|Back o'Bourke - Quick Facts|
Bourke is located in the far west of NSW on the banks of the Darling River, 800km from Sydney.
Bourke is best known for its searing summer heat. Temperatures of 49°C are not unknown. Winters are more pleasant, with warm days and cool evenings.
Along with Gundagai, Hanging Rock and Gulgong, Bourke occupies a special place in the Australian psyche. The phrase 'Back o' Bourke' (meaning the back of beyond) is deeply enmeshed in our language.
"If you know Bourke, you know Australia," wrote Henry Lawson. Yet it is surprising how few people bother to visit a town that has spawned such a potent outback legend.
Bourke began life as log stockade (built to defend white settlers from Aboriginal attack) in 1835 and has always been seen as a frontier settlement - both culturally and geographically. While the rest of NSW was largely tamed for agricultural use, the region around Bourke retained its colourful, swashbuckling atmosphere.
The history of Bourke has been largely shaped by a recurring cycle of financial speculation, drought and economic depression. Hot dry summers, dust storms, sheep scab, floods and unreliable transport - paddle-steamers and camel and bullock trains - meant that only the hardiest settlers survived.
In the early days Bourke enjoyed a reputation for hard drinking, but of the original 19 pubs only six remain. Frontier life is celebrated each year with the famous Mateship Festival held in and around Bourke each October.
Today, visitors can gain a fascinating insight into Bourke's early history by visiting a number of historic sites in and around the town. These include the old Lock and Weir (built in 1897 to ensure a permanent supply of water to the town), the Old London Bank (1888) and St Ignatius Catholic Church (1874), Bourke's oldest surviving building.
A replica of the original Fort Bourke Stockade, 35 km downstream from Bourke, is another popular site. The original stockade was built by Major Mitchell in 1835.
Paddleboats regularly plied the waters of the Darling River - the last commercial service stopped in 1931.
Visitors can recapture the spirit of the era by taking a cruise on the Jandra, a romantic old paddle-steamer now berthed at the Bourke wharf.
Despite Bourke's remoteness, the town has always attracted its share of creative minds. Henry Lawson lived here between 1892 and 1893 collecting material for his short stories (you can visit the Carriers Arms Inn, his old drinking haunt), as did the famous horse breaker and bush poet Harry 'Breaker' Morant. Scottish ballad poet Will Ogilvie is also remembered - he worked on an outlying sheep station during the 1890s.
Another famous resident was eye surgeon Fred Hollows, who began working with Aborigines here in the 1970s and is now buried at Bourke Cemetery. His memorial attracts a steady stream of visitors. A walk around the gravestones provides a graphic introduction to the history of Bourke. You'll also find the graves of several Afghans associated with the camel trade that ceased in the 1920s, plus those of two policemen killed on duty (one apparently by a bushranger).
In recent years Bourke has become the centre of a thriving cotton growing industry. Tours of the local cotton gin are highly recommended. These can be arranged through the Bourke Tourist Information Centre - ask for one of their distinctive 'mud maps' which will help you find some of the area's more elusive attractions.
For visitors with more limited time, the Visitor Information Centre can also arrange fully-guided Back o' Bourke Tours which take in a number of historic buildings, vineyards and Aboriginal sites.
Although history remains Bourke's strongest attraction, the district is becoming increasingly popular with bushwalkers, anglers and those wanting to experience the outback first-hand.
Nearby Mt Gundabooka (80 km from Bourke) offers a number of Aboriginal rock paintings and is ideal for bushwalking and birdwatching. Kangaroos, emus and other wildlife can be seen in abundance.
Further afield is the newly-listed Culgoa National Park, which offers secluded camping and picnic areas on the banks of the Culgoa River. Apart from birdwatching, the park offers coolibah woodlands and sandhills carpeted with wildflowers following spring rains.
A new addition to the Bourke calendar is the Outback Fishing Challenge. With prizes worth up to $10,000 on offer, it is one of the biggest inland fishing competitions in Australia.
Bourke has always attracted people who like a challenge.
Make sure you visit The Back O' Bourke Exhibition Centre while in town. It takes you on a walk through the history not only of Bourke, but also of the dreamtime. A very educational experience for the whole family. Nadia, Sydney.