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People of the River: A Rich Aboriginal Heritage


The Paakantji people have long relied on the ebbs and flows of the Darling River.

The Paakantji is one of western NSW’s main indigenous groups. Their country stretches along the Darling from Wentworth, south of Broken Hill, north-east to Bourke.

Paakantji translates as “people of the river” and their lives have traditionally been intimately connected with the Darling’s fluctuating volume.

Significant rainfall in the great river’s catchment since late 2009 has caused the Darling to run as she hasn’t for decades. And a generation of young indigenous kids is, for the first time, experiencing the life-giving properties of the river that’s guided their people for millennia.

Tony Evans grew up on the Darling in Wilcannia and has felt the town’s mood rising with the river. “The kids had been walking around with nothing to do, but now the river’s full they’re learning to fish, swim and make canoes – they love it. They’re realising they can build things,” says Tony. “When you’re in a river town everyone’s happy when the river’s running and everyone’s a lot healthier, too.”

Tony is acting senior field officer at Mutawintji National Park, 135 km north-east of Broken Hill, and a traditional custodian of the land the park encompasses. Mutawintji has for millennia been an important meeting place for different indigenous groups and is rich in artefacts, including stone flakes and fireplace remains. The walls of its gorges and waterholes are covered with engravings and stencils, celebrating events and sending messages as clearly today as they would have done thousands of years ago.

“These emu eggs and tracks would have told you where to find food and might tell a story that ‘we found eight, took half and left the rest’,” says Tony gesturing at wall peckings on the park’s Homestead Gorge Trail.

Mutawintji and Kinchega are Broken Hill’s nearest national parks and like all the far-west parks are co-managed with local indigenous groups. They’re remote low-visitation parks: Kinchega, for example, receives just 10,000 visitors during the April–November season.

From a natural-history perspective, both are currently at their best. The gorges and waterholes of Mutawintji’s fire-red Bynguano Ranges are flowing and full. So, too, is the Darling that winds through Kinchega, where lakes Cawndilla and Menindee are full for the first time in about a decade.

NPWS Kinchega discovery tours run during non-summer school holidays, and cover features such as local fossil evidence of giant wombats and other traces of the region’s megafauna. Visitors also get the opportunity to explore the rich indigenous history with sanctioned visits, led by Aboriginal tour guides, to ceremonial sites and scarred trees, where bark was removed for canoes and utensils.

*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.

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