Darling River Run
Following the Darling from Bourke to Wentworth
Doing the Darling River Run – essentially following the Darling River from near its starting point in northern NSW to its mouth at Wentworth in southern NSW – is one of Australia’s iconic Outback adventures.
For me personally, it was also a continuation of tracing the steps of my great grandfather William Crick who carried mail from Wentworth to Wilcannia on horseback and ran a paddle steamer and wool barge along the Darling River. This was after his mail runs along the Murray River described on my page Old Mail Routes.
There wasn’t that much to investigate, so the trip was more a little nostalgic indulgence within an enjoyable adventure undertaken with four good friends.
Plans and Preparations
Initially, the scheme wasn’t so much planned as evolved. The idea had been with me since tracing the old mail routes along the Murray River. I had raised it with a friend some time back; and let it linger for a couple of years before it finally took more tangible shape. That triggered the interest of a few other friends adding to the anticipation of an enjoyable and exciting adventure.
As a prelude and introduction to the ride, I prepared a short background on the river, its significance, its role in local history and what we might expect on the ride. You can access this document as a PDF here: Darling River Run. There’s also a useful visitors’ guide to the run in PDF format here: Outback NSW Visitor Guide.
There was much discussion about tyres. The roads – or tracks – along the Darling are mostly gravel with lots of expected sand and bulldust. So tyres became a focus of each rider’s planning. (Note: Bulldust is a typically Australian term used to describe the road sand that has been pulverised by trucks and 4x4s into powder-fine dust that can engulf the hapless traveller.) More on bikes and tyres at the end of this page.
Getting to Bourke
Amongst the five of us, we had three starting points spread across three states. While the Darling River Run could be done either way: north to south or south to north (or more specifically NE to SW or SW to NE), we chose the north to south option following the flow of the river. That meant a two-day ride (three-day for one of us) into the far reaches of the NSW Outback to Bourke.
On the first day of the two-day segment, we all started out in temperatures around 10⁰C but finished the day just short of 30⁰C. From Canberra the first 200km heading west was green and bright yellow (canola) but from Temora the terrain became flatter and drier. We passed through Yenda and is gigantic Casella wine factory which, I was told, is Australia’s largest wine exporter (the Yellowtail brand). Then through the many wineries of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area surrounding Griffith; and onto the tiny one-pub town of Goolgowi.
As much by chance as good planning we all met up 50km short of the planned stop in Goolgowi, a day’s ride short of Bourke.
From Goolgowi we had fewer than 500km to Bourke, so a leisurely 8.00am start for a 60km ride to Hillston for breakfast and refuel. Not sure where the Outback technically starts but from here the distances between towns begin to stretch out. Cobar at 250km further on was the next opportunity for anything. Cobar has a long and substantial mining history which continues today. Finally, a 160km stretch to Bourke on the upper reaches of the Darling River.
We planned a full day in Bourke before setting out on the river run as such. It was intended more as an orientation day than a rest day. Bourke was the main northern port on the Darling: the northern terminus. This would be the starting point of our Darling River Run as it was for the paddle steamers of old. A visit to the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre gave us a good insight into the history, challenges and people of Bourke and the Outback. An hour's cruise along the Darling in a replica of the 1890 paddle steamer Jandra (but without the steam) gave a good appreciation of the river and its banks from the perspective of the crews and passengers of the old paddle steamers that towed the wool barges from Bourke to Wentworth and beyond to the rail heads and ports.
Our Route for the Run
Between Bourke and Wentworth there are roads and tracks along both sides of the Darling. There are also opportunities to cross the river in at least six places over the 730km ride. This is a map of the route we planned, although, by splitting up a couple of times, we manged to do both sides at places.
It might make it easier to interpret by referring to this map on which I've been waiting for copyright approval. I guess I can regard it as pending.
We started in Bourke. We travelled the east side of the river to Louth.
At Louth, we crossed to the west side to reach the Idalia sheep station for a night's camping.
From Tilpa to Wilcannia, four of us stayed on the west side. One of us crossed to the east side.
We rode on the west side from Wilcannia to Menindee;
and the east side from Menindee to Pooncarie.
