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Published: July 27th 2009
is not exactly watching...
Even the name evokes how the Outback can impact the psyche. Arrival in Broken Hill makes me grateful that I paid attention back in tenth grade chemistry class. The next oasis west of Wilcannia, it is a vibrant, eye-pleasing, if isolated community dependent on the price of the ore extracted from the nearby mines. The area is rich with elements, compounds, and minerals. By the time I pulled over next to the police station on Argent (Latin for silver) Street, I had already passed street signs for crossroads such as Iodide, Oxide, and Chloride. I checked into the Black Lion, one block below Argent on Bromide Street and two blocks above Cobalt. Mendeleev would have loved this place.
Mining has shaped Broken Hill since the first Europeans staked their claim in the 1860’s. As with the natives of the Caribbean islands in the time of Columbus, the Aborigines were unintentionally eradicated in large numbers by disease they did not understand or and against which they could not defend themselves. By 1883, immense deposits of zinc were confirmed in the area and later on valuable veins of silver. Broken Hill mushroomed into a boomtown of 20,000 a few years later. Ironically enough,
Gladly, he did not use me as a chew toy...
this is where the population hovers today, having survived labor unrest, nasty working conditions, and perceived neglect from the State government in Sydney. A rail spur branches north to Silverton, which has already seen the complete cycle of its birth, heyday, and rapid decline to a tourist ghost town. Through it all Broken Hill has supplied Australia with valuable raw materials and has persevered in one of the most inhospitable parcels of land on the planet.
“It’s a different town”, instructs Des. Though actually from a Murray River hamlet in South Australia, he has lived in Broken Hill for six years and operates the quirky Pig ‘n Whistle, a family inn, down the street. The fifty-year-old or so continued fully aware I was writing down what he was saying while at the bar. “It’s a magnet. If born here, they don’t leave. If they leave, most come back. Anyone is welcome to give it a shot in Broken Hill. They’ll put up with you until you do something wrong.”
“And if you do?”
“Get out of town. Quickly.” The seriousness in his voice brought me back to the same approach from the Cajuns of Southwestern Louisiana.
“So, Des, how
If people could live as well as pooches...
many people live in Broken Hill?”
He scanned the gambling parlor for some help. Someone in the back called out, “About 19,000!”
“Not too long ago, it was two thousand higher.”
“The global price of zinc dropped. Six hundred were made redundant”, or let go. “Their families followed along with a few others.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. By the way, what are you doing here in Broken Hill anyway?”
“It isn’t Sydney. I needed to get out of Sydney.” Then it struck me: Broken Hill is a bumpkin town flirting with gentrification.
Des scowled at the mention of the state capital, as does everyone else around here. “You’ve done good coming here. What do you want to do or see?”
“How about Silverton?”
“I can take you there.”
“Some footy possible?”, an allusion to Australian Rules football.
“Yep, we can do that, too.”
“Oh, you’re going to find this silly, but…”
I lowered my voice and leaned into him, “I have driven over seven hundred miles from Sydney and have not seen a single kangaroo.”
“That’s not possible.”
“No, really. All I hear on the radio is one motorist warning after another to slow
down because they’re all over the place. And-”
“We saw a whole bunch of them last night. We see them every day here. Me and the missus”, he pointed to Wendy in feeding smaller coins in a slot machine, “talk about them all the time.”
“I am beginning to think this is a conspiracy.” The rest of the patrons were focused on our chat, some fixed on the foreign accent, others baffled that one week in and still no sightings of the nation’s internationally acclaimed mascot.
“What’s the closest you’ve come to seeing one?”
“Medium rare with a side of mashed potatoes and steamed carrots. Rather tasty in fact. I’d actually like to see them hopping around. If I go back to the States without running into one, no one will believe me.”
“Be careful, you do not want to hit one of those with your car!”
“Yeah, I can imagine.” When home, it’s prudent to drive slowly at night on back roads for fear of deer. “They can do damage to a bumper?”
“Bumper??!?” cried Des. “They’ll come right through your windscreen. Horrible stuff, mate.”
