We don’t always have the time or disposable income to head off for a couple of weeks, travelling long distances to reach and explore iconic locations like the Top End. But what’s stopping us from enjoying remote areas closer to home?
No matter where we live in Australia, we’re fortunate to be able to easily reach remote locations – sometimes by driving for just one day. Accessible by a standard four-wheel drive and in the far west of outback New South Wales is one of these places: Kinchega National Park.
An area of many contrasts, this park boasts glistening lakes, dominant rivers and spectacular night skies while offering a sense of remoteness that will all but quench your appetite for adventure.
On our recent trip to Kinchega, we set off from Sydney, setting the compass for the banks of the Darling River, close to Menindee in the Kinchega NP. We had planned a couple of nights’ camping along the majestic Darling River, using this as the base from which to explore the remote lakes, tracks and plains before arriving at our final destination, the Silverton Hotel, a famous outback pub west of Broken Hill.
As an Irishman who has recently visited the birth and home place of Robert O’Hara Burke in his native County Galway in the west of Ireland, I was excited about visiting this part of outback NSW, where Burke and his men camped at Menindee along the Darling River. It was here where the expedition made final preparations before embarking on the ill-fated journey across the continent, heading towards the Gulf of Carpentaria.
After a day of driving east along the Sturt Highway, passing through Hay and Mildura, we decided to camp for a night on the Murray River. There are plenty of choice when it comes to good bush camps along the Murray and this was but a taste of what was ahead.
We continued on towards Wentworth and then took the High Darling Road, heading north-east on the Darling River run, as it’s often referred to. This will be the start of your adventure, too, if you’re coming from the south.
It will not be long before you hit the dirt and start kicking up dust behind your vehicle as you make your way to Kinchega NP. You will notice the landscape dramatically change from light greens to vast areas of low shrub land, sandy plains, and the distinctive shiny grey lakes that make the Kinchega NP a unique place to visit.
Just before reaching the park you’ll pass through the small settlement of Pooncarie, another stop-over for Burke’s expedition. From here it’s about 127km of good-quality unsealed outback road to Menindee.
Kinchega NP is about 800km from Sydney or 750km from Melbourne. On the eastern side of the park you will find the Darling River, which runs from the southern banks of Menindee and covers 62km of river frontage, offering some truly great camping.
Menindee was a strategic base for a number of Australia’s explorers. Most notable were Sir Thomas Mitchell, who used it in 1835, Charles Sturt in 1844, and Burke and Wills, in 1860.
When you arrive in the quiet settlement, go into the local shop and ask for directions to some of the 30-plus bush camping sites along the Darling River. They are situated about 10km from the town. You can also pick up your last-minute supplies while you’re there.
Menindee and the adjoining Darling River was a significant stop-over for Burke’s expedition, which stayed there for more than a week before his team split into a smaller group to eventually make its way to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
We chose to camp along the Darling River for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to experience the riverside environment that Burke’s expedition encountered prior to continuing its expedition, but we also wanted to enjoy the superb camping spots along the meandering river. Take your time when choosing the site that suits your needs. There are plenty to chose from, many with concrete fire pits near the riverbank if you want to light a fire to cook your evening meal.
After checking out a couple of options, we found a great spot right on a river bend where we were enchanted by the sounds of noisy cockatoos as well as the local water birds.
After setting up camp and taking some time out to absorb the picturesque river setting, we decided to get the fire going, get the Dutch oven hot and bake traditional Irish soda bread accompanied by some superb lamb shanks that we purchased in a butcher’s shop in Hay.
The Burke and Wills expedition party arrived along this river bank on October 14, 1860, and when you sit by the fire, it’s easy to imagine what the scenes must have been like back in those days – the setting up of the large canvas tents, the hustle and bustle of carts, horses and camels mingled with the sounds of the men preparing their expedition equipment for the journey north. You can only really experience and bring to life these scenes by seeking out these historic and often hard-to-get-to locations. This is why we drive 4WDs.
As the light faded and the final flurry of birdlife came to an end, we enjoyed a couple of cold beers from the fridge – Burke’s crew probably drank warm rum. Ah, the beauty of having a fridge in your 4WD. Modern comforts – they definitely have their merits.
Out here, early risers will be treated to a spectacular red and orange tinge on the red gum trees and sandy river banks. We decided to spend some time simply soaking up the atmosphere. It’s easier to stay longer than planned.
