We explored the stunning Kinchega National Park and Menindee Lakes… just before the drought broke.
Once a thriving sheep station and now an integral section of the Menindee Lakes system, Kinchega National Park is one of the most stunning Outback parks in New South Wales. When the lakes hold water, the park is teeming with waterbirds, photographers and tourists. Although the lakes are currently empty, it is still a magnificent place for 4WD adventurers to explore.
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Bordering the Darling River, campsites dot the river’s banks with a restored woolshed and homestead ruins nearby – both circa 1870s. There’s an abundance of emus and kangaroos roaming the saltbush and pelicans and swans glide gracefully along the water. Go back in time staying at shearer’s quarters from the 1950s. The lakes may be dry, but there is still a heap of things to see and do; and for a photographer, capturing a sunset with the dead trees on a dry lakebed will top it off.
Heading from Mungo National Park to Menindee, I stopped for morning smoko at Pooncarrie, enjoying some phone coverage for the first time in a few days. A fresh sandwich and iced coffee from the Pooncarie General Store sated my hunger. Recent rain has helped promote fresh growth and paddy melons stretch along the sides of the road. The kangaroo and goat populations have increased also. The roadside carcasses get picked clean quickly out here. When the black soil country is dominant, the travel is easy going. The sand has some rough patches, but nothing any 4WD couldn’t handle; I made good time to Menindee.
First stop is Maidens Hotel for an ice-cold beer and to escape the heat. Formerly named Tom Pain’s Pub, Burke and Wills stopped here in October 1860. Tragically a fire in April 1999 severely damaged the main building destroying historic contents that had been collected over the years. The hotel has been rebuilt with the original front bedrooms incorporated into the design. If you don’t feel like camping, this is a good option as a place to stay and explore Kinchega National Park. The rooms are basic but clean, the bathroom is shared and the food is excellent.
Menindee Lakes is a chain of man-managed freshwater lakes connected to the Darling River. Work began in 1949 to build weirs, levy banks, canals and regulators to capture flood waters; finally being completed in 1968. Broken Hill is supplied with water from the Menindee Lakes; as are irrigators, farmers and livestock downstream.
When the West Darling region of New South Wales was opened up as sheep country in 1855, Kinchega Station had a few owners until Herbert Hughes bought the property in 1870. He introduced hardy merinos that could survive the harsh conditions and sunk bores to help water them. In doing so, he more than doubled his stock of sheep over five years. Within 12 years the property was running 160,000 sheep.
The Old Kinchega Homestead site contains the ruins of the main house constructed in the 1870s as well as locations where outbuildings used to be. Constructed on the banks of a billabong, the main building housed the property managers with an Aboriginal camp nearby. The interpretive signs along the homestead billabong walk provide a window into the life and times of the people working and living on this remote station.
The nearby Kinchega Cemetery is where a number of bodies, including children, have been buried. Unfortunately, all the graves are unmarked – with records either lost or not compiled. It’s known that the remains of the souls who perished in Australia’s only inland shipwreck (the PS Providence) are buried here also. At 3.00am on 9 November 1872, disaster struck when the boiler of the PS Providence exploded… killing all on board. The blast was so loud, it was heard at the woolshed; and the cook’s body was found in the upper reaches of a gum tree. In 1875, Herbert built the Red River Gum and corrugated iron woolshed that still stands today… albeit half the size that it was originally. All methods of sheep shearing were used and remnants of all these methods remain at the woolshed. The six-millionth sheep was shorn in 1967 by Herbert’s son Harold who donated the property to the NSW Government on the same day; when Kinchega National Park was born. The woolshed, shearers’ quarters and old homestead ruins are reminders of the pastoral history.
Shearers’ quarters and the ‘Hilton’
The shearers’ quarters are made up of three main buildings, with one available as accommodation for Kinchega visitors. Guests sleep in quarters built in the 1950s during the wool boom that coined the phrase ‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back’.
The Kinchega ‘Hilton’ is the communal kitchen and sitting room with fireplace that guests can utilise during their stay. The original building burnt down in the 1930s, but it was rebuilt and a wood stove was installed. With flushing toilets, hot showers, laundry – and only $20 a night – this base is a fantastic choice. Topping it off are the fridge, crockery and cutlery, pots and pans, four-burner gas stove, microwave, free gas BBQ, air-conditioning and power points to charge up your camera gear and phones.
The Visitors’ Centre is located here also and the walls are covered in interpretive boards telling of the rich history of Kinchega Station, as well as the impact on the environment with the number of sheep it ran in such harsh conditions. Don’t forget to sign the visitors’ book, and have a walk around the site before taking off on a self-driving tour.
Exploring Kinchega 4WD-style
From the shearers’ quarters follow the signs along the Emu Lake Drive. This track traces the shoreline of the intermittent Emu Lake that only fills when the Darling River is in flood. Upon reaching the Tandou Road, turn right and continue to the Woolshed Drive junction. Turn left, then continue for a couple of kms before taking the Lake Drive track. This drive along the shores of Lakes Menindee and Cawndilla terminates at Cawndilla Campground. Although it was closed for maintenance, I was still able to reach Morton Boulka which (on a good day) is a great spot for birdwatching. I took some great shots of the dead trees with their twisted limbs seemingly reaching for the clouds and pleading for rain.
Another great drive is the River Drive. This track follows the meandering Darling River for approximately 20km. Many of the River Red Gums are hundreds of years old and signs on the track warn of the dangers of camping underneath them. Dropping limbs can be fatal when they fall on unsuspecting campers. Keep an eye out for trees bearing the scars of Aboriginal canoes; while others show the markings of past floods staining their bark. Check out the top fishing spot at Weir 32 and, a little further along, the site where the PS Providence boiler lies on the bank of the Darling River.
Burke and Wills
The Burke and Wills Campsite is situated on the Main Weir Road and only a short drive from Menindee. An expansive campground situated on the banks of the Darling River with flushing toilets and a tap. It is also a historic site linked to the doomed Burke and Wills expedition. Set up camp overlooking the water and relax in the shade with a cold one.
Packing up the next morning, I reflected on how magical this region must be when water is abundant… but also on how spectacular the scenery is when water is scarce. I will be back when the water returns.
Located 110km south-east of Broken Hill via the bitumen to Menindee. Access is also available on unsealed roads from Wentworth (240km) and Ivanhoe (206km). Access to the Park is via 2WD unsealed roads that may be closed during and after wet weather. Mobile coverage is limited within the Park. Cash is required for vehicle entry fees ($8 per day) and camping fees ($6 per adult per day) to be paid at the pay stations at the Woolshed and Menindee entrance.
Where to stay:
Darling River Campsites:
34 camping sites located along the river with dispersed pit toilets, picnic tables and fireplaces. Showers, flush toilets and bore water available at the shearers’ quarters for a gold coin donation; 2WD access.
Six rooms with showers and flush toilets, laundry, self-contained communal kitchen and a fireplace. Supply your own linen, 2WD access. Bookings are essential for $20 a night per person.
Maidens Hotel, Menindee:
Clean and comfortable rooms with shared bathroom facilities. Fabulous counter meals available every day.
Burke and Wills Campsite:
Free camping, flushing toilets, non-potable water, awesome scenery. Located on the Darling River near the Main Weir.
Best time to visit:
Any time of the year but always check before you visit as rain brings closures within the Park.
GPS Route details
Kinchega National Park – 32°32’36”S 142°17’55”E
Menindee – 32°23’36”S 142°25’29”E
Burke and Wills Camp – 32°18’18”S 142°29’52”E