Day 6 of our Broken Hill adventure (lunch and after)
Whoever said you should “never judge a book by its cover” might have been thinking of White Cliffs, home of Australia’s first commercial opal fields.
On the surface, despite the pretty blue of the sky, the landscape seems a wasteland, a moonscape dotted with craters:
Below the surface though, are some of the most magnificent opals available, including the unique speciality, the “pineapple opal“, whose correct title is a pseudomorph.
The other thing you will find underground is the people. Not just while mining. Under the surface is where most residents choose to live, in homes they call dugouts (self-explanatory really). Life underground is a year round 22’c (71’F), while up top, temperatures can range from freezing to 50’c (120’F).
Some businesses must operate above ground though, and we stop for a light lunch at the local general store. Which is also the information centre. And the post office. And the petrol bowser. And lots of other things. Decades ago, on the Sydney waterfront, my husband worked with a fellow who moved up here and bought the store. Bill thought he was mad. He and his wife live in Broken Hill now, and we plan to catch up with them in a few days.
Given its high heat conductivity, exactly why you would use corrugated iron as a construction material for an above-ground building in White Cliffs is a mystery. Perhaps this is a special alloy. Or perhaps that was all those early bullock waggons brought up, as depicted in this mural. And yes, I have taken note that the bullocks turned into camels along the way.
We also browse through a souvenir shop. We are tourists after all. These locals are a resourceful lot. If you think this house looks as if it is made of bottles, you are right. Thousands of beer bottles. I guess the owner gave up waiting for a recycling service in town, and decided on his own recycling programme. Out the back, there is the quintessential Australian decor: a water tank and Hills Hoist clothes line. And I’ve thrown in the photo of the bougainvillea for fellow blogger, Derrick, to demonstrate just how hardy is this plant, even though this one is not lush as those in Barbados where he took many photos. Bougainvillea have sharp thorns, and I managed to get a little scratch which took days to heal.
There is also a pub with motel rooms attached.
But the motel we have come to see is the White Cliffs Underground Motel. At the entry, it looks “normal”, a swimming pool with a pleasant shaded area, then a bar, cafe, and restaurant area. Walk on though, and we enter the dugout area. The motel offers thirty guest rooms. They are simply furnished and no two rooms are alike, but each room is whitewashed, which is typical in dugouts. Each room has a chamber going up to the surface for light and ventilation. On the surface, all that points to where the rooms lie is the skylight cover. There is electricity in the rooms, but no toilets or bathrooms underground. Guests use communal facilities at the surface. This is to avoid the risk of leaking pipes undermining the structure and weakening the walls or roof. Apart from our photos, you can read much more about the motel here.
There is also a caravan park in town offering powered and unpowered sites, but only one on-site caravan. It is probably the lonely one in the background of some of my photos. Hard to tell, really, where the roads run in this town of stony mounds. The caravan park managers are only there part-time, so there is an honesty system for paying the fees. Great to think such a thing can still exist!
Naturally there are several places in White Cliffs where one can buy opals, including Southern Cross Opals, which we browsed. Another is Red Earth Opal, which offers a mine tour, 45 feet down into the diggings. We weren’t able to do this on our day tour – or if we did, I can’t remember, and it’s the sort of thing I should remember doing – but I would think it is a must-do if you are travelling independently and have the time.
Up the hill from Red Earth is the home of artist Cree Marshall and former shearer Lindsay White. Lindsay is hard at work building their home – the fifth underground house he has “constructed”. I have already mentioned how resourceful these outback people can be, and Lindsay’s aim is to build the house from recycled and reclaimed materials. For example, while Cree was keen on having a circular kitchen in the centre of their main living area, Lindsay was protesting how difficult it was to build curved bench-tops and cupboards. Then he stumbled across a government office in Adelaide (eight hours drive away), selling off their fit-out. They had a curved reception counter. “There’s your kitchen!” he exclaimed. Forty dollars. Job done. It looks fabulous, and even includes a tree trunk in the centre. Cree was busy at work in the area on her latest artistic project: banners, artwork and silk screen paintings (to be auctioned) for the upcoming production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado. Can you believe the ingenuity of this town? They manage to attract Co-Opera, a professional touring company, and The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of South Australia to a town with a permanent population of 100! The performers will be billeted out to various homes to reduce costs, as the tickets are a very reasonable $45 a head.