From Pooncarie to Wentworth, two of us rode the bitumen on the east side.
Three of us rode the dirt roads on the west side.
The Darling Ride: Day 1
Then came the day we would start the actual Darling River Run. We planned to take four days to follow the river south-west to Wentworth. Our first day was a 145km ride to one of the historic sheep stations of the region: Idalia.
The homestead and its visitors’ camping area are right beside the river. From our camp we looked down on the river. The high bank on the west side has so far protected the homestead from the gigantic floods of the Darling – with the help of a levee around the homestead.
It was a pleasant relief to have set up camp and relax with some warm red wine from a cask bladder that has survived on the back of the bike. Now it was time to reminisce about the day’s ride.
It had begun propitiously enough with a firmly based gravel road that started shortly after turning onto the Wilcannia road not far from Bourke. But that didn't last long. The road rapidly transformed itself into a spread of red, powered gravel – something of a mix of sand and bulldust – that moved the bike in ways that made your stomach involuntarily knot.
Reaching Louth, a tiny town on the east bank of the river, was a welcome lunch stop at its much advertised Shindy’s Inn.
We crossed the river at Louth and proceeded to Idalia on the west side where we faced even worse road surfaces. We encountered (and survived with only a few minor drops) several kilometres of powder-fine grey dust that at times gathered in long mounds created by the grinding and shunting of the wheels of the road trains.
The distances on paper might seem benign but for most of us – not all accomplished dirt or sand riders – the day was tough.
The Darling Ride: Day 2
It was back on yesterday's road after our camp breakfast and a farewell to our hosts and their sheep dogs. Mercifully the continuation of the road lacked the quantity and depth of yesterday's sand and bulldust. But there were still lengthy patches to keep you focused. That was the first 45km to Tilpa. The Tilpa pub was manned by a couple of Irish young women on working holidays. They seemed to be the only people in town.
We then had a further 130-150km to get to Wilcannia. The initial, if tentative, plan was to travel the from Tilpa on the eastern side. That was based on internet research; but the good advice was to get the latest intelligence about roads from the Tilpa pub. That didn’t quite work out.
We did learn that the continuation of the road on the western side of the river had recently been graded so was assumed to be relatively benign, although, as four of us were to discover, not without its reminders of the need to be wary of changing road surfaces. A lot of the road was the black soil of the Darling Flood Plains which was mostly firmly packed. The sharply contrasting sections of red soil seemed more prone to rapid deterioration so was already exhibiting signs of its transformation into bulldust. Then for good measure there were a few stretches of well-groomed road gravel.
One of us opted to cross over to the eastern side at Tilpa for the longer ride to Wilcannia unperturbed by the local recommendations to stick with the recently graded western side. Over this section, the eastern side was certainly the road less travelled but had we had better intelligence on the road’s condition, we might all have taken it. Apart from a patch of mud and the inevitable bits of bulldust – but no more than on the other side, the road provided enough decent surface to identify carefully chosen lines to ride.
We all easily met up in the surprisingly small centre of Wilcannia.
Wilcannia seemed a weary town exhausted by the tragedies of its history largely centred on the plight of its indigenous population. Beautiful sandstone buildings were accompanied by dilapidated shop buildings and a hotel with every window bricked up.
Our camp for the night was a few kilometres out of town on the banks of a billabong adjacent to the Darling.
The Darling Ride: Day 3
We began today with a brief stop in down town Wilcannia mainly to get some current road information from the Police but it provided another chance to take in some of the contrasts of this attractive but sad town.
The road option chosen was the west side for the 150km ride to Menindee. For the first half of the trip the road continued the pattern of yesterday of changing colours and textures, the latter often hard to pick even in the near distance. Curiously today it seemed that it was the black/grey soil that had the powdery patches – sometimes in the wheel tracks at other times all along the rims of the road. Nothing seemed consistent.
Over the first two days, as we stayed closer to the river, the terrain had been mostly flat but with a fair smattering of trees especially along the river banks. South of Wilcannia it opened widely into expansive plains with few trees.
For the second half of the day the road was firmly packed and openly invited a lot of high gear cruising interrupted briefly at times by the inevitable patches of enough soft coating to move the bike unexpectedly. But overall a good fast run.
