It’s a hostile 43 degrees outside and even the locals are wilting. We’re at Broken Hill’s tourist information centre and having no trouble getting service. “Our quiet months are December, January and February,” says the representative. Ah, I think. You mean Summer.
She needn’t dodge the obvious. Unlike most January holiday seekers who flock beachside to unwind, we’ve willingly turned toward the country’s centre, seeking a different kind of holiday.
In New South Wales’ far west, 48 kilometres east of South Australia, Broken Hill is one of those iconic Australian towns everyone knows something about. Originally home to the Wiljakali Aboriginal people, the area’s pastoralist history began in the 1860s, followed by 1884 discovery of the ‘line of lode’– vast deposits of silver, zinc and lead worth $100 billion. While the early 1900s saw intense industrial unrest leading to the birth of a strong union movement, recent years have heralded a thriving art scene.
Broken Hill also claims to be the ‘gateway to the outback’. One wonders what the Wiljakali people might think of such a proprietary claim, but it’s true Broken Hill is an excellent base to explore nearby National Parks: Mungo, Kinchega and Mutawintji.
But we’re here for another reason, a pilgrimage of a kind. We are city folk eager to see the Darling River after recent rains in the north. Floods in Queensland have just delivered new ‘fresh’ – local shorthand for fresh water – to the Darling River, which is flowing, in some parts, for the first time since 2001.
Locals light up when it’s mentioned. “The yellow bellies are biting again,” many declare, referring to Golden Perch. Photos of the river arriving in a rushing brown tongue into the bone-dry riverbed near Wilcannia are front page of The Barrier Daily Truth.
Talk of the ‘fresh’ almost supersedes tales of last September’s dust storm – an event of epic proportions. The storm plunged the city into pitch-black conditions at 3pm before sweeping east to the big cities.
“We couldn’t believe the news on TV after the dust hit Sydney,” a local says. “All that talk about apocalypse – it was nothing to what we had out here!”
It could be the heat but the pace is as slow as treacle. When we enquire if there’s a room free at the West Darling Hotel on the main drag, Argent Street, the publican actually laughs. The pub is a wonderfully sprawling, time-warped affair. And, while the air-conditioning unit in our room is tiny, the room opens onto a sloping weatherboard verandah so big it seems almost wasteful.
The next morning we head to the Miner’s Memorial. It’s on a hill that looms over town; an abandoned mining site. The memorial begins with the date 1885 and lists the name, age, employer and miner’s cause of death. Walking the length of the wall you’re overpowered by a growing sense of incredulity at the conditions the miners endured. Causes of death are fates such as ‘caught in belting’, ‘crushed by crane’, ‘dragged from cage’, ‘hit by rock drill’ and ‘buried in ore’.
Kinchega National Park is near Menindee Lakes, 110 kilometres southeast of Broken Hill. On the plains, dust devils spiral upward and emus roam, their distant silhouettes like dinosaurs on an ancient horizon.
Built from river red gums and corrugated iron in 1870, the Kinchega Shearing Shed within the park is a fascinating stop. Still equipped with now antiquated equipment and photos of the tough shearers of old – scowling, shears in hand, pipes in mouth –the shed summons vivid images of shearing life. Temperatures within its iron walls throb at what must be close to 50 degrees and Henry Lawson’s words come forth:
Dusty patch in baking mulga – glaring iron hut and shed –Feel and smell of rain forgotten – water scarce and feed-grass dead.
It’s late afternoon when we reach the Darling. It’s a silty, light olive-coloured flow fringed with beautiful gums. Perfect for a dip: our ‘pilgrimage’ accomplished.
Campsites at Kinchega are peppered along the Darling. They’re called ‘Paaka’ and ‘Paakantji’, the latter meaning ‘people of the river’, the name of the traditional Aboriginal people. We set up camp under the gums notorious for dropping limbs without provocation, tired enough not to fret. There’s no one else in the park. We’ve seen no one all day. Goannas lumber through the crackling bush and kangaroos gather to sip at the river’s edge.
Evening brings little relief from the heat so we sleep with no flycover on the tent. And the stars! Seen through the blackened weave of gums overheard, the night sky is a magical sight.
We return to Broken Hill the next day. Everywhere, locals are talking about the next wave of ‘fresh’ due to flow down the Darling and, hopefully, fill Menindee Lakes and break the banks to reach the creeks and billabongs on the flood plains.