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Central Darling: A Cultural Profile
The quintessential outback
Central Darling Shire is the quintessential Australian outback: largely desert and sparsely populated; dotted with small, one-pub towns, hundreds of kilometres apart along desolate dusty roads. But like most of the outback, Central Darling also has its share of unique cultural treasures and surprising natural beauty. Traversed by the Darling River, the area features some of the nation's great wetlands and national parks as well as some remarkable built heritage from its fascinating 19th century history. And it has one of the largest Indigenous populations, per capita, in New South Wales.
Central Darling encompasses some 53,000km2 of remote western New South Wales and is the largest local government area in the state, with one of the smallest populations. 2,008 local residents are dispersed throughout the the localities of Darnick, Mossgiel, Sunset Strip and Tilpa and towns of Ivanhoe, Menindee, Wilcannia and White Cliffs.
For tens of thousands of years, the region was home to the Barkindji (or 'Paakantji') and Ngiyaampaa people and other tribes. Despite profound disruptions to traditional lifestyle, epidemics of illness and forced re-settlement from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, Indigenous people today make up almost 36% of the Central Darling population (compared with just 2.3% in Australia overall). There's also a strong Indigenous youth contingent, with the average Indigenous age in the Central Darling of just 23.6 years, compared with the Australian mean of just under 40.
The massive far west area of New South Wales was first explored by Europeans in the 1820s in expeditions led by Captain Charles Sturt. European settlement commenced along the Darling River prior to 1850, but it was 1855 before the Central Darling 'runs' were consolidated, and steam boats began to make their way up the river, carrying wool and other agricultural produce and supplies. Pastoral, horticultural, agricultural and mining interests still dominate the Shire's economic activities today, with rural grazing properties accounting for 97% of the entire area - mostly for sheep.
Irrigation has enabled horticultural development in some areas, but this is now under pressure from water shortages after prolonged drought. Tourism also plays a role in the local economy. There can be no denying the Central Darling is a region of considerable social and, increasingly, economic disadvantage. In addition to its water supply concerns, the vastness and extreme remoteness of the area have placed significant constraints on the provision of adequate infrastructure services including transport, power and telecommunications. Educational opportunities are limited to the Western Institute of TAFE's small campuses at Menindee and Wilcannia and the unemployment rate is around 12%.
Once the third-largest inland port in Australia - the 'Queen City of the West' - with a population exceeding 3,000, Wilcannia is now a quiet town of just 629 residents. The Darling River, which cuts through the town, softens the surrounding semi-arid landscape with its large river gums and the once prosperous riverboat trade is evident in the legacy of a number of magnificent stone buildings which were erected during the 1880s boom from locally quarried sandstone.
Wilcannia has a large Aboriginal community and is the traditional home of the Barkindji people ('barka' meaning river). Sixty kilometres or so outside of the town, the Paroo Darling National Park supports an amazing wetland ecosystem, home to some 55 species of birds and many threatened fauna species. The area in the park around Peery Lake is vitally important to the Barkindji people and holds the most extensive bone midden deposits in New South Wales.
Sign at the Wilcannia Arts Centre, February 2008. Photo courtesy Local Government & Shires Associations.
110 km down the road from Broken Hill, Menindee - with 332 residents - was the first European settlement on the Darling River, in the early 1850s. The town became a river port for the paddle-steamers carrying cargoes of wool downriver, and an important outpost supporting the establishment of the new sheep stations scattered across the parched, semi-desert region.
The first European settlers built the Menindee Hotel, reputed to be the second oldest pub still serving beer in the State, in 1853. The hotel was used by the colonial explorers Burke and Wills as a staging point for their disastrous 1860 expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The arid land surrounding Menindee is greened by irrigation schemes from the Darling River, making it an oasis of horticulture - with farms and orchards producing grapes, rockmelons, tomatoes and apricots - in the middle of the desert.
Menindee is also the gateway to Kinchega National Park where the Darling forms a chain of natural lakes. For centuries the river and lakes provided a reliable food source for local Aboriginal tribes and there are numerous occupation sites and middens scattered across the park. Now the lakes, which have been broadened by irrigation dams, are popular for water sports and fishing. The dead river gums on their fringes add a stark, surreal edge to a landscape which teems with bird life.
Geoff DeMain, Stone Circle, Milparinka, 2004. Photo: James Giddey
200km east of Menindee and 220km north west of Hay on the Cobb Highway, on what was once a main route across the far west of the state, Ivanhoe was settled by Europeans in the early 1870s and most probably named after Sir Walter Scott's work of historical fiction.
The quiet town (pop 265), which is characterized by its particularly wide street and typical outback pastoral feel, continues to provide a stopover for travellers along the Cobb Highway and remains a railhead and service centre for the surrounding pastoral industry.
Little is recorded about the history of the local Aboriginal people in Ivanhoe, although the general picture of intense and violent conflict over European settlement in the far west most likely applies. Nonetheless, today Ivanhoe has an Indigenous population of some 104 people, or 39.2% of the population.
Ninety eight kilometres from Wilcannia lies one of the most unusual places in Australia, the underground town of White Cliffs, a small 'village' of just 181 people. Australia's oldest commercial opal field - and the source of the most vivid opals - White Cliffs quickly established Australia's reputation as the world's leading producer of the fiery stone when opal mining began here in the 1880s.
In those early days, it was the shortage of building materials, combined with the fierce temperatures, that prompted miners to simply put doors on the front of mineshafts and set up house in the cool earth, and the practice has continued to this day. White Cliffs now has motels, B&Bs, museums and art galleries, all underground.
White Cliffs was also the site of a solar power station which was established in 1981. The experimental facility is no longer operational but the five metre wide mirror-plated dishes make dramatic impact on the landscape.
Publican Graham Wellings spins a story to Lonely Horse Band members, Stretch and Tonchi, at the White Cliffs Hotel, White Cliffs, February 2008. Photo: Andrew Hull