Anyone would think I was going to the moon.
That would explain the general reaction of disbelief from friends and work colleagues when I mentioned that I was going to the Outback city of Broken Hill last weekend.
Could it really be that bad?
Broken Hill sits in the very west of New South Wales, around a 12 hour drive from Sydney or a six hour drive from Adelaide.
We take the second option and as we leave the city behind, realise there is little to hold us up on the journey, no other cars, no other towns – Broken Hill really is in the middle of nowhere.
The motorways out of Adelaide soon turn to single lane country roads. Then the hilly landscape flattens and finally all flora and fauna disappears. Everywhere you look, in whatever direction you look in, there is just nothing. Dry, red and dusty land – utterly untouched – except for this road, our car and the odd tin can flung from a weary traveller, now rusting in its resting place.
This massive, empty beast of a country is sweltering in desert-like temperatures. And then us, slicing through it like we’re the very first.
I thought to myself, this might as well be the moon.
Out of nowhere, after six long hours, four Mars Bars and 500km of empty earth, there appears Broken Hill:
We check-in to our clean, modern motel in the centre of town, then lunch at Broken Earth, an imposing restaurant built on the top of the remnants of the mines and which overlooks the City. From up here you can see exactly where the borders of Broken Hill begin and end. It’s a grid-like formation, not sprawling, but quite compact. The architecture is quite impressive, dated but grand, and the wide open streets give a calm and elegant feel to the centre of town. Argent Street, the main street, forms the hub for the 20,000 locals who all live within 20 or so streets away.
Later that night we decide to do a bar crawl, to get a feel for the town. Half a dozen pubs later, we’ve exhausted all our options (including two pubs we didn’t even bother going into) and feel utterly downcast.
We’re off to our final pub of the night – it’s a little off the beaten track even for Broken Hill – yet we’re assured this is where the party is at!
It’s empty. Not just not busy, not just quiet, but stone. Cold. Empty. We are the only two people in one of the most recommended bars in Broken Hill. And it’s 10pm on a Friday night.
At least we get a bit of chat out of the barmaid, a lovely local women who’s lived in the area all her life. For not the first time on our trip, she tells us ‘you need at least a week’ here. We smile and nod.
As we’re about to ask her about her top recommendations the door swings open and a group of nine enter the pub to join us.
“Game On” shouts the barmaid, clapping her hand. Never have we been more pleased to see a small group of randoms.
Young people are noticeably absent in Broken Hill. The city was created after the discovery of ore, and as a result most of the population have some sort of connection to mining employment. Ex-miners, the retired and visiting business or tourists make up the rest. Many of the young people are sent to Sydney or Adelaide for boarding school, a chance to discover the world out there. They don’t come back.
For the teenagers that haven’t been sent away to school, sitting in an empty Hungry Jacks outlet on a Saturday afternoon seems the best option when there is little else to do.
The high street is a ghost town by 4pm on a weekend afternoon because the few shops there have closed.
And later that night we discover the one bar open past midnight is little more than a converted community centre with a canteen in the corner of the room.
Anyway, back to those randoms we met in the pub. It turned out they were actually journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph, in town to record the visit of Princess Mary to the Royal Flying Doctor Service that morning.
Yes, the biggest day for Broken Hill since Fergie visited in 1990 and we missed it.
But it did put Broken Hill on the map for one day and gave credit to the importance of the Flying Doctor Service to isolated communities like Broken Hill.
To be fair, Broken Hill does get its fair share of visitors. It’s billed as ‘the accessible Outback’, and is a stopping point on the transnational Indian Pacific rail line. Tourists jump off for a few days, or fly in from Sydney, or drive in from Adelaide as we did. There’s over 30 galleries within Broken Hill and plenty of filmakers were inspired to shoot across the backdrop of this jaw-droppingly isolated location. You can see ‘the biggest canvas painting in the world’, find out about mining history at the city museums, and even get to visit the locations for the filming of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Mad Max 2. Both shot locally.
But it is the mining which is the heart and soul of this town. It gave the city its fascinating history, dating back to the 1880s when the area was discovered. Broken Hill has provided the largest single source of silver, lead and zinc ore ever discovered on earth. The grand palatial buildings we see on the high street were founded on mining wealth and in the 1970s the draw of employment helped the population to peak at 30,000.
We visit the last remaining remnant of the biggest mining giant there is. BHP Billiton – which stands for Broken Hill Proprietry Ltd. BHP helped create this city and drew in the people by offer of work, which lit the economy and put Broken Hill on the map.
BHP has all but left the area now – gone as soon as the ore was – leaving just the chimney from its office as a reminder of the days gone by.
And I think that’s what gets me in Broken Hill. Everything is a reminder of days gone by. It has a history and it seems that nothing has come to replace that history or to help it to thrive once more. The huge drive-thru fast food restaurants stick out as an awkward jump to the real world happening six hours away in the city of Adelaide.
The population has dwindled as the young leave the for work in the City and now sits at about 20,000.
“The Government want it to go down even more, to about 18,000 would suit them because then they can take away the infrastructure,” explained local businessman Tex.
“See that there,” he points, “that’s our hospital, it used to have hundreds of beds then they knocked it down, told us they were going to rebuild it, but it’s little more than a first aid unit now with just 70 beds.”
Broken Hill needs another boost, and soon.
I will never understand the desire to live in a place like Broken Hill. I couldn’t deal with the remoteness, the lack of choice that we take so for granted nowadays, the absence of people and the hustle and bustle that makes life.
But one conversation I had got me thinking that maybe, that works vice versa as well.
“I went to Sydney once,” said the man from Broken Hill we met over a cold beer in the local Hotel.
“Didn’t like it. Anywhere you have to wait at traffic lights behind more than three cars I don’t like.”
Maybe. Maybe he’s right.
Visit Broken Hill?
Do it! For one of the most thought-provoking, fascinating insights into what it’s like to live in the Australian Outback, give Broken Hill a go. It’s a weekend you’ll never forget….
For more information on Broken Hill, check out the Visit NSW site or this dedicated Broken Hill website.
Although in NSW, remember Broken Hill follows South Australia time, setting clocks half an hour earlier.
To eat and drink:
Eating options are fairly limited. We were disappointed by the food (and particularly the service) at Broken Earth, but very impressed with the food at The Astra.
Argent Street has the most food options (where The Astra is located), or you could eat in the restaurant of your Motel, which generally will offer a pretty good standard of food too.
I wouldn’t say there’s enough to keep you in Broken Hill for a week, but if you like art galleries, sculpture and museums and you are interested in the history of mining, then at least a weekend is good. Here’s a few of the options:
Line of Lode hilltop lookout
Silver City Mint & Art Centre (the main attratction here is the biggest canvas painting in the world: The Big Picture)
Silverton Hotel (setting for Mad Max 2) Note: Do not eat the ‘famous’ hotdogs!!
Royal Flying Doctor Service
Broken Hill now has lots of recently renovated motels to choose from, all within easy reach of the main centre of the city.