Menindee is nestled amongst a series of interconnected lakes which as far as we could see were currently waterless. A point of personal interest was Crick Park. The local Police Station had an information sheet about some key historic events. Among the events listed was that Bill Crick was the first mailman to bring mail to Menindee from Wentworth in 1865; and noted that Crick Park was named after him. That was a nice reminder that the nostalgic objective of the trip was being met.
The Darling Ride: Day 4
Although we camped only for three nights, it seemed strange at the outset of Day 4 to realise we were packing up tents and other camping paraphernalia for the last time. We stayed on the east side of the river for the ride to Pooncarie once another port town of the Darling – about the half way mark between Menindee and Wentworth. A fair part of the morning’s ride was on a firmly packed but crusty surface. Sort of like baked mud. Probably about half was the usual mix of sand, bulldust and loose gravel.
From Pooncarie the east side road is sealed to Wentworth. Two of us took this road. Three of us opted to cross over to the unsealed west side road for the last stage of our river run. This is a minor road but for the most part a good ride. However, it also produced the longest and deepest sections of sand and bulldust since the first day on the river track. Having had three and a half days of practice, for me – and for my two fellow travellers – it was a fun and exhilarating ride. I haven't ever ridden as fast and confidently in such conditions; nor been so constantly scared. I suspect it was pure terror that contributed more to exhaustion than the effort of controlling the errant bike.
Not surprisingly we enjoyed a celebratory dinner at our digs at the Royal Hotel in Wentworth.
Wentworth, tucked away in the far south western corner of NSW, is a town on two rivers; the mouth of the Darling River; the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers; and the end of the Darling River Run.
We parted company here: George and Vin headed to Melbourne in Victoria (a day’s ride). Jack set out early for Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (a two-day ride). Gerard and I first did a little sightseeing before Gerard set out for Victor Harbor in South Australia (a day’s ride) and I set out for a family visit in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales (a two-day ride). We all had a 38⁰C ride day!
Our Darling River Run had come to an end. We all agreed that it had been a great experience: enjoyable and challenging riding; and convivial company.
Epilogue: People, Bikes and Tyres
Let me introduce you to my travelling friends (and, as promised, their choice of tyres (and bikes) – just for the aficionados).
Having learned the hard way on my Old Mail Routes ride that it wasn’t a great idea to do that sort of riding alone, I had initially discussed the trip with Gerard whom I’d met on the Nepal Bhutan tour and subsequently travelled with in the Himalayas, Tibet and Mongolia. Comfortingly, he is a well-experienced off-road rider. We’ve also done some local riding together including my Outback Winter Trip of 2014.
I first met George on the motorcycle tour of Turkey. Subsequently we have met up several times including with mutual visitations and the gatherings (XXL weekends of partying) with other close friends from the Ferris Wheels Motorcycle Tours diaspora. George and Rose were fellow participants on the Vink&Vink Inc tour of South Africa (the Vinks are mutual friends from tours and subsequent gatherings) and George was on the tour of Mongolia.
Vin, part of the diaspora, I met through the gatherings subsequent to tours. We were also fellow participants on the South Africa tour. Along with George, we rode the Brindabella crossing through Wee Jasper on a very muddy forest track as a prelude to Mongolia. We were also fellow participants on the Mongolia tour.
Jack has been a fellow rider locally for many years. We have ridden many day rides as part of a “Wednesday Ride Group” and many three-day rides into the Snowy Mountains. We’re also in a three-days-a-week cycling group!
Bikes and Tyres
Gerard rode a Kawasaki W800 with Heidenau K 60 tyres
George rode a Ducati Multistrada 1200S with Michelin Pilot Road 3 tyres. Very brave of him and a well-executed feat.
Vin rode a Moto Guzzi Stelvio 1200NTX with Heidenau K 60 tyres.
Jack rode a V-Strom 1000 with a front Metzeler Tourance and a rear Michelin Anake.
Robert (c'est moi) rode a BMW F700GS with Continental TKC 70 tyres.
Here is a slide show of the Ride Return to top of page Go to Meanders in Oz