Posts Tagged ‘Wilcannia’

We gazed briefly at the murky green water of the Darling River from a bridge in the centre of Wilcannia. It was hard to reconcile the black and white photos of paddle steamers and rowing regattas on the interpretative signboards with the little swampy pools in front of us.

The 1500 km long Darling River is the fourth longest river in the land and is part of the Murray-Darling river system. Before there were roads and cars, trucks and trains, it was this river system that really opened up the Outback for settlers, providing a water source and enabling paddle steamers to ferry goods out of the countryside. Towns like Wilcannia, once known as the Queen City of the West, sprouted along the banks. But they’ve wilted now.

Wilcannia - take the time to read a book

Unfortunately rivers aren’t always predictable on the driest inhabited continent – and the fortune of the town has mirrored the ebbing and flowing of the water. The steamers stopped operating between the two world wars, and the Darling was frequently unnavigable when it was open to traffic; it dried up forty-five times between 1885 and 1960. Drought hasn’t been the only problem, though. Too much water is syphoned out for irrigation, it is polluted by runoff from agricultural land, and because the whole catchment sits across state boundaries, it’s fallen prey to political wrangling. It makes for a great case study for getting rid of a whole layer of government! In 2007 the World Wildlife Fund named the Murray-Darling one of the “world’s top ten rivers at risk.” With any luck the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that was formed in late 2008 to provide a single agency for the system’s management will lead to an improved future.

Murray-Darling Catchment

We lurched back onto the dirt to follow upstream the flow of the Darling, the white flour-like bulldust sand exploded under our tyres as if we were driving through a minefield. Although we were passing through pastoral land, there were few signs of life. It was blindingly bright, with scant vegetation to soften the screaming sun.

Since moving to Australia I’ve often looked at a certain page on the map and wondered about one of the towns marked on the Darling. Many other places along the river took names based on the indigenous languages, or were named for prominent people of the era, but this one has the same name as the town where I grew up in England – Louth. It’s hardly unusual for colonialists flung far from their home (and unlikely to ever return) to seek comfort in naming their new patch of dirt for their old one. Australia’s full of such place names. Yet as this name is so familiar, and I have a keen interest in historical geography – how could I stay away?

Bulldust farming

I sought connections between my sleepy hometown Louth, nestled with its Georgian architecture, soaring church spire and markets at the base of the Lincolnshire Wolds, and this Outback Louth. Of course I knew that the Australian Louth would look quite different: one thousand years newer at least, it would be small, down at heel and stuck to its source of life – the river – like a limpet. Dirt roads would lead in from all directions and only a short central section through the settlement would be bitumen sealed.

Outback post box - with water for the postie?

I wanted to find out more about the naming. Had the founder chosen Louth simply to remind him of home or was it aspirational; had he hoped to recreate a bustling market town on the banks of the Darling?

Like Wilcannia, there’s not much left of Louth. The solid square-cornered brick house that is the former post office speaks of past prosperity, although there’s none of the sandstone splendour we’d seen downstream. Apparently there were many pubs in town at one time, but now there’s just Shindy’s Inn. It seems like the place to find out more about the local history.

When we get there it’s empty, but open. Clad in corrugated iron, it has the hallmarks of an Outback Pub. In all three rooms photos, jokes and poems are plastered like wallpaper. We get chatting to the woman who runs the pub and discover that she and her husband left a farm to take on the pub. The drought moved them on, but they’re glad they made the decision. She doesn’t seem too interested in my historical fascination, so I start inspecting the walls.

As I scan the faded photos of floods and droughts and the halcyon days when steamers were loaded with bale upon bale of wool from the surrounding farms, I wonder if I can see something behind these images, read something between the lines. Back in Lincolnshire they stopped using the little 11-mile canal at the beginning of the last century. First it was closed for the duration of the First World War, and then in 1920 a massive flood hit the town claiming 23 lives and damaging the infrastructure. That was the death knell. I guess that it would have become unviable by then anyway, out competed by train and truck. And that’s precisely what happened to the Darling at this end of the world only a few years later. Compared with the Louth Navigation, shipping on the Darling was massive and its steamer- towed barges could manage the same load as twenty of today’s semi-trailers. Such tonnage would have dwarfed the British boats.

The Darling at Louth - December 2009

And then I see him. In a small frame on the wall amongst the other bits and pieces, hardly in pride of place, is a Victorian photographic portrait, sepia tone but less weathered by the sun than some of the photos from this decade. I immediately know who it is – Thomas Matthews, the founder of this town. He’s posing, sitting upright with a stern and serious look on his face. It’s the same expression that has convinced generations of people that Victorians had no sense of humour. At this point I’d like to be able to report that the image in the photo winked at me and whispered the name of a pub or a street in my hometown, but I don’t look into his eyes, I move on to read the inscription below:

“Thomas Matthews, known as the King of Louth. Born in County Louth, Ireland.”

Oh, yes. County Louth, Ireland.


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