We’ve just returned from a 4-day/3-night trip through far west New South Wales town of White Cliffs, Wilcannia and Menindee. It’s been a pilgrimage as we’ve explored the outback region and learned about new places and its people. As challenging as it is to travel with young children, we really wanted to see some of the landscape after the rain we’ve had this year. The landscape is green and lush after downpours of water and the waters of the Darling River are overflowing in places. I’ve wanted to see it first hand and meet some people I’ve heard about. It’s really been a trip of new connections for me (some planned – some unexpected).
We left on bright and sunny Thursday at about 10:30am for a trip to Mutawinji National Park, the place of ‘green grass and water holes’. (Two days later I was standing in Karin Donaldson’s art gallery in Wilcannia staring at a poster created by the Western Heritage Group noting Mutawinji was the first national park in NSW to be handed back to its original owners on 5 September 1998.) We arrived around 12:30pm to look at the Homestead Creek Camping Ground (flushing toilets and showers – noted! Maybe we could come back here). It was relatively full with caravans and visitors. We then drove up to the Homestead Creek Day Use area to do the Thaaklatjika Mingkana Walk (Wright’s Walk) – an easy 800 metre walk which we thought was achievable to do with two young children. There is really so much more to do at Mutawinji than what we did. Perhaps in a few years’ time we might be able to see some of the rockholes and do some more challenging walks.
On our walk to Wright’s Cave, we saw this towering river red gum and Tim told Bryan ‘that looks like a good tree to climb’ – it was so inviting to climb with some of its limb laid down on the ground. All around us was green. I wanted to know what I was looking at. Was it a weed? I recognised there were garlic weeds thriving (not the garden variety). I saw all these ground covers with bright purple flowers which I later learned was a velvet potato bush (not a weed). At one point of the path, rock sida was arching on either side of the path with its bright yellow flowers. I captured this video of the boys walks through it. At Wright’s Cave we saw some in indigenous rock painting as well as inscriptions of William Wright. It was time to head back for some lunch and we headed back to the Homestead Creek Camping Ground for some silverside sandwiches. One of our friends would be so proud to see us sitting on the bench with a homecooked silverside, eating sandwiches.
We were on the road again to push onto White Cliffs (another 1 hour and a half drive) to stay at the Underground Motel. On our trip we spotted mobs of emus. I captured this video of the emus running. I love this video and the way the afternoon sun beamed down on the landscape and captured the colours of the earth, flora and sky.
Once we were in White Cliffs, we navigated our way to our accommodation on Smith’s Hill. I was taken aback at the ingenuity of the underground motels. We climbed up the stairs to the top of the hill to watch the sunset and spotted our hotel room from above. Back inside at room number 6, we peered up to see how far it was to the top of the roof. It was a good 4-5 metres. The temperature of the room was 22. It was cosy, not claustrophobic and we enjoyed a meal at the restaurant that night.
The next day we travelled back to the main part of White Cliffs to drop into the visitor centre and also look at St Mary’s Anglican church. Our intention today was to drive to Peery Lakes and then down to Wilcannia. I’d heard about the Peery Lake after reading a book called The People of the Paroo River: Frederic Bonney’s Photographs. The book suggests once full the lake is teeming with tens of thousands of water birds. I thought it may have been full (note to self – call a local next time!). We drove east 55km to Peery Lakes but when we got there the lake was not full and it was a long way off. Tim let down our tyres a bit as we were on dirt road. We decided to keep driving north to the Wanaaring turn off and drive down the Tilpa-Tonga Road to see if we might see if the Paroo River had water in it. We knew that we couldn’t drive to Wilcannia via Tilpa because it was flooded. So our intention was to drive a part way down Tilpa-Tonga and then turn onto the Purnawilla-Norma Downs Road and down to Wilcannia. (The map below shows a location called Tilpa on our route – this is not Tilpa – this is where we turned off on the Purnawilla-Norma Downs Road).
We travelled along the Tilpa-Tonga road looking for these channels and lakes. I’d read in the book mentioned above that the Paroo River is the least reliable tributary of the Darling River and it flows south – occasionally in a distinct channel but in places opening upto into wetlands. Google maps shows a river crossing Tilpa-Tonga road. We drove and drove and spotted a medium size swamp on our left which we pulled over to have lunch. Perhaps this was the Paroo. We explored this area. Tim suggests it would make a nice camping spot in future. I note all over our drive so far there is a plant that we have growing in our garden. It’s popping up all over the landscape. I’ve messaged a friend and artist Ann Evers and she advises it’s myoporum montanum or water bush and ‘a good one for the garden’. She helps identify other plants I’ve taken here is lignum and its good for basket weaving.
