The longest rivers in Australia share in common more than their extensive journeys. The top four are all part of the same river system: the catchment known as the Murray-Darling River Basin or “MDB”.
Covering some 621,000 square miles in the continent’s southeast, the area or “catchment” of the MDB is spread over four states and one territory. These are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, its total coverage adding up to 14 percent of the continent in total.
It is home to a population exceeding two million, to over 40 percent of all Australian farms, its waters irrigating some 3 million acres and contributing significantly to the nation’s exports. Almost all of the country’s oranges and three quarters of its grapes originate here, as does a third of its dairy.
So let’s plough right in and explore the Australian rivers of the MDB and beyond, starting with the largest river in Australia.
Murray River: The Biggest River in Australia
Length: 1559-1570 miles
The largest river in Australia, the Murray is a natural icon and so much more. Its tributaries are themselves among Australia’s longest rivers. It has an important place in the country’s history and culture. For example, there is evidence of people living along the river for at least 30,000 years. What’s more, as the principal river of the MDB, Murray River plays a vital role in the country’s economy and ecosystem.
Rising in the Snowy Mountains of southeastern New South Wales, the Murray travels up to 1570 miles through three states: New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. The river is home to a wide variety of wildlife, and it is a popular destination for fishing, boating, and swimming. Native aquatic inhabitants include the eel-tailed catfish, the Murray crayfish and several types of perch. It’s also home to Australia’s biggest freshwater fish, the Murray cod, known to grow up to six feet long.
Length: 960 miles (1,702 miles with its tributaries)
The second biggest river in Australia, the Darling stretches for 960 miles across its southeast, or 1,702 miles when its main tributaries are included. By either measurement it’s one of the longest rivers in Australia. It is also one of the most historically significant for Indigenous Australians, its valley having had the densest population settlement on the continent prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Travelling southwest through New South Wales, the Darling’s catchment is dry and arid, incorporating large expanses of saltbush pastures and offering limited farming opportunities. Nevertheless, citrus fruit and grapes can be found growing along its banks, as can grazing animals. It is at the border with Victoria that the river finally meets the Murray, becoming its tributary about 150 miles before that river ends.
Length: 923 miles
Another major tributary of the Murray River, the Murrumbidgee is an important waterway for irrigation, recreation, and transportation. At 32,440 square miles, its catchment area makes up just eight percent of the MDB, but is home to almost a third of its population. Indeed the river’s incredibly diverse surroundings span over 1,000 square miles of farmland, numerous important wetlands and several major cities, including the nation’s capital, Canberra.
As well as being one of the longest Australian rivers, the Murrumbidgee might be considered one of its hardest working. Amongst the many animals and crops for which it provides irrigation, it supports fields producing some of the world’s highest rice yields, making up around half of Australia’s total, and almost half of its total farmed grapes. It irrigates 16 nationally significant wetlands and the country’s second largest red gum forest.
Having passed through New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, it finally reaches its mouth, emptying into the Murray via its right bank near Balranald.
Length: 894 miles
Flowing for over 890 miles west through the state of New South Wales is another river of the MDB, the Lachlan. Even though it’s one of Australia’s longest rivers, it’s also an intermittent one. Its flow is unreliable, ranging from being completely dry to flooding. Furthermore, it is only when it and the Murrumbidgee are both flooded that the Lachlan connects to the MDB. At those times, it joins the Murrumbidgee at the Great Cumbung Swamp.
While taking up a similar proportion of the MDB catchment as the Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan, also known as Galari, is home to just a fraction of its population. This is due in large part to the character of its surrounding area. Travelling through the Central West, Riverina and Southern Tablelands regions of New South Wales, most of its 32,700 square mile catchment is rural, with agriculture being the main economic activity.
From an ecological perspective, the Lachlan supports nine wetlands of national importance and encompasses significant breeding grounds for waterbirds.
Length: 810 miles
The longest Australian river outside the MDB, Cooper Creek runs for 810 miles from the confluence of Queensland’s Barcoo and Thomson Rivers. This occurs in between the small towns of Jundah and Windorah. From there it travels to Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre, making up part of the Lake Eyre Basin.
Sometimes cited as Coopers Creek, it is home to a variety of wildlife. In fact there are 1,444 listed species within its catchment. These include the endemic Cooper Creek Catfish and the largest and longest reptiles in the world, respectively the estuarine crocodile and the amethystine python.
Australia’s Longest Rivers By Region
Another way of categorising Australia’s longest rivers is by state and territory. By this standard, only two of the above rivers are listed. The River Murray features as the longest river in both New South Wales and South Australia. Meanwhile the Murrumbidgee is the largest river in the Australian Capital Territory. Queensland’s longest river is cited as Flinders at 624 miles, Western Australia’s is the Gascoyne at 518 miles and the 406-mile Goulburn is Victoria’s longest. Finally, in Tasmania, it is the 152-mile South Esk.
The Longest Australian Rivers
As we’ve seen, the extensive reach of the Murray-Darling Basin incorporates the longest rivers in Australia. However, they are by no means the country’s only watery wonders.