“If you know Bourke, you know Australia” so wrote the famous Australian poet Henry Lawson in 1882.
Although Bourke is a town, it is something that is etched in the psyche of Australia and is commonly used as a reference point to the start of the true Outback. ‘Back o Bourke’ is a colloquial term for something a long way from anywhere. But being a long way from somewhere is a relative term in Australia as something several hundred kilometres away can sometimes be referred to.
To the traveller though, the further ‘out’ one goes, the closer one gets to the real essence of the land; maybe that is to what Lawson was alluding. Early Australian explorers believed in the existence of an inland sea and the first explorer to test the theory was Charles Sturt in 1828, who, complete with boat, arrived at the area that is now Bourke and discovered the Darling River which unfortunately had no water in it at the time.
Major Mitchell followed 1835 to continue Sturts work and set up a stockade to protect provisions for further exploration of the interior. Fort Bourke was the first European structure built in the area and formed the basis of the settlement.
With the subsequent opening up of the Darling River and surrounding lands by the river trade, Bourke became a major port by the 1890’s servicing southern Queensland and northern NSW, providing a hub for transport for the regions wool clip, which was shipped downstream to Wentworth and onto Echuca or Adelaide.
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.
This by no means spelt the end of Bourke and today it is a town that still, in essence, is the same as it was back then; a town on the edge of the wilderness with great historical, cultural and geographic significance.
Today, Bourke is a wonderful town set beautifully on the banks of the Darling with lots for the visitor to do and see. The ‘Back ‘O’ Bourke’ Centre is a state of the art exhibition and interpretive centre that is a ‘must-see’ for the visitor.
Things to do:
Bourke is a unique and historically exciting town in far northwest NSW. With plenty of activities to enjoy, we recommend visitors stay for a few days.
The Back O’ Bourke Information Centre is the first port of call and not to be missed. Their friendly staff can help you arrange your entire stay, including permits for Mount Oxley.
The Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre is within the same building. Here, you can experience a journey through life in the backcountry, rediscovering the stories of Australia through modern eyes, taking you from the rich cultural history of the past through to the future of the Australian Outback.
Other activities we recommend are:
- Cruise the Darling on the Paddle Vessel PV Jandra and learn more about the region’s rich riverboat history
- Visit the Back O’ Bourke Gallery -Local artist Jenny Greentree is well known for her impressive landscape paintings of the outback
- Visit the Bourke Aboriginal Art Gallery with works by local artists
- Check out the Crossley Engine
- Self-drive tours of the district – pick up your map from the Back O’ Bourke Centre
Bourke Historic Cemetery.
Many of the epitaphs tell of the tragedy that constantly stalked the western plains and back country – ”drowned”, “killed by lightning”, “shot by police”, “perished in the bush”. An hour spent browsing will take you back to the world of bushrangers, drovers, cameleers, riverboat men, lost children and Denise’s Great Great Great Grandparents James and Frances Reed.
James and Frances were some of the first arrivals in Bourke in 1862. Much to my surprise they had the license to Mountain House Hotel, 2 sitting rooms and 3 bedrooms at the point of Oxley’s tableland. Frances features frequently in volumes of the ‘History of Bourke’.
Mt Oxley and the Fred Hollow’s Connection:
Fred Hollows was buried in Bourke 17th February 1993.
“Did you know it is over 30 years since the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program kicked off Under Fred’s guidance? The Program travelled throughout rural and remote Australia. It was 4WD, tent flaps dust flies mud and heat. They visited over 460 communities and made countless road side stops at shearing and cattle camps, small stores and schools.
It was about bringing quality eye health care to everyone living outside the major urban centres of Australia.” A message from Brian Doolan CEO Fred Hollows Foundation. www.hollows.org
Those in Bourke were very privileged to have had the care from Fred for all the years that he visited. He loved the red dirt and the mulga, that has become his final resting place.
A dedication followed exactly 13 years to the day on Friday 17th February 2006. An Austrian sculptor Andreas Buisman found the 9 tonne piece of raw granite (pictured above) nestled in an outcrop of unassuming rocks on a property. He escorted the rock to the workshop of nearby stonemasons in Tumut. Over many weeks he transformed it into a living sculpture, the highly polished finish is very symbolic of the intra ocular lenses produced in Eritrea and Nepal.
The Granite sculpture is placed near the Obelisk in Bourke’s Cemetery. At the gravesite 60 boulders from Mt Oxley line the perimeter of Fred’s grave. They form the shape of an eye and Fred is buried in the iris. The Obelisk, a beautiful piece of sandstone was crafted by sculptors who attended the Broken Hill Symposium, also local friends were able to leave their mark.
To continue the connection Andreas had met Sandra, a lovely Austrian girl also holidaying in Australia. They wanted an unusual location, on a mountain, in the outback. They were married 10/12/06 on Mt Oxley. Lovely witnesses helped them celebrate, along with the ex-parish Priest from Bourke.
Since then Andreas’ parents have been to visit. Sandra’s parents visited in March 2013
You are very welcome to come and see Bourke and Mt Oxley and the outback as Fred saw it. Visit his grave and the very interesting historical cemetery. Think about the work Fred did and the millions of people who are able to see, thanks to Fred and the Hollows Foundation.
Getting to Bourke
Contact the Back O’ Bourke Information & Exhibition Centre for further information and travel advice