“C’mon, let me show you around.” He is proud to show me around
Downtown Broken Hill...
his property, the small inn and bar. It is delightful with indoor outdoor sitting areas, knickknacks suspended from the ceiling, a pool table, and a back garden with summer fire pit and a bar where to belly up. Des’ light tan Great Dane is fortunately as friendly as it is colossal. It doesn’t bark, guaranteeing I do not involuntarily send discharge into my pants. If without a vehicle, I could throw a saddle over its back and ride it around town for a few days. The dog house possesses better amenities than those I had at my disposal in Cobar. Committed to the Black Lion, there would be nothing wrong if I made the switch down the block. Des is not offended that I have not changed my mind.
Des drives a four-wheel drive Nissan Patrol. Drag it across the Pacific to the States and its equivalent would probably be a Pathfinder. A left here and right there and we were bound north for twenty-five kilometers to Silverton. “We’ll get some good tucker in Silverton.”
“Oh, great.” I waited for him to elaborate, too proud to ask what ‘tucker’ meant.
“Yep, nice place for lunch.” Note to self: Tucker =
It has seen its better days...
A kilometer or two out of town, I pretend not to see the sign for camel rides in the Outback. Off to the right in a dusty paddock, a family has just returned from an excursion. Behind the farm is a small aviary in Penrose Park, which back in the seventies must have been a marvelous retreat. But for the cockatoos and other exotic caged birds, there is little here but reminders of what used to be. No net connects two cement stakes on the cracked tennis court. The boundary lines, like Silverton, have long since faded. The playscape hasn’t seen paint in maybe a decade. I walk down to two columns of thick trunked gumleaf trees that direct the flow of a river; the bed is dry most of the year. When I descend to the sandy bottom of the empty trough, my feet sink slightly in the moist earth. Water is nearby or fell not too long ago. Determining where the stream flows in the wet season is effortless; you just have to follow the curvy alignment of the trees that form the river bank.
Back at the aviary Des was teasing one of the tropical birds
All dressed up for the show...
into mimicking verbal sounds for my entertainment by swerving his finger in front of its beak at the side of the cage. It aggressively snapped at Des’ digit, but he withdrew it in time. The sharp beak only made contact with the sturdy wire. Though curious, I was torn. I’d like to hear it sing. On the other hand if I were the bird, I wouldn’t appreciate the harassment without the fair chance to strike back. With another bird, he made it bob and rock to the motion of his palm much to the enjoyment of two young children.
It is easy to reason that Silverton’s permanent population varies according to the influx of visitors it receives. It can’t be more than a few dozen. Now a living movie set, most famously known for being the backdrop of the second Mad Max film, Des found a slot to pull the Nissan right in front of the iconic Silverton Hotel. Inside is a cornucopia of trinkets and cheeky expressions typical and appropriate for an establishment in such a removed setting. There is a Fart Free area fittingly by the fireplace. Handwritten in cardboard-like drywall from a ceiling panel, “A financial genius
A nice souvenir to take home...
is a man who can make money faster than his wife can spend it.” On the far side of the bar above the taps, “Where there’s a will, there’s relatives.” The offbeat humor goes on. Older tourists from Victoria and Queensland are the primary imbibers at the bar. When finished, their wives drive back to Broken Hill. Australians are the most prolific travelers in the world. As they advance in years, they do not stop traveling. They just change destinations to discover the hidden secrets of an intimidating continent they do not have to share with any bordering neighbor.
Des took another schooner (a glass of beer at two thirds of one pint) I left for him on the Hotel bar and carried on with a chat with a few locals from Broken Hill. I stepped outside into another world, but one I may have discovered a few years back in Terlingua, Texas, in Big Bend country. Oxidized rabbit traps hang from the beige walls of oblong stone held together by cement mortar. An old church stands alone, its red shutters protect the windows from being shattered. Its front yard is a mix of sand, pebbles, and thirsty tumbleweed. A
Showing off some new footwear...
few hundred yards away is an art gallery with paintings and photos of the same surroundings. Steel windmills spin hurriedly next to a sentinel of a home on the edge of Silverton’s cleared land. Beams of sun glisten and bounce off the green roof. When not angry, the wind whistles in Silverton. It tosses the reddened crunchy earth. When agitated, it howls and rips at whatever it comes in contact with. In the cold and the low angle of the late afternoon winter sun, it seems fiercer.
