It’s a place of extremes – think furnace-like summer temperatures and near-zero winter nights – but what never changes year-round in the Silver City is its warm heart. So, go ahead, turn back the clock (to Central Time) and meet some of the characters that make this arty, open-minded and tough mining town so memorable.
Main image: The sun sets over sculptures in The Living Desert and Sculptures attraction, Broken Hill. Images: istock, Destination NSW
Forget foreign lands. Venture to Broken Hill in far west NSW and the architecture, landscape and linguistics will make you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere quite unlike the rest of Australia. Cruise past the corrugated-iron miners’ shacks – or tinnies – that line many residential streets (the most rudimentary shack can be snapped up for less than $50,000) before heading up to the Line of Lode, a gigantic mullock heap that divides Broken Hill from South Broken Hill. Crowning the heap is an angular memorial to the 900 miners who have died here on the job; a lookout also grants a panoramic view over the Silver City and semi-arid surrounds. Descend into the town centre to discover other architectural highlights such as the ornate Victorian-era Trades Hall – a reminder that Broken Hill is the birthplace of Australian unions – and the imposing façade of the old Town Hall.
As for learning more about the locals, take a conversational short-cut by asking if they’re an A-grouper (born and bred in Broken Hill). The classification once helped determine which mining employees to lay off first in lean times. Today, it’s anachronistic but will always get a response. They might say they’re a B-grouper (been here a long time) or C-grouper (from “away”) before filling you in on their life story.
The Silly Goat is serious about good food, dishing up the best brekky, brunch and lunch in town. People-watch from a perch at the window or grab an indoor or courtyard table while tucking into spring pavlova waffle, shawarma cauliflower with beetroot hummus, smashed avo or a veggie bowl. The café’s artisan sourdough hails from the hole-in-the-wall Sufi Bakery three blocks away (which also sells danishes and other pastries).
For dinner, swan into the glamorous dining room at the Royal Exchange, an Art Deco beauty on Argent Street, or head to the neon-lit ibis Styles hotel, home to S-Que Restaurant, to feast on South Australian oysters, eye filet mignon, rack of lamb or a whole roasted pork knuckle.
Broken Hill’s greatest home-grown snacks are the legendary McLeod’s pasties, with their slightly peppery filling, and the crinkle-cut seasoned chips from Rag’s (Ragenovich Brothers Chickens on Oxide Street). On South Broken Hill’s main street, Bells Milk Bar channels the 1950s with its chic vintage stylings and a drinks menu that includes old-fashioned soda spiders and malted milkshakes. Need something harder? At the Palace Hotel, where you can catch drag karaoke on Wednesday nights, ask for a G&T made with the in-house pink gin.
Broken Hill’s artistic reputation dates from the 1970s when the Brushmen of the Bush rose to prominence. Among them was Pro Hart – his eponymous gallery also highlights his inventions and eye-catching car collection. Hart left his mark all over Broken Hill. See his Big Ant sculpture, an ode to hard-working miners, at the corner of Beryl and Bromide streets.
More sculpture is to be had at one of Broken Hill’s most popular attractions – the Living Desert Reserve 12km north of town. Admire the dozen striking sandstone sculptures at sunset (remember to BYO bottle and glasses to toast the blazing display).
Broken Hill’s Regional Art Gallery, housed in an atmospheric former emporium, displays work from its own collection – such as paintings by the Brushmen and more contemporary work – as well as temporary and touring exhibitions. Among its collection is a painting that’s provoked two attacks over the years.
History buffs can find two sites that commemorate the 1915 Battle of Broken Hill when two Turkish sympathisers shot at picnickers on a train – the only hostilities on Australian soil during World War I. An open wagon stands near the attack site and a replica ice-cream cart, used by the attackers, marks the white-quartz outcrop where they tried to take refuge.
Broken Hill’s most luxe accommodation is in a surprise location. South Broken Hill is a time capsule, with a main street that’s home to Bells Milk Bar and other nostalgic shopfronts (Alma Cordials, Rudolph Alagich’s Menswear and Hire Service and more). A 1911 Romanesque church, also on the main drag of Patton Street, is striking enough on the outside but what’s inside is jaw-dropping. A stunning restoration – think pressed-metal ceilings, cool marble floors and a double-height interior, all in dazzling white – could make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven when you check in to Broken Hill Outback Church Stay.
Broken Hill’s main thoroughfare, Argent Street, is dotted with grand historic pubs that also offer accommodation. Try to nab the popular Priscilla Suite at the Palace Hotel (home to neck-craning murals and where some of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed) or take a room within the Royal Exchange.
Just out of town are two more unusual options. Outback Astronomy offers one glamping tent that you can fall into after a night of stargazing at one of the Sky Shows. A little further along the Barrier Highway is Broken Hill Outback Resort, built around the historic Mt Gipps pub. The resort is popular with the road-tripping crowd but also offers luxury spa cabins if roughing it isn’t your style.
Once in Broken Hill, it’s de rigueur to travel a further 24km north-west to the photogenic ghost town of Silverton – better known as the Hollywood of the Outback. Catch the cinematic sweep of landscape that’s long attracted filmmakers and photographers from Mundi Mundi Lookout just out of town. Keep an eye out for the four resident donkeys that cruise the streets as you head to the Silverton Hotel for lunch. Afterwards, pop up the hill to browse through the Mad Max 2 Museum. This homage to the 1981 post-apocalyptic movie filmed in the area is run by road warrior fanatic, Yorkshireman Adrian Bennett.
Another larger-than-life Silverton character is artist John Dynon. Known as the Emu Man for his caricatures of the big birds that roam this region, he paints in a variety of styles within his colourful tin studio. The affable one-time miner is full of tales, including a few ghost stories that explain why he and his wife swapped their Silverton address for one in Broken Hill.
Mutawintji National Park can be visited in a day but keep in mind that half of the 120km trip out there is on bone-rattling dirt – and it’s on NSW time, not Central Time like Broken Hill (important if you’re aiming for the cultural tour showcasing rock art and engravings).