Broken Hill: A thriving outback town

By Karen McGhee 21 July 2014
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At one time, Broken Hill produced one-third of the world’s silver. Absent for decades, heavy rainfall has brought the region bursting back into vibrant life in 2011.

THE LANDSCAPE AROUND the outback town of Broken Hill, in far western NSW, is celebrated for its post-apocalyptic appearance; but in 2010, once-in-a-century annual rainfall broke a decade-long drought and the area is now so lush it looks more like heaven.

People who understand this country say it will be like this – at its exuberant best – for another two years. Dying or thriving, this desert-fringed, semi-arid environment speaks of Australia as nowhere else, luring painters, photographers and filmmakers from across the world. Its principal feature is the vast scale of the largely flat landscape.

Sporadically interrupted by contorted mulga trees and low, irregular undulations, it meets a pale-blue, seemingly endless sky at a distant horizon.

A life-giving rainfall in the outback

Spurred on by record rainfalls, inland Australia’s plants and animals have been furiously filling in the details, rapidly growing and reproducing as many generations as possible before the harsh climate once again puts life on hold.

“Droughts and flooding rains – it’s the classic boom and bust ecosystem,” observes Paul Seager, the far west’s operations coordinator for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). “[My family] moved here nine years ago…and we’ve seen the landscape at its most harsh. Then it’s ‘add water and stir’ and suddenly there are hectares of Sturt’s desert peas.”

When dry, much of the soil hardens and cracks under a baking sun colouring it vibrant red. But for now it’s largely hidden beneath a carpet of hardy foliage. It’s mostly saltbush – there are more than 20 species around Broken Hill – and largely appears grey-green; in some places, however, the saltbush species known as bluebush dominates, and the cover is a steely grey-blue.

Animal life boom in Broken Hill

In response to local rains and warm temperatures, pulse-like explosions of Australian plague locusts have been swarming, stimulating food chains across the region. The insects are eaten by reptiles and mammals, which, in turn, are food for birds of prey.

These include the wedge-tailed eagle, which soars high above the plains on rising thermals.

Paucident planigales – tiny nocturnal marsupial inhabitants of inland floodplains – are booming in Kinchega National Park, 100 km south-east of Broken Hill, in response to the locust bonanza. That’s good news for the barking owl, a threatened predator of small mammals, found around local billabongs.

The ‘trademark’ outback animals have become more conspicuous, too. Long trains of emus – dads with up to 20 chicks in tow – are showing dangerous tendencies to meander across hypnotically long, unswerving roads. Large mobs of kangaroos – reds, western greys and euros – looking muscular and well-fed, are also abundant.

Outback landscape of inspiration

While the explosion of life is spectacular, the feature that visual artists most love about this country is its much-vaunted light. It’s been of professional interest for three decades to longtime resident and retired photographer Doug Banks. The former marine engineer travelled the world as a merchant navy man but gave up the ocean 55 years ago for a Broken Hill girl.

The family of wife Bev were among the earliest immigrants to the area, arriving during the 1880s with other hopefuls from the English counties of Cornwall and Devon, and southern Wales, chasing new lives inspired by legendary mineral riches.

“I missed the sea for about two years,” Doug admits. “I used to tell myself lies saying, ‘Just over that hill, that’s where the sea is’.” But he soon found much to appreciate about his new home.

The area’s extraordinary light effects, says Doug, are a product of latitude and climate. While it’s usual for summer temperatures to reach the mid-40s for days on end, humidity rarely climbs above 15 per cent. “That’s why the light’s so amazing,” he says. “You feel as if you can grasp great handfuls of it out here; it’s so vivid and bright and crisp.”

Destination Broken Hill: middle of nowhere

Geographically, Broken Hill is pretty much as close to the middle of nowhere as a large Australian town can be: it lies 935 km north-west of Sydney, 725 km north-west of Melbourne, and 420 km north-east of Adelaide.

