Bourke – Gateway to The Outback

There’s a saying that “The Outback” begins at Bourke. Rather at the Back o’ Bourke – the back of beyond – across the Darling river where you are officially said to be “out back”. Hence Outback.

Located some 800km northwest of Sydney, the first thing I learnt about Bourke was that I had been pronouncing it incorrectly. It is actually pronounced how you would say burk (or berk), which is British slang – calling someone a berk is to call them a stupid or silly person. I had been pronouncing it like “boar” with a “k” on the end.

The small town of Bourke (population about 2000) sits on the south banks of the famous Darling river, just west of its start. The Darling river winds its way through this part of Australia almost like a coil. So much so that it is about six times longer than the actual distance from its start to where it meet the Murray River way south of here. Check it out for yourself on Google maps or similar.

Old Bourke Wharf 

The old wharf could do with a bit of John Murray influenced painting I reckon. Especially the back walls. Under the wharf is out of sight, so there are signs of blatant vandalism. That said the wharf is historic. It was formerly the largest inland port in the world for exporting wool on the Darling River. The town would have been very busy in those days – from 1860 up to 1930.

Vandalism. Paint damage on the old wharf…
I wouldn’t even call it graffiti!
Once a very busy loading and unloading dock on the Darling River.

The Bourke court house is unique in inland Australia, in that it was originally a maritime court and to this day maintains that distinction.

Inland Bourke’s maritime Court House

More Buildings

Because so many people used to pass through here with the loading and unloading of the river boats it was normal that some would stop over. But now some of the hotels that once thrived are mostly empty. There are some quite grand designs too.

The Fabulous Art Deco Central Australian Hotel. Now sadly empty.

One of the saddest sights for me was the wonderful Central Australian Hotel. Still standing solidly like a forgotten temple of art deco architecture, this awesome building is now closed and empty. Such a waste! Apparently Bourke’s one and only Art Deco building. I hope somebody does something to restore and reopen this building.

Fitzgerald’s Post Office Hotel. Still used but hardly thriving.
Gidgee Guest House. Another seemingly under-used place

It’s all a bit sad in my opinion but it is hard to see where anything like a revival can come from. Tourism would seem the only industry likely to expand in these parts – and only then by a small amount.

The town centre does have a certain charm and there are several heritage listed sites including the old court house and post office.

Bourke Post Office – Built 1880
The lorries running through this part of the world are long and known as road trains.


The problem we had here was that pretty much everything was closed. Not due to Covid-1984 – for once – but due to it not being the “visitor season”. Despite being the kids school summer holidays this period is normally just too bloody hot with temperatures reaching into the 40s. The main time for visitors – and when things like the river paddle steamer runs – is usually April to end of November. Add to that the fact that there had been a few big downpours of rain recently which meant that most of the outback unsealed roads were closed (see below).

Bloody typical. We came all this way and can’t do most of the things we had planned.

River Boats?

Despite there being enough recent rainfall to close most of the local dirt roads, the Darling was too low for the paddle boats. Again, we were out of season!

A river boat sits anchored north of the town.

North Bourke Bridge is Australia’s oldest movable span bridge and one of the most historic bridges in New South Wales. First opened in May 1883 it is the sole survivor of the first two lift bridges built in New South Wales.

North Bourke Bridge

Bourke’s Own Cola Drink!

Forget Atlanta, USA; the home of Coca-Cola. Forget Harrison, New York state, the home of Pepsi (OK, I admit, I had to look that one up). Bourke has its own cola. Splashe Cola! Now I am no expert as I generally do not like the stuff and hardly ever drink colas. But according to our new resident cola drinks expert – Dani – this Splashe Cola was fairly good.

Bourke’s very own Splashe Cola!

The company currently makes ten different beverages. The name of the company used to be Rice’s Cordials until 1998 when it became known as Back o’ Bourke Cordials. I prefer the new name…

Outback Roads…

Australia has around 570,000 km of unsealed roads. That’s about the same distance as to the moon and half way back! It is inevitable that you will end up driving on some of these roads. The condition of these roads varies from compacted dirt – which turns to rusty-red mud when it rains – to loose gravel. Sudden pot holes and large rocks come as extras – if you are unlucky.

A typical gravel road in these parts. Passable, despite recent rains.

Many are passable with two wheel drive vehicles but many are off limits without a 4×4 motor. Even with the four wheel drives when it rains the local council may try to close some of the dirt roads. This is exactly what happened when we were in the Bourke area.

The plan was to try and drive the unsealed route from Bourke to Wilcannia, following the Darling river. But the recent luck with unsealed road closures around Bourke forced a quick rethink. Plan ‘B’ was to head directly south to Cobar and then take the Barrier Highway to Wilcannia.

Not what we wanted to see. Most dirt roads closed due to the rain.

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