Exploring Outback New South Wales
Crooked poles punctuate the desert landscape along the Barrier Highway, remnants of the old bush telegraph that was once the only point of contact between the outback and the rest of world. Kangaroos and emus laze along the roadside, while Dorper sheep and wild goats graze on patchy grass in vast farmlands. The paved road ends with a jolt and we follow a red-earth track lined with spotted leopard trees that, according to our guide Irving, are an important source of traditional medicine for the local Indigenous people.
We’re on our way to experience the Dreamtime stories of the Malyankapa and Pantjikali people in Mutawintji National Park: an ancient site with spiritual significance and home to a collection of prints and rock carvings estimated to be 35,000 years old. Mutawintji National Park is also a site of palaeontological importance and one of the few Devonian fossil localities in New South Wales.
The paved road ends with a jolt and we follow a red-earth track lined with spotted leopard trees that, according to our guide Irving, are an important source of traditional medicine for the local Indigenous people.
The Mutawintji Cultural Centre is our first stop inside the park and there we hear the story of Kuluwirru. This ancestral god, according to legend, lived in the Nuntherungie Hills north of Mutawintji with the seven sisters, aka the Witu Witu Terranya, or good teachers, who now appear as stars but once taught people the laws of the land. If the people were led astray, it was usually by a frog called Thinja. At some stage, Kuluwirru decided to teach the people a lesson in the form of a great drought that was followed by storms and floods. Once Kuluwirru was happy that the people had learnt their lesson, he made Mutawintji beautiful again and since that time it has been a sacred ceremonial site. Mutawintji was formally handed back to its traditional owners in 1998 and people from around the region continue their cultural connection to the land.
We walk among native hop bush and lemon grass under the careful watch of yellow-footed wallabies before we come to a clearing where Irving picks up a blackened stone, explaining that it’s clay from an underground termite nest that was used to warm food in a camp stove around 15,000 years ago. We pass an umbrella mulga tree and Irving picks up a fallen branch and raises it to his shoulder to demonstrate the custom of using them to make spears. We stop at a clearing, where he points out small slivers of rock that were used to make arrows for hunting.
From here, it’s a rocky scramble up to a russet-coloured cliff face, where images of a ship and a horseshoe are carved into the rockface. Historians believe these images were created by local people to tell the story of explorer Major Thomas Mitchell’s visit to the area in 1835. Traditional hand stencils adorn the rockface; some are created with red ochre that would have been traded around the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, while others are in white ochre — the mark of a tribal elder.
Traditional hand stencils adorn the rockface; some are created with red ochre that would have been traded around the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, while others are in white ochre - the mark of a tribal elder.
The prints were considered a birthright, explains Irving, something like a birth certificate, and many of them are thought to have been produced while people sheltered from the great flood that legend says Kuluwirru brought to the land. We come across a circular symbol carved deep into the rock — a symbol of secret women’s business at a nearby water hole — and our guide explains that it alerts men not to enter the forbidden site.
Irving points out faded lettering high on the cliff face above and explains that this was once an advertisement for the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains, more than 1000 kilometres away. It’s a preserved piece of what is known as heritage graffiti that was aimed at the Cobb & Co. coach passengers who once passed through here on the long road to Sydney.
Our exploration continues and we descend from the cliff face to a beige pebbled area: the remains of a 400 million-year-old sea bed. Two of the rocks are lined with the raised horseshoe-shaped footprints of an extinct giant sand scorpion whose muddy tracks turned to stone and remain as evidence of the ancient natural history of this place.
Across a dry creek bed we go, before climbing a ledge on which Kuluwirru’s stories of the Dreamtime were recorded in stone. The first image we see, etched into the stone in a pattern of small dots, is of a man holding a boomerang aloft and Irving explains that it’s there to welcome us to the area. Another image features a kangaroo and an emu side by side — coincidentally, not unlike the modern Australian coat-of-arms.
