Broken Hill: Isolated yet at the heart of everything
“Broken Hill. Why would you want to go there?” a mate had asked.
“There’s nothing to see.”
Exactly. That’s why I am driving along a straight road into the morning sunshine, the salt flats and patchy grasses.
Broken Hill had always held intrigue but somehow was always that little bit out of reach. Isolated yet at the heart of much of Australia’s social and economic development.
It is on the way from Brisbane to Adelaide, which is more than 500km to the south west. Yet going from Sydney, just over 1000km away to the east, you are more likely to go through Balranald and Mildura.
Melbourne is 725km to the south.
A sense of mystery surrounds the place, having been featured in a swag of movies, from the confronting 1971 drama Wake In Fright to the 1994 hit Priscilla Queen of the Desert, from the series of Mad Max movies to the recent Last Cab To Darwin with Michael Caton.
Actor Chips Rafferty was born there. He starred in such films as Rats of Tobruk and in what was to be his last film, Wake In Fright.
Then again, the Brushmen of the Bush rose to fame with the art work while based at Broken Hill, so it must have something going for it.
The Indian Pacific stops there on its railway journey across Australia. And there is all that mining.
Broken Hill is the “BH” in one of if not the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, which started in the city.
Driving through the shimmering heat of late morning, the road sign indicates to watch for kangaroos for the next 150km.
The thing about having “nothing to see’’ is that there is so much to see. Rock formations, red soil, the way the sunlight catches in the grasses, the different shades of green in the gum trees.
You think of stopping to capture the moment on camera but then say to yourself, Oh I will do it down the road a bit. That’s just it. The moment has passed. The country changes.
You become so aware of the slightest variations and realise how important it can be to life out here.
Way off to the north west you notice some ranges … long, low, blue. Is that it? Is that why it’s called Broken Hill?
Two mountain ranges broken in the middle?
Watching Last Cab To Darwin you cannot help but become fascinated by the houses of Broken Hill, many of stone but also with corrugated iron walls.
Driving into the city is just like the movie. The houses are reminders of the hard lives of the miners, the harsh environment.
So prosperous was Broken Hill in its hey day that architecture was centre stage. Major public and bank buildings are classic brick and stone.
Recognition of the historic value of early development and retention of unique buildings and inland city layout warranted a National Trust listing of the entire city, the first in Australia.
Unlike the rest of New South Wales, Broken Hill and the surrounding region observes the same time zone used in South Australia and the Northern Territory. This is because at the time of its foundations on mining, the only direct rail link was with Adelaide, not Sydney.
Broken Hill is Australia’s longest-lived mining city. In 1844, the explorer Charles Sturt saw and named the Barrier Range, while searching for an inland sea; the range was so named as it was a barrier to his progress north.
Fellow explorers Burke and Wills passed through the area in their ill-fated 1860–61 expedition. At the time Sturt referred to a “Broken Hill” in his diary.
Broken Hill’s massive ore body, which formed about 1800 million years ago, has proved to be among the world’s largest silver–lead–zinc mineral deposits.
Pastoralists first began settling the area in the 1850s, with the main trade route to the area along the Darling River.
The Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) was founded by the Syndicate of Seven in 1885.
Visit the mining museum and see just how from little things big things grow.
Yet it was at nearby Silverton that a valuable seam of silver, lead and zinc was first discovered.
Broken Hill is also known for its contributions into the formation of the labour movement in Australia, and has a rich trade union history.
The Barrier Industrial Council, a group of 18 trade unions, was formed in 1923 and became one of the most influential organisations in the politics of the city.
The Trades Hall building still stands as a monument to the mining movement.
Yet another significant monument is on the northern side of Argent St and the railway line, the memorial to miners. It sits on top of the giant mullock heap of mine tailings from the Line of Lode.
The stark reality of working in mines is rammed home to you with a wall containing more than 800 names of miners killed as a result of their trade … along with a white rose.
