Our stay in Menindee was much better than we expected. I didn’t have many high hopes for The Burke and Wills Motel where we stayed but it was actually a nice place. Although basic, The rooms were very clean and well equipped. It was a pleasant place stay, unlike the decrepit country motel I was expecting. The motel was directly opposite the Burke and Wills Pub so we wandered over there at 6.30 pm when dinner started. The meal was nice and our bottle of wine was only about half the price we would expect to pay in the city.
We intended to drive to Mildura by backtracking to Broken Hill and then taking the Silver City Highway down to Wentworth and Mildura. However, after checking with the locals about the road conditions, we decided to take the shorter route directly south through Pooncarie. I expected that this road would be the ‘road from hell’. It had been closed a couple of months ago because the Darling River had flooded and I was expecting it to be deeply ruttted and corrugated.
Instead, we found that for the 96 kilometres between Menindee and Pooncarie, almost half the distance was bitumen. It had lifted somewhat on the edges in some places but on the whole, we travelled easily. About 50 km of the road was either unmade or on temporary roads alongside the real road where roadworks were taking place. It was a little bumpy but there were no really troublesome areas. The 195 kilometres from Pooncarie to Wentworth and then on to Mildura was completely bitumen.
For the whole distance on this outback road, we were on the Darling River flood plain. There were endless kilometres of scrub or saltbush. No animals other than a few goats and some emus. NO towns either – just a few sheep stations marked by a sign where the long tracks from the road led into their properties.
Pooncarie was a real surprise. It is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with one shop, a pub, post office and a phone on which you can call police in another town. Different from Menindee which is something of a dustbowl, Pooncarie has a lovely green park with a neat and tidy war memorial and plenty of picnic facilities.
On the river bank is the site of the old wharf. Nearby was a cafe with a grassy area on which there were a number of tables and chairs. We ordered a bacon and egg role for lunch and it was delicious.
One of the interesting things about Pooncarie was a plaque in the gardens commemorating the arrival of the bitumen road (from the south) in 1993. It was opened by Slim Dusty, of all people, as he had written a number of country and western songs about the challenges of driving in the outback.
In the mid-19th century, paddle steamers were used extensively on the Darling River for the transport of goods and passengers. These paddle steamers were an essential part of the river trade, and Pooncarie was an important port for the steamers. They were used to transport wool, wheat, and other goods down the river to ports like Wentworth. The steamers would also bring supplies and equipment up the river to the outback stations and settlements.
At Pooncarie, the paddle steamers would stop to load and unload cargo and passengers. The town became a thriving river port, with stores, hotels, and other businesses catering to the needs of the river trade. Steamers operated all along the river and as far upstream as Bourke (970 kilometres).
The Darling and Murray Rivers drain around one third of the entire continent. You could describe the Darling River as a ‘lazy river’. It flows very slowly. The altitude of Menindee, for example, is 83 metres above sea level and the river distance from there to the river mouth is 2530 km. That means that over this distance, the river has a fall of just 3.3 cm (around 1 1/4 inches) per kilometre. Sometimes in drought the river is just a chain of water holes but in a flood it can be up to 80 kilometres wide as the water spreads across the flat flood plain.
Between Pooncarie and Wentorth, we passed several flocks of goats. These animals were originally feral animals but some pastoralists now run them in addition to sheep and sell them for their meat. Just before Wentworth /Mildura, we started to see large paddocks being prepared flor sowing grain and around Mildura we encountered irrigated orchards and vineyards.
At Wentworth, we stopped for a break and saw the confluence of the Darling and Murray Rivers. A. few months ago this location was heavily flooded and the damage is still evident. From here the Murray River flows another lazy 2500 kilometres to its mouth at Goolwa in South Australia.