Gayle Beveridge is a past winner of the Boroondara Literary Awards and her work has appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing. Gayle is passionate about family, writing, photography, and with Victoria’s beautiful Bass Coast which she now calls home.
Published September 15th 2021
We're In the Outback Now Mate
We drove up to Bourke from Cobar, 160kms along Kidman Way. Cobar had given us a taste of the outback, but it was here, in Bourke, that we really felt we had arrived. It had the look and feel of a place steeped in a history dating back to 1835, the surrounding landscape was one liberating wide-open space, the people were laid back and friendly, and the weather was a warmth that we could almost hear crackling around us. This is, of course, is 'The' Bourke, immortalised in the Aussie saying 'Back Of Bourke' a term now used to mean any remote place. Bourke was once a booming trade hub, when riverboats plied the waters of the Darling. Bourke is a must for every Aussie's bucket list. The reasons to visit are many. Here are my top ten.
The Fitzgeralds Post Office Hotel built in 1888 - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We spotted the occasional emu on our drive to Bourke, and just a couple of kangaroos. But the goats. The goats are everywhere and twice we had to stop while they left the road. They had a habit of staring back at us once they are safely on the verge, a kind of 'Who do you think you are' look. The parenting skills of goats were somewhat of a disappointment. The adults ran from the road when a car is almost upon them. They were last-minute reactionaries, like they were playing chicken with us, but they left the kids to fend for themselves. It took the little ones a bit longer to realise the danger. Take heed, if you're in the outback and you've stopped for goats, don't expect the kids to keep happily grazing at the road's edge as might seem to be the case, they're going to run–just wait, you'll see.
Goats are a common sight at roadside - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
There is a lot of roadkill. Surprisingly, it is exclusively kangaroos. Nowhere did we see evidence of goats as roadkill, despite their numbers. Does this mean goats are more intelligent than kangaroos? I hope not. Somehow that just doesn't seem right.
A roo jumped across the road in front of us - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
On arrival and after a cheap but generous lunch, we took a stroll through the main street of Bourke. In the chemist window, we saw displays of historic apparatus with funny interpretations. Some used and broken false teeth offered for rent with discounts for weekends. There were four-wheel drives everywhere. They line the street. Our family sedan was very much out of place.
An interesting window display at the chemist - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We took time to photograph some of the heritage buildings of which there were many. Fitzgerald's Post Office Hotel with its lace-work verandah was built in 1888 and continues to operate today. Its claim to fame is that it was a favourite watering hole of Breaker Morant. The Bourke Post Office, a two-storey Victorian Filigree style building, also built in 1880 has iron lacework on its upper verandah, which surrounds the building. The post office was built in the riverboat heyday when Bourke was booming.
The Bourke Post Office built in 1880 - Photo by Gayle Beveidge
The rather distinctive Federation Style Court House was completed in 1900. This building was the subject of some controversy in 2009 when 109-year-old cedar benches were removed to create interview rooms. Thankfully, Council intervened, and the benches were restored and reinstalled.
The Bourke Courthouse completed in 1900 - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We made the Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre our first touristy stop. It's not a really museum but an audio-visual display of Bourke's history, although it does have museum pieces. We watch videos, put on earphones and press buttons for the history of individual people from the town's past. The walls are covered with written history and poetic quotes.
One of the audio-visual displays - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Display boxes contain relics of the past; an old telegram, war medals. There is an exhibition devoted to Fred Hollows who chose to be buried here. Much time would be needed to view, listen to, and read everything here.
Delicate history in display cases - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Outside, we wandered through a garden area where cotton plants were growing. We look at all the plants there and meandered down to the Darling River, where we strolled along the river bank for a little bit. We passed a tall eucalypt tree where a flock of crested pigeons were sheltering from the sun.
The Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre is on Kidman Way and doubles as the Visitor Information Centre. They can be contacted on (02) 6872 1321 or click here to visit their website.
The Wal Mitchell Wharf Precinct and The Crossley Engine
On a corner in the main street, on one of our many town-exploration walks, a circle of children sat on the path, playing cards, oblivious to the afternoon heat. At the Wharf Area, a cacophony of giggling emanated from an aged and dense Moreton Bay Fig tree. We peeped in as we passed by and the branches were draped with children.
The Wharf Area lookout across the river and dedication to Walter - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We wandered about the Wharf Area and looked at a 1923 Crossley Engine that has been restored to working order. The engine, which is of significant size, is an oil-fuelled stationary engine that overtime was used in the Sydney Power House, the Allowrie Butter Factory at Coffs Harbour and on a Narromine property in the fifties and sixties for crop irrigation.
