The Coathanger that shaped a Nation
16 January 2012
Broken Hill's ore 'coathanger' was formed about 1800 million years ago, and is the largest and richest silver-lead-zinc mineral deposit found in the world, stretching for 7.5km across a width of 200km and yielding more than $100 billion. Broken Hill took its name from the diary of explorer Charles Sturt, who referred to a "broken hill" as he traversed the Barrier Range in 1844. When the first European settlers arrived, large parts of the ore coathanger were buried under rocky ground, with a protruding tip standing out against the mostly flat countryside – this was known as 'broken hill'.
Today, the broken hill has been mined away and no longer exists, but the outback city that grew nearby and took its name has retained the same essence of wonder and richness of character.
Broken Hill is a city smack bang in the middle of nowhere, lying in the Barrier Ranges of western NSW, only 48km east of the South Australian border. It's been described in many ways, including, 'the hill that changed the nation', 'the accessible outback', 'the place beyond the Darling River on the edge of sundown' and 'The Silver City'. For me, it's always been 'the oasis in the west'. You simply must mark this down as a premier destination, not only for its wealth of history, but also for its stunning scenery.
RVers can travel the Silver City Hwy or the Barrier Hwy to Broken Hill. It's about 1147km from Sydney, 298km from Mildura and 518km from Adelaide. If you're travelling from New South Wales, remember to turn your clocks back a half hour as Broken Hill operates on Central Standard Time.
You'll be overwhelmed by the contrast of the dark red soil and clear blue skies, and you'll have your camera working overtime to capture the magical light and vibrant earthy colours that have drawn artists and filmmakers from around the globe. Broken Hill and its surrounds are teeming with life – huge wedge-tailed eagles, giant red kangaroos, fast-running emus and flocks of corellas that transform the trees into a shimmering sea of whiteness. I always love to see the Sturt desert pea with its startling red and black flowers with deep green leaves and the Saltbush, Bluebush and Mulga trees everywhere.
Broken Hill is a major service centre for the region, and travellers will find a large modern shopping complex and RV supplies and repairs within easy reach. There are fewer pubs and shops than in its heyday, but more than enough to satisfy you with good, cheap eats, quality restaurants and caravan parks, like the friendly Broken Hill City Caravan Park, along with plenty of free camping spots.
It's not just an important outback centre, but reminds me of the hub of a wheel, a place from which you can base yourself and have plenty of exciting adventures with or without the RV.
Some understanding of Broken Hill's early history may better set the scene for this unique destination.
Sir Thomas Mitchell discovered the Broken Hill region in 1841, about 28 years after the crossing of the Blue Mountains, although indigenous people had been living in the area for more than 40,000 years. Charles Sturt followed Mitchell three years later. Like many explorers of the time, Sturt was searching for an inland sea – and even dragged a boat with him on his exploration – as it was believed that the Australian continent was somewhat like a doughnut, with a big hole in the middle. Their thinking was not altogether wrong, although some 35,000 years too late…
Burke and Wills also formed a base camp at Menindee on their exploration of the area, where they decided to split the party into two – perhaps a fateful decision.
Pastoralists quickly followed in the 1850s with their sheep; an event that would have a tragic effect on the indigenous nomadic hunter and gatherers and their way of life. Not only did sheep ravage hunting grounds, but precious waterholes were fenced off and European diseases reduced local tribes significantly.
Valuable silver deposits were discovered in the Umberumberka area (now Silverton) in the early 1800s, but it wasn't until silver ore was discovered in 1883 by a boundary rider from Mount Gipps Station on the NSW/VIC border that mining became serious. This boundary rider was named Charles Rasp, though his real name was Hieronymus (Jerome) Salvator Lopez von Pereira – a fact that was hidden from the public of the time.
He was born in Germany, but moved to France at the age of 12 to live with relatives after his parents died. He worked in a chemical plant in Hamburg and fought in the Franco-Prussian war before becoming disillusioned and travelling to Australia. Without him, Broken Hill may never have become the outback mecca that it was and still is.
