A drive around the bend

In the state's outback, Briar Jensen explores Australia's longest river - by road.

'Bogan, Barwon, Gwydir, Namoi, McIntyre, Macquarie, Macleay . . ." Like poetry, Carmel Chapman recites the tributaries of the Darling, learnt by rote as a child. Once she starts, she can't stop, reeling them off in lyrical succession.

"Castlereagh, Maranoa, Moonie, Warrego . . ."

I'm scribbling as fast as possible but I can't keep up.

"Condamine, Balonne, Birrie, Bokhara, Culgoa and sometimes the Paroo and others, supplying monsoon and tropical summer rains."

I'm standing with Chapman, a passionate volunteer from the local visitors' centre, at the confluence of the Darling and Murray rivers in Wentworth, NSW. The narrow muddy Darling flows on our right; the wide green Murray on our left, merging before our eyes. It's a fitting end to our Darling River Run.

At 2739 kilometres the Darling is considered Australia's longest river, though Geoscience Australia recently relegated it to third place at 1472 kilometres, on the basis that it's officially called the Darling only between the Culgoa and Murray rivers.

The river has been integral to the lives of Aboriginal tribes, to which it was known as Barka. "Discovered" and renamed the Darling by Charles Sturt in 1829, after Sir Ralph Darling, the then Governor of NSW, the river featured in the explorations of Mitchell, Dowling, Burke and Wills and played a crucial role in the settlement of western NSW.

The Darling River Run is a newly conceived driving adventure that roughly follows the Darling River from Walgett to Wentworth, providing a framework for visiting the region's frontier townships, intriguing national parks and meeting its eccentric outback characters.

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You don't have to drive yourself. I join a minibus trip by Silver City Tours so I can sit back and relax. The roads are a mix of bitumen, gravel and dirt but most are straight and flat, a long thin line disappearing into the distance. Cattle grids and corrugation bring new rattles to our bus and some days we're doused in dust.

The run officially starts in Walgett, an Aboriginal word meaning "meeting of two waters", near the junction of the Barwon and Namoi rivers. However, my outback initiation starts with a side trip to Lightning Ridge.

Black opals are the essence of life here but the biggest gem is "the Ridge" itself, a quintessential mining town with a "take-us-as-we-are" attitude. Resourceful locals - often visitors who never left, a theme repeated along the run - re-use everything here, including cast-off car doors as road signs to local attractions.

On a Black Opal Tour of Lunatic Hill's open-cut mine we learn about "nobbies" and "potch" before finding a few flashes of colour while fossicking through tailings. We finish the day with sunset drinks at First Shaft Ridge and a late-night soak in the 42-degree artesian baths.

Next stop is Brewarrina, or Bre to the locals, where we take a punt on the Barwon River. The khaki-coloured water, brocaded with floating pollen, snakes past river gums on sandy banks with naked roots exposed by flushing floods. The air is still and hot - but it's tranquil, with shags, herons and hawks for company and plenty of yellow-belly for fishing.

This was once a traditional meeting place for Aboriginal tribes and we visit their ancient rock fish-traps across the Gurrungaa waterhole with local guide Gary Lord. We tour the remains of Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission, where Lord grew up.

At Bourke we finally say "hello Darling" aboard a paddle steamer called Jandra. Paddle steamers were once the main source of transport, plying the river from 1853 to 1931, bringing supplies to the towns and returning with wool for export via Melbourne or Adelaide.

A Mateship Country Tour by Stuart Johnson gives a local perspective on controversial irrigation and water licences, while showing us farms, historical buildings and the redeveloped Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre, an innovative building with stunning visual and interactive displays highlighting the area's Aboriginal and European history.

The delightful Bourke Riverside Motel, built in 1873 as the Telegraph Hotel, is our stop for the night in an oasis of roses and flowering shrubs. The rooms are furnished with antiques and named after famous guests such as Nancy Bird Walton, architect John Horbury-Hunt and Dr Fred Hollows, who is buried at the local cemetery.

We follow the Darling to Louth, though views of the meandering river are intermittent. After a cold beer with locals at Shindy's Inn we stop by the Celtic Cross. Built by Louth's founder, Thomas Matthews, in tribute to his wife, the monument reflects the setting sun in a blazing glow.