The 1923 Crossley Engine - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We sat in the shade at the river's edge and I took the steps to the lower levels of the wharf. You could spend much time reading the walls here too. The graffitists have been hard at work. It is not artwork but more of 'I was here' and 'he loves her.' The Wharf area is at the northern end of Sturt Street.
The interesting underneath of the wharf - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
The Wharf precinct is dedicated to Walter Mitchell, a long-time advocate for the people of Western New South Wales. Walter was a Foundation Member and National President of the Isolated Children's Parents Association, a Councillor for Bourke from 1974 to 2012, also serving terms as Shire President and Mayor, and was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 1999. And as they say, that's not all, but you'll have to go to Bourke and read the dedication plaque to discover the rest.
Bourke Historic Cemetery
We spent a morning at the Bourke Historic Cemetery, or as my husband would say, and does every time we pass a cemetery, in the dead centre of town. We had a guide leaflet and looked for the marker posts to significant graves. There are fifteen indicated, but these are not the only interesting graves in this cemetery, which has been here longer than the town and dates back to the 1800s.
One of three toddlers killed in 1888 at a children's picnic - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Here is the grave of Police Sergeant John McCabe, who died in 1868 after being shot by the infamous bushranger, Captain Starlight. Then the tragic graves of three children who died in 1888 at a Children's Day Picnic, when horses shied and a wagon broke. Afghan cameleers played an important role in Bourke's history and one who was interred here in 1947 had reached the ripe old age of 107.
A monument to Fred Hollows who chose Bourke as his last resting place - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Fred Hollows is buried here. A stone monument and memorial boards mark the spot. Although not born in Bourke, Fred chose this as his final resting place. Much of his early work was in this area.
The Bourke Historic Cemetery is at Lot 1 Gorrell Ave, Bourke.
Cruise on the PV (Paddle Vessel) Jandra
The PV (Paddle Vessel) Jandra cruises the Darling seven days a week during season. We opted for the afternoon trip and hopped on board at the back of Kidman's Camp, where the boat was moored. We've slapped on a hat and slopped on some sunscreen and sit in the open at the bow.
The PV Jandra setting off from Kidman's Camp - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
The trip at only 5kms per hour is so relaxing a man in a nearby seat falls asleep. Our guide pointed out some red-tailed black cockatoos flying overhead and there were many whistling kites soaring on the air currents. The kites are common here. The river level was many metres below the bank, but flood levels can be seen halfway up the trunks of large river red gums. We passed under the Old North Bourke Bridge, which was built in 1883, and was manually operated. It is no longer open to traffic but is being kept as a footbridge.
Enjoying a slow and relaxing cruise on the PV Jandra - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
At the carpark by the dock, a large and portly white goose was hanging about. Some people fed him and he expected it from all. He barred the way to the driver's side door in anticipation, and our departure was momentarily delayed.
Birdlife was abundant along the river - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
The PV Jandra departs from the back of Kidman's Camp, which is on the Kidman Way, North Bourke, 7km North on the Cunnamulla Road along the Darling River. They can be contacted on (02) 6872 1321 or click here to visit their website
Back of Bourke Gallery
We introduced a bit of culture to our trip with a visit to the Back O' Bourke Gallery, where Jenny Greentree displays her Australian Outback artwork. Jenny, who works in pastels, not paints, greets us at the door. She is small of stature with a personality that reaches out like a warm handshake.
To say Jenny is a skilled artist is an understatement. We were awed by the artwork, which captures the Bourke and greater Australian Outback in all of its colours and moods. Jenny told us the story of the commission she completed for the Bourke Shire Council, a set of seven, each flowing into the next and each in tones of the colours of the rainbow. The originals hang in the Council Offices and we went there to view them. Breathtaking!
The gallery is located at 26 Darling St, North Bourke. They can be contacted on (02) 6872 4674 or click here to visit their website. Opening hours are displayed on the Contact page.
Central Park, Poets Corner and the Memorial
In Central Park, we watched children perform frightening moves on their scooters in the skate area, before stopping at Poets Corner to read memorial plaques honouring poets inspired by the area–Henry Lawson, Will Ogilvie, Francis Brown and Breaker Morant.