As a part-time fossicker, Rasp, along with fellow boundary riders, collected some mineral samples he believed to be tin and sent them to Adelaide for testing – the results showed silver and lead in massive quantities. This great discovery eventually led to the establishment of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP).
Broken Hill is Australia's longest-lived mining city. In 1883, it was a tent camp, by 1885 the population had grown to over 3000 people, and by the early 1890s it had exploded to over 20,000 people.
The call of riches lured thousands of prospectors to seek fame and fortune in such far-flung places as Tibooburra and Milparinka, but hardships, particularly lack of water, were rife and many a pioneers' children's cemetery holds the remains of up to 500 children each year. Typhoid and dysentery racked young bodies, with The Argus printing in 1888 that "Well may the words be printed over the entrance to the hospital 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'."
Mining work was done under poor conditions that led to hundreds of deaths and many miners suffered lead poisoning and lung diseases. Something had to be done, and the industrial unrest that followed in the early 1900s secured improved safety and health conditions and a 35-hour work week for miners – the first time a work week limited by law had been created in Australia.
When you visit Broken Hill now, you can get a sense of what mining was like by visiting the Day Dream Mine near Silverton, which was established in 1882. Visitors here are invited to walk into the mine to experience the conditions of workers. Sturdy shoes are recommended.
Lying 9km out from Broken Hill is the Sculpture Symposium, and I recommend you visit it. Under the direction of organiser and artist Lawrence Beck, the Sculpture Symposium was completed in 1993 by artists from around the world. There are 12 sandstone sculptures in total, each with a different story to tell. The sculptures cut an impressive figure in the desert landscape, especially at sunrise and sunset. Entry is charged at $10 per vehicle, which you pay when you pick up the keys from the Broken Hill Visitors Centre on the corner of Blende and Bromide Streets. A $20 key deposit is also payable.
A trip to Broken Hill wouldn't be complete without visiting the Line o' Lode & Miners Memorial. The Line o' Lode is the visible ore deposit that jutted out of the landscape, and is responsible for the creation of the town. These days, the mullock heaps have replaced the deposit in the centre of town and dominate the view. On the site of the original mine in the middle of the Line o' Lode now stands the miner's memorial, visitor's centre and lookout. The memorial commemorates the more than 700 miners who have died in the mines under the city since the 1800s, and is an amazing piece of architecture.
RVers should also be sure to visit Bells Milk Bar, an authentic 1950s milk bar at 160 Patton St. The business was founded in 1892, and they proudly still make their own syrups and cordials, just like they used to in the old days. The results speak for themselves, with milkshakes that are worth crossing the desert for, and spiders like I haven't had since I was a lad. You can even buy a bottle of the syrup to take home.
The Broken Hill base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service was established in May 1936, and its territory includes far west NSW, south-west QLD, and eastern and northern South Australia. This is a massive area of 640,000km2, and the service they provide is simply amazing and something to be proud of as an Australian. The Bruce Langford Visitors Centre houses a museum, theatre and shop, along with interactive displays showing the history of the service.
Guided tours are available seven days a week (except Christmas Day). You can tour a working RFDS base, talk to the guide about the full extent of the service, visit the communications room, the outfitted aircraft and the hangar, and view a unique film in the 44-seat theatre.
As you wander the streets of Broken Hill, make sure you stop and visit Ron and Liz Hill from Outback Whips and Leather at 350 Argent Street. They offer a range of traditional bush leather goods made to be used by the hard working men and women of the Aussie outback. Ron is a top bloke, who is very passionate about keeping the bush leather craft alive, and will happily take the time to tell you all about his craft.
Located at 250 Blende St is the Broken Hill Veteran & Vintage Car Club. Established in 1971 by Bruce Lord, it has grown to over 100 members, each as passionate about restoring their cars as Bruce is. They meet on the first Wednesday of every month, and car buffs should time their trips to coincide with a meet, as there are some truly beautiful vehicles on show. On the Sunday following the meet is a club run, and Bruce says that members of other car clubs are more than welcome to come join their meets and runs.
