Exploring the Town of Bourke

Today was a leisurely rest day from driving and an opportunity to explore this significnat outback town. We started late with a breakfast roll at the local bakery, but the weather was too hot (37C) for a lot of walking around. However, we explored a number of historic sites and retreated to our motel room by mid afternoon and turned the air conditioner on.

At ‘Northy’, (North Bourke) is Kidmans Camp. I don’t think it has any connection to the famous Kidman grazing tycoon but it it is somewhat of an oasis with green grass and sheltered campsites. It is also the home of the recreated Jandra paddle boat. It is a faithful reproduction of the original 1894 steam paddleboat that pulled a barge behind as it went from station to station along the Darling River to collect wool bales. 


The North Bourke Bridge is located at North Bourke. This ‘lift-up bridge’ was designed to allow paddle-steamers to pass through. It  was built in England and brought up river in sections by paddle-steamer. It is the oldest surviving pre-1915 lift bridge over an inland river. From the original opening of the lift bridge on 4 August, 1883, and subsequent modification in 1895 and 1903, the bridge served as a gateway to inland NSW until the by-pass was opened in 1997.It is the oldest surviving pre 1915 lift bridge over an inland river in Australia.


As we explored the town, we came across three very distinct and intersting old buildings.

The Post Office in the main street was built in 1879 with the upper floor being added some years later. It survived the 1890 flood (the town’s worst flood when the river broke its banks and the levees which had been built) by building its own levee bank.

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On a nearby corner is the court house which was built in 1900 for £9,500. The Court itself, which is open for inspection during non-court times, is beautifully preserved. This Court House is almost identical to the Wagga Court House which the architect, Walter Vernon, designed at the same time. The crown on the spire indicates that it was originally a Maritime Courthouse – the furthest from the coast.

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The Old London Bank Building, at the top end of town, is a heritage-listed former bank building and boarding house but now guesthouse. The building housed the operations of the London Bank of Australia from 1889 to 1942. In 1920 the bank was amalgamated with the English, Scottish and Australian Bank (ES&A) bank. During these years the bank and its managers became part of the fabric of the political social and business life of the Bourke community. The bank managers’ families were involved in community affairs such as local sporting event, council business and charitable activities. 


The ‘Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre’ is a modern “museum” with exhibitions which tell the story of Bourke from its origins to its heyday in the late 19th century. There are detailed accounts of the life of Sir Samuel McCaughey (the inventor of the Tumbling Tommy plough and the owner of the largest sheep station in the world); of the poet Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant; of the bushranger Captain Starlight who, in 1868, shot and killed Constable John McCabe; of the wandering station hand and poet Will Ogilvie; and, more recently, of the humanitarian eye surgeon, Fred Hollows.

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At the cemetery, we found the grave of Fred Hollows. Frederick Cossom Hollows AC (9 April 1929 – 10 February 1993) was a New Zealand–Australian ophthalmologist. He became known for his work in restoring eyesight for people in Australia and many other under-privelidged countries through initiatives such as The Fred Hollows Foundation He was a person to be admired and his passing at a relatively young age was a sad event.


At he edge of the cemetery, we found Australia’s first mosque. It looks like a small house and is made out of corrugated metal and has only one entrance. The Coolibah Trees of Bourke cemetery seem to guard it as a piece of Australia’s frontier history.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries camels were used extensively in outback Australia, and many of the camel keepers were Afghans. This humble mosque remains as a reminder of the important part they played in the development of modern Australia.


I also stumbled across the grave of Constable John MacCabe who was killed while trying to arrest Captain Starlight.


Back in town, our final stop for the day was at the historic wharf on the Darling River. By the 1890’s, Bourke was a major port for the transport of the South Queensland and North West NSW woolclip that was transported down the Darling to the Murray River to South Australia and onto Adelaide for ship transport overseas or to Echuca and rail transportation to Melbourne. The Port of Bourke was the focus of the world’s wool industry with up to 80 riverboats servicing the region and at one time it was one of the largest in the world. The opening of the rail system in Australia and the unreliability of the river flow saw the gradual demise of the ‘River Highway’ by the early 20th century.


We came back to our motel to get out of the heat and found that the man is the next room is from Temora and has a van load of racing pigeons from the Temora Pidgeon Club. I think that they will have long and hot flight home.

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