If you’re up for a bit of poetic exaggeration, Broken Hill feels like it’s a million miles from anywhere.
Situated in the far west of outback New South Wales, and often referred to as the ‘city in the desert’, Broken Hill actually lies just over 1,100 kilometres from the state’s capital Sydney, 500 kilometres from Adelaide, and 800 kilometres from Melbourne. But you get the idea — it’s remote.
Broken Hill was founded in the 1880s and is best known for its mining heritage, which began with the unearthing of one of the world’s largest ore seams of silver, lead and zinc (known as the Line of Lode). It earned the far flung outpost another of its nicknames: ‘The Silver City’, and has been continuously mined for the past 130 years. The seam’s discovery led to the formation of Broken Hill Proprietary — now known as BHP — one of Australia’s most iconic companies and the largest mining conglomerate in the world.
In 2015 Broken Hill was the first Australian city to be added — in its entirety — to the National Heritage List, and as you walk along the wide streets you’ll be in awe of the many stunning period buildings. The city is also, understandably, a trove of mining history. In recent decades, the arid setting has provided a backdrop for many Australian and international movies (earning the locality yet another famous moniker: ‘Hollywood of the Outback’). It all adds up to a must-visit Aussie destination, and one with a unique charm.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Broken Hill.
Start your stay with a cracker of a coffee and by soaking in some spectacular views over the city and its surrounds. Broken Earth Café is situated at the Lookout and Line of Load Miners Memorial, which sits on top of the vast mullock heap (formed by scraps of mining rock) that cuts the city in two. The outdoor memorial salutes over 800 miners who lost their lives while working on the Line of Lode in Broken Hill.
Australia loves its ‘bigs’ and before leaving the site, check out Broken Hill’s ‘Big Bench’ — a reasonably modest 2.5 times the size of a normal park bench.
Next, it’s time to grab the camera, don some comfortable shoes and do a self-guided walking tour around the well sign-posted streets of the city centre. Start by picking up a map at the excellent Broken Hill Visitor Information Centre, then head off to enjoy the visual feast of grand boom-era buildings. Take some time out en route to visit the historic Trades Hall. It houses a fascinating collection of memorabilia — and make sure you look up and marvel at its soaring ceiling. The Trades Hall has played a significant role in the development of trade unionism in Australia. History was made here in the 1920s when miners forced the mine owners to offer better wages and safety for all. If only these walls could speak; there were probably plenty of choice words exchanged at the time.
As you’re passing the Broken Hill Council Chambers, say hello to the bronze busts of the ‘Syndicate of Seven’. These are the men who founded Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP).
You don’t have to be a train enthusiast to enjoy the Sulphide Street Railway and Historical Museum. This building is the original Broken Hill railway station and dates back to 1905. Be prepared to spend a bit of time here as it also houses several other historical collections, including the Hospital Museum and the Broken Hill Migrant Heritage Museum.
Also pay a visit to the Bruce Langford Visitor Centre, which is a working Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) base. Take a guided tour of the facility and learn more about this iconic outback lifeline. View aircraft in the hangar and enjoy a short film explaining the operations of the RFDS since it began flying from Broken Hill in 1936.
A visit to this gem is like stepping straight onto the set of the movie Grease. Originally a candy store which opened in 1892, during the 1950s Bells was transformed into an American-style diner. It’s sure to excite everyone’s taste buds with a myriad of milkshake and soda spider flavours on offer.
The beauty of this rugged outback town can be interpreted in so many different ways, and that certainly shows in its thriving art scene — and the number of art galleries around town. Broken Hill was home to the famous ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ in the 1970s and 80s — Jack Absalom, Pro Hart, Hugh Schulz, John Pickup and Eric Minchin — and these five artists’ love of painting the Australian outback found them exhibiting their artwork as a group worldwide, while raising money for many charities (notably the RFDS). The late Kevin ‘Pro’ Hart’s quirky and humorous work is displayed throughout the city, and the Pro Hart and Jack Absalom galleries are just two of the many that are well worth a visit.
