Part 3 – Crossing the Murray… to the land where unique Sturt Desert Peas bloom in the dark red soils of the NSW Outback!

After leaving Mildura we crossed the bridge over the Murray River into New South Wales (NSW) and headed north to Wentworth. We had visited Wentworth on our 2009 trip and there is no doubt these little river towns have that little bit extra to offer.

Wentworth is the oldest town in the region with some of the earliest historic buildings still standing and in use today… and it was well worth another wander to the old gaol, the courthouse, the convent, the customs house and the old wharf just to read up on the history.

In its heyday, before the introduction of the railways, Wentworth was a very busy river port with paddle boats carrying supplies to many stations on the Darling and Murray Rivers. During 1890, 425 paddle boats checked in at the Wentworth Customs Office and the port became so prominent that the town was on the short list of three as a place to build the ‘Capital’ at the time of federation. Today it is just a peaceful holiday town where the paddle boats have been mostly replaced by houseboats so a look on board the beautiful old paddle steamer the P.S. Ruby moored opposite the Wentworth wharf was a must do.

This 205 tonne vessel, built in 1907, was used to deliver freight and passengers and had had quite a life… it was retired from duties in 1938 to become a house boat, it was purchased in 1968 by the Rotary club in a state of disrepair, then it wasn’t until 1996 that the shire council took responsibility of the vessel and with the help of many dedicated locals began an 11 year restoration programme. Finally in 2007 Ruby once again graced the waters of the mighty Murray and Darling Rivers!

And of course a must see is the ‘Darling and Murray River Junction and Viewing Tower’ which offered great views over our two greatest rivers. This lookout is nestled where the rivers converge between two locks and from where we stood it was amazing to look along between both rivers and see such a distinct colour difference between the two. While the clay based Darling was murky and had a milky appearance to it, in contrast, the mighty Murray was quite clear and green.

The Darling River is one of Australia’s longest river where many tributaries start in south-east Queensland and New South Wales as the river flows 1472 kilometres to end where it joins the Murray here at Wentworth.

The mighty Murray, our longest river in Australia, also depends on these tributaries sourcing winter rains and snow thaw for its existence. Acting as a natural border between New South Wales and Victoria it flows 2508 kilometres from the alps at Mount Kosciuszko where it starts as a mere stream. Joined by several other rivers including the Mitta Mitta, Ovens, Goulburn, Campaspe, Loddon, Murrumbidgee and the Darling Rivers this mighty river twists and turns on its westward journey through locks, weirs, lakes and wetlands until it meets the Southern Ocean in Goolwa,  South Australia.

The Perry Sandhills were also worth a visit and this was our first real taste of the outback for this trip. In sharp contrast to the surrounding farmlands these sandhills on the edge of town were a vast expanse of continuously shifting dunes that appeared mysteriously out of nowhere.

This mini desert of red sand dunes was formed over 40,000 years ago in the ice age and many many years later used for bombing practice during World War II. Now they are a popular film location and it was easy to see why… these red, rippling dunes could be any desert, anywhere.

Broken Hill was next on the map so after a night at the Curlwaa Caravan Park we headed for this far off place also known as the Silver City.

Broken Hill is the main city of the NSW outback and lies in the Barrier Ranges. Renowned as one of the world’s great mining centres, the city of Broken Hill is almost as far west as it is possible to go in New South Wales and is actually closer to Adelaide than Sydney. It is only 50 kilometres from the South Australian border.

After stopping at a road side stop for a cuppa we continued along the Silver City Highway… beyond the Darling River on the edge of sundown was where fellow travellers told us we would find Broken Hill.

