In 1813 George Evans descended from the Blue Mountains in to the valley of the Fish River, and explored the upper reaches of the Macquarie Valley. He returned with a diary full of glowing descriptions – a promised land of lush pastures, rich soils and park-like woodlands. The promise of such rich rewards ensured that within a year of Evans’ return the first road over the mountains had been constructed.
Fifteen years after crossing the Great Divide, Evans, Oxley and Cunningham had contributed significantly to the picture of the Darling Basin by “discovering” most of its eastern tributaries, but the ultimate course of the inland rivers remained a mystery to the colonists.
The possibility of an inland sea was the preferred theory by the explorers, and Charles Sturt, a strong believer in the inland sea theory, was appointed as the man who would attempt to solve the puzzle.
Sturt and his party set out in 1828 sure that they would encounter the inland sea. However, the drought stricken country they encountered dashed their hopes. Even the Macquarie Marshes that had previously defeated Oxley, were parched and lifeless. When Sturt’s party finally stumbled down the banks of the Darling near Bourke they found only salty water coming from springs in the riverbed.
Nonetheless, Sturt sensed the importance of the river and he later named it in honour of Governor Darling, who had appointed him to lead the expedition.
On a later expedition, Sturt stumbled on the entry of a large new river from the north – the Darling. After an altercation with Aboriginals on a sandpit on the Murray River, from where he had travelled by whaleboat along the Murrumbidgee and the Murray rivers, Sturt realized he was at the junction of the Darling and Murray rivers.
DIARY ENTRIES OF EXPLORERS
Darling River near Bourke 1828 –
“The trees that overhung it (the river) were of beautiful and gigantic growth. Its banks were too precipitous to allow of our watering the cattle, but the men eagerly descended to quench their thirst……..nor shall I ever forget the cry of amazement that followed their doing so, or the looks of terror and disappointment with which they called out to inform me that the water was so salt as to be unfit to drink! This was, indeed, too true: on tasting it I found it extremely nauseous”.
31st May 1835 Darling River downstream of Fort Bourke –
“The water was beautifully transparent; the bottom was visible at great depths, showing large fishes in shoals, floating like birds in mid-air. The bed is composed of ferruginous sandstone – exactly similar to that on the coast near Sydney”.
1830 Entering the Darling River from the Murray –
“The river preserved a breadth of one hundred yards and a depth of rather more than twelve feet. Its banks were sloping and grassy and were overhung by trees of magnificent size. Indeed its appearance was so different from the water-worn banks of the sister stream (Murray River) that the men exclaimed, on entering it, that we had got into an English river.
Its appearance almost justified the expression; for the greenness of its banks was as new to us as the size of its timber. Its waters, though sweet, were turbid and had a taste of vegetable decay, as well as a slight tinge of green.”
Darling River near Wentworth 24th September 1844 –
“Magnificent trees droop like Willows to the water’s edge with evening’s mildest radiance in their foliage, throwing a soft haze over the distance, but deeper shadows on the nearer ground forming a scene that we may seldom hope to witness.”
28th September 1844 Darling River near Bertundy –
“Today for the first time we have noticed rocks in the bed of the Darling……..the Darling certainly has richer and larger flats than the Murray, although the whole line of the river is not equal in fertility to the latter but is on the contrary, sandy in many places. If the river has to boast its rich flats, the country beyond them is an absolute desert.”
Edward Eyre:20th January 1844 Darling River below Pooncarie –
“In many places, however, the actual width of the water could not be fifteen yards and fallen trees frequently obstructed the channel quite across – to compensate however for this, the river banks were lined with the most beautiful gum trees………I have nowhere seen in Australia so pleasing or picturesque an effect produced by the Eucalypti as was the case along the whole course of the Darling.”
The white settlement of the Darling River system was driven by an enthusiasm to turn the rivers grasslands and soils into agricultural products for overseas markets. The early colonial government supported this process by encouraging European exploration adventures and by failing to recognize the rights of the traditional Aboriginal owners who lived along the rivers.
Early explorers were keen to discover a rich pastoral country and high returns for agricultural products, in fact, expeditions that found fertile lands were deemed a success.
To encourage development, the government offered cheap land and low rents, but with that came exploitation. Attempts by the government to regulate landholding and manage relationships with Aboriginal traditional owners, received constant opposition from pastoralists. This lead to unreal expectations by settlers and conflict with Aboriginal people.
The current environmental state of the Darling Catchment is the result of very complex social and environmental forces that have acted together over time. The introduction of alien animals, overgrazing, the impact of land administration, a poor understanding of climatic variability and the desire for fast profits have had a big impact on the Darling catchment. It is only in recent years that we have started to understand the fragile environment of the Darling catchment and that the early expectations of explorers and pastoralists would never been realized.
Nevertheless, the Darling now has some very strong and vibrant communities that are trying to forge a new and different future for the region based on a better understanding of the fragile environmental and the limitations of climatic conditions.
Over the years the Darling catchment has seen –
- The riverboat trade come and go;
- The paddle steamers played a very important role in the opening up of the Darling catchment
- The growth and decline of large pastoral holdings;
- Severe droughts;
- Spectacular floods;
- Desnagging of the Darling River;
- An evolving culture of managing a harsh and unpredictable environment;
- An evolution of strong and vibrant communities; and
- Better recognition of the past culture and heritage and the present needs of Aboriginal communities.