Broken Hill in north-western New South Wales is a town steeped in history, surrounded by an arid landscape, and a magnet for anyone wanting to explore the outback. The Barrier Highway to Broken Hill is a long and lonely stretch of road with very little of anything besides the Australian landscape to see. Our first stop was at Cobar where coffee
and restrooms were definitely the order of the day, and not necessarily in that order. Founded in the 1870’s after copper was discovered, Cobar has an extensive mining history and there are still 3 major mines in operation today. If we’d had time it might have been interesting to do some exploring but we wanted to get to Broken Hill and the weather wasn’t being kind; the wind was howling and it was freezing. In that wind the coffee went cold really quickly so it wasn’t long before we were back on the road and leaving Cobar behind.
Emmdale Roadhouse never changes
This country is so beautiful; bare, desolate, and miles of red dirt but beautiful nonetheless. We were surprised by the number of goats along the sides of the road and hoped that one wouldn’t stray into our path. That could really put a dent in our holiday, not to mention the car! We pulled in to Emmdale
Roadhouse, approximately 296 kilometres (184 miles) east of Broken Hill, at about midday. The place hasn’t changed from the last time we were here, and that includes the restrooms. At best they could be called “rustic”, the door of the Ladies room still has a huge hole in it, and the Men’s room doesn’t have a door at all. At least the local Council has seen fit to install a rest room at the entrance to the parking lot. It’s only one of those roadside composting toilets but still a far better option to the other one. But, I suppose when it’s the only stop for hundreds of kilometres, one really doesn’t have much choice. A few years after our visit we learned that Emmdale Roadhouse had been sold and the new owners had embarked on a major upgrade. It now boasts a caravan park and new amenities. John and I look forward to returning there some day to have a look for ourselves.
Wilcannia, an interesting town
On our way again we drove through Wilcannia, a town with its own history and an interesting one at that. When the shops have windows boarded up with corrugated iron and all the private houses have bars on their windows and huge iron security fences surrounding them, it doesn’t make you feel comfortable about stopping. We didn’t. A brief stop for coffee and rest rooms at Little Topar Roadhouse and we were on the last leg of this day’s journey. At each of our stops I had suggested to John that he top up the fuel but he reckoned we were fine. Well, he “reckoned” without the headwind and we were 35 kilometres (22 miles) from Broken Hill when the car’s fuel light came on. I gave him “the look” and he wisely didn’t say anything; I think he may have realized that spending the night on the side of the Barrier Highway about a million kilometers from anywhere was not an option. We pushed on and made it to Broken Hill but it was a close run thing; it took 81¼ litres to fill an 82 litre tank! Believe me, if we’d run out of fuel any options for John would not have been goods ones!
At the caravan park in Broken Hill
We set up camp at Broken Hill City Caravan Park ([star][star][star][star_half]), grabbed our bottle of Two Tails bubbly for our first night ritual, and, along with our travelling companion, wandered over to the camp kitchen where we toasted the start of another adventure. But the breeze was cool and it wasn’t long before we returned to our vans and settled in for a quiet night. The wind abated only slightly during the night and I began to wonder if it is always like this here; there was a howling gale last time we stayed in Broken Hill. What a cold night! It was absolutely freezing in the morning. Are we sure this is the outback? My pre-conceived ideas of baking under the outback sun sank further into the red dirt with each gust of wind!
The Movie Capital of the Outback
Broken Hill is perhaps Australia’s best known mining town but no stay here is complete without a visit to Silverton and so, after a late breakfast we set off for the movie capital of the outback. The day was fine and sunny although very windy and even when the temperature climbed to the high 20’s the wind was still cool. Silverton, approximately 25 kilometres (16 miles) west of Broken Hill, has been the scene of more than
140 movies and television shows over the years, the most notable of which was “Mad Max II: The Road Warrior”. A full-scale replica of the car driven by Mel Gibson in that movie now stands proudly out front of the Silverton Hotel and is quite possibly, even probably, the most photographed car in Australia. And, of course, we had to do it too! How could we not?
The historic township of Silverton was born in 1883 when the discovery of lead and silver deposits attracted many looking to make their fortune and the town’s population swelled to almost 3000. Today the population is 60 but it is far from being a ghost town. The Silverton Village Committee manages the town taking care of preserving many of the historic buildings still standing today, including the hotel, one of the most filmed and photographed
hotels in Australia, St Carthage Catholic Church, the public school, surveyors cottage, and gaol, to name a few. We spent some time being the typical tourists (yes, cameras hanging around our necks but I drew the line at a giggle hat!) and visited the Catholic Church which is undergoing some restoration, including gardens and vegetation regeneration. This old church was the scene of the wedding at the end of “A Town Like Alice” mini-series. One of the most recognisable buildings in Silverton, over the years the church has been home to several well-known artists.