It was as if there was nowhere further to travel in Australia. In contrast to the road we had travelled into Mildura that was surrounded by citrus and grape vines, the road to Broken Hill was another matter. The straight line of bitumen along the Silver City Highway was not what we would call a busy road and for the next 300 kilometres we travelled through some pretty harsh countryside with not a tree to been seen, only endless red-dust plains studded with saltbushes, mulgas, mobs of kangaroos, wild goats, emus and cackling galahs. Stories have been told that the road to Broken Hill is where the big red roos jump 200 kilometres in a night chasing a thunderstorm, and the unique Sturt Desert Peas bloom in dark red soils and to some this road would be a monotonous 300 kilometre haul, but to us it was exciting and all we had expected… and we loved it!

Broken Hill’s roots are as a mining town and it’s story started in 1883 when boundary rider Charles Rasp discovered what he thought were tin deposits in the Barrier Range. The 7 kilometre lode turned out to be one of the largest silver, zinc and lead deposits in the world. The company formed to prospect the lode became the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) and one of Australia’s leading companies and it still remains the richest of these deposits in the world today.

Arriving in Broken Hill was an awe-inspiring experience.  As we drove in we were immediately struck by the man-made mountain towering over the town and on visiting the museum it was interesting to find out that this man-made slag heap was located where the series of hills called the ‘Line of Lode’ used to be. Photos of the original ‘Line of Lode’ were on view at the Railway Museum and provided some perspective on the significant amount of rock which has been processed since the original Broken Hill silver mine was established in 1885.

Although mining has been wound down in recent years, Broken Hill remains a major mining centre. It is also a growing tourist destination, attracting visitors with its colourful mining history and very scenic surrounds and the view from the café on top of the slag heap was a sobering experience where we reflected on the monument to over 900 miners who died whilst working on the Line of Lode.  Broken Hill is notable for the formation of strong unions in 1920, which after leading an 18 month strike managed to improve the working conditions for miners across Australia.

The township of Broken Hill was a fascinating place to explore. It was an amazingly large town, with many historic buildings and museums and wonderful old hotels with wide verandas scattered throughout the residential areas. Having been established as a mining town it is reasonable to expect that they would have required a pub or two and one, the celebrated Mario’s Palace, also starred in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’.  These striking old hotels still dot the city and certainly have the feel of yesteryear about them and were obviously frequented by men with a mean thirst to be quenched after they downed their tools after a hard days yakka in the mines.

We had a very interesting visit to the Pro Hart Gallery which was 3 levels of artworks. An informative video introduced us to Pro Hart’s family history from his beginnings as a child, a miner, a family man and an artist but the highlight of our visit was the guided tour through the Royal Flying Doctor Service base just south of the township. This tour provided an appreciation for the work being done to provide both routine and emergency medical and dental services to remote stations and communities around Australia and the real highlight was their video… especially one part that showed what happens if you don’t look after your teeth. As well as the tour, the museum provided a fascinating insight into how the medical service developed in conjunction with the School of the Air.  Pedal powered radio sets were the foundation equipment that established the service, many of which were donated to third world countries to enable radio communications and are still in use today.  When you drive the long distances between outback towns you start to appreciate how remote these outback Australian communities are and how far away medical help really is. Something that it is taken for granted if you live in a city.

From Broken Hill we headed to the old historic town of Silverton.

If Broken Hill was a little too busy for us then a trip to this ghost town was all we needed… it was a fascinating place to visit and an interesting drive to get there. In the 25 kilometres we travelled from Broken Hill we crossed 31 floodways and we were unaccustomed to the dozens of “Dips” on the journey. Every 500 metres or so the road dips to allow flash flood waters to pass across the road but the side effect was that mud had been deposited in the bottom of the dips requiring a bit of caution when crossing.

Along the road to Silverton we turned off to the Daydream Mine. This was an old silver mine that was founded and worked before Broken Hill was discovered and still had an original 1884 smelter. It was the first mining town in the region but in 1889 when the silver mine closed everyone up and moved to the new boom town of nearby Broken Hill.

Silverton, established around 1880, is also an old mining town built by miners in search of their fortunes. It was once a bustling town with a population of around 3000. Today it is supposed to be a ‘ghost town’ however it still has a small permanent population.

