Day 2 of our Broken Hill adventure
We have come to Broken Hill on a package deal of train, accommodation, meals and tours, so we don’t have to do too much thinking for ourselves. Wayne, our friendly driver who picked us up from the station the night before is back on our doorstep at 8.30 to take us on a half day city sights tour. Brief as they are, I find such tours a great taste-tester to orient yourself to a new city, and the drivers are usually a font of knowledge. Wayne is a Class A resident – that is – born and bred in Broken Hill, and a former miner, so there is not much he doesn’t know. And you can be sure that he can come up with a plausible yarn to fill in any knowledge gaps, so us “away people” will be none the wiser anyway 🙂
Broken Hill was founded from the discovery of the richest ore body in the Southern Hemisphere. From any point in the city you can look up and see the Line of Lode Miners’ Memorial, so it is natural that is our starting point.
A lode is a vein of metal ore running through earth, and in this case the lode is shaped like an upstanding boomerang. It is 7.5 kilometres long (about five miles), and at either end runs very deep. The memorial sits on the highest point, overlooking the city. This is the apex that BHP owned: rich, easily mined deposits, whose “outcropping” inspired the name of “Broken” Hill. Click here for a potted history.
The lode also breaks the city in two: Broken Hill proper is on one side, and South Broken Hill is on the other side. This leads to some good natured ribbing and rivalry between the two “cultures”. In the past, only the bravest young man would dare to date a girl from “over the hill”!
Mining is dirty and dangerous, and the fortunes of the 20,000 who call Broken Hill home have waxed and waned over the 132 years that silver, lead and zinc have been mined here. Wayne touches briefly on the workers’ history of trade unionism, strikes and violent clashes that have led to the safe practices of today. This morning, though, we focus on the 816 recorded deaths on site. Who can tell how many deaths resulted from lead poisoning from the dust in the clothes that were regularly washed at home, for example?
The youngest victim was a twelve year old who died of asphyxiation from dynamite fumes, and the most recent were in 2002 and 2007, even though machinery now goes where man went before. And there are two whose bodies were never recovered: Thomas and Leopold who died together in 1902.
Made of iron, the miners’ memorial is reminiscent of a mine shaft, and as you walk through, each man is dedicated with a white rose, his name, age, location, date and cause of death inscribed on a glass plaque beside it. For many early decades there are around thirty fatalities per year, a sobering reminder of the perils of working underground.
Further along, the old Mine Head and cages for transporting the men and equipment into the tunnels are still on display. The timber in the mine head came from ships’ ballast, in particular oregon from Canada. Despite its age, the hardwood timber survives well in the dry heat of the outback.
I tried to make a panorama of looking down on to Broken Hill from the Miners’ Memorial:
Back on the bus, Wayne keeps up his patter, and I struggle to keep up my notes!
Most of the streets are named in reference to minerals and geology. The main street is the Latin for silver: Argent. Others are Sulphide, Bromide, Crystal, Rhodonite and so on. Broken Hill has recently been given heritage status, ensuring the protection of its wonderful buildings, churches and old hotels. Local stone is used in many. Most of them are no more than two storeys high, which lends a nice symmetry to the area, while at the same time there is a wide variation in housing: newly built modern homes stand side by side with corrugated iron miners’ shacks. Mining is a thirsty profession, and dozens of hotels sprang up. I lost count how many, but a good deal of these have been converted to other uses. Conversely, the three-storey Palace Hotel was established by the Temperance Society as a coffee house. It’s a tough gig to get between a miner and his drink, and after three years they were forced to admit defeat. More about the Palace in a later post.
There are three sets of traffic lights in town, and of course, we managed to get stopped at each of them. It gives a chance to look around properly. The streets are wide, because nearly all materials such as timber and iron had to be brought from other areas by bullock teams, and they needed a wide turning circle. Also, there is no underground drainage system, nor drains in the gutters, which are left very wide to allow any rainwater to flow into a nearby wetlands and then on to a reservoir, where, Wayne assures us, the mosquitoes are big enough to fight off the seagulls.
