Travelling Australia - Journal 2012
August 2012 - Menindee
Menindee town began as a hotel opened in 1853 by Thomas Pain near the Darling River to provide refreshments for travellers. It is the oldest town in western New South Wales and was the first town established on the Darling River. A sign outside the town claims a population of 980; the 2006 census returned 633 people and the 2011 census reported a population of 449.

When Menindee was founded, western New South Wales was being explored and developed for sheep grazing pastoral properties. The area was isolated and remote relying on bullock drays to transport the wool clip and for station supplies. Bullock waggons were slow and too easily delayed by adverse weather but were, at that time, the only available transport.

In 1856 Francis Cadell established a store in Menindee to provide goods to pastoral properties north of Menindee. Cadell was one of the original paddle-steamer advocates who foresaw river trade as the key to developing the pastoral potential (mainly wool for export) of the inland regions by replacing the bullock waggon. The feasibility of paddle-steamers on the Murray-Darling system had only been confirmed in 1853 when two paddlers raced each other from Goolwa to the Darling-Murray junction to win a Government sponsored prize. Their success prompted paddle-steamer construction and exploring the river system began so paddle-steamers could establish trading services. As well as carrying the wool clip from pastoral properties, paddle-steamers regularly carried supplies for pastoral properties and for townships, such as Menindee, along the river.

By 1860, when the Burke and Wills expedition set out from Melbourne to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria, Menindee was the last settlement on the edge of the developing region and was a logical place for the expedition to pause when they arrived on 14 October 1860. At Menindee, Burke divided the expedition into two parts and he headed north to Coopers Creek with half while the remainder established a depot at Pamamaroo Creek close to the Darling River and near Menindee where they remained until near the end of 1861. The site, marked by signs, is used by campers and fisher-people. Burke stayed at Pain's Hotel in Menindee before he left for Coopers Creek. In a postscript to the Burke and Wills expedition, one of the camel drivers (Dost Mahomet) remained in Menindee after the expedition and is buried on the edge of the town.

The Darling region proved to be very profitable wool country and substantial sums of money were invested from the mid-1860s in pastoral properties, including those around Menindie. When Burke and Wills passed through, the township comprised one store, one hotel and a police station. By 1866 the area was busy enough for a weekly coach service to be established to and from Adelaide. Travellers to Melbourne could go by paddle-steamer to Echuca then by train to Melbourne. The area grew and, by 1886, population in the town was 300 and Menindee had a courthouse, police station, public school, bank, post and telegraph station, mechanics institute, three hotels and three stores. Menindee was the west Darling's commercial and shipping centre.

Darling River
The Darling River near Menindee.
River trade on the Darling always depended on rainfall and adequate water depth of water to be practicable. During the drought of the 1890s river traffic stopped for years and wool had to be carried overland by bullock dray to the railhead at Terowie, 350 kilometres away in South Australia. By then the railway was seriously threatening river trade; when the line reached Menindee from Adelaide in 1919 much trade changed over to rail which provided a more reliable, much faster service (hours by rail instead of days or weeks for paddlers). In 1927 a bridge over the Darling River allowed the railway to connect Sydney and Broken Hill. By then river-trade had faded away in the face of competition from the railways and paddlers were rare visitors; Menindee had lost its place as a commercial port. The last recorded occasion on which a paddle-steamer went upstream from Menindee was the Renmark in 1942.

In the late 1950's Menindee became the site of major civil engineering work when the Menindee Lakes Scheme was begun to control water flowing into, and between, the Darling River and lakes near Menindee using a series of weirs and regulated outlets. This work was intended to secure water supply for Broken Hill. A pipeline now carries water from the Menindee Lakes to Broken Hill 110 kilometres away.

Water pipeline The water pipeline from Menindee to Broken Hill.

The 2006 census illustrated Menindee's emphasis on primary production with 34% of workers employed in the agriculture and forestry sector. The next largest sector is education and training with 12% of workers in that category.

The town has a small, effective, well-signed information centre. Locals and visitors fish in the river and lakes and Kinchega National Park attracts a steady flow of visitors. Kinchega and the Menindee Lakes are well known for their variety of native birds.

Dost Mahomet grave Dost Mahomet was one of three camel drivers recruited from overseas to take part in the Burke and Wills expedition. He was in the party manning the base camp at the Dig Tree on Coopers Creek and remained in Menindee after the expedition collapsed. Dost Mahomet is said to be buried at the spot he said his daily prayers; the grave is on Menindee's Heritage Trail.

Pastoral activity remains important around Menindee and sheep still graze on the bluebush plains around the town. Agricultural devlopment followed the Lakes Scheme which provided irrigation water. Orchards and vineyards were established around Menindee but during the drought of 2002-2009 many plants were damaged or died. Fruit trees and vines had low priority for dwindling water available as the drought progressed and, according to some news reports, when orchardists were assigned some water it was too salty for plants and did more harm than good. Some vineyards near the Darling River survived the drought but several others looked sad with vines gone and bare trellises lined up in former vineyards. Nevertheless, oranges from Menindee are on sale in Broken Hill and Menindee grapes are used in local wines.

But there is some optimism about Menindee agriculture. Tandou is a large producer occupying 79,000 hectares south of Kinchega National Park with a varied range of products including cotton, wheat and barley. Tandou produced a successful cotton crop in 2011, after several years of drought-induced limits; more land is planned for cotton in 2012 and 2013. Tandou uses its own gin to process the cotton crop and grows irrigated crops in dry Lake Tandou.