Beyond the black stump

Graham Simmons goes bush to see stories of the untamed outback come to life.

It has taken more than 12 years and more than $7 million but the long-awaited Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre finally opened to the public last month. The Darling River settlement of Bourke, home to pioneers and stirrers, camel traders and paddle-steamer captains, has long marked the boundary between "civilisation" and the fear and fascination of the outback. Now, the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre tells the outback story graphically through the lives of its colourful characters.

When former merchant navy captain John Mahoney and his wife, Julie, built the paddle-steamer PV Jandra in 1990, using paddles from the 100-year-old SS Nile, they were re-creating the heady days of riverboat transport. Visitors now get to experience a little of this past on a cruise that takes in some of the ever-changing sights and sounds of the Darling River.

But passengers are really commemorating the death of an era, as river traffic fell away sharply with the coming of the railway in 1885, when Bourke became the biggest wool export railhead in the world.

The stories of those days and much more are brought to life at the Back O'Bourke centre. "This centre is world class," former mayor Wal Mitchell says. "The exhibits are all high-tech and you really need to go back again and again to appreciate all that is on offer."

An entrance pavilion with theatrette, two display pavilions and an excellent coffee shop-restaurant make up the centre.

Fortunately, there is plenty of room for expansion, as some of the subjects demand more space than at present. Such diverse characters as Breaker Morant, aviation pioneer Amy Johnson, poet Henry Lawson and eye surgeon Fred Hollows all share an intimate connection with Bourke and the Lawson or Hollows stories, for example, could each easily fill a pavilion of their own.

Centre curator Phil Johnston says the next item on the agenda is a signposted walking trail down to the Darling River.

"We think this will be really popular," he says.

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Hall one of the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre displays the history of exploration in the region, starting with the local Ngemba people, who called the Darling River Callewatta.

Hall two is devoted to outback transport and the stories of some of Bourke's legendary characters. One of these is Fred Wheelhouse, "the last of the teamsters", who preferred camels to horses for carrying outback supplies.

In a popular section of hall two, visitors don headphones and listen to the stories of icons such as Myrtle Perooz, of Welsh-Irish-Jewish heritage, who was forced, aged 13, into an arranged marriage with camel tycoon Morbeen Khan Perooz. Their son, James Perooz, became Bourke's first pilot in the 1930s. After her husband's death, Myrtle lived for another 40 years, passing away in Cobar in 2004 aged 105.

One possible criticism of the Back O'Bourke centre is that the exhibition halls can be a little daunting at first. There's a lot to read, not as many audiovisual exhibits as some would like, and what voice-overs there are sometimes interfere with one another.

These caveats aside, the centre is a must-visit. The outback is an ongoing stage play and with the city and the bush so long divided, the centre is a missing link in the telling of the whole Australian story.

The writer was a guest of the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Regional Express flies daily from Sydney to Dubbo, where CountryLink coaches connect to Bourke. By road, Bourke is 780 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

STAYING THERE

The Port of Bourke Hotel is the place to hang out if you want to meet the movers and shakers of the town. Good pub-style accommodation costs from $50 a single, $80 double, which include dinner and breakfast. Phone (02) 68722544.

SIGHTSEEING

The Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre is open 9am-5pm daily. Phone (02) 6872 1321. Admission costs $20 adults, $10 children. A ticket covers multiple visits.

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