The waters of the river flow towards Lake Eyre in central Australia while those of rivers further east join the Murray-Darling basin and reach the sea in South Australia. The river forms a boundary between outback Australia and the "Far Outback"; west of the Barcoo legend has it there is very little in the way of civilization.
The river is celebrated in Australian poetry. A B ("Banjo") Paterson's poem "A Bush Christening", written in 1893, begins:
On the outer Barcoo where churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty.
On a road never cross'd 'cept by folk that are lost,
One Michael Magee had a shanty.
and even earlier anonymous bard wrote:
To carry me westward ho, my boys, that's where the cattle stray,
On the far Barcoo where they eat nardoo, a thousand mile away.
Also known as 'Jade Perch', (Scortum barcoo) a native Australian freshwater fish found in the eastern Northern Territory rivers of Limmen, Roper, Macarthur and the Barkley Basin, and between the Gilbert River in Northern Queensland and the Lake Eyre drainage of central Australia. Barcoo Grunter is an excellent food fish, and often used in intensive grow-out ponds or tanks in aquaculture.
The river, or at least the district, also gives its name to several diseases, once widespread in outback Australia but now largely unknown. One is "Barcoo Rot", a skin disease, perhaps similar to "Desert Sore", and characterised by crusted impetiginous skin sores and occurring in association with heat, dirt, minor traumas and a diet chronically deficient in fresh fruit and vegetables. The second is "Barcoo Fever", in which the sufferer experienced fever, nausea and vomiting which was exacerbated by the sight or smell of food, and constipation. This disease, once common in the outback, has also vanished. It may have been due to drinking water contaminated by cyanobacterial (blue-green algal) toxins. Provision of more reliable food supplies and safer sources of water in the "Far Barcoo" may explain why these diseases have now all but disappeared.
The name also appears in the phrase "the Barcoo Salute" - brushing the ever present bush-flies from the face with either hand. Some diseases are no longer found but flies are still abundant in outback Australia.