To Bourke and back

Guy Wilkinson discovers the true-blue outback is closer than you think on a 4WD adventure from Sydney to Gundabooka National Park.

In September 1892, Australian writer Henry Lawson was banished to the bush by his publisher, J.F. Archibald.

Conscious of his escalating alcoholism, Archibald handed him a £5 note and a rail ticket from Redfern to Bourke, claiming he was "in danger of seeing the whole of life through the bottom of a beer glass in some pub in The Rocks".

Lawson's subsequent outback adventure had a profound effect on him. Though his writings were in stark contrast with the romanticised accounts of his contemporary Banjo Paterson, he produced some of his most celebrated works during this time.

Turning off the Kidman Highway into Gundabooka National Park, it's easy to see why this country made such an impression on Lawson. Having left Sydney only this morning, we're already in another world.

Along the dirt road, the red soil glows like the embers of a dying fire beneath a fading sun.

It's dusk by the time we arrive at Belah Shearers Quarters. Built in the mid-20th century to accommodate workers when the area was a functioning sheep station, the six-bedroom property is rustic, though not without its charms.

I strike up a fire as night takes hold beneath millions of stars unencumbered by light pollution. Apart from the occasional visit by a curious wallaby, my wife and I are completely alone.

Gundabooka National Park is about 850 kilometres north-west of Sydney and covers 43,000 hectares from the Darling River to the sprawling ranges that flank Mount Gundabooka. The park has great significance to the Ngemba people as the birthplace of the region.


"It's an unforgiving but very beautiful land," traditional landowner and Aboriginal elder Phil Sullivan says. "It lifts you up, and then it takes everything away. If you want to truly understand what it means to be Australian, you have to come and see the real backbone of it."

Inside the park, it's easy to feel light years from civilisation, but the township of Bourke is only 50 kilometres away.

On first impressions of Bourke, I'm tempted to floor the accelerator and never look back. There's a tumbledown pub, its windows long since boarded up, and the streets are eerily quiet. I can almost hear the opening notes of the banjo riff from Deliverance. But appearances can be deceptive and a handful of determined people are striving to reinvent the town.

At Diggers, an RSL-style restaurant-turned-bar, I meet Phil Parnaby, a 55-year resident of Bourke. As Parnaby explains, Bourke was once touted as "the Chicago of the west" as it developed into one of the largest inland transport hubs in the world in the late 1800s, exporting wool along the Darling River before drought and floods put an end to its enterprising potential.

The town has continued to battle adversity, but there are many positives if you take time to look.

Offering us a tour around Diggers, Parnaby shows us a dancehall out back that hosts regular line dancing and ballroom nights. Next door, a vast hall is being converted into a live-music venue where Parnaby's wife, Anne-Marie, plans to invite country and western artists. The walls are cluttered with photos of war veterans and local heroes; it's a welcoming, authentic place.

Around town, I'm struck by how much there is to see. The Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre traces the region's history through a series of slick, interactive exhibits, from before the opening of the first railway in 1885 to the tough Afghan camel teams that navigated the vast, surrounding plains in blistering heat to become the transportation lifeblood of the region.

In a nearby paddock, Luke Thomas, a hardy, Akubra-sporting cowboy who could no doubt strike a match off his cheek, hosts the daily Outback Stockman's Show. Fusing comedy routines with physical showmanship, Thomas rides camels, herds bullocks and performs tricks with horses that have kids in raptures. He's like John Wayne meets Tommy Cooper.

As a nostalgic detour, we head to the Darling River for a ride on the paddlesteamer, PV Jandra. Built by locals in 2000, based on photos of the original 1894 paddle boat, the Jandra is a faithful re-creation that captures the feel of a bygone era.

Captain William Hockins' encyclopaedic commentary details the halcyon days of wool trading along the "second Mississippi" plus much more. From the outdoor deck, we watch whistling kites and swallows hover and swoop above the chocolate-coloured water.

Bourke has earned its moniker as "the gateway to the outback" for good reason. It's a classic case of not judging a book by its cover and there's a range of accommodation options from caravan parks to four-star hotels.

"When people come out here, they're able to slow down, contemplate and even get to know themselves a little," local artist Jenny Greentree says. "Many of them don't appreciate the rugged beauty that's on their own doorstep. The landscape here is always evolving, always throwing something fresh at you."

Roaring down off-road trails in our four-wheel-drive, we arrive at Bennetts Gorge in Gundabooka Park. A clearly defined track veers into scrub along the "Valley of the Eagle" walk to the foot of Mount Gundabooka, towering 500 metres above the surrounding landscape.

It's a one-hour walk to the summit, but the panoramic views across outback NSW are unparalleled. On the way down, we pause for lunch on a sun-baked rock while a pair of eagles glide in a jet stream above a rust-coloured canyon.

Nearby, the Mulgowan (Yappa) Aboriginal art site is also of great significance to the Ngemba and Paakantji people. Paintings of wildlife and dancers on a rocky overhang are thought to date thousands of years. Surrounded by red gum and coolabah trees, it's not hard to imagine the celebrations and rituals that took place here.

A trip to the outback is not for those who like awakening to hand-pressed towels and bottles of Yakult. This is rugged country; anything can happen, but you'll experience a side of Australia far removed from theme parks, shopping malls or beach resorts; a side many will never see.

Glancing in the rear-view mirror, a vivid trail of dust blazing in our wake, I'm reminded of the words of Lawson.

"If you know Bourke, you know Australia," he wrote in his memoir A Stranger on the Darling.

I may still have a lot more to see but, after this trip, I certainly feel a significant step closer.

Guy Wilkinson was a guest of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service with the support of Inland NSW Tourism and Subaru.


Getting there From Sydney, head west on the M4 Western Motorway, continue on to National Route 32 then head north on the Castlereagh Highway through Mudgee and on to Dubbo. From Dubbo follow the Mitchell Highway Route 32 north through to Cobar before connecting to the Kidman Way into Gundabooka National Park. The 820-kilometre drive takes about 11 hours including brief stops.

The best way to travel is self-driving in a four-wheel-drive, to allow access to off-the-beaten-track scenic routes. The writer travelled in an all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback 2.0 diesel.

Staying there Belah Shearers Quarters, Corella Tank Road, take the Kidman Way from Bourke and turn right into park, $30 a person, a night, up to a maximum of 12 people. See

Back O' Bourke Motel, Wanaaring Road, 6872 4448, rooms from $125, see

Eating there Diggers on the Darling, Corner of Sturt and Mitchell streets, across from the Darling River and wharf.

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