Lindsay was happy to show us around the house, even into the master bedroom. (not shown here).Their home is like a magpie’s hoard, a fun place full of art and elegance and 80% of it from recycled materials. The wall lamps for instance, are made from car parts. The floor has decorative mosaic sections which are the off-cuts of the regular floor tiles (since Lindsay was an ex shearer, he was used to a lot of bending). My fingers couldn’t fly fast enough to make legible notes, here’s an example: plough, disc, car, cogs, hotel lamps, glacial self rocks, treadle singer sewing machine (see the angel in the photo slideshow?), emu eggs did not hatch, inland sea, squid cuttlefish, opal in quartz, fossilised shark teeth, megalodon tooth, inner ear drum of blue whale. . . . make of that what you will, although the last words clearly reference components of this fabulous wall-hanging:
I won’t go into more detail about the history of White Cliffs and how and when opals were formed here, nor how they are mined. I have so many notes, but this post will get way too long and there are three other, totally disparate, things I’d like to mention about this day.
Believe it or not, the first (experimental) solar power station in Australia was constructed here in 1981, using parabolic dishes, covered in thousands of mirrors, which followed the sun. In the mid-90s it was converted to photo-voltaic, and connected to the grid, then ultimately de-commissioned in December 2004. During that time, it generated valuable data regarding the development of this technology.
It may sound a bit macabre, but I also like to visit cemeteries on my travels, and a stop at the White Cliffs Pioneer and General Cemetery was included on our schedule. The vast majority of graves are unmarked, and from the few known records of the period 1892-99 over 500 children and innumerable adults lie in them. The lack of a good water supply, and poor vegetables and diet in general, meant that the ravages of typhoid, diphtheria and dysentery decimated the children of this mining community. In 1988, a local Bicentennial Committee erected a commemoration plaque, to the “pioneers . . . and to those who came later” including the words, “whatever their origins and beliefs” which I thought was a nice touch. I also liked the wording on the official council sign – take a look for yourself:
(! Warning, there are details of young children on the headstones in the below slideshow.)
I spot a couple of wedge-tail eagles circling as we prepare to leave town, but am not quick enough to snap a photo that shows anything worth looking at. We pile into the trusty Warrior vehicle and commence the long drive back to Broken Hill. Wayne is tempted to take the all-terrain vehicle on a short-cut that is impassable in the wet, but everything is so dry it is a safe bet and we get through with no trouble. As we near Little Topah, a truck stop in the middle of nowhere, the sky is clouding over again. While we sip beer and eat ice-cream (not together I hasten to add) a couple of drops of rain fall, then think better of it.
Back on the road, I am watching strange formations in the sage-bush scrub and red dirt surrounding us. Could the faint haze on the horizon be rain? Or, is it a dust storm? Closer in, it looks as if a willy-willy is forming – a spout of dust that twirls upwards towards the sky. The air outside seems disturbed, and then in the distance we see a grey cube-shaped mass. Surely, it has to be raining somewhere! The road leads us towards it, and then finally, suddenly, we are on it – and yes! it is a wall of water. It is like one of those old Hollywood movies where the central characters are standing on a dry street corner, and then a bucket of water is dropped on them to simulate a downpour.
We are completely surrounded by this rain pelting down, and visibility is extremely limited. Wayne has never driven through anything like it. The Warrior has never been rained on before. It drums on the metal roof, and washes across our windows. On either side of us the dirt is rapidly turning into running rivers of red mud, as the parched earth cannot absorb this downpour. If we had been on the short-cut, we would be stranded by now for sure. This continues for exactly 5km (2 mi). Then we drive out of it. And it is dry on the other side of that wall! When we pull into Broken Hill, there is little sign the rain reached here.
As Bill and I sum up our day, and all that we saw and experienced, and how much we enjoyed it, his opinion of his workmate leaving Sydney to live permanently in White Cliffs hasn’t changed.
“I thought he was mad then,” Bill says, “and I still think he is mad!”
Well, it may be an eccentric decision, I’ll agree, but your neighbours would never be boring! We’ll get to hear all about it from the man himself in a couple of days.
I have bombarded you with photos from this day, it was just so hard to choose what to leave out from the couple of hundred that we took. Please humour me for one last one, as this is something you won’t see every day. A Flindersia Maculosa or Leopardwood / Leopard Tree.
Its habitat is stony hills and sand plains of the warm semi-arid zone of the Australian continent, and can grow in areas with an annual average rainfall of less than 250 mm (thanks Wikipedia).