Culturally and historically, however, this sprawling desert home of about 20,000 people is at the hub of the Australian heartland known as ‘Outback NSW’. “We’re at the centre of everything and the middle of everywhere!” Doug happily volunteers.

The continent’s oldest human remains were found a few hundred kilometres to the south-east, in Mungo National Park, within the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area (see AG 44). And the park provides a continuous 40,000-year record of the occupation of Australia by Aboriginal people.

Early European history is also extensive here. Some of Australia’s most important early explorers traversed the region, including Charles Sturt. In 1844 he crossed and named the Barrier Ranges in which Broken Hill is located.

Broken Hill’s rich history

The striking wildflower that grows prolifically out here after rain – Sturt’s desert pea – bears his name. Burke and Wills famously camped in 1860 about 100 km south-east of Broken Hill, on the banks of the ephemeral Lake Pamamaroo, now full after a dry decade. They stayed at the Maiden Hotel in the nearby Darling River outpost of Menindee – the first permanent town on the river.

And their loss is linked to a local, William Wright, manager of the huge pastoral run that in 1967 became far western NSW’s first national park – Kinchega. A 19th-century inquiry into the explorers’ demise found Wright’s delay in taking supplies from Menindee to Cooper Creek contributed to their deaths.

From the 1860s, pastoralists established huge sheep flocks for wool production in the area, contributing on a grand scale to the proverbial sheep’s back upon which the early Australian economy rode.

It’s indicative of the industry’s scale that 6 million merinos and merino-crosses passed through the historic woolshed at Kinchega – immaculately preserved in the national park – during its century of operation.

It was, however, minerals – silver, zinc and lead – that saw Broken Hill established, and a rich mining heritage endures to this day. It’s evident in the architecture: from humble miners’ cottages clad with corrugated iron on the town’s south side, to grand hotels and emporiums that mark early economic boom times along the wide main thoroughfare, Argent Street.

But, running parallel to that street, the most striking visual symbol is the massive mound of mining waste from a century of digging – a hundred metres high and kilometres long.

“That hill – our mullock heap – has been recognised by the Broken Hill residents as one of the landscape features they couldn’t live without,” says Andrea Roberts, Broken Hill Council’s community development manager.

For this reason, rehabilitation of the rubble scar is unlikely to ever happen: ugly or not, it’s so intensely symbolic of the town’s origins and heritage that it’s here to stay.

Broken Hill was founded in 1888, five years after Charles Rasp, a boundary rider on the million-acre Mount Gipps station, discovered a mineral outcrop exposed by erosion. Rasp and some of his fellow station employees formed the ‘Syndicate of Seven’ consortium to stake a claim around the outcrop; it was thought to be tin but was later identified as the world’s biggest lead-silver-zinc ore deposit.

It’s now the stuff of legend in the mining industry worldwide.

The ore is contained in a boomerang-shaped line of lode; the original exposed section at its centre – now long-since mined away – created the ‘broken hill’ appearance that gave the town its name. The lode is up to 250 m wide and 7.3 km long, each end plunging more than 1.6 km into the earth.

Mining in Broken Hill

Extreme isolation, a remarkable natural environment, severe climate and tough working conditions: Broken Hill’s population has been a uniquely shaped enclave defined by resilience, creativity and self-reliance. The result is a long list of significant people and achievements in the mining and pastoral industries, the union movement and the arts.

The eight-hour working day and collective bargaining, for example, both began in Broken Hill. This is where BHP Billiton, now among the world’s biggest mining and exploration companies, began. And the early history of Rio Tinto, another world mining giant, is also linked to Broken Hill. A busy commercial airport, railway-line and modern sealed highways mean Broken Hill is no longer isolated. But many other features that have shaped the town’s ethos remain evident, particularly in its mining industry.

The main ore body, the line of lode running right through the town beneath the mullock heap, has been mined by a succession of companies. Today, it’s worked only at its southern end by Perilya Ltd, owned by Australian and Chinese interests.