The two small dump trucks nearby are a memorial to the only two miners still entombed . These are sober reminders of why unions were formed in order to protect the working men and women.
The city’s isolation was a problem until the Adelaide narrow gauge railway link was finished in 1888.
Since the New South Wales Government would not allow the South Australian Government to build a railway to cross the border, the last 31 kilometres was built by a private company as the Silverton Tramway.
The line was originally intended to serve the mining town of Silverton, where prospectors began working in 1867 after a station-hand claimed to have found gold there.
Some years later in 1875, two men drilling a well on a station south of the town site hit a lode of silver.
The town’s population quickly increased reaching a peak around 3000 in the 1890s. But by the time the railway reached the town it was already being eclipsed by the newer and bigger mine at Broken Hill.
The main purpose of the railway was to carry ores from the mines to the smelters and port facilities on the coast at Port Pirie, South Australia.
On January 1, 1915 the Silver City grabbed unwanted headlines domestically and overseas as World War I arrived on Australia’s shores and six people were killed.
The day began with plenty of festive cheer as 1200 men, women and children boarded the open concentrate trucks for a short rail trip to the Manchester Unity Lodge annual picnic.
Little did those people know that two Turkish sympathisers from the north-western part of India that today is Pakistan were about to launch their own guerrilla-style military operation – believed to be the only enemy attack to take place on Australian soil during World War I.
Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mohammed raised the Turkish flag over their ice-cream cart and commenced their two-man war. Ten passengers were hit; three killed instantly, including a pipeline inspector who was cycling beside the train.
Following the shooting the two men fled and were later holed up at a location known as White Rocks. Eventually the stronghold was rushed – Mullah Abdullah was found dead and Gool Mohammed so severely injured that he died in hospital a few hours later.
Today Broken Hill is a major base for both the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air.
The Brushmen of the Bush was a group of artists who formed in Broken Hill in 1973. They included Pro Hart – think famous, expensive popular and coloured carpet, Hugh Schultz, Eric Minchin, John Pickup and Jack Absalom.
The Pro Hart Gallery and Sculpture Park contains a large collection of Hart’s paintings and sculptures, as well as many artworks of others that he collected during his lifetime. The gallery also features the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow that he painted in his unique style.
Inspired by the outback colours and lifestyle, these five artists became famous in their own right, yet as a group made BH famous in the art world. They became a collective in around 1973, and remained so until 1989.
One of their achievements was massive charity fundraising. The Royal Flying Doctor Service was one recipient of proceeds of the sales of donated paintings and commissions from fundraising exhibitions. The legacy of “The Brushmen” lives on with a thriving art scene in BH today.
Drive for just an hour towards the south east and discover Kinchega National Park. It embraces two of the lakes which form the Menindee lakes system astride the mighty Darling River, in flood, or trickling creek bed, in drought.
Recommended reading prior to driving out here is All The Rivers Run by iconic Australian author Nancy Cato.
A place you literally cannot miss is The Palace Hotel, in the heart of Broken Hill and featured in the movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Yet the drive out to Silverton was essential for me. It was 43 years later than I thought.
On a road trip to Darwin I was told to drop by the Silverton Pub some time.
Which is why I was looking through the memorabilia in the bar all these years later.
There are cars parked out the front as a reminder that Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was shot here. A bit further up the road is the Mad Max Museum.
Indeed, cars of all shapes and sizes sit around the town … near the church, the artist’s studio.
Last Cab To Darwin scriptwriter Reg Cribb says of the Broken Hill area: “This part of the world has a brutal beauty to it and the people that live there are just clinging on to their economic survival by their fingertips.
“It is a part of the world that is probably as foreign to most Aussies as it is to overseas visitors.’’
Cribb says he wanted Australian audiences to feel a sense of loss when they see the landscape.
“A feeling that there is an authenticity and honesty to this part of the world that we have lost in our urban obsessed country.’’
Nothing to see in Broken Hill? Eyes wide open and take a look … a week in this place is barely long enough!