Murray-Darling mismanagement: floods, water theft, and Burke and Wills’s camels

The basin has faced challenges throughout history but the system designed to protect it does not factor in a changing climate

  • This is part of a series of essays by Australian writers responding to the challenges of 2020

One hundred and fifty years ago Ludwig Becker, a member of the Burke and Wills expedition, did a sketch of the Menindee pub, which sits between the Darling River and Menindee Lakes. At that time Menindee wasn’t considered big enough to be called a town but these days it needs a school for more than 100 pupils. Three-quarters of these children are descendants of the Barkindji and Nyampa people, who have lived, hunted and passed down their oral histories on the banks of the Darling for more than 40,000 years.

When Burke was camped at Menindee he met William Wright, a local station manager. Wright was charged with leading a small group to transport supplies to the camp at Cooper Creek. His contingent was joined by Becker. En route to Cooper Creek, Wright’s group pitched tents by the Koorliatto waterhole on the Bulloo River. They were visited by Mr Shirt, a Bandjigali or Karenggapa Murri man whose portrait was also painted for posterity by Becker. Mr Shirt, a “born diplomat”, tried to explain the problem the explorers were causing: “The area belonged to his tribe. Soon they were coming here to celebrate a feast … neighbouring tribes were already coming to drive us away.” Not long after that conversation Wright shot Mr Shirt.

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