In 1907 more than 8000 men worked in ‘The Hill’s’ mines and the town had a population of more than 30,000. Production peaked again in the 1950s when the mining workforce reached 6500, but it’s been declining ever since. The most recent retrenchments saw Perilya’s Broken Hill workforce drop from 500 to 300 in late 2007.

Perilya’s southern operations general manager Andrew Lord says it wasn’t an easy decision and there was backlash from the town. But it was part of a strategy for the mine to survive the Global Financial Crisis.

The strategy worked; the mine again turns a “reasonable profit” and many of the workers who most recently lost their jobs are now among 200 contractors who supplement Perilya’s core workforce.

Increased efficiency through modern technology means Broken Hill now produces as much ore as ever with present-day miners working 600–1000 m underground, scavenging remnants left between old tunnels.

Mining still provides about one-third of the town’s income. And the industry continues to play a vital role in the town’s psyche, contributing particularly to a worldliness uncommon in remote Australia.

Mining the Broken Hill lode these days is complex and it’s said that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere in the industry. The current mine is operating on an 10-year plan. “But there’s more there,” says Noel Hannigan, Perilya’s mine services superintendent. “Realistically, this will be a mining town for a long time to come. The raw material is here – it might not be in this section, or the next, but there’s great mineralisation and great prospects outside.”

Noel is the third generation of his family to work in Broken Hill mining. His grandfather swung a pick and his father drove trucks, both underground. Noel began as a boilermaker in 1969 and went underground the following year.

“The camaraderie in a place like this…you won’t find anywhere else,” says Noel. Forged in an extreme environment where safety is always a team concern, old-fashioned Aussie mateship is palpable in the south mine’s locker-room-like chamber called the ‘marble arch’. Here miners assemble between shifts to exchange vital information.

There’s much huddling around clipboards and computers and mumbling of instructions for about 15 minutes every 12 hours during the crucial transfer of details about what’s been achieved and is yet to be done underground ‘at the stope’.

Mining here is now highly mechanised but the men still come up smelling of the earth. And this change-of-shift ritual remains as vital today as it was a century ago.

Broken Hill’s artistic heart

The huge contrast between the openness, intense light and contrasting colours above ground and the dark, enclosed underworld of hard-rock mining may also underpin Broken Hill’s extraordinary art heritage. Remarkably for an Australian country town, Broken Hill has more private art galleries (30) than pubs (24).

“The art has been as much about documenting the industrial mining landscape as it has been about the natural environment,” says Bruce Tindale, manager of the public Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery. “It’s very important in terms of our cultural and historic heritage.”

He says artists are now also attracted to the town’s comparatively cheap housing and multicultural population: people of Maltese, Chinese, Italian, Greek and Yugoslav heritage, plus descendants of Afghan cameleers and Cornish miners who arrived in the late 19th century.

The gallery’s permanent collection began in 1904 with a bequest from George McCulloch, the founding chairman of BHP Pty Ltd and one of the original Syndicate of Seven; it has since grown to about 1800 works and includes an unexpected showcase of Australian art from the 19th century to the modern day.

To display as many pieces as possible, a large selection of paintings is hung floor to ceiling in the gallery, among which can be found works by Rupert Bunny, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, John Olsen, Lloyd Rees and Margaret Preston.

Of course, the gallery has a significant Pro Hart collection. A local boy who began his working life as a miner, Pro turned to painting and is celebrated internationally for his outback scenes. He was one of the legendary Brushmen of the Bush artists’ group of the 1970s and ’80s that included the famed Jack Absalom.

“We kickstarted a movement…everybody here said if we can do it they can bloody do it!” recalls Jack. “We had exhibitions all around the world; caused such a stir in New York that we blocked traffic, had royal openings in London and donated three and a half million [dollars] to charities.”

The region also has a strong indigenous-art movement, particularly around Wilcannia, 185 km to the east, and the gallery exhibits work by local Aboriginal artists. Up to 5 per cent of Broken Hill’s population identifies as Aboriginal. But the town doesn’t suffer the sort of racial disharmony often highlighted by city media in remote country towns.