Kinchega NP offers plenty of choice when it comes to exploring and enjoying the freedom of driving on its many remote dusty tracks. As you get closer to Menindee Lake, you will be struck by the unusual sight of the black gum trees that eerily protrude from the still and vast lake. This iconic landscape will definitely draw you and your camera close to the lake’s edge for a photo that will be hard to replicate anywhere else in Australia.
Another unique feature of the lakes is the odd-looking murky-grey water that fills Lake Menindee, which enhances the sight of the dead gum trees scattered across its surface. There is a lot of lake out there. In fact, the combined expanse of the Menindee Lakes is considered to hold more than three times the volume of Sydney Harbour when full; now that’s a lot of water.
The NP also boasts a number of activities. This includes trekking along the lake’s shores, fishing in the Darling River and exploring ancient Aboriginal and early European sites throughout the park. The area is also famous for having some of the country’s best-kept wool sheds, including Kinchega Station, established in 1875. Worth a look for another step back in time.
If you have come to see the wildlife, you will not be disappointed; bearded dragons and sand monitors can often be found basking on the park’s tracks, while kangaroos and emus can be seen in abundance throughout the surrounding plains.
So, if you are itching to pack up your 4WD and head off on a mini-adventure that won’t consume too much of your valuable annual leave but still offer you a sense of remoteness, this location ticks all the boxes. It’s an area with some great unsealed tracks, and it’s rich in natural history and heritage. It’s a place for nature lovers, photographers and those who just want to experience the unique camping along the Darling River.
Kinchega NP is situated right on the fringe of the arid zone in western NSW. The national park covers a total area of about 443km² The eastern edge of the Kinchega NP is formed by the Darling River, Australia’s longest water course.
Coordinates: 32°32’39”S 142°17’50”E / 32.54417°S 142.29722°E / -32.54417; 142.29722
The Outback Travellers Track Guide (Series 1)
NSW State Map (UBD) 24th edition
HEMA Outback NSW Regional Map (3rd edition)
Outback NSW Holiday planner published by NSW Tourism
The National park is 839km west of Sydney, 111 kilometres south-east of Broken Hill and 630km north-east of Adelaide.
The main entrance to Kinchega NP is just north-west of the town of Menindee. Website: www.nswnationalparks.com.au
We camped along the Murray River on the way there and set up our camping base along the Darling River on the eastern side of Kinchega NP. There are 34 shaded campsites scattered along the banks of the river, accessed via the river drive. The designated camping areas offer basic amenities with no powered sites provided.
For bookings, contact the Broken Hill park office on (08) 8080 3200. It costs $6 per adult per night to camp along
Other campsites in Kinchega NP include Cawndilla and Emu Lake campgrounds.
FUEL AND SUPPLIES
From the north-west, fuel is available at Broken Hill. If you plan to travel using the unsealed roads off the Silver City Highway, or from Pooncarie, bringing extra fuel is advisable. This is outback country, so it is important to be prepared; carry plenty of water and food. You can top-up on fuel when you reach Menindee. You will also be able to restock on all of your necessities in Broken Hill.
Most of the trip is grade C-D, although roads can be tricky in wet weather. It is always advisable to check road closures and ask for local advice at Menindee prior to entering the national park. Keep the tyre pressures down while in the national park as the tracks can be quite sandy in spots.
Kinchega National Park
Phone: (08) 8080 3200
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS
Kinchega National Park is open year-round unless it has to close due to poor weather or fire danger. It’s worth noting that a total fire ban exists in the park from October 1 to March 31. The park operates on a ‘pay and display’ envelope system and it’s advisable to keep some spare coins handy.
Burke’s home place in the west of Ireland was a very different environment to the one he experienced in the Australian heat of October 1860. Burke came from a privileged background and was raised in a 17th century, 11-bedroom house perched on 44 acres at St Cleggans near the village of Craughwell in County Galway.
Surprisingly, Burke is not very well-known in Ireland. In fact, when locals are asked about the magnificent house that Burke was born and raised in, they often refer to its most recent owners, the famous American Huston family – movie producer John Huston and his daughter, academy award-winning actress Angelica Huston, most famous for playing the mother, Morticia, in The Addams Family movies of the ’90s.
Angelica Huston converted Burke’s home into a luxury hotel before selling it on to an Irish businessman.
It’s easy to see why many of the world’s famous explorers, most from privileged backgrounds, were prepared to give up their creature comforts at the drop of a hat to live in a canvas tent, exploring a largely undiscovered world.
I don’t think much has changed today for the majority of us who own 4x4s. Given the choice, I would certainly swap a stay in a luxury hotel for a swag, dusty riverside campsite and a warm campfire under a star-filled solar system. That’s my idea of five-star accommodation.