Broken Hill, New South Wales
13 May 20 · 6 mins read
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Known variously as the ‘capital of the outback’ and the ‘silver city’, Broken Hill, on the western edge of New South Wales, is an outback Mecca, packed with history, art, and culture.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the area was inhabited by the Wiljali Aboriginal People for over 40, 000 years. The first European to pass through the Broken Hill area was the Surveyor General of New South Wales, Thomas Mitchell. He was soon followed by Charles Sturt in 1844, whose description of a ‘broken hill’ in his diaries would provide a name for the town. Sturt also named the Barrier Range, because it quite literally was a barrier to further exploration for his team. From 1860-61, the expedition of Burke and Wills passed through the area on their way to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The area slowly began to attract pastoralists, but the turning point occurred in 1883, when Charles Rasp, a boundary miner discovered what he thought were tin deposits in the ‘broken hill’. It turned out that what he had discovered was the world’s largest deposit of silver, lead and zinc. Soon after, a rich vein of silver was discovered. In 1885, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) was floated on the stock exchange, inaugurating what would eventually become the world’s largest mining company.
Thanks to the silver reserves, Broken Hill grew rapidly, with a population of 17, 000 in 1889 doubling to 35, 000 in 1914, making it the third-largest city in New South Wales for a time. Unsanitary conditions, lead poisoning, and diseases such as typhoid and dysentery were common. Mining work proved dangerous, with over 360 men were killed in the mines between 1894 and 1913.
Broken Hill became a centre of Australia’s emerging trade union movement with the establishment of the Barrier Daily Truth, one of Australia’s first labour-run newspapers. Strikes were common, with an 1892 protest against the use of strikebreakers as mine labour seeing the union leaders imprisoned. Unions campaigned for better wages, improved conditions and safety, and in 1920, Broken Hill’s workers were the first in Australia to win a 35-hour week.
Broken Hill’s Trades Hall was the first building in Australia built by unions, from 1898 to 1905, revealing the extent to which the trade union movement was at the heart of the town’s social fabric. Trades Hall today remains open, home to an exhibition displaying the union history of Broken Hill, and worth seeing for the ornate facades, stained-glass windows, and ceiling mural. It has since been listed on the NSW Heritage Register.
In today’s terms, turn-of-the-century Broken Hill was the most multicultural city in New South Wales. ‘Afghan’ cameleers – in actuality from British India, Iran, Turkey, and the Middle East (as well as Afghanistan – transported wool and materials for the Overland Telegraph Line, connecting Darwin and Port Augusta. In 1891, Muslim camel drivers from Afghanistan and India established Australia’s first mosque. Built on the site of a former camel camp, its alcove points to Mecca. It remains in use for worship today, and is open to visits from the public.
Broken Hill was also home to a significant Jewish community, mostly from Eastern Europe, who opened a synagogue in 1910. The synagogue closed in 1862, and was converted into a museum exploring Jewish life in the outback. It is the most isolated Jewish museum in the world, and one of two rural synagogues in Australia (the other being in Ballarat, Victoria).
In 2015, Broken Hill was the first Australian town to be included on the National Heritage List. The town centre, concentrated on Argent Street, is home to a particularly fine collection of late-Victorian public buildings. Highlights include the post office, police station, technical college, court house, and most of all, the Palace Hotel, which was prominently featured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
For more outback history, head to the Royal Flying Doctor Service – the Bruce Langford Visitor Centre to learn about the inspiring history of the Royal Flying Doctors, and the Albert Kersten Mining and Mineral Museum, for information on the science and geology of mining.
Broken Hill has been a centre of the arts for thousands of years. The Mutawintji Historic Site in Mutawintji National Park is the traditional land of the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people, and has been a significant meeting place for centuries, where communities perform initiations, rainmaking, and other ceremonies in gatherings of up to 1,000 people. The site is home to rock engravings (one of only three rock engraving sites in New South Wales), carvings, paintings and drawings, some dating back 8000 years. Today, the site remains a place of living culture, used for cultural purposes and meetings by Aboriginal people from around the region. To pay respect, visit with a guided tour.
More recently, Broken Hill became the centre of the ‘Brushmen of the Bush‘ vernacular art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, whose works are displayed in the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, Pro Hart Gallery, and Jack Absalom’s Gallery.