Broken Hill Art Gallery opened its doors in 1904 and is the oldest regional gallery in New South Wales. The art displayed here is breathtakingly beautiful and ranges from works from days gone by, to cutting-edge contemporary pieces.
Broken Hill’s Palace Hotel famously featured in the iconic Aussie movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the interior has to be seen to be believed. The first thing you’ll notice is the very large stiletto that stands proudly in the foyer. Then feast your eyes on the epic murals that cover most of the walls, before enjoying a drink or meal and the entertaining vibe of this grand old hotel.
If you happen to be in town in early September, join in the fun of the very popular LGBTI Broken Heel Festival.
OK, who doesn’t love silver and chocolate? Combine them both by dropping by the Silver City Mint and Art Centre in the heart of the city. This is a little treasure trove with something different to discover around each corner. Shop for unique silver jewellery and indulge yourself in the wonderful selection of locally made chocolates. Here you can also consider The Big Picture (literally) — a 100-metre-long acrylic canvas painting, which is said to be the largest in the world by a single artist.
Everyone loves a good market and the Broken Hill Community Markets are held on the second Saturday of the month from March to November. Take home some Broken Hill gourmet Australian olive oil or a selection of local jams, sauces or chutneys made from the desert quandong or native peach.
For sweet and savoury baked goodies, you can’t go past the Sufi Bakery (the almond croissants are seriously amazing!). Check out the large mural on the side of the building (shared with the Islamic Study Centre), which pays homage to Indigenous Australians, Afghan cameleers, and The Ghan — the transcontinental passenger train that operates between Adelaide and Darwin. The mural was created in early 2017 by Australian graffiti artist Damien Mitchell.
About 20 kilometres north of Broken Hill, along the road to Silverton, you’ll find the historic Day Dream Mine. Take the informative guided tour and learn about the hardships faced by those who worked underground in the 1880s, some just children (as young as eight). Mind your head and hold onto the handrails as you follow your guide down three levels of quite narrow tunnels. It’s an eye-opener. On your return to the surface, savour some freshly baked scones accompanied by a cuppa in the tearoom.
Just ten kilometres further on from the mine turnoff is the very quirky town of Silverton. Set against a backdrop of the Mundi Mundi Plains, it’s renowned for having featured in many a movie blockbuster — including Mad Max 2, A Town Like Alice and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Mad Max 2 Museum, complete with some of the movie’s bizarre motoring hardware parked out the front, is a must for die-hard (pardon the pun) fans.
You can’t leave town until you’ve visited the Silverton Hotel. It’s everything you would expect from an outback Aussie pub. Oh, and watch out for the free-roaming donkeys that plod around town (especially if you happen to be eating an ice-cream!).
Most visitors to the region want to check out the Living Desert Sculptures. The best time to visit these twelve massive desert sandstone artworks is just before sunset. It’s a nine-kilometre drive from town, then a 1.5-kilometre walk (which also allows you to enjoy the John Simons Flora and Fauna Sanctuary). The works by local and international artists were unveiled in 1993. At sunset the sculptures are illuminated in warm hues as the sun disappears below the horizon. The best vantage point is at the top of the hill. If you’re lucky you may get that perfect photo of the glowing orb of the sun shining through the circle of the Aztec-inspired piece.
Cap off your stay in Broken Hill with dinner and drinks at the fabulous Mount Gipps Hotel, now known as the Broken Hill Outback Resort. Dating back to the late 1800s and located on the main drag from/to Sydney, this pub has served countless weary travellers, miners, soldiers and artists. You can just imagine them covered in red dust and enjoying a cold beer while yarning about their outback adventures and discoveries. The hotel is very popular on weekends and offers live music.
For more information, visit www.destinationbrokenhill.com.au.
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Cover image courtesy of Destination NSW. Additional images: Bigstock