Silverton is also known for its art galleries, some located on a hill laughingly referred to as “Silverton Heights”. The first gallery we stopped at was the Peter Browne Gallery. Peter Browne, a true Aussie larrikin, moved into a ruin at Silverton and established the town’s first art gallery.
He’s always said that his paintings must have 3 special ingredients: humour, Aussie flavour, and emus. Yes, emus. There are big-eyed emus painted on everything, even his beloved Volkswagen Beetles!
The John Dynon Gallery is another that is well worth a visit with its Leaning Dunny of Silverton out the front. The shoes under the front of the door are a nice touch, I thought. (I hope there wasn’t somebody really in there!). And, of course, the weather rock. Attached to a string, its predictions are never wrong. The inscription reads:
If rock is wet, it’s raining, if rock sways, it’s windy
If rock jumps, it’s an earthquake, if rock is on the ground, the string is broken!
We left the galleries and Silverton Heights and wandered across to the Silverton café for coffee and
quandong pie. What is quandong pie? you may ask. Well, we were reliably informed that a quandong is a bush peach. Now, it’s not
terribly sweet and I think it is probably an acquired taste but I don’t know if it’s one I care to acquire. John enjoyed it and our travelling companion, Robert, was a bit “uh-uh” about it. John and I had had quandongs in South Australia years ago and quite enjoyed it so I guess it’s the way it is cooked that makes the difference.
The road to Umberumberka
We left Silverton and continued north-west towards the Umberumberka Reservoir. As there is only one road out we knew we’d be coming back this way and so didn’t make any stops. The road we travelled on was the scene of the big truck chase/crash in the Mad Max movie. It wasn’t hard to picture that behemoth being chased by all those dune buggies; it must have been something to see. A tour bus had arrived at the reservoir just ahead of us and we discovered that one of the water inspectors had left the gate to the dam wall unlocked. The people from the bus walked through onto the
wall and we simply followed them, not knowing that we weren’t supposed to be there! That poor man almost had a fit when he saw all those people standing on the dam wall! Umberumberka Reservoir is 9 kilometres (5½ miles) west of Silverton. Completed in 1915, it has a catchment area of 407.5 kilometres (253 miles) but the average rainfall here is only 225 millimetres (9 inches). Near the parking area there are some picnic tables and a steam museum that has some interesting pieces of old equipment; they actually look like little silver flying saucers!
A wide brown land
Leaving the reservoir, we drove a little further west to where the black-top ends and the red dirt road begins and stopped here for a coffee break. John was fascinated with the gullies and dry creek beds; the red earth contrasting with what little green vegetation there is has a beauty found nowhere else in the world. On our way back to Silverton we passed Mundi Mundi Station, a property that was the first station set up by European settlers on the Barrier Ranges in the 1850’s, and we stopped at Mundi Mundi Lookout. The view from there is breathtaking; hundreds of kilometres of . . . nothing. A vast emptiness that is desolate and beautiful at the same time.
Silverton has a golf course
We made a brief stop in town at the Silverton Gaol Museum. The gaol building was erected in 1889 and
almost every aspect of life in Silverton’s heyday is represented here. It’s a step back in time! We also visited the historic courthouse that is now the War Memorial Youth Camp, before stopping at Penrose Park Campground. Established in 1937, the campground has tennis courts, children’s playground, and the bush golf course is really something to see! It’s not your typical PGA course with its clumps of Spinifex, dead tree stumps, and fine red dirt but that certainly didn’t deter the few obviously die-hard golfers we saw there.
Premier Art Gallery in Broken Hill
The wind died down a little bit overnight and we set off the next morning to visit the Pro Hart Gallery. Kevin Charles “Pro” Hart was an artist and not just any artist. His work captured the true spirit of the Australian outback. Born in Broken Hill in 1928, he was known as the father of outback painting. The Gallery houses one of the largest private collections in Australia with works of art by the master himself, by Sir Sidney Nolan, Sir William Dobell, Norman Lindsay, and Brett Whitely, to name a few. Pro Hart’s sculptures are as
amazing and brilliant as his paintings and the garden area at the Gallery contains several of them. Many more can be seen throughout Broken Hill. While at the Gallery we met a lady named Mary, one of the volunteers there, who is an absolute walking encyclopaedia, not only about the art but also about Broken Hill, its history and surrounding areas. She’s lived there all her life and there’s not much about the place that she doesn’t know. In 1844, the explorer Charles Sturt saw and named the Barrier Range. The range was comprised of a number of hills that appeared to have a break in them and Sturt made reference in his diary to a “broken hill”.
