Beyond 'the great grey plain'

Bruce Elder surveys the rich heritage of Bourke in its state-of-the-art museum.

By the late 1800s more than 40,000 bales of wool a year were being shipped down the Darling River from Bourke to the Port of Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray River. In 1894 a staggering 265,000 sheep were shorn at Toorale Station, 60 kilometres south of Bourke.

Imagine the scene. From the huge properties sprawled across south-western Queensland and outback NSW, bullock drays laden with wool bales made their way slowly to the port of Bourke. They travelled only 20 kilometres a day along tracks where, typically, every 10 kilometres there was a shed or canvas tent serving beer. Rouseabouts, shearers, swagmen and itinerant workers wandered the dusty roads.

At the time Bourke was the region's transport hub. Paddle-steamers moved slowly up the Murray and Darling rivers. Disputes were settled and licences issued in the elegant Bourke Court House, one of the few inland maritime courts in the country. Men fought and gambled and drank too much and too often. And summertime, with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees, was notable for dust storms, violence fuelled by short tempers (one barman went crazy with the heat and killed two policemen) and a river that, in the words of Henry Lawson, became little more than "a muddy gutter".

In 1892 J. F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin, gave Lawson £5 and a one-way ticket to Bourke. From September until June 1893 Lawson wandered, wrote, drank and worked in and around Bourke.

He described the surrounding dry, flat landscape as "the great grey plain", the town as "the metropolis of the Great Scrubs". He believed "if you know Bourke, you know Australia".

It is possible to pause outside the now-closed Carriers Arms Hotel (renamed the Shearers' Arms by Lawson in his poetry and short stories) on Mitchell Street where the writer drank and remember a time when "The yard behind the Shearers' Arms was reckoned best of battle grounds/And there in peace and quietness they fought their ten or fifteen rounds;/And then they washed the blood away, and then shook hands, as strong men do."

You can even drive the 214-kilometre dirt road to Hungerford that Lawson walked in early 1893 and wrote about in his hilarious short story, Hungerford.

However, the best introduction to Bourke and its history can now be found in the $6 million Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre, an elegant, state-of-the-art museum on Kidman Way, which opened last year. In three buildings and a number of fascinating outdoor exhibits it tells the history of the region, from the explorer Charles Sturt's wild-eyed and fruitless search for the inland sea, to the importance of pastoralism and river boats, to the roles of prominent people such as the great historian, C. E. W. Bean, eye surgeon Fred Hollows, bushranger Captain Starlight and poets Henry Lawson, Will Ogilvie and Breaker Morant. There are stories of little known local legends such as Frank Williams, Abdul Waheed, Myrtle Perooz and the sad story of "Barefoot" Harry who, unable to get his boots off to save his drowning young wife, spent the rest of his life walking barefoot in penance.

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A ticket to the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre (adults $20, families $50, pensioners $18, children $10) includes a cruise on the Darling River at North Bourke on the paddleboat PV Jandra. Cruises depart at 9am and 3pm Monday to Saturday and 2.30pm on Sunday. The boat travels under the North Bourke Bridge and passes riverbanks lined with ancient red river gums. At the moment, because of the floods moving down the Darling, the PV Jandra cruise has been halted. It is scheduled to resume on April 21; phone 6872 1321 for confirmation.

No visit to the town is complete without spending time in Bourke's historic cemetery. Apart from being the setting for Lawson's famous short story, The Union Buries Its Dead, it marks the resting place of eye surgeon Fred Hollows, who died in 1993. His grave is marked by a stone monument carved by a group of international sculptors.

The cemetery has four graves of Muslim Afghan camel drivers, pointing towards Mecca. There is also a small corrugated iron shed with a plaque declaring: "Afghan mosque - around the turn of the century this small building was used by Muslim Afghan traders as a place of worship for their Islamic faith." About 50 metres away is the grave of John McCabe, a policeman who was shot by Captain Starlight in 1868.

It is emblematic of the historic richness of Bourke that a free Back O'Bourke Mud Map Tours brochure lists no fewer than 11 tours, including a 27-stop exploration of the town's historic buildings, a 24-kilometre drive along the more interesting sections of the Darling River, trips to Fort Bourke Stockade (a replica of the stockade Sir Thomas Mitchell built on the banks of the Darling in 1835) and to the only lock built on the Darling River, and to Gundabooka National Park, 50 kilometres south of the town, which has impressive rock art and is sacred to the local Ngemba and Paakantji peoples.

Bourke is a true rural rarity: a town where visitors can stay a week and feel they have seen only a fraction of the region's treasures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Bourke is 770 kilometres north-west of Sydney via Dubbo. Countrylink XPT trains leave Sydney on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 7.10am, arrive in Dubbo at 1.40pm and connect with a coach service leaving Dubbo at 2.12pm that arrives in Bourke at 6.46pm. It costs $115.28 economy class. There is no regular air service to the town. The Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre on Kidman Way is open daily 9am-5pm. Phone 6872 1321, see backobourke.com.au.

Eating there

Bourke does not have fine-dining venues but it is possible to get a hearty breakfast and a cup of coffee at Morrall's Bakery and Cafe at 37 Mitchell Street. Light lunches are served in the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre. The best evening meal is at the Port of Bourke Hotel, Mitchell Street, which is a gathering place for the town's commercial and professional community.

Staying there

The town has four motels. The most famous local accommodation is the Riverside Motel in Mitchell Street, which is built around the 1876 Telegraph Hotel; phone 6872 2539. The best accommodation is in the new cabins at Kidman's Camp at North Bourke; phone 6872 1612, see kidmanscamp.com.au.

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