Flying over the vast plains of the Australian outback, there is little to see but occasional kangaroos or emus. Then as your airplane descends, you will observe a large town surrounded by greenery in the middle of the desert: this is the town of Broken Hill. Located in the far west of the Australian state of New South Wales, Broken Hill is a large mining town which since the 1880s has been producing copious quantities of silver, lead and zinc.
Discovery of Silver
For thousands of years the Broken Hill area had been home to the Willyama and Barkinji Aborigines. The British explorer, Charles Sturt, passing through the area in 1844, looking for a rumored inland sea. Pastoralists arrived in the 1850s and 1860s.
In 1883 a German-born boundary rider, Charles Rasp, took geological samples which were found to contain silver chloride. Rasp and a group of six others bought up much of the land of the Broken Hill area. In January 1885 they hit the jackpot and found the one of the world's largest lodes of silver, lead and zinc. The ore body was an amazing 5 miles long. Rasp and his partners became fabulously wealthy. They founded the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) which was to become Australia's largest company.
To transport the ore to the sea for shipment overseas, a railway line had to be built to the nearest sea port in Port Pirie, South Australia. A railway line was constructed by the South Australian government to the New South Wales border. When the New South Wales government refused to build a railway line from Broken Hill to join up with the South Australian line, the mining company built its own private line to the South Australian border. The working conditions of the miners were appalling for many years. Hundreds died in mining accidents and of diseases such as dysentry, typhoid and lung diseases. For this reason there was much worker unrest and many strikes, and a strong union movement developed in Broken Hill.
The visitor today can take a tour of one of the old mines, Delprat's Mine. The tours last two hours and visitors don a miner's helmet and light before descending the mineshaft in one of the miner's cages. The streets themselves are further reminders of Broken Hill's long mining history, with mining-related names such as Argent Street, Iodine Street, Bromide Street, Oxide Street and Cobalt Street.
Broken Hill has a rich heritage of magnificent buildings, many of which were built with the profits from the mining industry. Along Chloride Street several of these buildings form an interesting streetscape: the red-brick Post Office (1890), the elaborate Town Hall (1890), the Police Station (1890), the Federation style Technical College (1900) and the Court House 1889).
A number of hotels that used to serve the thirsty miners in past years are worthy of a visit – for example, the huge Palace Hotel (1889) with its long, cool verandahs and its cast-iron balustrades.
In Sulphide Street you can see the Trades Hall, the Mt. St Joseph's Convent of Mercy, the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Gothic revival Wesley Church.
Broken Hill also has Australia's first mosque, the Afghani Mosque (1891), built for the Afghan and Indian camel drivers, who were brought to the area to help with the camels providing transport in desert places where horses could not go.
Broken Hill is home to the Brushmen of the Bush school of artists that include such great and somewhat maverick artists as Pro Hart and Jack Absalom. These artists are mostly self-taught and are influenced in theme and technique by the bush surrounding the town. Many of the Brushmen of the Bush have their own galleries that welcome visits from the public.
Aboriginal art is featured in the innovative Thankakali Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Center, and another great art collection may be viewed in the Broken Hill City and Art Gallery.
Unusual School and Medical Services
For many outback residents, such as those who live on wool and cattle stations (ranches) far from any city or town, life can be very isolated.
Two exclusively Australian services have been found to help these people: the School of the Air, which offers outback students lessons by two-way radio, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which small planes fly doctors and nurses to see patients on the stations and airlift any seriously ill people out.
Visitors are welcome to inspect both of these services.
Parks and Gardens
Broken Hill is often called an oasis in the desert. This is true. The town boasts some beautiful parks and leafy gardens such as Sturt Park and the Riddiford Arboretum. In the latter you see examples of the striking Sturt's Desert Pea, the floral emblem of South Australia and also of Broken Hill.
The city is protected by a ring of greenery that completely surrounds the town and was established in 1936 to protect the town from sandstorms. The whole city now is guaranteed a permanent water supply to maintain its greenery, by a pipeline from the Menindee Lakes that was constructed in 1952.
Side Trips into the Outback
Broken Hill is the perfect base from which to explore the great Australian outback. The former mining town and now semi-ghost town of Silverton, located just 15 miles out of Broken Hill, is easy to reach and is popular not only with tourists but also with film makers. Movies such as Mad Max II and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have been shot there. You can see a replica of Max Max's V8 interceptor parked outside the Silverton Hotel.
Several national parks are located close to Broken Hill, including the Mootwingee National Park, a truly unique wilderness area that has been occupied by the Aboriginal people for 40,000 years. In Mootwingee there are many opportunities to experience Aboriginal culture and to see a wide variety of Australian wildlife, including red and gray kangaroos, euros (wallaroos), the rare yellow footed rock wallaby, and many birds.
If you have a little more time, you can visit Wilcannia on the Darling River and White Cliffs, an opal mining town where the locals avoid the extreme desert temperatures by living in underground homes.
Broken Hill – A Unique Experience
Broken Hill is not your typical tourist destination. Its main tourist attractions are its mines, its artists, its outback services, and its gardens standing in a stark contrast to the arid desert of the surrounding outback. Expect lots of dust, views of red and ochre, and heat. Expect to experience untamed nature and to meet tough but friendly locales. In short, a different and very unpackaged travel experience.