“I think so.” Des started up the Nissan and we headed back to Broken Hill.
“What did you think?”
“Just fine, but…”
I couldn’t hide my disappointment or frustration over the deprivation of the simplest of Australian expectations. “No kangaroos.”
Broken Hill grows on its guests over the time. It’s big enough for me to go off and do my thing, but eventually crossing paths with familiar faces becomes inevitable. They are welcoming ones that cast smiles pleased that I’m still in town and inquiring if I am interested in staying through the weekend. I wouldn’t want to miss out when Broken Hill unwinds after a long week
Black Lion Inn
Drive up liquor distribution...
Thursday night was a preview of the town’s social culture. Ever since I checked into the Black Lion, patrons have been asking who has tickets to the show at the Entertainment Centre. Who’s going? Will you be there? Did she say yes? Eavesdropping on the questioning at the Black Lion between shopkeepers and office workers keeps me guessing. Conversation is often relayed between patrons by staff through the breezeway that connects the bar and the drive-thru pick up window. Is the orchestra in town? Andrea Boccelli is to sing an aria or two? Savage Garden is making a comeback? No, none of the above. The chatter was all about who would be dressing up for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In order to be in time for the start at eight, regulars filed in to compare outfits about an hour earlier. It seems only the bar staff, local drunks, and I miss out on the ticket allocation. Helen, a bartender with the day off, has put much effort into her outfit. Her face was a deathly pale white, which framed her glossy red lips. The artificial eyelashes pasted to her lids extend out and up almost to her
North vs. South in Broken Hill...
eyebrows. She has affixed a white doily-like tiara above her jet black hair with reddish highlights. Fish net leggings climb her legs way up past mid thigh. To complete the costume there was a black top and short skirt of the same color and in her hand she held a hot pink feather duster. Magenta the Maid has never looked so good.
“Richie, come get a picture with me!” She looked so fantastic I did not connect her with the young woman who was working here yesterday. I wanted to tell her to dress up like Magenta everyday and forget the drab ordinary way she shows up to work, but I refrained. Somehow that might get misconstrued. I snapped a few of her and another Magenta who did not quite match up to Helen.
“Where’s Phil?” someone wondered aloud. I had already spent more than one session with him at the Black Lion over beverages until his girlfriend yanked him out the door. We hit it off, not just because what we do in real life, rather he also is a history buff and is eager to learn about trivial Americana and other useless information. No one knew of his
A future NFL punter?
whereabouts. His job as a counselor for troubled teens ended hours before. I was not around for his appearance in full garb, but was later told he showed up dressed up as Elvis with a plumy boa around his neck. As one of only a few who went to the show in costume, he was coerced to go on stage for a makeshift contest to see who went best dressed. It was just another night out for Broken Hill in the Australian Outback.
His father being a Methodist minister, Phil delivers a great amount of banter at the Black Lion. He arrives after a day working with troubled teens in a jacket and tie, perhaps the only one so formally dressed. Many pubs in Australia follow the British model. They are divided between the bar and lounge. The lounge is slightly more upscale, may have carpeting and even a pool table or two. Its overshadowed sibling is less spiffy, possibly with less lighting. At the Black Lion, the gambling machines are in the pub. The lounge is for guests and going out; the pub is for regulars to share and commiserate over their day, only to do it all over
What you see is what you get...
again tomorrow. Almost forty, Phil is more at ease bellying up as opposed to being waited on in the lounge. It suits him. With a quick wit and gift for incisive vocabulary, it makes him instantly appealing. Confused after stumbling in the direction of the men’s room, he declares, “Wow! This floor is deceptively flat over here.” When speaking of his father, though nowhere near as pious, the full-sized Broken Hill native occasionally repeats, “I am religious as well. I come here religiously!” His humor is simple, even childish, mirroring his fun-loving attitude. Concerning the pretty bar staff and in deference to his girlfriend, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite as long as you eat at home.” When his cell phone rings, it plays a soothing version of Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man. How could you not like this guy?
