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Broken Hill and the outback

Can you imagine seeing a Lake that has hasn’t seen water for over 15,000 years? (Lake Mungo), or visiting a town where the world’s biggest mining company began life? (BHP Billiton) or being on location where a Town like Alice and the Mad Max and Priscilla, Queen of the desert movies were shot? Many other movies have used the region as a backdrop to create their amazing stories.
 
This is town of Broken Hill – the “Silver City” – set in one of the most remote and yet beautiful parts of Australia – a vast area of red desert plains that stretch to the horizon.
 
What makes Broken Hill so interesting is its isolation – and in a sense this seems strange – but if you live in a city where you are always surrounded by thousands of people, being in a location without people everywhere can be a very different experience.
 
Here you can look to the horizon and see no-one, not even a house or signs of life. What you do see is the red desert landscape, and it is this that has inspired artists, photographers and film makers to come to this isolated part of Australia to see, paint, photograph and film the locations in and around Broken Hill.
 
Broken Hill is over 1100 kilometres from Sydney and over 500 kilometres from Adelaide, located in the far south west corner of New South Wales, and almost on the South Australian border. You can fly here, catch the Indian Pacific train from Sydney, or drive to Broken Hill.
 
Early explorers like Captain Charles Sturt and Major Mitchell came to this area in the hope of finding an inland sea in the first half of the 1800’s, only to find that it didn’t exist. It had existed but that was at least 15,000 years earlier! It was however the discovery of silver in 1883 that led to Broken Hill becoming one of the biggest mines in the world and the first home of BHP Billiton, formed by a “Syndicate of Seven” locals, and today BHP Billiton is the world’s biggest mining company. The BHP mine in Broken Hill actually closed in 1939, with the company moving away from Broken Hill, but the company still carries that connection to Broken Hill in its name as a central part of its history. In 1888 shares in BHP reached a price of 400 pounds each based on the wealth that was being found in the Broken Hill mine. Today BHP shares are around 37 dollars.
 
Broken Hill miners worked in the very early days for long hours and in dangerous conditions,  and  unions were formed by the miners to become a voice for better conditions. The first union strike occurred in 1892, and other big strikes also happened in 1909, 1915 and in May of 1919 an eighteen month long strike began – which led to a 35 hour week being obtained, the strike ending in November of 1920.
 
Broken Hill is a mining town first and foremost, and fortunes have both been made here and lost here too. In the boom times of the late 1800’s and early twentieth century grand buildings were built here – and you can still see many of these buildings in and around the main street, including the Town Hall, Palace Hotel and Trades Hall building, 1910 Synagogue and the small Mosque built by the Afghan Cameleers in the early days.
 
There were also small miner’s cottages built too with iron roofs, and even flattening kerosene tins used for walls and roofs. In the depression in 1932 unemployment in Broken Hill reached 30%, with a shandy town formed on the side of town, given the name “Chateau de tar drums” on account of the construction materials used.
There is a Heritage Walking Tour with details from the Visitor Information Centre, and also a Heroes, Larrikins and Visionaries walking tour.  Over the years there have also been many deaths in the mines, both directly due to mine collapses, but also from lead poisoning and other reasons, and the Miner’s Memorial commemorates those miners who have died in the mines – some 800 miners.
 
The early mines started on the surface but gradually moved underground, with the miners risking their lives in search of Silver, Lead and Zinc. Mines are still operational in the area, and it is also possible to take tours to see and understand how mining was carried out in the early days. Take a look at the Albert Kerston Mining and Minerals Museum – look out for the Silver Tree inside; Whites Mineral Art and Living Mining Museum in Allendale Street; Silver City Art Centre and Mint and Line of Lode Lookout to get a feel for the mining that took place here. Also see the Red Earth Opal Café and Showroom – for opals. One of the best museums is the Sulphite Street Railway and Historical Museum, which has memorabilia from the old tramway and also the Triple Chance Mineral Collection.
 
