For many travellers to Oz, the state of New South Wales (NSW) has big-ticket appeal. Top billing goes to Sydney and the state’s supercharged coastline, but its far-west outback corner often goes overlooked.
Out here, there is otherworldly beauty in the rough and rugged terrain, inspiring an eccentricity and creativity in a population whose artistic output belies its small size. In this off-the-beaten-track destination, art is found in the most unlikely places: on pub walls and rock faces, down opal mines and atop desert hills, in paddocks miles from anywhere.
Broken Hill (population 18,500) is the ‘capital’ of the NSW outback region, lying 1150km from Sydney. It’s a desert frontier town built on mining, so it’s tough as nails and full of archetypal ‘blokiness’ – but it has surprisingly soft edges too, including creativity and community spirit in abundance. There’s nation-defining history here, too – in January 2015, Broken Hill became the first and only entire Australian town to be included on the National Heritage List. As a hot and dusty mining town, you better believe there are plenty of classic old pubs where you can wet your whistle.
However, fun fact: Broken Hill has more art galleries than pubs. A great place to begin an art-hop is the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, housed in a beautifully restored emporium dating from 1885. It’s the oldest regional gallery in the state and holds 1800 works in its permanent collection, by Australian masters like John Olsen, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Streeton, as well as strong indigenous representation.
Broken Hill was home to the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’, a celebrated group of five artists who took paintings of outback Australia to the world. The works (and art collection) of former miner Kevin Charles ‘Pro’ Hart (1928-2006) are on display at the engrossing Pro Hart Gallery – check out his Rolls Royce collection, including one Pro painted with scenes from Australian history.
Not far away is the gallery of another Brushman; Jack Absalom’s Galleryis a purpose-built space attached to octogenarian Jack’s home. His canvases beautifully capture the light and colour of outback landscapes, and you can admire (as well as purchase) opals mined by the artist.
One unmissable town landmark is the Palace Hotel – you may have seen it take a starring role in the movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This three-storey pub was erected on the main street in 1889; inside, wonderfully kitsch landscape murals cover almost every inch of the public areas. They’re described as ‘Italian Renaissance meets Outback’ and were painted in the 1970s by indigenous artist, Gordon Waye. The pub owner’s only stipulation to Waye was that each scene contain a water feature so the hotel would feel like an oasis in the outback. It still feels that way – there’s a restaurant, retro accommodation, Friday night two-up games and the classic outback essential: cold beer.
As the sun sets, pack a picnic and watch the sky turn crimson from the 2400 hectare Living Desert State Park 12km outside town. Here, perched on a view-enriched summit, you’ll find the ‘sculpture symposium’: a range of sculptures created by 12 international artists in 1993. The artists (some local, others from as far afield as Mexico, Syria and Georgia) carved the huge sandstone blocks on site.
Creativity and quirk flow from every dusty corner of Silverton, 25km west of Broken Hill and reached through kangaroo- and emu-dotted desertscapes. It’s home to about 50 people, a handful of wandering donkeys, a colourful (and character-filled) pub as well as a museum dedicated to the movie Mad Max 2 (yes, you’ve read that right). Visiting is like stepping into one of Australian artist Russell Drysdale’s stark and evocative paintings. Or indeed a classic ‘cowboys and Indians’ film set: Silverston has been the location for more movies than almost anywhere else in Australia (the pub has the inside scoop).
Alongside these endearing eccentricities, Silverston also has an inspiring, thriving art community. Outback-inspired works (jewellery, photography, painting, ceramics, found art – some serious, some fun) are exhibited in a handful of postcard-worthy art galleries.
Mutawintji National Park
This vast, spectacular national park lies 130km northeast of Broken Hill. Indigenous Australians have lived in the area for thousands of years, and there is a rich collection of ancient Aboriginal rock art, including important engravings and hand stencils, plus scattered remains of their day-to-day life. Many of these are protected within the Mutawintji Historic Site, which is only accessible with a guide. There are some excellent tours to choose between, operating from Broken Hill.
Like other outback mining communities, the ramshackle town of Lightning Ridge throws up quality characters and gems alike. It’s one of the world’s few sources of valuable black opals, and several of the Ridge’s underground mines and opal showrooms are open to the public.
Our favourite is the remarkable Chambers of the Black Hand, where artist and miner Ron Canlin has turned a 40ft-deep mining claim into a cavernous gallery of carvings and paintings: superheroes, celebrities, pharaohs, buddhas, animals, you name it. The ornate abyss is equal parts tacky and inspired.
The Ridge is a hugely entertaining place to spend a few days – pick up a handout from the visitor centre and follow the four self-drive ‘car door’ tours, which explore different areas of interest around town. Each tour is marked by coloured car doors (green, blue, yellow and red), demonstrating the community’s ingenuity and wit. Call in to the John Murray Art Gallery for more clever and irreverent takes on outback life.