Located in the remote far west of New South Wales, close to the border with South Australia, Broken Hill started out as a frontier mining town and has long attracted visitors seeking an authentic outback experience. Filled with many attractions and endless photo opportunities, the so-called Silver City was added to Australia’s National Heritage List in 2015.
Broken Hill began life as a mining town in 1885 and by the early 1900s it was booming. Five decades later the city was producing more than 10 per cent of the entire world’s lead. It has arguably the world's richest and largest zinc-lead ore deposit.
Today, more than 50 million tonnes of lead and zinc, and 20,000 tonnes of silver have been extracted from more than 200 million tonnes of ore. In the 135 years or so since mining began, fortunes have ebbed and flowed with commodity prices, and the city’s enthralling history is intertwined with cycles of booms and busts.
But there’s more to Broken Hill than mining. The indigenous Bulali and Wilyakali people inhabited this area for millennia before any mineral wealth was unlocked.
The Wilyakali called the region home for 50,000 years or more. In this part of Australia, you can see plenty of evidence of one of the oldest living civilisations on earth, such as the carefully preserved collection of Aboriginal rock art at Mutawintji to the north-east of the city.
There are many other non-mining aspects to the city’s history. In December 1913, a monument to the bandsmen on board the ill-fated Titanic was erected in Sturt Park. Instigated by the bandsmen of Broken Hill, it stands nearly six metres high and carries the names of all the ship’s musicians who drowned.
It seems incongruous that in this hot, isolated inland community, one of the city’s earliest monuments should commemorate a tragedy that occurred in icy seas on the other side of the world. But the bandsmen of Broken Hill felt strongly about the heroism of the musicians who kept playing while the ship went down, and their suggestion for the memorial was accepted.
Just over one year later, on 1 January 1915, an ambush known as The Battle of Broken Hill took place on the outskirts of town at White Rocks Reserve. Two local men, an ice cream vendor and a camel driver, opened fire on passengers aboard the Silverton Tramway Company’s train, which was heading to an annual picnic. The men were Muslims who had sworn allegiance to Turkey following the outbreak of World War 1.
The shooting claimed the lives of four passengers on the train and the perpetrators were also killed by police and military officers after a three-hour gun battle. Because they had raised the Turkish flag over their ice cream cart it is sometimes reported that the two men were Turks, but they were in fact Afghan immigrants. It was the only battle of World War I fought on Australian soil. A replica ice cream cart now stands at the site of the shoot-out.
During World War II, vast quantities of the nation’s gold reserves were stored at Broken Hill. With an ever-present fear of Japanese invasion the government decided the gold was safer inland. It was removed from the vaults of the Commonwealth Bank in various capital cities and stored in a purpose-built strongroom at the Broken Hill jail.
Today, visitors can spend time in the heart of town visiting, among other things, Broken Hill’s impressive art galleries and displays.
Start at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, which opened in 1904 and is still proudly supporting local, state and national artists. Jack Absalom Gallery is dedicated to the work of its namesake, a local painter and author who had a passion for the dramatic beauty of the outback.
The Pro Hart Gallery, a five-minute drive from the city centre, is where you can see the work of Kevin ‘Pro’ Hart. Set on the site of the home Hart lived in with his family, the gallery also houses the eccentric artist’s hand-painted Rolls Royce and many of his sculptures.
At White’s Mineral Art Gallery & Mining Museum you can learn all about the town’s mining history. Run by Kevin ‘Bushy’ White, a veteran of the local mining industry, the museum contains 1,500 pieces of mining memorabilia and showcases Bushy’s mineral-based collages.
Perched on the hill that separates the north and south areas of town is where you’ll find the Line of Lode Lookout and Miners Memorial, a striking tribute to those that lost their lives while working in the local mines. The lookout point provides stunning views across the town.
Just outside of town, off the Nine Mile Road, you’ll find the Living Desert and Sculptures, where 12 sandstone sculptures by artists from around the world sit atop a hill in the centre of a flora and fauna sanctuary. This is a great place to appreciate the vast beauty of Australia’s red interior.
There’s nothing quite as magnificent as the outback skies, untarnished by city or suburban lights. Outback Astronomy is a purpose-built facility for stargazing and seeing the dark night sky come to life. The Sky Tours include informed commentary about the night sky and celestial sights highlighted by a laser pointer.
No visit to Broken Hill is complete without a trip to Silverton, 25 kilometres northwest of town, which has served as the backdrop for multiple movies, including Mad Max II, Mission Impossible 2, A Town Like Alice and Wake in Fright.
There are several things to enjoy in the town – a visit to the Mad Max Museum, a drink at the famous Silverton Hotel, Peter Browne’s emu-painted VW in front of his gallery and watching the sun set from the lookout at Mundi Mundi Plains.
Where to stay
If you like the idea of accommodation that combines luxury with history, book in with Broken Hill Outback Church Stay, where a magnificent 1911 Romanesque-style church has been lovingly restored and converted into a deluxe guesthouse. You can stay in the actual church, which has three master suites and a fully equipped gourmet kitchen; the Church Presbytery; or the Church Cottage.
To experience life on a working sheep and cattle property, head for Eldee Station, located near Silverton and designed for eco-conscious travellers. Stay in the old shearers’ quarters or hire a swag and sleep out under the outback skies. The property also offers a range of experiences, including bush walks, mountain biking, star gazing and 4WD tours.
For a taste of Broken Hill’s outlandish side, check into The Palace Hotel, where the ceilings and walls are covered with Renaissance-inspired images and inspiring Australian landscapes, painted in the 1970s by Aboriginal artist Gordon Waye with help from then owner Mario Celotto. If this heritage hotel looks familiar it’s because it featured in the 1994 drag-queen film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. There is even a Priscilla Suite.
Following are more images of the Silver City and the outback surrounding it.
Visitors to Australia interested in more than just the capital cities and the coast should consider a trip to the quintessentially Australian outback city of Broken Hill. There are direct flights from Sydney.
Photos © Judy Barford