Roper Bar and nearby

Roper Bar old crossing
The causeway across the Roper Bar

The Roper Bar is not just physical. It is legendary too, a focus of the history and mythology of the Gulf country.

Physically, it is a natural rocky bar which marks the tidal limit of the Roper River and always offered an easy crossing point when tides and rainfall were favourable. It was improved last century by the construction of a concrete causeway.

That low-level crossing has been sidelined quite recently by a new high-level bridge a couple of kilometres upstream but it is still used as a local short-cut between the Store and the western Gulf communities.

Roper Store
The Roper Store

The present Roper Bar settlement, a few kilometres downstream but still south of the river, is mainly the Store/caravan park/roadhouse. Its website is reasonably accurate.

The area’s European history begins with Leichhardt in 1845. The crossing became important to the new arrivals as a river port, an Overland Telegraph depot (1872), a police post, etc; see Wikipedia for more. At the top of the southern bank of the river there’s a cairn commemorating Leichhardt’s journey, some tourist-oriented historical signage, and remains of the settlement.

Cairn and ruins at Roper Bar
Cairn and ruins

Roper Gulf communities

The Roper Gulf Regional Council is responsible for an area ‘almost three times the size of Tasmania’ (to quote the introduction on their website) from Kakadu to Barkly and from the Queensland border almost to Katherine. The total population is about 6500 people, 75% of whom identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, in 14 communities or townships.

Two thirds of the communities are ‘closed’, meaning that visitors need a permit from the Northern Land Council (details here). Urapunga, just across the river from Roper Bar, and Ngukurr, nearby, are closed communities but Borroloola, far to the East, is not.

Urapunga was a cattle station until about 1990 but was handed back to the local community in 2022; what happened between those dates is unclear but the people who had lived and worked on the cattle station stayed there.

Ngukurr was originally the Roper River Mission, set up in 1908 and moved down-river to its present site in 1940 after a flood destroyed the original buildings. It was taken over by the Territory government in 1968 and granted to the community twenty years later. Wikipedia has a history of the mission which makes it sound terrible. It was, by our standards, but it was nevertheless not so bad as the appalling war of dispossession fought across the region from the 1870s to the first decades of the twentieth century.

I wrote a little about that here, but this review of Tony Roberts’ Frontier Justice is a better summary of what happened in the Gulf country. Writing about it now, thinking about it now, in the lead-up to the Voice referendum, is challenging: this is context to the Voice which 99% of Australians know nothing about, and it’s almost impossible to communicate.

outback road, NT
The ‘highway’ between Roper Bar and Mataranka
Travelling west

The Roper Highway from Roper Bar to Mataranka is not the worst ‘highway’ we travelled in the Territory (that distinction goes to the road between Barkly and Heartbreak Hotel) but about half of it is gravel and most of the rest is single-lane bitumen. Googlemaps overestimated our travel time by about 40%, just as it had for the Barkly-Heartbreak trip and probably for the same reason, i.e., that the road is better now than it used to be.

Introduction and index to Limmen (Mataranka, Nitmiluk, etc) blog posts August – October 2023.

One thought on “Roper Bar and nearby”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.