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Published: July 21st 2021
I'm feeling a bit sleepless so take the opportunity to read up on the history of Broken Hill. The hills in which the town now sits were apparently impeding the progress of explorer Charles Sturt when he passed through here in 1844, so he called them the Barrier Range. He thought that one of them looked a bit "broken", hence the town’s name. There go all my theories about mining doing the breaking. It is good to note however that the hill that looked broken then looks even more so now; it's apparently been completely mined away. The town itself was established in 1883 by a Mr Charles Rasp, a German immigrant, after he discovered minerals which eventually proved to be the largest and richest silver and lead ore bodies on the entire planet. Mr Rasp and six of his associates then established the mighty Broken Hill Proprietary Company, later to become The Great Australian, BHP. BHP stopped mining here way back in 1939, but other companies were here by then, and mining continues to this day. This apparently makes Broken Hill Australia's longest lived mining town. The population was 30,000 at one stage, but this has now declined to about
17,000 due to the ore body becoming progressively depleted and mining processes more automated.
We're in New South Wales, but were perhaps a bit surprised when we arrived here to find that the town seems to be on South Australian time. We turn on the news. It's being broadcast from Adelaide, and the only non South Australian town that features in the weather forecast is Broken Hill. Hmmm. If those crafty Crow Eaters (South Australians) from across the border are planning an invasion I hope they at least wait until we're safely out of the way.
Issy wants a day off so I head off on my own to the Historic Daydream Mine which is about twenty kilometres north west of town. Along the way I pass the hall of the Third Broken Hill Sea Scouts. Huh? I'm fairly sure we're the best part of a thousand kilometres inland, so these guys (along presumably with their mates from the First and Second Broken Hill Sea Scouts) will be in for a long walk when they inevitably need to get to a beach to test out their skills.
The engineer in me can't help but notice that there
don't seem to be a lot of underground stormwater drains in Broken Hill. I'm sure it must rain at least occasionally, but it seems they cater for this just by putting cavernous dips in the roads. This does make driving feel a bit like you're on a rollercoaster, particularly when you go through one that you weren’t expecting. You get a bit more warning outside of town, and good to see that the local comedians have been putting their talents to good use - words such as “French Onion” and “Guacamole” have been sprayed above "Dip" on most of the signs.
I join a tour of the mine with guide Rob. He tells us that Daydream was the first mine established in the area, in 1882, so pre-dated BHP. The ore body here was rich in silver. It wasn't however very big, so although the population swelled to four or five hundred at one stage, the ore had virtually all gone by 1888, and the site was then completely abandoned. Rob is an ex hard rock miner, but he sounds like he’d rather stick pins in his eyes than ever do it again. He says he went down a
coal mine once and that was even worse. He tells us that conditions here in the 1880s were diabolical. The miners worked six days a week. They all lived on site and there were no facilities at all such as churches or a hospital. There wasn't a lot to do on their one day off, Sunday, so most of them then spent it getting drunk, stoned and fighting with each other. It sounds like they were treated like royalty compared to any horses that were unlucky enough to have wandered into the vicinity. They were turned upside down, their legs tied together, and they were then lowered down the pit in a lift and forced to cart trolleys around underground. The miners spent most of their time underground breathing in toxic lead dust. If that wasn't enough their food came in cans soldered shut with lead, so they had heavy metal poisoning coming at them from all angles. Perhaps unsurprisingly a lot of them died here, but no records were kept so no one knows how many.
We don hard hats with head torches and start our steep descent into the pit. The opening is tiny, and we can
only get through with a lot of crouching. The rather large lady in front of me looks like she's in real danger of getting wedged in. I hope for the sake of those in front of her that there's another way out. Rob demonstrates the mining technique that was used here, …well at least the bits not involving explosives. A crow bar was hammered into the rock, and many hours later after it had penetrated a metre or so, dynamite was shoved in the hole and the miners then took cover around the corner while they waited for it to go off.
One fairly bedraggled gentleman in our group, who looks like he's here by himself, is insisting on asking Rob a lot of detailed technical questions. The sole purpose of this appears to be to demonstrate to the rest of us that he knows everything there is to know about mining. He proudly announces that he's dug his own opal mine out at Andamooka. Unfortunately I think he's managed to notice that I'm also here by myself, and I fear I've been identified as a potential buddy. He keeps shoving rocks under my nose and insisting that I
Palace Hotel, Broken Hill
This apparently featured prominently in the movie "The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert", and they still hold drag shows here.
take pictures of them. Hmmm. He’s in real need of a shower and some deodorant, so it’s a bit hard to breathe in the claustrophobic atmosphere when he's nearby. I’m not finding it all that surprising that he's unaccompanied.
I head off towards nearby Silverton. I still haven't seen any native animals since we left home a week ago. Sheep and cows are also in short supply, despite the many fences and cattle grids, which don't then really seem then to be serving any useful purpose. I hope they haven't been put there just for the tourists. I spy a horse standing very still by itself out on the red dirt. I hope it's alive. I think it probably is; if it was dead I'm pretty sure it wouldn’t still be upright.
I read that prospectors started descending on Silverton after a farm worker claimed to have found gold here. It seems however that this was only a cunning ruse to distract his boss so that he could steal one of his horses. The real action started in 1875 when silver was discovered, and the population then swelled to as much as 3,000 by the 1890s. Most of
them deserted when the larger and richer ore bodies were discovered in Broken Hill, and apparently a lot of them took their houses with them. It's now often referred to as a ghost town, but apparently its population is still somewhere around 50. From the looks of it all that remain are a few historic buildings, a pub and a bakery..... and the Mad Max 2 Museum. I wander in for a look. Apparently the movie was filmed around here. It looks like the museum’s proprietors then grabbed every last vehicle and other souvenir from the movie set and jammed them on top of each other in a small outdoor undercover area and an even smaller shed. It's not overly clear why they haven't spread it out a bit more given the thousands of empty square kilometres all around them, but I'm sure there must be a good reason. I'm sure this place would be a mecca for genuine fans, but I'm not one of them so I'm not really finding it all that interesting.
Next stop is the town's jail and museum. The jail was built in 1889. It looks quite small, and it did apparently sometimes get
a bit overcrowded when mining here was in full swing. It seems that they sometimes ran out of room, and overflow prisoners were then just handcuffed to a nearby tree. The jail’s usefulness declined with the population and it was eventually abandoned in the 1930s. The cells have been filled with unrelated museum exhibits, and I suspect probably don’t look nearly as stark now as they did when they held prisoners. …. I assume they weren’t full of museum pieces when they held prisoners….
I continue on north west to Mundi Mundi Lookout. I get out of the car to the thunderous sound of a large swarm of bees, so quickly dive back in again to take cover. It seems however that what I'm hearing is a low flying drone being operated by the only other people here, so I get out and relax slightly. The lookout gives a good feel for how vast, empty and red it is out here.
Last stop is the Silverton Cemetery. There's a good supply of ancient graves here scattered haphazardly across the red dirt, some of them surrounded by wrought iron fences. A lot of them are of infants, young children and relatively young men, which feels very sad. It doesn't seem all that surprising that your average miner didn't manage to survive into old age given everything we've been told about the conditions they had to work in. Apparently typhoid was rife when mining was its peak, and that killed a lot of the children.
Back at our cabin we wander a short distance away into the red dirt to admire the Milky Way. We're far enough out of town to avoid too much light interference, so it looks spectacular.
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