It was a lovely little town that felt like it was in the middle of no-where despite being only a stones throw away from the bustling Silver City that is Broken Hill… and was certainly a sight for dry, desert eyes!

There were a number of historic buildings in the town but I suspect much of the original town was built of canvas and timber.  Everything was old and in the desert landscape the ghostly remnants of its former prosperity remained as well as those of the countless films and television shows  such as ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’,  ‘A Town Like Alice’ and ‘Mad Max 2’ that were all filmed here.

Although Silverton was founded 10-15 years before Broken Hill it was abandoned after the development of Broken Hill due to Broken Hill having better mining prospects but what is left of Silverton today is well worth the drive to see.

The only street being a dirt road travels through the town beyond to the Mundi Mundi plains and Umberumberka Reservoir that is the main water supply for Broken Hill. There were art galleries, a privately owned Mad Max museum that if you are a Mad Max fan then this museum with the original cars and truck is the place to go, a gaol that has been turned into a museum, and the pub… the famous Silverton Pub is certainly not deserted,  it is the local drinking hole for both the 2 legged and the 4 legged creatures and apparently it is just everyday life out here! As we rode up to the pub on our bikes 3 horses were drinking from the trough at the front entrance and just across the road wild donkeys shaded themselves from the heat of the day.

We had decided to set up camp in Silverton so after booking into Eldee Station Caravan Park, pitching our tent and grabbing a bite to eat we headed off on our bikes to explore this little town. It was a great park with grassed and bush sites that were all close to the camp kitchen, ablutions and laundry facilities.

Leaving town, our ride was a good mix of hill climbing that led to some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and of course what goes up must come down… and there were a few down hills and long flat sections to make the trail really interesting. The trail was around 7.2 kilometre and began at the Silverton pub along a well-marked track with white rock markers… but we still managed to get lost!

We definitely needed to have a beer on our return so we headed for the wide verandah and cheery atmosphere of the local pub… but unfortunately it was closed! Our ride had taken much longer than planned but as we were about to ride away the door swung open and the very friendly staff beckoned us in, produced two stools from the top of the bar, served us a beer and even offered us a meal. Here is where we discovered the soul of a town, it was where the beer was cold and yarns were spun… and  it was the best Aussie hospitality ever!

This was no ordinary pub and there was a lot to take in while we drank our beers. Dozens of photos and memorabilia lined the wall, there was a preserved snake collection on the mantle piece and jokes hung from the ceiling. It was a great place to wander around and outside was one of Mad Max’s cars a remnant from the mad max car scenes that were filmed just outside of Silverton.

About 5 kilometres on the other side of Silverton are the Mundi Mundi Plains, which cannot be missed.

Broken Hill and Silverton are located in a range of hills, surrounded by flat plains that stretch for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. The hills are called ‘The Barrier’ and it was well worth the trip to see them.

As we drove to the lookout at the top of a hill to the west of Silverton we were greeted with a vast plain that stretched away to the north, west and south… it was stunning. It is here where the bitumen road dips down to the dusty vastness of the Mundi Mundi Plains that were virtually treeless and so flat for as far as the eye could see. Other couples had come to see the sunset too and had parked their cars nearby on the gravel verge at the lookout, unpacked their camping tables and camp chairs, glasses and a cold bottle of champagne and quietly drank a toast to the setting sun.

I felt like I was on the edge of the world… what a view! We could see for kilometre after kilometre over a whole lot of nothing as the flat expanse spread out before us… and the funny thing was, all that nothing was something, this is one of only two places on the planet where one can see the curvature of the earth.  The other place is somewhere in Africa.

