Outback Australia is an immense sparsely populated timeless land of arid plains and rugged country. Ochre red ancient landscapes meet cobalt blue skies. Slow meandering rivers bursting with birdlife give life to the parched lands. Small towns and communities, often on a river are separated by vast distances. Between remote settlements, the areas are shared between treasured national parks, some of the world’s most lucrative mining and huge farming properties, a few even bigger than European nations or US states. The sense of empty space is exhilarating and entrancing.
The landscape has become a canvas for artists capturing the vastness, light and colour in imagery, while the harshness and remoteness has been immortalised in prose by fine Australian poets including Henry Lawson and Dorothea MacKellar. The latter’s eponymous My Country captures the outback and includes the lines:
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
Bourke, 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney, is the iconic town synonymous with this remoteness. The majestic Darling River lined with aged river gums runs through the centre of Bourke. The large multi-layer wharf reminds everyone of the town’s rich history as Australia’s largest inland port, the wharf containing different tiers to account for the dramatic difference in river levels between times of flood and times of drought. For many years river steamers carried wool and other goods thousands of kilometres to sea opening up the huge tracts of inland Australia for its agricultural and grazing value.
Today the replica 19th century paddle steamer, the PV Jandra runs cruises along the river and under the North Bourke lift bridge, constructed with a large sweeping bend to accommodate bullock drays as one landowner wouldn’t sell his land to house the other end of the bridge.
The main street is littered with reminders of a golden past including the grand scallop pink post office (photo), the unusual court house (that even heard maritime cases) and old hotels and guesthouses with their ornate wrought iron verandahs.
Jenny Greentree, a fine and talented pastel artist beautifully captures the region in her work shown at her Back O Bourke Gallery (which shows some of Jenny’s artwork) describing with passion the varying moods of the country, its spirit and its occasional cruelty. Jenny’s superb Vision Splendid series captures the spirit of the lands in a rainbow series of seven images. Jenny showed me two artworks from the same location only drawn six months apart, one of a dry seared land of rich red soil and another of soaking waters, dragonflies humming across the surface.
As I pen this article, the land around Bourke is lush with life replacing the scorched drought-ridden lands of a few short years ago. Large flocks of birds of many species populate the skies and trees feeding on the seeds and grasses. Most striking are the red-tailed black cockatoos with their shock of scarlet feathers among a black satin coat.
Most memorable in the area are the stunning sunsets. In dry times, the dusty skies ignite in a vivid crimson but even in damper times, golden skies reflect gloriously off the small billabongs (waterholes) and lakes, the endless land sleeping again for another day bringing some relief from the searing heat of the summer days. With little city lighting, the night sky sparkles like a jewel box, the milky way gleaming as a celestial highway.
No journey to Australia is complete without escaping the cities and exploring folkloric outback Australia, and no place engenders the spirit of the outback as well as the legendary town of Bourke. Gain a new perspective for rural life, a rich cultural past and stunning natural vistas.
Three or four follow-on articles on outback Australia will appear in the following weeks.