The Silver City
The town had its beginnings in 1883 when a rich vein of silver was discovered on this “broken hill” by a boundary rider named Charles Rasp and it wasn’t too long before folks were calling it The Silver City. The town has been, still is, and probably always will be dominated by the mining industry but today artistic creativity is actively encouraged and the town promotes itself as a tourist destination in a bid to become less reliant on the mines. Mary also told us about the “Battle of Broken Hill” when the town was the scene of the only enemy attack on Australian soil. Two Turkish sympathisers attacked a party of picnickers on New Years Day 1915, 4 months before Gallipoli. Four people were shot dead and seven more wounded before the attackers were, themselves, shot dead.
The desert is alive in Broken Hill
Around lunchtime we left the Gallery and drove out to the Living Desert Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, a reserve covering 2400 hectares (5930 acres). Located 9 kilometres (5½ miles) from the city centre, the Sanctuary is wonderful example of our unique environment containing various Australian wildflowers, the Arboretum of Australian endemic plants, and native animals including red kangaroos and wallabies. It was on this trail that I saw my first Sturt’s Desert Pea. The story of how this resilient yet delicate-looking plant came to be is part of the Aboriginal Dreaming. Here is that story:
“Long, long ago a pretty young girl was in love with a handsome warrior from a neighbouring tribe. Unfortunately, she had been given in marriage to a mean, jealous old man. One night, after having learned of her fate, she ran off with her warrior. They were very happy together and lived beside a lovely lake of clear, sweet water. One day, the jealous old man found out where the young couple were living. He gathered loyal members of his tribe to attack the people who had taken them in. Everyone living by the clear, sweet lake was killed. Next season, the jealous old man returned to gloat over his enemies’ bleached bones. Instead, he found carpets of Sturt’s desert pea. The petals were the colour of the blood that had been spilled, and each also had an ebony eye. The jealous old man turned to flee, but the spirits were angry and a spear from a cloud above struck him down. The tears of the spirits fell into the lake, turning the sweet water salty and fragments of spear turning to pebbles along the shore.” (reprinted from Broken Hill’s Accessible Outback, 2005.)
The Sculptures of the Outback
We had lunch there in the picnic area and then walked along the trail to the Sculpture Symposium. It was a 1.2 kilometre climb to the top of a majestic hilltop in the centre of the reserve where we had magnificent views of the arid landscape and the distant horizon. If you’ve ever wondered just how flat this land is, then this is the place to find out. Words like desolate and stark come to mind but it is so alive and so very
beautiful. Nestled on the top of the hill are 12 sandstone artworks, the Sculpture Symposium. Completed in 1993 by artists from around the world, each sculpture has its own story to tell. Sculptures depicting Motherhood and Australiana are only 2 of them and all are beautifully detailed. There’s even one there that I’ve named the “peek-a-boo” sculpture. The hilltop is also the site of the Sundown Geodetic Station. Established in 1954 it is now part of the Australian National Network which provides the mathematical basis for all survey mapping and land information systems. As noted before, Broken Hill is a mining town and it would certainly be remiss of me not to mention the mine. When Charles Rasp discovered that first vein of silver back in 1883, he set up, with a syndicate of seven, what was to become BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary), Australia’s most famous mining company. BHP left Broken Hill in 1939 and since then 14 different mining companies have made their
fortune in this town. There is no place in Broken Hill where you can’t see the mine but the Joe Keenan Lookout is definitely the best place to get the most outstanding views. Named for the man who held the presidency of the Barrier Industrial Council in Broken Hill from 1969 to 1985, it offers views of the town and the mine dumps as well as containing several information boards.
Dining at Broken Hill’s Legion Club
The late afternoon had turned quite cold and we decided to call it a day. There are many things we would like to see in Broken Hill and we will when time permits but for now it is time to say a reluctant farewell to this amazing place. We returned to camp as the sun was going down and after much discussion, mainly centring on the fact that I didn’t want to cook that night, decided on dinner at Broken Hill’s Legion Club. It is a very pleasant club and the food tasty and inexpensive but, then again, as long as I didn’t have to set foot in the kitchen before or after the meal, it was bound to be good! John did suggest dropping a line in somewhere but I told him I’d like to eat tonight! It had been a long day and we had quite a drive ahead of us the next day and so after dinner we settled in back at camp for an early night. We learned a great deal about this town during a brief stay here, and one of things we discovered is that Broken Hill is in a fruit fly exclusion zone and it is illegal to bring fresh fruit and vegetables into the area. There are several bins along the highway where you can dump the produce but the best thing is not to bring it with you to start with. The fruit fly is a nasty little pest that has the potential to destroy our fruit export industry. But Broken Hill has much more than meets the eye. From the history to the art galleries and even tours of the mine, it’s a place you can come back to again and again and still not see all there is to see.
The information contained in this journal is derived from our personal recollections of our visit to this town or region and is correct as at the time of publication. austracks accepts no responsibility should any of this information be incorrect or misleading due to changes, improvements, or upgrades that may have occurred to places and/or attractions since our visit.