“It is here,” comments Dr Sarah Martin, of Oasys Outback Archaeological Systems. “But it’s under the surface, not quite as overt as it is in some other places.” Art, she agrees, has helped erode barriers that can be created by skin colour. “The artists get together and don’t separate into black artists or white artists in Broken Hill,” she says.

“They exhibit together and do [projects] together. There’s more division between those [artists]…with a professional qualification and those that are self-taught.”

Sarah moved to Broken Hill 25 years ago as a NPWS regional archaeologist and stayed after falling in love with her partner, ‘Badger’ Bates, a local artist. Badger grew up on the Darling River in Wilcannia and narrowly avoided becoming part of the Stolen Generations of mixed-race children taken from their parents due to misguided government policies of past eras.

The black-and-white lino prints hanging in galleries around the country proudly represent his heritage. “Dad was white and Mum was black and they weren’t allowed to marry,” Badger explains. “I could have been part of the Stolen Generation but Granny kept me moving so they [government welfare authorities] could never catch us.”

Badger sees his art as a legacy from his grandmother, who works through him to pass an ancient culture to future generations of the Paakantji (Barkindji) people.

A keystone of Australia’s outback

The Paakantji is one of western NSW’s main indigenous groups. Their country stretches along the Darling from Wentworth, south of Broken Hill, north-east to Bourke.
Paakantji translates as “people of the river” and their lives have traditionally been intimately connected with the Darling’s fluctuating volume.

Significant rainfall in the great river’s catchment since late 2009 has caused the Darling to run as she hasn’t for decades. And a generation of young indigenous kids is, for the first time, experiencing the life-giving properties of the river that’s guided their people for millennia.

Tony Evans grew up on the Darling in Wilcannia and has felt the town’s mood rising with the river. “The kids had been walking around with nothing to do, but now the river’s full they’re learning to fish, swim and make canoes – they love it. They’re realising they can build things,” says Tony. “When you’re in a river town everyone’s happy when the river’s running and everyone’s a lot healthier, too.”

Tony is acting senior field officer at Mutawintji National Park, 135 km north-east of Broken Hill, and a traditional custodian of the land the park encompasses. Mutawintji has for millennia been an important meeting place for different indigenous groups and is rich in artefacts, including stone flakes and fireplace remains. The walls of its gorges and waterholes are covered with engravings and stencils, celebrating events and sending messages as clearly today as they would have done thousands of years ago.

“These emu eggs and tracks would have told you where to find food and might tell a story that ‘we found eight, took half and left the rest’,” says Tony gesturing at wall peckings on the park’s Homestead Gorge Trail.

Mutawintji and Kinchega are Broken Hill’s nearest national parks and like all the far-west parks are co-managed with local indigenous groups. They’re remote low-visitation parks: Kinchega, for example, receives just 10,000 visitors during the April–November season.

Explorling Broken Hill’s nearby national parks

From a natural-history perspective, both are currently at their best. The gorges and waterholes of Mutawintji’s fire-red Bynguano Ranges are flowing and full. So, too, is the Darling that winds through Kinchega, where lakes Cawndilla and Menindee are full for the first time in about a decade.

NPWS Kinchega discovery tours run during non-summer school holidays, and cover features such as local fossil evidence of giant wombats and other traces of the region’s megafauna. Visitors also get the opportunity to explore the rich indigenous history with sanctioned visits, led by Aboriginal tour guides, to ceremonial sites and scarred trees, where bark was removed for canoes and utensils.

Broken Hill’s civic and business leaders have realised since the 1960s that the town would need economic diversification to survive as mining declined. As a result, the town has a sophisticated awareness that its heritage, history and natural and industrial landscapes are highly saleable commodities.

It’s helped broaden its economic outlook considerably and the regional economy is now split between the mining, pastoral, visual arts and tourism industries.