The nearby Living Desert Sanctuary is home to the Sculpture Symposium, a collection of striking sandstone sculptures hewed in the desert. The artworks date back to 1993, when the city made the decision to invite twelve sculptors from around the world to create works for Broken Hill.
Another worthwhile day trip from Broken Hill is to Silverton, the quintessential outback town and a shooting location for a number of movies, including Mad Max II; Wake in Fright; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Razorback and Dirty Deeds, and television shows such as Royal Flying Doctor and The Dirtwater Dynasty. Despite its rough vibe, today the majority of historic buildings are now used as art galleries and cafes. Make sure to head to the pub, housed in a converted post office, to see the car from Mad Max.
Odyssey Traveller visits the ‘silver city’ as part of our tour of Broken Hill and the outback. Beginning and ending in Broken Hill, our tour takes you through Outback NSW, Queensland, and South Australia. From Broken Hill, we head through the outback to the opal-mining town of White Cliff, stopping off at Menindee Lake on the way. Our outback tour then crosses into Queensland, seeing the dunes of the Strzelecki Desert on our way to Birdsville, near the Northern Territory border.
After our visit to Queensland, we pass into South Australia, and stop in at the outback town of Maree, once a hub for the ‘Afghan’ cameleers of the Overland Telegraph. We then head south to the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, a privately owned flora and fauna sanctuary on the northern tip of the Flinders Range. From the Flinders we head back to Broken Hill via the tiny town of Tibooburra (population: 134), passing through what is possibly the most remote area of the Australian landscape.
If you’re interested in exploring Australia’s outback, why not join our ‘Back of Broken Hill‘ tour. Our outback Australia tours are designed especially for mature Australians, who seek an authentic and informed experience of their destination. We move in genuinely small groups of between 6-12, and are led by knowledgeable local guides. Our tour price generally includes accommodation, meals (whether lunch or dinner in a local restaurant or a picnic lunch), and entrance to attractions.
Odyssey Traveller is eager to announce that we are now running a number of Australian outback tours. We take you down the outback roads of the Kimberley, where we take a scenic flight over the rock formations of Purnululu National Park, and admire the west coast, where the ‘red dirt meets the sea’. On our tour of outback South Australia we explore the ancient landscape of the Flinders Ranges, learning about Aboriginal culture and art at Wilpena Pound. On yet another tour we enjoy the quintessential outback experience in rural Queensland, where we explore golden outback towns such as Longreach, understand the history of the cattle station, and marvel at the lush beauty of Canarvon Gorge, surrounded by arid plains.
If an outback adventure isn’t for you, you might want to check out some of our other Australia tours, including Adelaide and surrounds (with visits to the Barossa Valley and Kangaroo Island), West Australian Wildflowers, and the history and wildlife of Tasmania.
Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:
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External articles to assist you on your visit to ‘Broken Hill and Back’
14 daysFeb, Apr, Jun, Jul, Sep +2
Small group tour; Broken Hill and back
Visiting New South Wales, Queensland
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Small group tour of Australia's Flinders ranges
Visiting South Australia
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Small group tour of outback Queensland
Visiting New South Wales, Queensland
From A$9,350 AUDView Tour
Aboriginal Sites of Importance in Outback Queensland, Australia
Outback Queensland is hiding a number of unforgettable indigenous experiences on this small group tour for senior travellers. Especially at the Brewarrina Fish Traps, and Carnarvon Gorge, for example where you can experience and learn about dreamtime creation stories, age-old cultural practices and traditions, and Aboriginal art.
Birdsville and the Birdsville Track, Queensland
An icon of the Australian Outback. See and learn about the history of the outback both British settlement and aboriginal history out in the heat of the Australian desert! Small group package tours for mature and senior travellers couples for singles show you this often harsh environment full of stories.
Pro Hart and the 'Brushmen of the Bush'
A group of self-taught artists from Broken Hill, Pro Hart and the 'Brushmen of the Bush' took the world by storm in the 1960s and 1970s. Escorted small group tours for active seniors who are couples or solo travellers. Explore and consider a range of tours in Australia and some of the best tours in New Zealand.