There are also tours to take you to a mine to get a real feel for working underground in a mine – see Tristate Safaris (www.tristatesafaris.com.au Tel: (08) 8088 2389), or Silver City Tours (www.silvercitytours.com.au Tel: (08) 8087 6956), who can take you to see the Daydream Mine about 33 kilometres from Broken Hill.
 
To get a feel for the region, there are also Scenic Flights from Broken Hill airport – organised by Silver City Scenic Flights (www.silvercityscenicfkights.com.au Tel: 0457 155 393) and Silver City Charter Flights (Tel: 0448 885 328).
 
Just out of town, about 6 kilometres away is the Living Desert Flora and Fauna Sanctuary. Here you will be able to see the Sturt’s Desert Pea flower, kangaroos and emus, as well as 12 sandstone sculptures carved here.
 
The Royal Flying Doctor service is located in Broken Hill and also the School of the Air whose students are spread out on stations across the outback.  It is also possible to take a tour of both – with details from the Visitor Information centre. On the second Saturday of the month Markets are held in Sturt Park, and the main shops are along Argent Street and in Patton Village. Broken Hill has around 30 art galleries including the Jack Absolom  Gallery.
 
One of the interesting things to see in Broken Hill is the Titanic Memorial – located in Sturt Park and paying tribute to the bandsmen on the Titanic who continued to play as the ship went down. This memorial was built in 1913 by local Broken Hill bandsmen who were inspired by the story.
 
Some 26 kilometres away from Broken Hill is Silverton on the Silverton Common. This is also a recognized artist location, made famous by the artist, Pro Hart. Silverton began also a mining town too in the 1890’s, and there are a number of stone buildings here that date back to the early days including the Gaol Museum on Burke Street (Tel: (08) 8088 5317), surveyor’s Cottage, Methodist Church, Masonic Lodge, Municipal Chambers, Masonic Hall and local school. The town has around 250 people and the stone buildings and the landscape make for great photos.  Also take a look at the Mad Max Museum – with a fabulous collection of memorabilia from the film.
 
Menindee – is 110 kilometres south east from Broken Hill and this is where the Menindee Lakes are located on the Darling River. This is where Broken Hill gets its water supply.  This small isolated settlement dates back to the early times of outback exploration and the times or Burke and Wills who camped here. The Mungo National Park and the old Kinchega Woolshed are also nearby. The Walls of China – a 30 kilometre long wall of eroded sand cliffs – called ‘Lunettes’ – probably due to their resemblance to a moonscape are also here.
 
The whole of the outback most times is dry, but when local rains fall, the desert can bloom with wild flowers, and when floods occur in North Queensland and the rivers flow south all the way to South Australia – these floods can fill up the lakes and waterways and spread across the flat plains for miles. These events are rare but spectacular and the birdlife that come too can also be amazing.
 
Travelling in the outback has its hazards too – driver fatigue, the long distances, kangaroos and emus crossing the road without warning, and breakdowns – so being prepared with food and water for the drive is all important.
 
Travel to White Cliffs where opal miners live underground to avoid the heat, and mine for opals. This small town is about 3 hours or 288 kilometres from Broken Hill. The tailings or what they call “mullocks” from the mine shafts create the feeling of a moonscape, while the pub is a place to stop for a beer to get a feel for the town both its past and present. There is a caravan park here, and a few other places to stay and find something to eat. Opal mining is certainly hard work, but you can try your luck too, and of course buy an opal as a souvenir of your time here.
 
There are also other outback towns to explore too. If you were travelling from Sydney you might want to stop in Wilcannia on the Darling River. This is a town with a population now of around 600 people, home to the Barkindji Aboriginal clans with a number of historic buildings located here too. The town claims to be “The middle of nowhere and the centre of everywhere” – and certainly it lives up to this description.
 
In the early days of NSW settlement the idea of finding a big river in the centre of Australia was based on both seeing creeks and rivers that flowed inland, but also probably on the hope that there might be another Rhine, Ganges, Yangtze or Mississippi River big river to be found – and in turn pastoral lands that could be settled.
   
