White Cliffs and Broken Hill, Silverton, Wilcannia, and Mutawintji. In these Outback posts of NSW Far North West, there’s something in the land that reaches out pulls you in, so that even when you leave, you’re still somehow connected.
Staring out across the outback, I watch the sun descend in all of its golden glory — cloaking the parched red earth and what looks like thousands of ant hills in a glowing orange blanket. The land tightly undulates up and down, up and down, little paths weaving around each mound, as if someone had been looking for treasure, dug feverishly, then gave up and moved to the next flat patch of land to do the same thing again. From the air, you can see that this is actually exactly what happened. In opal town of White Cliffs in Outback NSW, there are tens upon thousands of deserted mounds surrounding the holes that people have dug, with the hope of finding precious gems. It gives the place a moonscape-like feel.
Closer to where I stand, on a hill that is actually the roof of the White Cliffs Underground Motel, the land before me is peppered with rotating steel knobs and what look like rectangular graves covered in Perspex — they’re the whirligigs of the extractor fans below, and mine shaft coverings that ensure the air in the 30 underground guest rooms circulates.
I had a remarkably peaceful night’s sleep in one the night before — so, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Broken Hill, they’re not only cool, spacious and stylishly decorated, but also incredibly quiet cocoons.
It’s easy to feel as though you’re on another planet at White Cliffs, and the 200 or so people who call it home like it that way. Says local woman Cree, who offers tours of her and her husband’s stunning designer underground dug-out: “This is not the place for young people. We’ve had our busy party years. You come here to live quietly and well. We love it, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But it’s a unique lifestyle, to say the least.”
You also need to be hardy to live out here, where the temperatures can reach 50 degrees and it’s a few hours to drive anywhere for supplies. The early explorers, miners, pioneers and pastoralists who lost their lives out on these wild lands knew that there were long distances between watering holes (pubs included), but it didn’t stop them from forging on and settling places like White Cliffs, all with the hope of glory and striking it rich.
These days, to experience these zany places that unwittingly hide some of their greatest assets, you can jump in a 4WD and do it yourself, or, you can join a tour where the hard work of discovering the best of the NSW Outback is done for you. TriState Safaris – an outback adventure tour in Broken Hill – offer the adventurous a well-planned journey in air-conditioned comfort on a 15-seater 4WD coach loaded with cold water, snacks, morning tea and coffee, and tasty lunches. And most importantly, you also get a knowledgeable, local guide such as my guide Clark, whose enthusiasm for educating travellers on the region’s history and mystery is contagious.
Silverton and Broken Hill
Silverton and Broken Hill in NSW also lured people in search of riches from across the world. Broken Hill once had the world’s richest deposits of lead, zinc and silver and all three minerals are still mined here, and Silverton is an ex-mining town (dubbed a ghost town but it still has a population of about 90) a half hour’s drive down the road.
Today, both are renowned for their high concentration of eccentric artists, and Silverton is famous for hosting the original Mad Max crew, not to mention actors and directors from classics such as Razorback and more recent flicks such as Wake in Fright.
Both places attract streams of tourists as they are quintessential red-earth/blue-sky outback towns speckled by mulga and saltbush, but Silverton, with its throng of quirky art galleries, is a dead-set photographer’s dream. The surrounding landscape is also eerily empty, lending the landmarks a sparse yet dramatic backdrop. Here a quaint church, much like a child’s wooden toy, there a car made of bottle tops. There a classic Aussie hotel, here a picture-perfect post office, and sweet weatherboard houses with old wooden porches and shuttered windows.
In Silverton our group tucked into a pub lunch of burgers and chips and then took time out for a wander. We popped in to visit artist John Dynon, who has been living and painting in these parts for over 30 years. His rustic shed, covered in an awesome dot-painting-like mural featuring a massive emu, sits in a wacky ‘garden’ filled with oddities such as a mannequin on an outback loo, random bicycle pieces arranged in sculptural ensembles and a bright paint-splattered VW. The shed is crammed with his bold, colourful artworks, many of them based on his wide-eyed emu caricatures. We also meet Albert Woodroffe, renowned for his moody landscapes that capture the powerful nature of this wild part of the world. We also meet and greet the random roaming donkeys that call Silverton home.
Later we cruise down the wide road under a never-ending blue sky to the big smoke of Broken Hill, one of the most impressive, picturesque slagheaps in the world forming an Uluru-like mountain behind it. There are myriad reasons to spend a few days in the Silver City, which garnered its name due to the biggest ever silver lode ever being discovered by prospectors in 1893. There are mining, history and gallery tours a-plenty (don’t miss Andos’ Big Picture in the Silver City Mint and Art Centre), and iconic places to hang out such as Bells Milk Bar (a 60s Happy Days-style café) and The Palace Hotel — famous for being in scenes in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. There’s also the don’t-miss Pro Hart’s Gallery, where you can check out his studio as he left it, and the thousands of pieces of art that made him one of Australia’s most revered artists.
After sunset, our group headed to the newly opened Outback Astronomy, where we enjoyed drinks and a BBQ before settling down into lie-low camping lounges, the sky above looking like an ink-black canvas that a giant had hurled a pot of glitter at. For two hours we learn about constellations, star bursts, dark energy, asteroids, the moon and more. Concepts are demystified, and the simple pleasure of lying beneath an outback sky in itself is a simple, relaxing joy.
Wilcannia and Mutawintji
Warrawong on the Darling in Wilcannia is our next home for the night, and it’s a delightful campground with brand new cabins strung along the Darling river and surrounded by bushland that couldn’t be more Aussie if it tried. Kangaroos, emus, magpies, and all manner of waterbirds have made this special place their home, and taking a walk through the bushland at sunset or sunrise, it’s tough work not uttering those three words given legendary status in The Castle: “Ahh, the serenity…”
The stunning works of Indigenous artist-in-residence and local Wilcannia man, Eddy Harris are showcased in Warrawong’s reception and cosy dining area. His incredibly intricate paintings featuring brightly depicted flora and fauna, capture Eddy’s life on the land as a Bakandji (meaning river people) man. The pieces also celebrate the spirit of his ancestors in such fine, layered detail that at first glance, the many stories within are hidden. Look closer, and listen to Eddy tell his stories, and tales from the dreamtime magically emerge.
Before heading back to reality on the Eastern Seaboard, I paid a visit to what Mutawintji National Park guide Mark Sutton describes as his: “Favourite part of the world.”
Mark explains that his ancestors — the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people — have lived in this region for over 40,000 years. To gain some understanding of his people and their beliefs, I sit in a dark room and listen to the local creation story recited by an elder while lights are shone on beguiling paintings depicting the events that shaped the land’s creation.
It’s a profound experience, and one that remains with me as I explore the park and some of its many caves and stony slopes with Mark — the handprints, engravings, etchings and even the remains of underground cooking ovens giving me a glimpse into the lives of the people who were here before us. Mark knows this sacred place better than his own backyard, and in fact, that’s exactly what it is. It’s his world, his past and his present, and his love for the place is almost palpable. It stays with me, long after my plane has touched down in my own less wild pocket of the world. Somehow, I still feel connected to the great lengths of lands I’ve traversed and the people I met along the way. Somehow, the land has found a place inside me, or perhaps I have found a place in it.
The writer was a guest of Destination NSW, Rex Airlines, Out of the Ordinary Outback and Tristate Safaris.