We stay at nearby Trilby Station and get a glimpse of life on an 80,000-hectare sheep farm, 10,000 hectares of which are Darling River floodplain. With the river behind the homestead so low - just waterholes in parts - it's hard to imagine the volume of water that will soon rush down from recent Queensland floods, taking with it valuable riverbank soil.

"Either a muddy gutter or a second Mississippi," is how Henry Lawson described the Darling and the story of the Jane Eliza illustrates this reality. Caught in the dried-up river for months at a time, the paddle steamer took more

than three years in the 1880s to travel from Morgan on the Murray to Bourke, but returned on the floodwaters in just three weeks.

Light rain falls overnight, turning dirt to mud. It is not much benefit to farmers and it closes the direct routes to Tilpa, Wilcannia and Menindee, forcing us to take a (very) long detour that illustrates the vastness of outback NSW.

Mostly dry and desolate, the terrain is a continually changing patchwork of patterns: from baked clay to stony scrub, grey sand to black soil to red dust, sometimes flecked with yellow stubble or hints of blushing green. Willy-willies spin among stunted saltbush and leopard trees periodically punctuate the paddocks.

Kangaroos and emus bound along beside our bus and feral goats dart impulsively out of our way, unlike shingleback lizards, which bask on the bitumen. Darkness brings rabbits, foxes and more roos.

At Menindee we're taken by River Lady Tours into the surreal waterworld of Lake Wetherell, where bleached, spiky limbs of long-drowned trees emerge from the water like claws. It's eerily silent apart from our outboard motor but the trees are inhabited by hundreds of spoonbills, pelicans, whistling kites and herons. The fishing is good here, too.

We hit tiny, tidy Pooncarie, population about 65, at lunchtime and eat near the old wharf in a modern gallery-cafe opened last year by John and Pauline Kohe, a pair of grey nomads from New Zealand who stumbled into town and decided to stay.

A detour to Lake Mungo, part of the dry Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, brings us to one of the world's oldest inhabited sites. Evidence of human occupation goes back about 50,000 years here, including the oldest recorded human cremation.

Local Aboriginal guide Graham Clarke, of Harry Nanya Tours, transports us into the Dreamtime with his didgeridoo and creation stories among the sandy pinnacles of the Walls of China, which glow salmon and cream, then ochre and rust, in the setting sun.

Finally, we arrive at Wentworth, with its welcoming wide streets, historic buildings and the stunning Perry Sandhills and Inland Botanic Gardens. Once considered a possible site for the Australian capital, it's the end of our seven-day Darling River Run.

The Darling is definitely dirty as we bid it farewell in Wentworth but its colour is a gift in disguise: valuable silt is deposited downriver, enriching the region's farms.

My stubby-holder from Brewarrina helpfully suggests "Stop awhile, you'll be surprised." This is good advice from an unlikely source. The Darling River Run is best savoured slowly; it takes time to taste the outback, to absorb its flavours, digest its stories and appreciate its people.

FAST FACTS

Launch

The Darling River Run will be officially launched by Outback NSW Tourism on Wednesday, March 25 at Menindee. The run is supported by signboards en route and the website includes maps, accommodation options and suggested side trips. Visitor centres along the way can suggest guided tours and local maps. See darlingriverrun.com.au, visitoutbacknsw.com.au and visitnsw.com.

Getting there

See darlingriverrun.com.au for suggested driving routes from Sydney and Melbourne and a list of Darling River Run tour operators, such as Silver City Tours (silvercitytours.com.au). Country Link operates train and coach services to some outback towns, see countrylink.info. Regional Express flies from Melbourne to Mildura and Sydney to Dubbo, see rex.com.au.

Staying there

Accommodation ranges from tranquil riverside campsites to hotels and motels. The Bourke Riverside Motel (bourkeriversidemotel.com) and Trilby Station (trilbystation.com.au) are part of the Outback Beds network, which includes working stations, bed and breakfasts, pubs and campsites; see outbackbeds.com.au. For a little luxury at Lake Mungo, stay at Mungo Lodge; see mungolodge.com.au.

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