And this is just a taste of what’s to come: a walkway has been built over the rockface to protect the artworks and, as we walk across it, hundreds of images depicting the Dreamtime stories come into view. There are etchings of people, turtles, lizards, maps and symbols as far as the eye can see. Irving points out two lush waterholes and explains that, if legend is to be believed, these are the footsteps that Kuluwirru left behind when he came to Mutawintji to create a place of beauty and spiritual significance.
Our guide picks up two stones to demonstrate the painstaking pecking technique the artists used to create the etchings. One stone bounces off the other without leaving a mark and we can only imagine how much time and hard work went into creating such a lasting legacy.
As we leave Mutawintji and Irving carefully locks the gate, explaining that the site is carefully guarded by its traditional owners, I feel grateful that I’ve had the privilege of visiting a place of such ancient significance.
Menindee Lakes & Kinchega National Park
On the traditional land of the Paakantji (Barkindji) people, 111km southeast of Broken Hill, the vast Menindee Lakes system ebbs and flows with the seasonal fluctuations of the Darling River that feeds it. Our guide to this leg of the trip, Wayne, explains that the Paakantji people have lived continuously in the region for at least 35,000 years. In the past they came together to share the bounty of the lakes when they flooded, and some trees still bear scars where bark was removed to build canoes for fishing.
Made up of several lakes, the largest being Menindee, Wetherill, Cawndilla and Pamamaroo, the Menindee Lakes system can hold 3.5 times the water of Sydney Harbour; however, during our visit the lakes are almost dry and river redgums stretch their tangled branches skyward from patches of emerald grass that have taken advantage of the dry spell to spring up. Poached egg daisies dot the roadside, and glimmering shallow pools near the centre of the lake are all that remains of the last flood.
We take a break at Copi Hollow, a manmade lake constructed as a home for the Broken Hill Speedboat club, before driving through the holiday town of Sunset Strip. Here, on the banks of Lake Menindee, every home has a boat in the driveway. I find it incongruous in this dry landscape but Wayne reminds us that, once the lakes flood, they become waterside homes and the atmosphere in the area changes from one of arid desert to lakeside playground.
When lunchtime comes, we stop at the small town of Menindee, the oldest European settlement in western NSW and a stopover point for several of Australia’s early European explorers. Major Thomas Mitchell passed through here in 1835 ahead of Charles Sturt in 1844, and Burke and Wills stayed at the historic Maidens Hotel in 1860 while gathering supplies before embarking on their trip north toward the Gulf of Carpentaria. These days, Menindee is a quiet town, but it isn’t hard to imagine its heyday as a bustling frontier outpost.
Our next destination is in Kinchega National park, a section of a former 800,000-hectare pastoral wool station that stretches from Menindee to the South Australian border. Here, we visit the historic Kinchega Woolshed, where the echo of footsteps on the wooden slats and the distinct scent of lanolin is a lasting reminder of the 6 million sheep that passed through its shearing stalls in its 92 years of operation.
Kinchega Station also played a role in the expedition of Burke and Wills, who camped at nearby Paramaroo Creek and invited the station manager William Wright to join their party. We visit their campsite and Wayne explains that the expedition party of 15 men, 23 horses and 27 camels spent many months here preparing for their ultimately ill-fated journey into the interior and up to the Gulf.
It was a handy spot to have a base: the Darling River was once plied by steamers that delivered livestock and supplies and provided transport for people. We wend our way down the homestead drive that runs along the river bank, stopping to view the abandoned boiler of the paddle steamer Providence, which exploded here in 1872.
The Living Desert & Sculpture Symposium
I venture into the Living Desert in the Barrier Ranges, just 9km out of Broken Hill: a sanctuary created to allow visitors to experience the local flora and fauna, Indigenous heritage and the culture and history of the area alongside the well-known Sculpture Symposium. The nature trail is dotted with a few of the distinct scarlet blooms of the Sturt’s Desert Pea, named after explorer Charles Sturt who wrote prolifically about these striking native wildflowers that were abundant in the area when he made his expedition in 1844. As I meander along, I see Aboriginal camp ovens nearby, reminding me of the long history the traditional owners of the land have in this area.
