The Australian mining heritage city of Broken Hill is a daunting 1 100km west of Sydney in New South Wales – so far west that visitors have to reset their watches back by half an hour.
Travelling this long distance by train is the best way to arrive in comfort and still enjoy the diverse NSW landscape along the way. Broken Hill is one of only three scheduled stops that Great Southern Rail’s Indian Pacific passenger service makes on its twice-weekly trans-continental journey between Sydney and Perth.
Boarding the Indian Pacific at Sydney’s Central Station we were welcomed by Nicole, our hospitality attendant, and shown our twin bed en suite cabin in the Gold Class Service.
Soon the “IP” was gliding through western Sydney and climbing the narrow ridge up the Blue Mountains. That evening as darkness settled over the Great Dividing Range, we met our fellow travellers during a wonderful meal prepared by the onboard gourmet chefs – we chose the Tasmanian salmon and were not disappointed.
Tea and coffee were available in our carriage and in the adjacent lounge car throughout the journey.
From the cabin a full moon rose over pastoral country and a shadowy succession of eucalypt, stock fences and small towns.
Early next morning we enjoyed a hearty “great Australian breakfast” in the Queen Adelaide dining car. Beyond lay a transformed landscape after crossing the Darling River at Menindee, dry saltbush fanned out either side.
Emus and mobs of kangaroos were about and occasionally at a level crossing a sandy track meandering off into the bush. The first and only sign of man’s presence was Broken Hill’s lifeline, the 110km water pipeline from the Darling River.
An hour later long low hills, topped by a huge mine dump, signalled our arrival at Broken Hill Station. Bidding our farewells and taking time to reset our watches to Central Standard Time we set about exploring Broken Hill on a very quiet Sunday morning.
Mining is central to understanding Broken Hill’s character.
After visiting the information centre and picking one of the suite of walking tours we encountered a visible reminder of its mining history – outside the council chambers are the plinthed bronze busts of the “Syndicate of Seven”, the tough mob of jackaroos, boundary riders, dam sinkers and shopkeepers led by Charles Rask who discovered and pegged the “broken hill “ lease and, for some of them, wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
A mining shaft pithead and a wonderful selection of mining museums all pay homage to Broken Hill’s beginnings.
Tops is the volunteer-manned Sulphide Street Mineral and Train Museum (which opened their doors for us on a closed day) and includes a great exhibit of the contribution of post World War II migrants to the city – Maltese, Italian, Yugoslav, Greek, Russian and German. Further out is a minerals art and living mining museum and the operational Day Dream Mine.
On the mine dump overlooking Broken Hill, the Miners Memorial honours the 800 miners who died recovering the silver, zinc and lead embedded in the 7.5km long boomerang shaped “line of lode”.
It also presents a clear understanding of why trade union militancy grew strong in this longest surviving Australian mining town.
The splendid Trades Hall was the heartbeat of miners unionism here, as is the Barrier Social Democratic Club, the “Demo” in Argent St.
Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd (BHP), founded by the Syndicate, was the major force for many years but are no longer present in the city, but with one of the biggest silver deposits in the world and with silver at a 31-year high, there is renewed mining activity, and shafts and tunnels still thread out under the city.
As we explored with Murtons Citybus, Peter our driver reminded us there are more traffic lights and heavy vehicles underground than on the streets above.
The wealth from boom and bust also brought law and order. Argent Street has an eclectic mix of public buildings including the Victorian era turreted Post Office, the surviving Town Hall façade, a police station with royal coat of arms and entrance flanked by magnificent white roses, and the Regional Court House circa 1889 and a pastiche of the Aliwal Street Court house museum in Durban.
Mining aside, Broken Hill or “The Hill” as locals refer to their city, has some incongruous attractions – a column in a city park and the replica of an ice cream cart among them.
A Titanic memorial is the central feature of Sturt Park. No one from this Outback town was aboard when the liner sank in the north Atlantic in 1912. Why then this imposing memorial?
Bands were all the rage in Broken Hill’s musical circles back then and the monument memorialises the Titanic bandsmen who continued playing as the liner sank. One of the leading clubs in Broken Hill is The Musicians Club.
A replica ice cream cart perched on a quartz outcrop on the edge of the city is a reminder that Broken Hill was also the scene of the only armed conflict on Australian soil in World War I. At the “Battle of Broken Hill” two Afghans embarked on a terrorist suicide mission when they fired on a train load of picnickers on New Year’s Day 1915 from an ice cream cart flying a Turkish flag.
Suburban Broken Hill has no pretensions to being “pretty”, but it sure has character. The streets are named after chemicals and rock formations, with Chrystal, Cobalt, Oxide, Chlorine streets and even a Beryl Street – the latter appeared a nice touch and then found it was a mineral.
The built environment is mainly corrugated iron sheeting brought up from the coast by camel, oxen and the railroad and the essential building material for the “kit form” homes (it doesn’t rust in the dry semi desert air) together with red brick and stone.
Buildings in broad spacious streets where they could turn an ox wagon or camel train range from Cornish miners “tinny” cottages with bullnose verandahs to classic outback hotels. Over 350 buildings are listed as locally significant. Familiar to filmgoers is the regal Palace Hotel featured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Art is the heartbeat of the region with a full palette of 30 galleries and studios attracted by the clear desert air and lower property prices. The desert also provides a stunning backdrop to many Australian and international movies, and Broken Hill has a state-of-the-art film studio with all the technical knowhow film crews need on location.
Out 33km west on the South Australian state border is the former mining centre of Silverton, population 60. During the first “silver-rush” its population spiked at more than 3 000, but with the discovery of silver at Broken Hill in 1883, Silverton’s fortunes declined.
The miners decamped to Broken Hill, corrugated iron homes transported by camels and oxen. Today only a skeleton remains – stone churches, jail, schoolhouse and hotel around an empty commonage.
Ironically, this abandonment benefited Silverton. Tourists are drawn to its art galleries and mining history at the volunteer-manned jail and school museums.
Lonely churches and the pub edging the deserted commonage regularly feature in television and film locations. St Carthage’s was the setting for the marriage scene in Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice and the Silverton Hotel was immortalised in Mad Max.
As dusk spreads its mantle over the Outback, grey and pink shadows whirl wildly skywards as flocks of Rosette Cockatoos “Gulahs” settle in the River Red Gums lining Silverton’s dry creek bed. Their harsh metallic “chirrich, chirrich, chirrich” is a reminder of the remoteness from the city lights. Time to board the Indian Pacific again and reset the watches. - Sunday Tribune
In 1883 a boundary rider pegged a claim that became one of the richest lead, zinc and silver deposits in the world. At its peak, 6 500 miners worked the 8km-long and 1.6km-deep lode that continues to generate thousands of tons of ore annually. The mining boom bestowed a legacy of heritage buildings, mining museums and monuments. Broken Hill and nearby Silverton now attract filmmakers and artists. www.visitbrokenhill.com.au
The 700-metre long passenger train twice weekly completes a 4 352km journey between Sydney and Perth and return with stops at Broken Hill, Adelaide and Kalgoorlie. Travelling at an average speed of 115km/h, the journey takes three nights and three days one way. The symbol of the Indian Pacific is the wedge-tail eagle, Australia’s largest eagle. These magnificent birds of prey are seen travelling through the Broken Hill region. See www.greatsouthernrail.com.au