Based on this thinking the early explorers headed out on exploration journeys to determine where the rivers ran, and the Darling River, large wool runs and small settlements along its banks were a result of this.
 
By the 1860’s Wilcannia had become the “Queen City of the West” with 3 hotels and a busy port developing.  More than 90 steamers traded up and down the Darling by the 1890’s, taking the wool from the area south on the river and bringing goods in to Wilcannia from where they would be sent out to the Sheep Station properties. Wilcannia was the third busiest port in NSW after Sydney Harbour and Morpeth in the Hunter Valley near Newcastle at that time, and in the 1880- 1890’s there were said to be 13 hotels in the town.  One of these hotels  (now the Golf Club) was a brewery.
 
In 1877 two German brothers bought a “cordial and aerated water business” in Wilcannia – their names Edmund Resch (1847-1923) and Emil Resch (1860-1930). Two years later they established the “Lion Brewery” in Wilcannia. By 1885 they had two more breweries – one in Silverton and the other in Tibooburra. Edmund continued to run the Wilcannia Brewery and in 1897 he bought a brewery in Sydney – with ales, stout and beer selling under the  “Reschs” brand name – with the added claim that he was “Brewer by appointment of his Excellency the Governor General of Australia”. He made his fortune and bought ‘The Swifts’ gothic mansion in Darling Point – later to become the home to Catholic Cardinals in Sydney, and then bought by the Moran family who made their fortune in retirement health care homes for the elderly. ‘The Swifts’ is still today considered one of the most significant mansions in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.
 
Even though Edmund Resch was immensely wealthy and had great influence and having lived in Australia for 51 years, he was of German birth and so he was arrested in 1917 and interned with other Germans at the Holsworthy Camp in Sydney during the last years of World War One.  He stayed on in Sydney after the war and died in 1923. The Resch’s Company  was taken over by Tooth and Co in 1929 – but both the Tooth and Resch’s brands have become a part of NSW brewing History. Edmund’s brother, Emil also stayed in the Beer Brewing business too – and ended in Melbourne where between 1907 and 1914 he was the General Manager of CUB (Carlton and United Breweries).
 
The brother ‘s first beer in Wilcannia was sold under the name of “Lion” – and today Lion Brewing (100% owned by the Japanese Brewing giant, Kirin) owns the Resch’s, Tooths, Tooheys, Hahns and many other brands.
 
If you get a chance, see if you can visit the Golf Club and have a beer there. Other buildings in Wilcannia such as the old post office, council chambers, Police station, Hospital and St John’s Church also still stand here in Wilcannia, as a testament to Wilcannia’s past history.
 
 If travelling to or from the south in the direction of Mildura – stop at the town of Wentworth, 275 kilometres from Broken Hill and just 30 kilometres north of Mildura. Wentworth is located where the two big rivers – the Murray River and the Darling River join – and you can head to a lookout to see the two rivers separated by a small jut of land between them merge into the one river. Riverboat Steamers s plied the river in the early days bringing goods and services to the River towns up and downstream, and taking wool and other goods downstream too. Today houseboats and Paddle Steamers bring tourists to the region.
 
The Murray-Darling River system is one of the great waterways of Australia, but it is also controversial in its use of water and who owns and can use it. The “Restoring the Murray Darling” issue makes for headlines with farmers, fishermen, councils, environmentalists, the media and politicians all involved.
 
In Wentworth there are a number of historic buildings including the Old Wentworth Gaol built in 1879, the former Customs Officer’s Residence and the Pioneer World Museum which has a collection of fossils (including a 3 metre high kangaroo) that have been found locally, as well as lots of memorabilia from the Riverboat Steamer days. Also nearby are the Mungo National Park and also the Two Rivers Ski reserve where the Perry Sandhills are located – giant red sand dunes that you can climb over.
We hope you have a great time seeing Broken Hill and exploring the outback.

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

Happy Traveller

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