With the largest regional public gallery in New South Wales and 27 private galleries, Broken Hill has more places per capita to see art than anywhere else in Australia. The Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, Chloride Street, between Blende and Beryl streets (tel. 08/8080 3440; www.brokenhill.net.au/bhart/main.html), has a big collection of Australian colonial and Impressionist works. Look for the Silver Tree, a sculpture created out of the pure silver mined beneath Broken Hill. This is also a good place to see works by the "Brushmen of the Bush," a well-known group of artists including Pro Hart, Jack Absalom, Eric Minchin, and Hugh Schultz who spend many days sitting around campfires in the bush trying to capture its essence in paint. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 5pm.
Be sure not to miss the School of the Air -- the largest schoolroom in the world, with students scattered over 800,000 sq. km (312,000 sq. miles) -- it conducts lessons via two-way radios due to the enormity of the Australian interior. Visitors can listen in on part of the day's first teaching session Monday through Friday at 8:250am (except school and public holidays). Bookings are essential and must be made the day before through the Broken Hill Visitors Information Centre. The Royal Flying Doctor Service base is at the Broken Hill Airport (tel. 08/8080 1777). The service maintains communication with more than 400 Outback stations, ready to fly at once in case of an emergency. Visitor hours are Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. Admission is A$6 for adults and A$3 for children.
Visiting a Ghost Town
At least 44 movies have been filmed in the Wild West town of Silverton (pop. 50), 23km (14 miles) northwest of Broken Hill. It's the Wild West Australian-style, though, with camels instead of horses tethered in front of the Silverton Pub. Silverton once had a population of 3,000 following the discovery of silver here in 1882. There are some good art galleries here, as well as a restored jail and hotel.
Discovering Aboriginal Handprints
Mutawintji National Park (also known and pronounced by its old name, Mootwingee), 130km (81 miles) northeast of Broken Hill, was one of the most important spiritual meeting places for Aborigines on the continent. Groups came from all over to peck out abstract engravings on the rocks with sharpened quartz tools and to sign their handprints to show they belonged to the place. The ancient, weathered fireplaces are still here, laid out like a giant map to show where each visiting group came from. Hundreds of ocher outlines of hands and animal paws, some up to 30,000 years old, are stenciled on rock overhangs. The fabulous 2-hour Outback trip from Broken Hill to Mootwingee is along red-dirt tracks not really suitable for two-wheel-drives. It should not be attempted after a heavy rain.
The National Park office (tel. 1300/361 967 in Australia, or 08/8080 3200) has details on walks. You can camp at the Homestead Creek campground for around A$5 per person per night. It has its own water supply, but no firewood is available. Book through the National Park office.
Exploring White Cliffs
White Cliffs, 290km (180 miles) east of Broken Hill, is an opal-mining town that's bigger than it looks. To escape the summer heat, most houses are built underground in mine shafts, where the temperature is a constant 72°F (22°C). Unlike Lightning Ridge , which produces mainly black opals, White Cliffs is known for its less valuable white opals -- as is Coober Pedy in South Australia. Prospecting started in 1889, when kangaroo shooters found the colorful stones on the ground. A year later, the rush was on, and by the turn of the 20th century, about 4,000 people were digging and sifting in a lawless, waterless hell of a place. White Cliffs is smaller than Coober Pedy and less touristy -- which is its charm. You also have more freedom to wander around the opal tailings here, which is discouraged in Coober Pedy. Given the choice between White Cliffs and Lightning Ridge, I'd opt for the latter -- though if you have time, you should see both.
The countryside here looks like an inverted moonscape, pimpled with bone-white heaps of gritty clay dug from the 50,000 mine shafts that surround the town. These days, White Cliffs is renowned for its eccentricity. Take Jock's Place, for instance, an underground museum full to the beams with junk pulled from old mine shafts. Then there's a house made of beer flagons, and a 9-hole dirt golf course where locals play at night with fluorescent green balls.
A Fabulous Place to Enjoy the Sunset
Just outside Broken Hill, in the Living Desert Nature Park, is the best collection of sculptures this side of Stonehenge. Twelve sandstone obelisks, up to 3m (10 ft.) high and carved totemlike by artists from as far away as Georgia, Syria, Mexico, and the Tiwi Islands, make up the Sculpture Symposium. Surrounding them on all sides is brooding mulga scrub. It's fantastic at sunset.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.