safe travelling

               John & Vicki