On Friday afternoon, he showed up to show off a pair of fluffy pale blue and yellow slippers he wore for Stress Down Day, as it is known in Broken Hill. To confirm this, a lapel pin with the same expression is pinned to his jacket as a reminder to all that he does not take things, or himself, too seriously.
If anyone can keep him in line, it is not his girlfriend. Rather it’s Elaine. The short-haired, stocky, and sassy forty-nine year old is not the axis on which the establishment turns in order to survive, but she provides the grease. She is bartender, judge, jury, executioner, and nurturer all in one. Behind the rough exterior in the well worn embroidered rugby style shirt is a woman whose heart is not of gold, rather silver and zinc. Nothing or no one would be more appropriate for Broken Hill. She rips Phil’s bottle of Cooper ale open and as the caps bounces on the floor shouts at him, “Here’s your last beer! Enjoy it and bugger off!” She escapes through the back breezeway to replenish a supply of bottles.
Phil reacts by taking his first sip and remaining silent. “Hey, man” I leaned into him, “is she always like that?”
“Yep, and that’s when she’s in a good mood. Actually, she is quite harmless.”
“And she always treats you that way?”
“Pretty much. It reminds me that I am accepted here.” The video poker and slot machines carry on with their beeps and jingles in the background as if a child were indiscriminately pounding the bars of a xylophone.
Two scruffy men in trousers stained by streaks of white interior paint chatted to our left. Both Phil and I caught word of one mentioning his precarious ride home earlier in the morning. “So help me, that ‘roo just about took out my left side!”
I immediately dismissed the men to my left and turned to Phil. “Did you tell them to say that, those two?”
“Those two guys”, I repeated sternly, “next to us talking about the near miss this morning on the road.”
“I don’t know them. Why?”
“Their topic of conversation.”
“What about it?”
A sharp squeal came for the poker machines behind us. She needed to get her two cents in. “There was one going through my rubbish bin this morning on Chloride Street.”
“Not possible”, I whispered to Phil.
“It’s all a conspiracy. It’s a setup; all of you are in on it.” As if paranoid, I cupped my right hand to his ear and whispered, “There are no kangaroos in Australia.” Phil scrunched his eyebrows and did not utter a word. In response, he took another sip from his beer and tried to ignore me.
“Richard, love, I need you over here please.” I knew I had done nothing wrong, but still felt I was about to be scolded for leaving the toilet seat up. I approached Elaine apprehensively and braced for some verbal lashing, which actually never came.
“What’s going on?”
“Well, last night after you went upstairs, all the blokes started talking about you.”
“Uh oh. Anything good?”
“Fine, fine. But the blokes and I were kind of wondering what you’re doing here. Why here? Why Broken Hill?” No one came forward to ask you personally, so I was appointed.” I had become the target of a Black Lion internal investigation. All the regulars were sure that Elaine could extract out information from novice victims with her soft, caring, and tender interrogation techniques. “So, let’s go! Spit it out! I don’t have all day!!!”
“I came to Broken Hill because”, I paused, “let’s put it this way: How often do Americans come prancing through that door?”
“Now that you’re here, too often.” Good line. She has quite a stockpile of them.
“I didn’t want to come to the lost corner of the earth and only have a bridge and opera house as my primary memories. Broken Hill is different. I am treated well here. You’d be surprised how visitors want to stick around when they’re enjoying themselves. It may be isolated here, but you folks have everything working rather well. I want to learn more. Also, let’s be honest, I’m not going to get the chance to pop by again anytime soon.”
She processed my answer and it met with her approval. “Good. So what else do you want to know?”
“Well, there is one thing. Do you know where there might be a football match this weekend?”
“Yeah. Hey, Marty!” she screamed to the back supply room. “Which oval has got the footy on Saturday?”