We hop back in the car and push on but it’s not before too long that we meet water crossing the road. A decent 200 metre stretch we’ll have to drive through. Tim says he saw a Pajero earlier as we were having lunch pass by on the road, so it must have got through the water. I trust Tim and his driving. Bryan is squealing with delight as we surge through the water and its splashing onto the side. I am taking a video and then I notice how hard Tim is concentrating. His arm is working hard on the steering wheel – back and forward to keep the car wheels constantly moving. He seems very focused. I peer out the rear-view mirror and notice how deep the water is. It’s nearly on top of our tyres. I wonder if we could get bogged. In a split second I’m wondering what we would do if we did get bogged – two little kids in a remote part of western New South Wales. We make it through the water and I feel a huge sigh of relief. We have two more waterways to cross shortly after this before we can turn onto the Purnawilla-Norma Downs Road to Wilcannia.
We arrive to Wilcannia that night and stay at Warrawong on the Darling. We take a short walk before settling in for the night. There are a number caravans at the park and other guests are staying in the cabins next to us. On our walk we notice three dead pelicans in the water. Tim makes some comment about how pelicans might come here to die. When I ask the receptionist why the pelicans are dead, she doesn’t really know either. She says pelicans have their young in Alice and perhaps they come here to die (Tim was right?). It feels quite sad to see the pelican in the water. The don’t seem long dead.
On Saturday morning we head back into Wilcannia and stop in to Karin Donaldson’s art gallery to meet her. I’ve heard about Karin from a couple of people and connected with her over email. I’ve asked her if I could drop into meet her and she invites us in for a cuppa. She has lived in Wilcannia for 40 or so years. We share some stories. She comments how the sun shines out of the faces of the boys. They bring such life to people. I think the most striking comment that I take away from her is that she and others in the community feel grief and trauma at what’s happening in the community at the moment. I hope meeting our children gives her some life today. We ask her if there are any active churches in Wilcannia. She says she’s the only person who turns up to Catholic church on Sunday and she isn’t aware of any active churches. Karin is selling the book Yamakarra: Liza Kennedy and the Keewong Mob which she helped to create and publish. I purchase a copy and we are on our way. Rev Helen Ferguson has given me a key to look at St James Church in Wilcannia. We stop by to open the doors and we have a look inside at the church. It is dusty and there is a crack on the walls.
We leave Wilcannia and drive to Menindee to stay at the Kinchega Shearer’s Quarters which is part of Kinchega National Park. We are staying in a bunk room with access to showers (which have been recently renovated) and a toilet block. The ‘hilton’ is a shared kitchen, dining and lounge room for us to use with other campers. We had a wonderful night here with two other groups – a couple from the Central Coast and a family from Mildura – who also have a son called Eamon. We had such lovely conversations over dinners and breakfasts and it was such a lovely and unexpected surprise of the trip. Bryan is playing with them and they all want cuddles with Eamon. The comment how confident the boys seem. ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing,’ they tell us. It is so nice to be encouraged about being a good parent when you doubt yourself. The family from Mildura leave us their names and tell us they’ll babysit for us if we come to Mildura and want to go out for the night.
On our final leg of the journey – day 4 – we went into Menindee to meet some friends who were going to take us out to see the old Aboriginal Mission. We needed permission from the land council – which we got with their help – to see the site. The Menindee Mission was opened in 1933 and was where they housed Aboriginal people in the Far West. The Aboriginal Protection Board moved 250 or so Ngiyampaa people from the Carowra Tank mission to Menindee by truck and train. The book I bought from Karin is about the Ngiyampaa people. This is another connection on the trip which I didn’t expect. People died of tuberculosis at the mission and the conditions became such a scandal that those closed it down in 1949. We drive around the site and notice the names of people – presumably where they lived. There’s a wonderful site called Menindee Storylines which shares the stories of the Menindee Mission.
We head into town to order some Pizzas which we eat at the back of the Anglican church before the church service starts at 2pm (the first Sunday of every second month). It is a small crowd – there are 8 adults and 5 kids. One of the children comes in to grab a piece of pizza from us and stays for the service. Rev Helen Ferguson leads the service with a CD player for music. It’s a short service and runs for 30 minutes. The sermon is about the harvest being plentiful but the workers are few. That’s seems relevant in the Far West. There is lots of work around but so few people. We finish with hot chocolate and some sweets Rev Helen has brought in from the Broken Hill church that morning. Outside I notice the two trees in the yard with so many pods dropping from the ground. I learn later these are kurrajong trees.
We hit the road at 3:30pm and head for Broken Hill. We’ve had a full four days. The boys are exhausted. We’ve pushed them to the max seeing all these places. They’ve done so well and we are ready to head home.