There are many iconic pubs in outback Australia, but none more welcoming than Silverton Hotel, located 25km north west of Broken Hill. The name conjures up images of long railway lines snaking across the red soil from Broken Hill, carrying some 3000 people in its heyday chasing the elusive silver deposits.
You'll find a real welcome at the Silverton Hotel, with lots of photos from the Mad Max movies and replicas of the various vehicles prominently featured in them.
Stay a while and talk to Pete and his wife Patsy, who run the pub. Be amused by the truly Aussie humour on signs hanging from the ceiling and run your eyes over the names of famous people who have visited the bar and enjoyed the ambience of the place.
Every pub has its fair share of larrikins, and while not giving away any surprises, I can recount the story of the guy who caused women to scream with horror and blokes to moan when he set off a rabbit trap with his tongue! He was quite adept at the trick and even abruptly held his hands to his mouth, mumbling incoherently. You'll meet your fair share of real Aussie characters out here, that's for sure!
Before you leave Silverton and its attractions, drive out to Mundi Mundi Plains and Lookout – this view must really be seen to be believed, and is particularly magical at sunset. These plains go on forever, and on a clear day you can see the curvature of the earth.
Broken Hill truly is a magical place well worth visiting. I would recommend it to all RVers with a love of Australian history, landscape and people.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Sydney: Follow the Barrier Hwy for 1147km (13 hours) or the Hume Hwy for 1251km (14 hours). From Melbourne: Follow the Silver City Hwy for 856km (eight hours). From Adelaide: Follow Barrier Hwy for 518km (six hours).
BROKEN HILL VISITORS CENTRE
Cnr Blende & Bromide Streets, Broken Hill
Ph: (08) 8080 3560
SILVERTON VISITORS CENTRE
Beyond 39 Dips 2 Layard St, Silverton
Ph: (08) 8088 7566
DAY DREAM MINE
North west of Silverton
Bookings for tours can be made at the Broken Hill Visitors Centre or you can simply turn up between 10am and 3.30pm any day of the week.
Cost: $12.10 for adults, $11 for students, pensioners and seniors, and $5.50 for children. A family concession is also available.
Ph: (08) 8088 5682
BROKEN HILL SCULPTURE SYMPOSIUM
Visit the Broken Hill Visitors Centre to pick up keys.
Entry is charged at $10 per vehicle, with a $20 key deposit
BELLS MILK BAR
160 Patton St, Broken Hill
Ph: (08) 8087 5380
OUTBACK WHIPS AND LEATHER
350 Argent Street, Broken Hill
Ph: (08) 8087 8887
BROKEN HILL VETERAN & VINTAGE CAR CLUB
250 Blende St, Broken Hill
Ph: (08) 8088 3036
CHEAP & FREE TREATS
LINE O' LODE & MINERS MEMORIAL, VISITOR'S CENTRE AND LOOKOUT
Broken Hill Town Centre, Federation Hill
Ph: (08) 8087 1318
SILVERTON'S HERITAGE WALKING TRAIL
Pick up a map at the Silverton Visitor's Information Centre at Beyond 39 Dips 2 Layard Street, Silverton
MUNDI MUNDI PLAINS AND LOOKOUT
5km west of Silverton along Macdougalls Well Rd
ROYAL FLYING DOCTOR SERVICE
MUSEUM AT THE BRUCE LANGFORD VISITORS CENTRE
Cost: Adults $7.00, Children 6 and over $3.70, Family $18.50, Concession Holder $5.90
Ph: (08) 8080 3714
PLACES TO STAY
Broken Hill City Caravan Park Rakow St, Broken Hill
Ph: (08) 8087 3841
Lake View Caravan Park
1 Mann Street, Broken Hill
Ph: (08) 8088 2250
WORDS BY FRED WRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN LING