The trail is carpeted in a patchwork of native plants. Dusky greens and splashes of yellow and mauve are occasionally interrupted by bursts of bright red, fringed by wattle trees, mulga bush and native apricots — all in contrast with the deep-red desert earth. It’s like a dress rehearsal for the spring that will arrive in the coming weeks to usher in wildflower season. Eastern grey kangaroos lurk inquisitively behind scrub and sulphur-crested cockatoos chatter while perched in skeletal tree branches and on rocky outcrops above.
Along the cultural walk, I am reminded of the area’s mining history by a re-created quartz quarry and a prospectors’ mine. A group of tent-like structures dot the landscape: yapara huts built by the local Bulati people, using emu bush and mulga branches to represent their cultural traditions and ties to the land. A group of story poles carved in river redgum by local students stand stark against the desert, telling the story of the youngsters’ ancestors to visitors and their own future generations.
A group of story poles carved in river redgum by local students stands stark against the desert, telling the story of the youngsters' ancestors to visitors and their own future generations.
As the afternoon sun starts to wane, I make my way up a hillside trail to witness what is known as one of the world’s best sunsets. I climb above the plains, taking in the seemingly endless view and the colours of the desert illuminated by the setting sun, and I realise why this remote part of the world has been such an inspiration to artists, many of whom now call it home. Pinks, yellows, reds, blues, greys — all seem more vivid here. I arrive at the Sculpture Symposium, where a lively group of travellers are viewing the sunset; the rapidly setting sun is replicated in varying sizes on a range of screens as the whirr of cameras breaks the silence.
The 12 sculptures in this park were first installed in 1993 as part of a sculpture symposium hosted by Lawrence Beck, an artist whose sculpture A Present for Fred Hollows in the Afterlife pays tribute to the late doctor who gave so much to the people of outback NSW. I am taken by Tiwi Islander Thomas Munkanome’s work Thomasina (Jillarruwi — The Ibis), a story of loss poignantly portrayed in its totem form. Broken Hill artist Badger Bates’ piece Nhatji (Rainbow Serpent) adds local flavour to the symposium, while the most photographed sculpture is Bajo El Sol Jaguar by Mexican sculptor Antonio Nava Tirado — ideally placed to catch the rays of the setting sun.
As the sun rounds the curve of the Earth to usher in the evening, I stand in awe of a landscape that holds so much ancient culture and natural history and continues to nurture and inspire.
Susanna Smith is a writer with a passion for health, fitness, animals, exploring the world and respecting the environment. She has worked extensively in health communications and specialises in writing about travel, health, social issues and nature. She loves a long walk and a good coffee. Find out more at susannasmith.net.
- Getting there
Broken Hill is located in far western NSW and is served by air, train and coach services.
Rex runs several flights daily to Broken Hill from Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.
The Indian Pacific Train, operated by Great Southern Rail, stops at Broken Hill on its journey between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. The Indian Pacific runs weekly in each direction and more frequently during peak travel times.
NSW TrainLink operates the Outback Explorer between Sydney and Broken Hill weekly, departing Mondays and returning Tuesdays. It also offers daily train and coach services via Dubbo.
Buses R Us provides regular coach services between Broken Hill and Adelaide.
- Staying there
There is a range of accommodation options in Broken Hill. For further information, get in touch with the Broken Hill Visitor Information Service.
- Getting around
Mutawintji National Park is only accessible on a licensed guided tour. Tri State Safaris provides regular trips to Mutawintji, Lake Menindee, Kinchega National Park, the Living Desert and other sites around Broken Hill and beyond.
Silver City Tours also organise tours to sites in the region.
The Living Desert is open daily from 9am to 5pm, March to November, and 6am to 2pm, December to February. The Sculpture Symposium remains open for half an hour after sunset.
The Silly Goat Cafe at 360 Argent Street Broken Hill serves a great range of fresh food and excellent coffee. It offers paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options.
The Palace Hotel Restaurant 227 Argent Street Broken Hill offers a wide range of pub food in the hotel featured in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
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