Marty supplied the information and the date and time were set. He was manning the cash register at the drive thru for the Black Lion’s other business. In addition to the bar and lounge, it is also possible to drive up, similar to entering an automatic carwash. Only here the walls are not adorned with brushes and hoses dispensing detergent. Rather, customers can pick and choose from a wide variety of spirits, wines, six-packs, beers, and accessorize with snacks and cigarettes. Marty takes the order and fills it by either handing the package to the driver or loading the trunk (excuse me…the boot) of the car. It’s quick, easy, convenient, and an absolute impossibility in the States. I put my shoulder next to Marty’s as he was dropping some of those heavy and lethal fifty-cent coins into the cash register. “This would never go over where I live, man.” I spun around in a complete three sixty.”
“It’s the whole premise. Think about it. Here it is perfectly legal to hand liquor and beer to the driver while he is operating the vehicle. And then he can just drive off.”
“That just wouldn’t pass our smell test.”
“So you have no pick ups like these?”
“Sure we do”…for toothpaste and Pepsi, not for Johnny Walker Red and a liter of Bacardi. “No way.” At that very moment, someone pulled up in an SUV to buy a case of Victoria Bitter. “Where’s the party?” I asked the youthful looking driver. The window was out down halfway.
“Nah, mate.” Just takin’ this for the home supply.”
Phil never made it to the Jubilee Oval and never returned any of the messages I left him. I wandered around the covered and mostly empty grandstand for a seat, ideally next to someone who came across as friendly enough to willingly be subjected to my battery of questions that was sure to come. On this continent, football is not played on a pitch, ground, or field. Footy, as it is known, takes place on a mammoth oval of natural grass. Though each oval is slightly different in size, four goalposts rise at each end, about one hundred sixty yards apart. The uncommon number of eighteen players a side is necessary to cover such lengths. Players can advance the ball in continuous play by either punching it to a teammate or kicking it to one another. In order to score the ball must be kicked between the two taller posts for six points, one point if it passes through the taller and shorter. The opposition can intercept passes or bring down a player in possession of the ball by tackling, shoving, or downright assaulting him. To the unschooled eye, it is an organized sport disguised as glorified “Kill the Man with the Ball”. Near each bench, a team of paramedics stands by with a stretcher ready. Five minutes after settling in to a seat in the grandstand, the folks in fluorescent yellow coats hoisted one center forward off to the side. I have witnessed only one team sport with more gratuitous and absurdly violent contact than Australian Rules. In Ireland, young men play hurling, similar in concept to football here. In the Irish case, players swing a heavy wooden club up and down the field in order to knock a ball through goalposts. In any event, orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists must rejoice at the influx of business both games send them.
Broken Hill’s neighborhoods are divided into North, South, Central, and West. Its four football teams are named accordingly. When two of them face off, it intensifies already engrained rivalries. Today South (in fire engine red) is playing at North’s (in ocean blue) oval, Jubilee. Players on each side are members of the club, which serves as a social society as much as it supports athletic competition.
“Have a seat over here. It’s chilly on the bench without the blanket.” We were along one of the boundary lines of play. I did not pay much attention to the surface where I was sitting after having come down from the grandstand, which offered me a view to see if Phil might be among the few hundred or so spectators.
“Thanks” was all I could muster in accepting his offer. I had questions, lots of them. He wanted someone to talk to. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I sat next to him and opened up, “So, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” My accent and the simplicity of my inquiry made it clear he’d have to start form step one.
“That’s my club right there”, he pointed out to the two lines of men in red short-sleeve uniform tops and shorts warming up. “South. We’re Broken Hill South, mate”, he said with much pride. Nearly sixty, he was raised in Broken Hill and has been retired from the mines for ten years. He reminded me of what Des had said: “They never leave and if they do they come back.”
“We’ve got a good side this year, a bunch of good lads.” Ron is as proud of the club of which he is a member as he is of Broken Hill. For him, they are one and the same. He is a lifetime member on account of services rendered to the organization.
