One of the great joys of a working vacation is it provides travelers with sufficient time to uncover hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places often overlooked by Frommer’s, Fodor’s, or The Lonely Planet. Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill.
The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 115F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit. Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, and the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers. However, limiting yourself to these destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and thinking you have truly experienced the American Southwest.
To avoid this trap, and on the recommendation of locals, our family set off for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney. We boarded the transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for the 13-hour overnight trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.
We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western. Broken Hill was settled in the 1880s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead. Like roughneck mining towns of the American West it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution. However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, art galleries, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were more than happy to contribute our dollars.
We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive! But the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill” whom we had contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual “outback tour.”
Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen cattle stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos that like to play tag on the runway. To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird receptacles plunked down at the end of makeshift runways. If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.
I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drink with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this most remote and unforgiving landscape. It was a day that has remained etched in my mind even though it is now almost 25 years distant.
I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient time to allow you and your family to spend a day with David Furnell and the fascinating residents of the outback cattle stations of Western New South Wales. Pity!