A remote mining town in Outback New South Wales, Broken Hill nestles up against the South Australian border, 1150km by road from Sydney. Visitors that make the effort to get here will discover a thriving art scene, eerie mine tours and some of Australia's best desert vistas. Rough Guides writer Sara Chare explains why this town is top for Outback adventures.
There’s little doubt that Broken Hill is synonymous with mining – it’s been riding the minerals roller-coaster since 1888 when the area’s rich deposits of silver, lead and zinc first drew plucky prospectors to an unforgiving expanse of desert. Today the industry is still part of the town’s DNA: instead of enquiring how you slept over breakfast, here you may find your host asking “Did you feel the blast yesterday?”; a sign in the launderette reads “Mine clothes NOT to be washed in these machines” and streets are named after ore and minerals like iodide, cobalt and oxide.
Yet look beyond the giant slag heap in the centre of town and you’ll find a surprisingly attractive place: wide streets fringed by corrugated-iron buildings, Art Deco shops and heritage pubs with ornate iron balconies; trees and welcome patches of green providing a welcome contrast to the orange, arid surroundings. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover art galleries, a theatre and a cinematic heritage to rival most Australian cities. Not bad for a Outback outpost of 20,000 souls. So where to begin? Here are five essential “Back O'Bourke” experiences:
Break bread at Broken Earth
Affectionately known as the Line of Lode, Broken Hill's slag heap has found a new lease of life as the home of the classy Broken Earth Restaurant, which offers sunset cocktails and panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. There’s also a thought-provoking mining memorial here: a rusted-steel sculpture listing the names of the deceased and their cause of death – including cave-ins and falls – in chronological order.
Discover the Brushmen of the Bush
Inspired by the relative isolation and the desert landscapes that surround the town, artists have flocked to Broken Hill from elsewhere in Australia. Perhaps the best known gallery is that of Pro Hart, a miner who was born in Broken Hill and whose paintings of union leaders, miners and everyday life in the Outback made him justly famous. Visitors who pop in to The Silver City Art Centre & Mint, meanwhile, can try to imagine themselves stepping into The Big Picture, an impressive hundred-metre-long painting of local desert scenes.
Just north of town there’s more to please the eye at the Living Desert. This 24-square-kilometre site is split into two parts: the Flora & Fauna Sanctuary contains an Aboriginal quartz quarry, but the highlight is the striking Broken Hill Sculpture Park, perched on a hill above. The result of a sculpture symposium in 1993, each of the twelve sandstone carvings is by a different artist. The best time to visit is at sunset, when the rocks glow a warm red and there’s nothing for miles around to spoil the view.
Place your bets
Broken Hill always been a legendary drinking hole – it once had more than seventy hotels – and gambling has long been part of this culture. Come Friday night, boys from the bush flock to the Palace Hotel to play the traditional game of Two-up. Once an illegal back-lane gambling operation, the game sees two coins tossed under the watchful eye of the ringkeeper and bets laid on whether they fall heads or tails.
Go down under
Silverton, 25km away, makes an interesting side trip from Broken Hill. A variety of films and adverts have been shot in the area; the friendly local pub, The Silverton Hotel, displays entertaining photographs of cast and crew while movie-buffs can head to the Mad Max 2 museum. Nearby, the Day Dream Mine’s walk-in tours offer an unrivalled chance to experience life underground. Kitted out with a hardhat, head torch and heavy battery pack, visitors are taken down three levels of the mine and shown the seam of silver that the owner still works in his spare time.
If you want to venture further afield, Broken Hill is an excellent base for day trips to see the Aboriginal rock art in Mutawintji National Park, the Menindee Lakes' varied birdlife or the opal town of White Cliffs, where many locals live underground because of the extreme heat.