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Australian Inland Waterways

See also
Boating in Australia
State waterways
Navigation canals

Australia is an ancient land with indications of Aboriginal settlement going back more than 40 000 years. It was first settled by Europeans in 1788. Our population is mainly clustered near the coast.

Australia has only a few short navigation canals. There are many reasons for this. European settlement occurred in the late 18th Century and the population only increased dramatically during the Gold Rushes of the 1850s. This highlighted the first major need for long distance transport. By then, the steam train age had arrived. There were few significant centres of population which could not be connected by rail or the existing waterways. Another problem is that inland areas suffer from very variable water supplies. Australia is a land of “drought and flooding rains” [from My Country by Dorothea Mackellar]

A number of estuarine rivers along the east coast are quite large and have been used from early days. From 1788, water transport was used to travel the 25 km between Sydney and Parramatta.

The Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney, was used to send fresh food on boats to the developing city. Newcastle was settled at the mouth of the Hunter River in 1797 to exploit the rich coal seams found there. In the 19th century, Morpeth, about 30 km up the Hunter River, became a major port. As the Hunter Valley developed, ‘60 Miler’ coastal ships transported coal and produce down the coast to Sydney. Timber getters shipped out valuable cedar using a number of rivers along the New South Wales coast, including the Shoalhaven south of Sydney.

Hawkesbury Bridge
The Hawkesbury River railway bridge,
near Brooklyn, taken from the Riverboat Postman

Further north in New South Wales, the wide Clarence River was used for coastal shipping for over 60 kms inland to Grafton. Other rivers, including the Brisbane River leading to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, were also used. Today, on these and many other waterways, companies offer full day, and shorter, pleasure cruises.

The largest system of rivers in Australia is the Murray-Darling basin in inland south eastern Australia which drains about 1 million sq. kms (14%) of the Australian land mass. At its busiest, 6 500 kms of this system were used to transport goods and people through inland Australia. At the peak, in the 1870’s, there were about 100 steamers and barges operating. The dry inland country, with very variable rainfall, caused problems when boats travelled far upstream in a good season and then become stranded due to lack of water, often for two or three years.


Melbourne Information Board   Melbourne Paddle Steamer
The Murray River at Mildura

Initially goods travelled down river to the town of Goolwa in South Australia, near the Murray Mouth. From there, goods were transferred onto ships for export. As the railways reached further inland from the then, colonial capitals, water transport declined. However, some towns like Echuca and Swan Hill in Victoria, and Mannum and Morgan in South Australia, became places where goods were trans-shipped from stations and farms further inland onto the railways. From there the goods were sent to Melbourne and Adelaide.

Two Victorian towns have major exhibits showing the Murray River trade. The Port of Echuca is centred on the remaining part of the Echuca Wharf which was originally over 1 ½ kms long. Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement recreates a Mallee township of the 1800’s on the banks of the Murray.


Echuca Wharf
Echuca Wharf

Today, the only boats on the Murray River are for tourism. For more general information about boating in Australia, see here.


Major rivers of South Eastern Australia
Major rivers of South Eastern Australia

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