The powerful horn sounded to end the first twenty-five minute quarter. Ron stood up to stretch and opened the gate to join the huddle as the manager barked out words of correction and encouragement. Four steps onto the trampled dry grass, he turned around at me, still seated. “Well, come on now, you can come see what it’s all about.” Not only did he bring me into the closed circle of the team huddle, but he also invited me into the locker room to take photographs and record the manager’s halftime pep talk. Given how fast he rambled on, the dialect, and terminology, he may as well have been talking about a NASA program for manned flight to Mars. For the second half, Des joined us, having waited for four guests to arrive at his place.
“They show up yet?”
“No.” He was unusually quiet. His eyes were focused on the boys punting, punching, and tackling. The rest of his attention was dedicated to the hand held AFL transistor radio, tuned into a cliffhanger of a match between Carlton and Collingwood which was ultimately decided by one point. For the rest of the match in Broken Hill, we remained rather quiet and did not discuss the source of our silence. Nearing four in the afternoon, we concentrated on pretending that we weren’t cold. The collars of our jackets were pulled up over our necks and the muscles in our shoulders were constricted upwards to keep warm. We exchanged few words. Ron sincerely asked, “Any problems, you know, setbacks since you’ve been in Australia?” His country accent was so thick I should have recorded the audio of his voice. The ‘l’ in the country name is totally silent.
“Yes, let me tell you! I have been here over a week and I have not seen-” You can figure out the rest. Besides that, I could not register many complaints. Ron grimaced at my ailment, marsupial deprivation.
“Rich, just go on the Adelaide road and they’re everywhere!”
“I’ve heard it all before. It’s a hoax.”
South smacked North around for most of the game, doubling their output and reaching the century mark in points. Both sides left the oval soiled, hobbling, and sore. I was sore just watching them. “So Rich,” the rotund pensioner declared, “say I come around the Black Lion in about thirty minutes and come get you? I’ll bring you around to the club and introduce you to the blokes. The lads have a ball tonight at the Entertainment Centre, but it’ll be a good time.”
I couldn’t say no. Such invitations are why I came to Broken Hill to begin with. I went straight back to my spartan but orderly room for a hot shower, not for hygienic purposes but to raise my core body temperature. I let the gushing water from the aged shower head scald my back and calves, ensuring the superficial burn would give off heat for a while longer. A rapid change of clothes and Ron showed up. One of the Black Lion staff came up to announce him. A quick greeting and he led me to his bedraggled but utilitarian car. As our seat belts clicked into place, he turned to me and made himself sternly clear, “Enough of this bloody nonsense. We’re going for a ride.” What nonsense is he talking about?
We rode out past the Junction Hotel then zoomed by the Jubilee Oval once more. A few kilometers out of town, we reached the Broken Hill Country Club. It was dusk and the chill was seeping through the cracks in the windows. The clubhouse had already been shut. The parking lot was empty. The sun had already sunk below ashen, threatening clouds. Ron pulled the car over and we sat there along the eighteenth fairway in an uneasy quiet. He broke it. “Look on the grass. There are a good number of ‘em out tonight.”
Could it be? My eyes caught the first one, grey and stooped forward grazing on the thread-like grass. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I cracked a smile from one earlobe to the other. I instantly regressed to a four-year-old; only the seat belt restrained me from going through the roof. Its dark coat was camouflaged by the twilight. It stood up and assumed the classic pose emblazoned on t-shirts, coats of arms, and coinage. I got out of the car in bewilderment. Up the fairway and…there was another…and another! I stopped counting after a dozen or so. The cynic in me still was not convinced. Maybe Ron planted them there, like front yard ornaments, and these were programmed to jerk and twitch for my amusement. I yelled out and I startled a few. Three hopped off into the bush. I jumped up and down in pure juvenile intoxication. After nearly two weeks, I was officially part of the Southern Continent. I could now go on with my trip with that cumbersome monkey, or kangaroo, off my back.
“Now, Rich! Happy now? Now get in the bloody car!” The trip to the golf course had been a nuisance for Ron. “Off to the club we go!”
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