He explains another curiosity. Once upon a time there were two railway stations in Broken Hill, operated by separate companies, and running on two different gauge tracks. The NSW government (standard gauge 1,435mm – 4 ft 8.5 in) would not allow the South Australian government to extend its track across the border, so in 1888 the Silverton Tramway Company (narrow gauge 1,067 mm – 3 ft 6 in) was conceived to join the missing link and to transport ore into SA for smelting. It wasn’t a tram, but they weren’t allowed to call themselves a railway! The result was that passengers travelling from Sydney to Adelaide had to alight at Broken Hill station and walk down two blocks to the STC station. When standardisation took place in 1970, the former railway line was converted into a main road, which we drive down as Wayne continues to point out items of interest, including the blue metal quarry where stone was crushed to be used on the railway lines.
Wayne tells us the American Embassy is up ahead. What? My heads snaps up . . . as we pass the local McDonalds. hahaha. I am starting to lose my sense of direction, but I think we are now in West Broken Hill, and we are approaching an intersection where once the now defunct railway line ran. This area has its own special name . . . Railway Town. Shortly after we see yet another pub, as always, on a corner to attract all comers. On one side its awning proclaims it as the “Rising Sun“, on the other, it has become the “Risin Sun”. The painter must have had a long lunch inside.
Every so often we pass residences built for the doctors and nurses of the Flying Doctor Service, which we will visit in a day or two. These new houses – possibly cement rendered – are built in a curved shape to resemble aircraft hangars or wings. There is also a 100 bed hospital in town to treat standard cases, otherwise patients are flown to Adelaide.
The TAFE (Technical and Further Education College) is now heritage listed. In 1942 the building was an ammunition factory, where local women manufactured nose cones. The sentry box is still guarding the entrance.
There is so much that we might want to come back to, for example, there is an Afghan Mosque, established by the cameleers who built the overland telegraph which connected NSW to London. There is a synagogue which also houses RMS Titanic memorabilia. In the nearby park, there is a monument to its bandsmen. There was a swimming pool in this park at one time. Its club rooms are still there, but a newer aquatic centre has since been built. We also pass the former home of June Mary Gough (1929-2005) the promising young talent who was able to further her professional singing training in London with help from locals. As success in her career as a soprano grew, she changed her name to June Bronhill in honour of those people.
Broken Hill is full of characters, not the least of whom are in the local cemetery. Wayne tell us that no one living within 3km radius of the cemetery can be buried there! Why? . . . Because you can’t be buried if you are still living! . . . Ba-boom!
If you have watched the video, you will note that it is a very large, and very tidy cemetery. There is no grass, as there is no water, and therefore there are no weeds. Furthermore, there is only one stonemason in town, so he, at least, has job security, and some bizarre commissions. The inscription on the motorcycle enthusiast (photo below) references that famous quote: “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting “Holy Shit, what a ride!”. Nearby, the artist, Pro Hart, is immortalised with his signature symbol, the dragonfly. Best appreciated from above.
One place that does have grass is the golf course. How does it get to be so magnificently green in this semi-arid climate? First of all, the grass was supplied from a lusher place – Murray Downs in Swan Hill in Victoria – and secondly, it is kept up with effluent water. “So don’t lick your balls!” is Wayne’s instruction. At the nearby race track, the horses compete on red dirt. They don’t appear to mind. The emus wandering around seemed to prefer the green of the golf course though.
Broken Hill has also hosted film crews. Mad Max: Fury Road was meant to be filmed there in 2011, but of all the years for it to rain! The place got too green to pass as postapocalyptic Australia. Another recent feel-good movie Last Cab to Darwin was also partly filmed here.
There is another side to Broken Hill that gets little publicity. It is home to the second largest large-scale solar plant in Australia. Something like 600,000 solar photovoltaic panels feed electricity back into the national grid. I had no idea.
There is also a transmitter and receiver which thousands of aircraft use to recalibrate their navigation equipment, and a medium security prison, in which the nation’s gold stores were held during WWII. The plan was that, in case of invasion, the gold was to be put down a mineshaft. Fortunately, the Japanese never reached Broken Hill, if they had, they may have wondered what they had got themselves into, particularly if they were still wearing their tropical jungle kit from the battles of the Pacific and New Guinea. . . . I digress . . .
Wayne also assured us that the paint company, Dulux, likes to use local houses for its outdoor tests before putting new paints on the market . . .
The weather was unseasonably hot – high 30s (moving towards 100’F), but it was so far, so good as we moved from one air-conditioned environment to another.
The test was to come the next day when we headed further afield to the Menindee Lakes.
More of that in another post. Garrulous Gwendoline