Bourke Poets Corner - OGILVIE cairn front bust - Image by Q8682, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Central Park is also the Bourke Memorial Precinct where we find the cenotaph on the Richard Street corner. We watched a road train manoeuvre into a tyre depot; he did a better job than some car drivers. We walked around the nearby streets. The housing in the town streets is predominantly old, some beautifully cared for and others just make us shake our heads. Central Park is bordered by Richards Street, Oxley Street, Glen Street and the Mitchell Highway.
Bourke war memorial in Central Park - Image by Q8682, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
We made a point of visiting the Old North Bourke Bridge, having passed under it on our cruise on the PV Jandra. Built in 1883, it is the oldest movable span bridge in Australia and carried traffic until it was bypassed in 1997. At the time the bridge was built, river trade was in its heyday when around 200 paddle steamer and barge combinations operated on the Murray-Darling River system.
The Old North Bridge in Bourke - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We walked to the centre. It is a lift bridge, and we looked over the mechanism. Whistling kites circled above. These majestic birds are so common in Bourke and I knew I would miss them when we moved on. The bridge is three kilometres north of Bourke on the Kidman Way.
Plaques at the Old North Bridge outlining its history - Photos by Gayle Beveridge
Our home away from home was Kidman's Camp, a caravan and camping park and an oasis. Amongst the gums are palm trees and hibiscus. We had a log cabin. A high roofed cabin with log supports and all the wood polished to a high shine. The furniture, like the cabins, has been hand made by the owner.
The exterior of our cabin at Kidman's Camp - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
We settled in and I took my customary snoop, I mean walk, around the park. Some other guests arrived in a helicopter, landing just behind the cabins. There are two swimming pools. It was the first park on our trip north from Melbourne to have them and the first day it had been too cold for swimming.
The terrain in North Bourke behind Kidman's Camp - Gayle Beveridge
I stopped to photograph Red-Rumped Parrots and spotted some tiny birds I've never seen before, Double-Barred Finches. The parrots were upset by another bird. I took a photo but I'm not sure what it is, maybe a Rufus Songbird or a Little Grass Bird.
The entrance to Kidman's Camp, North Bourke - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
I had spied a walking track in a paddock next door to the caravan park and strapped on my hiking boots to tackle it before breakfast. The trail was full of holes and gaping cracks, not potholes, but something more significant, as if a flood and been through and collapsed part of the ground. The dirt was outback red, and I photographed my feet 'kicking up red dirt.' A colleague and I used to say this all the time–"rather be kicking up red dirt"–and I was. A bird of prey was soaring on air currents; an aerial ballet. It was so high I couldn't identify it. I spotted a young emu grazing idly in a paddock and I felt we were truly in the outback now.
A young emu in the paddock behind Kidman's Camp - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Kidman's Camp is on the Kidman Way, North Bourke, 7km North on the Cunnamulla Road along the Darling River. They can be contacted on (02) 6872 1612 of click here to visit their website.
Getting There, Places to Stay and Visitor Information
Where to Stay..I can't recommend Kidman's Camp enough, but it is only one of many accommodation options in Bourke, ranging from caravan parks; hotels; motels, apartments, bed-and-breakfast, and station stays. Click here to go to the Places to Stay Page on the Visit Bourke website.
The Darling River in North Bourke - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Getting There..Bourke is in central-north New South Wales, 758 kms from Sydney by road and 160kms north of Cobar. We travelled from Cobar to Bourke as part of a longer road trip (which we began in Melbourne.) Flights are available from Sydney to Dubbo, followed by bus to Bourke or to Orange, followed by train and bus or to Bourke. Alternatively, you can catch a train to Dubbo and then a bus to Bourke. Click here for details.
White-breasted Wood Swallow at Kidman's Camp, North Bourke - Photo by Gayle Beveridge
Visitor Information. For a wealth of additional information about Bourke, click here to go to the Visit Boure website. The Back O' Bourke Visitor Information Centre can be contacted on (02) 6872 1321 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org The site covers things to see and do, current events, and places to stay. The Back O' Bourke Exhibition and Visitor Information Centre is on Kidman Way.
You have proved Gayle, that Bourke is more than a dot on the map. The paddle steamer was a surprise as the impression of Bourke was that is hot and dry, very dry. Like most country towns, Bourke has a history that you don't hear about unless you visit, or read Weekend Notes.
Thanks so much for this wonderful article, Gail! I l enjoy road trips too, and am now going to try to talk my hubby into coming with me on an adventure out to the Back o' Bourke - haven't been out that way since I was a child. Your article was very inspiring - and I love the photos too.