Finally we witnessed a spectacular sunset that framed the Barrier Ranges with changing colours of blue through to deep purple and orange hues while the red soil and the beautiful wildflowers painted an amazing picture in the fading light. Our camera just couldn’t capture the amazing scene before us… it was spectacular! Perhaps it was the feeling of suddenly being confronted by such a vast space with an inland sea rolling into the sunset but it certainly made me aware that we really do inhabit an ancient and beautiful land like no other on earth.

Next day we headed back to Broken Hill then from Broken Hill we travelled back across the red sands, through emu country to Menindee Lakes to join the Darling River again. Following Menindee Road out of Broken Hill we travelled approximately 100 kilometres before taking a left turn onto Main Weir Road, about 8 kilometres north of Menindee. Following a dirt road for several kilometres we came across some great campsites on the banks of Lake Pamamaroo. This  peaceful, quiet spot is an oasis in the outback and we had thought of camping here but instead moved on to the Burke and Wills Campground which had flushing toilets. This campground came at a cost though as it was not on the waterfront and did not have the stunning views but as it turned out the heavens opened up and the red dirt roads around the lake turned quickly to mud! This only added to the fun of visiting this place but in preference to getting stuck and after a quick look at our ‘Camps Book’  for a cheap camp  we headed to the Copi Hollow Caravan Park 13 kilometres north of Menindee.

This great park is located on the shores of Copi Hollow, which is the part of the Menindee Lakes system that provides Broken Hill’s water supply. The caravan park is set on the banks of this man-made lake and surrounded by lush green lawn and shady trees and is a paradise for water-skiers, fishermen and water lovers.  It is owned and operated by the Broken Hill Speedboat Club Inc and they certainly provided a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, some great camping sites, the best hot showers and stunning views over the lake and it was only $20 for the night. It had a lovely lawn area, a playground, a great BBQ area and a very friendly caretaker who allowed us to use the powerboat club when the weather turned really bad.

This area consists of a chain of shallow ephemeral freshwater lakes connected to the Darling River to form a storage system. When the storage system is full it holds over three and a half times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour and provides a haven for water birds of all kinds and we saw quite a lot of bird life… pelicans, cormorants, a spoonbill, finches, parrots and lots of other water birds.

There were many vantage points around the lake system with views of the lakes, flooded gums, outback scenery and bird life but the ‘Main Weir’ we had previously visited is located on the Darling River and it was certainly an eye opener to see the amount of water that actually makes it from one river into another… there was only a trickle making it over the weir to make it into the final stretch of the Darling before it reached the Murray.

The dry sand dunes around these lakes have unveiled some of the most prolific and early remnants of human existence anywhere in the world, with fossils and marked stones of the Barkindji people and their ancestors dating back 26,000 years!

Several explorers have passed through this area over the years too, including Burke and Wills on their 1860 expedition and Charles Sturt in 1884. The site we visited on the way in was where the Burke and Wills team camped on the banks of the Darling River. Menindee also boasts the second oldest pub in NSW and Burke and Wills stayed at this Hotel during their ill-fated expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

A visit to Menindee Lakes wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Kinchega National Park. The old Kinchega Woolshed was part of the Kinchega Station that ran more than 140,000 sheep in the 1800’s. They were shepherded almost entirely by Aboriginal people and over six million sheep were shorn during a century of operation; it was last used in 1967 before the area became a National Park.

A well-camouflaged flock of emus, 7 in total,  made themselves scarce as we approach the historic township of Menindee. Menindee sits snugly between the  Menindee Lakes and the Darling River near Kinchega National Park and was the first established town on the Darling River during the paddle steamer era of the mid 1800s.

After a night at Copi Hollow it was time to head off and our planned trip to follow the dirt road along the western side of the Darling River for 154 kilometres to the town Wilcannia was soon dashed.

There had been more heavy rainfall overnight turning dirt to mud, creating many river crossings and closing off the road and our direct route to Wilcannia. This is just an example of how quickly rainfall in the outback can have a devastating effect down stream and so we were forced to take the very long detour back through Broken Hill.

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