Broken Hill’s Hollywood connections

Since the early 1980s, more than 300 film and media productions have been shot in and around Broken Hill and film is now promoted as a major growth industry for the town. Much media attention recently focused on plans to shoot Fury Road – the fourth movie in the Mad Max franchise – here. Mad Max 2 was famously shot in the region.

Fury Road’s production designer, Colin Gibson, says Broken Hill was chosen because it provided the desolate scenery required for the movie’s plot. Importantly, the town is also large and sophisticated enough to cater for a crew of 300.

“I’d been to every desert and semi-arid point in Australia and half the ones in the rest of the world…we came back to Broken Hill for logistics,” explains Colin. “Broken Hill’s got a lot of accommodation: you can fly in-fly out and you’ve got everything you need.”

The town hopes to capitalise further on its film location reputation with the new Broken Hill Film Studio and Precinct that involves development of an old power station as a film studio. Due to be launched this year, it’s expected to create 1000 new jobs and pump $44 million into the local economy during the next five years.

For now, filming of Fury Road is on hold due to the area’s exceptional rainfall. “We’ve been shelved slightly because what was desert, and the end-of-the-world, now looks like a salad bowl and vegie gardens,” laments Colin. The crew is expected back in town in August and it’s hoped shooting can begin in 2012.

Broken Hill’s ubeatable landscapes

For many locals, the feature they most miss when they move away from Broken Hill is the sky. “It seems so close and is such a wide vista with nothing blocking it,” says Esther La Rovere, who was born and raised here. “I used to lie upside down, look up at the sky and watch the sun rise and imagine it was setting over the ocean.” The daughter of Italian immigrants, Esther left Broken Hill at 18 and for two decades pursued an interest in the visual arts, played music in a band, became involved in festival and event production and travelled.

Twelve months ago, like many Broken Hill expats who successfully forge lives and careers elsewhere, Esther returned. Drawn back, in part, by the sky and other elements of the quintessential outback landscape, she’s joined a surging local tourism industry.

Well before the drought broke, Broken Hill’s tourism numbers were rising despite a downturn in domestic tourism elsewhere. In 2008–09 a record 203,000 people passed through the doors of the city’s Visitor Information Centre. The rain has helped keep the industry vibrant since, and figures from small tourist attractions indicate it remains buoyant.

Swept up by the positive mood, Esther joined family and friends to buy and reopen an iconic Broken Hill establishment known from the 1970s as Mario’s Palace. It was built in 1889 during Broken Hill’s earliest boom period when the town produced one-third of the world’s silver.

Today it’s best known for its eccentrically flamboyant interior design with walls covered in renaissance-style images: notably, a second-floor ceiling interpretation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus that featured in the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The hotel is rumoured to have a direct underground connection with tunnels worked by miners on the line of lode during the late 1800s. It’s not surprising early miners may have sneaked across to the Palace during shifts to make their working life a little more tolerable. Without air-conditioning, ventilation and other technologies that make modern underground mines less hostile, early miners faced a dirty, sweaty, rat-infested 12 hours in candlelight hundreds of metres underground.

Locals commitment to Broken Hills lives on

When severe dust storms hit Broken Hill late in 2009, Kym and John Cramp watched cattle and sheep, exhausted after 10 years of drought, simply lay down and die.

Kym and John each go back three generations in the area, but moved eastwards for a while before returning five years ago to buy historic Mount Gipps station, on the desert’s edge, 40 km north of Broken Hill. The property is 35,000 ha of semi-arid country that was once part of the original Mount Gipps station, on which Broken Hill’s line of lode was first found.

The couple didn’t want to farm merinos – too much hard work for very little profit – so they’re running two South African breeds, dorpers and damaras, more suited to the region’s climate and vegetation, for the fat lamb market. And they thought the property’s historic and scenic values would provide the opportunity to diversify into tourism and open up the property for farm stays.

The multi-pronged approach is working. “People said to us, ‘Why the hell would you want to go back there’,” says Kym. “We know it’s often all rocks and scraggy vegetation but look at it now – it’s lush and beautiful. It will go back to how it was but we also know it can return to this. We love it.”