Travelling Australia - Journal 2014
February 2014

Balranald - Description
Balranald is a small town on the Sturt Highway where it crosses the Murrumbidgee River in south-western New South Wales. Population is 1,159 (2011 census).

The climate is officially semi-arid with average annual rainfall of 324.1 millimetres. Summers are hot, but with low humidity, winters are cool to cold. January average daily maximum temperature is 33.0°C, average daily minimum is 15.7°C. The coolest month is July with average daily maximum temperature of 16.4°C and average daily minimum temperature of 3.5°C.

Land around Balranald is mostly very flat, frequently covered in saltbush or mallee. The description given by the manager of a nearby sheep station in 1912 is still relevant. He described the largest area as black or grey soil subject to flooding and covered in red-gum, black-box, lignum, reed beds and saltbush flats. There was nearly as much red soil with belts of murray-pine, rosewood, belah, needlewood and wilga. The rest of the land was extensive saltbush flats.

river The Murrumbidgee River lined with red gum at Balranald.

Many of the rivers are lined with red-gum mentioned in 1912 and upstream of Balranald along the Murrumbidgee is a substantial red-gum forest (with black box and lignum as well) which continues downstream of Balranald to the junction with the Murray River 132 river kilometres away ("river kilometres" is the distance as the twisting and turning river meanders along; the direct route is always much shorter).

Balranald has had a varied history including several decades as a major river port. It is now primarily a service centre for the surrounding pastoral properties although tourism is becoming more important.

Squatters first settled in the area in the 1840s and a settlement grew at the crossing of the Murrumbidgee River. In 1848 the first general store opened and Balranald Inn was established in the same year. The township was gazetted in 1851 and the first land sales were held in the next year. The name was selected by the Commissioner for Crown Lands, George MacDonald, who came from Balranald in the Outer Hebrides.

When Balranald was established the squatters on the surrounding grazing land had to rely on bullock drays to get their wool to port for export and had to rely on the same bullock drays for all of their supplies. Bullock drays were slow and not very reliable and the original paddle-steamer proponents envisaged a time when paddle-steamers would replace bullock drays for long-distance freight.

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The first step in this process took place in 1853 when the first paddle-steamers (Lady Augusta, Captain Cadell, and Mary Ann, Captain Randell) reached Balranald. These were exploratory voyages rather than trading trips and the first trading paddle-steamer to reach Balranald appears to have been the Mosquito, Captain William Mason in 1858.

Completion of the train line between Echuca and Melbourne transformed Echuca into a transit point for wool bales bound for Britain via the Port of Melbourne. Completion of Echuca Wharf in 1866-67 transformed Echuca into a transit point for wool carried by paddle-steamers from distant pastoral stations to the wharf. Balranald became a busy part of the river transport system

Paddle-steamers soon became regular visitors to Balranald to collect wool bought by bullock dray from surrounding properties. Paddle-steamers took the wool to Echuca by river (Murrumbidgee then Murray), then it was carried by train to Melbourne for export to Britain. The paddle-steamers also bought in everything needed in the town and in surrounding properties from pins and needles to windows and pianos.

In 1859 a punt was established across the Murrumbidgee at the bottom of present-day Mayall Street. In the following year the Burke and Wills expedition used the punt to cross the river and established Camp XX outside Balranald. Before they left that camp a considerable amount of material was discarded to lighten their load.

The years as a wool port marked substantial development in Balranald which was then clustered along the river bank with present day Court Street as the main street. In 1871 the new Post Office was the first brick building in the town. A second punt across the Murrumbidgee had entered service in 1866 and a bridge was opened across the river in 1883. This bridge had a centre lifting span so the all-important paddle-steamers could pass under it. The centre span was relocated to the caravan park when the present-day bridge was built.

bridge The central lifting span of the bridge opened in 1883 now in the caravan park.

The New South Wales colonial government viewed with alarm the heavy trade between the Riverina and Melbourne via Echuca. The loss of trade to Sydney was substantial and there was concern that the Riverina may seek to transfer to Victoria. The New South Wales government built railway lines connecting the Riverina and Western New South Wales to Sydney intending to capture the wool trade. The first line connected Bourke with Sydney in 1885. Pricing for freight on these lines was designed to compete with river traffic and quickly made paddle-steamers uneconomic; river trade declined.

This railway building frenzy did not reach Balranald and river trade continued with the Lower Murrumbidgee River remaining profitable for paddle-steamers operating to Echuca for many years. But completion of the railway line to Balranald in 1926 marked the end of the paddle-steamer. Ironically, this train line connected this New South Wales town with the Victorian railway network at Echuca.

After the ending of the river traffic Balranald continued as a service centre for the surrounding properties which grew wheat and wool, as in the past, but also now grow canola, rice, fruit and vegetables. The town adapted to its position on the Sturt highway and the central focus of the town shifted to the Highway.

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A low-level weir across the Murrumbidgee downstream of the town provides water for domestic use and for irrigation. The turn-off to the weir is 6 kilometres from town and is at the end of a 4 kilometre gravel road. The weir incorporates the latest version of fish ladder so native fish can complete the migration essential to successful spawning.

Balranald remains a neat, well-maintained township on the Sturt Highway and the headquarters of Balranald Shire. The town is making serious attempts to establish itself as a tourist destination. Balranald claims to be the gateway to Mungo National Park with a well-maintained road to the park 149 kilometres away. The newly established Yanga National Park is about 17 kilometres from Balranald but the National Parks authority has yet to prove this former sheep station can reach the standard of Mungo National Park.

Fisherpeople are enticed by the concept of Five Rivers for fishing. The Lachlan River, Murrumbidgee, Murray, Edward and Wakool are all within easy driving of Balranald and those inclined are invited to try their luck.

Bird watchers can walk the Common Bird Trail and use the red gum bird hide. There are also some interesting short walks through the red gum forest across the river opposite the caravan park which can be reached over the highway bridge footpath or, more conveniently, across the pedestrian suspension bridge.

Balranald is close to a large river red-gum swamp formed where the Lachlan River enters the Murrumbidgee. In this flat region the rivers meander very heavily as they make their way to the Murray River junction, and form the Lower Murray Wetlands which have many unusual characteristics including the presence of the Southern Bell Frog (also known as the Growling Grass Frog) which Balranald adopted as its mascot. Frog sculptures are scattered around the town, each unique, each more than a metre high and mostly eye-catching bright green.
low weir Balranald Low Weir downstream of the town provides water for domestic use and for irrigation.

frog One of several frog statues enlivening Balranald