Sturt’s obsession with finding an inland sea in the middle of Australia did not deliver an ocean, but he did find a salty Darling River. He described this discovery as ‘certainly a blow for which I was not prepared’.
When he spotted the range we know as Gundabooka, he still could not get the sea from his mind and wrote that the range was like an island ‘only wanting the sea to lave (wash) the base’. That was January 1829, and I chose to visit the area 188 years later. In January 2017 it was so hot, bitumen roads were melting. The Darling was running, but I chose not to taste its muddy water to check for salt.
Eventually Sturt came to the realisation that there was no inland sea. This was something the local Aboriginal tribes knew for tens of thousands of years, as they would travel vast distances along the Darling. Sturt described that their paths on ‘either side of the river were like well-trodden roads’.
This area was home to the Ngemba and Paakandji people of western NSW. The Gundabooka Range is highly significant to them, with rock art and ceremonial sites dotted amongst the rocky landscape. The Mulgowan Aboriginal art site is one of the excellent attractions here.
Although the return distance of Mulgowan Aboriginal art site walking track is only 1.4km, the track is rocky – weaving its way through boulders before arriving at a rock overhang protecting the ancient paintings. The paintings depict an array of subjects including animals, dancers, hand stencils and hunting tools. One of the best ways to appreciate the art is to listen to the space. Stand silently and listen to the birds, the wind through the leaves; and you may even feel why this is a special place.
Should you feel like a longer, more challenging walk, you’ve come to the right place. The Valley of the Eagles walk requires you to drive around to the Bennetts Gorge picnic area. Here there are two options. The first is to take a short stroll up to a viewing platform only 500m from the car park.
The second option is definitely for the more adventurous as it is a difficult 5.7km return walk. The track will take you up the rocky slopes in front of you, finishing at a lookout with 360º views. Sounds great but maybe you’re not up to a steep climb. Don’t despair, Google has made it easy for you as there is now a virtual tour of the Valley of the Eagles walk found here.
Fishing and paddling
If walking isn’t your thing, head across to Yanda campground in the Gundabooka State Conservation Area. This is a riverside campground that fronts the Darling – a perfect place for throwing in a line. If you have been carting a kayak all over the Outback, take it off the roof and go for a paddle. The Darling can have quite a flow at times, so better be careful that you don’t find yourself heading towards SA.
Yanda campground is suitable for 2WD in dry conditions, and it has 10 campsites that are trailer-friendly. There are picnic tables, BBQs and even flushing toilets. It’s best to bring your own drinking water as the only water available is from the Darling… and we all know how salty that can be.
The other campground is over at Dry Tank, which as you might guess is away from the river and there is no water available. The camping is on flat ground suitable for trailers, and a number of sites have picnic tables. This is the closest campground to the walks and would give you exceptionally clear skies to view the Milky Way in all its glory.
If you are a bit over camping and would like a roof over your head (but still be in the bush), you have a couple of choices. The first is Belah Shearer’s Quarters within Gundabooka NP and has six bedrooms with a maximum capacity of 12 guests. There are showers, toilets and electric power so it’s a good option for a different kind of stay.
About 8km south from Yanda campground is Redbank Homestead with similar facilities to Belah. As the name suggests, it’s a historic homestead with a spacious kitchen – so great for a large family or small group. You will need to pre-book either Redbank or Belah before you get there.
Most of the tracks are well graded 2WD-suitable; however, if it rains, it is always good to have a 4WD. Most of the access tracks are clearly marked on the maps. I came across one that is not marked, but is well worth using if you are camping at Yanda.
There is a track near the Dry Tank campground turn-off that will take you almost directly to Yanda rather than making a long detour. This track may not be graded and crosses a normally dry creek, so it will not be suitable in the wet. It goes via 15 mile Tank, 12 mile Tank and 5 mile Tank before intersecting the Louth to Bourke road 500m south of Yanda.
Gundabooka is definitely a great spot to visit for a night
or two if you find yourself out back o’ Bourke. I would not recommend visiting in summer when the temperature may hit 47º – even too hot for ’roos. Any other time of year would be great; particularly spring when the wild flowers will be out.