Page 61

Gilgandra, Cobar and Broken Hill


As we left Tamworth a dark grey overcast was shrouding the tops of the hills. It soon enveloped us as we climbed out of the Peel Valley. The rain started, hardly to stop for the whole journey. I was really glad I'd washed the caravan the night before we left . . .

Gilgandra is quite a small town; we found the caravan park on one bank of the swollen, muddy Castlereagh River. It was an informal and very friendly park run by a husband and wife with whom we felt an immediate rapport. The rain paused and we were able to set up the caravan wherever we chose as the place was all but deserted. After the wet journey, a priority was to wash the road dirt off the caravan. No sooner had I got out the hose and bucket than thunder, which had been threatening for some time, became serious; the sky was very black and suddenly it bucketed down, trapping me for half an hour in the toilet block, of all places. When it passed over I washed the 'van and then we walked to the local pub where we had a few drinks and something to eat. And that, in a nutshell, was our visit to Gilgandra; a friendly place but with nothing to hold the tourist. We left the following morning.

The journey to Cobar was wet so the caravan was soon mud spattered again. Ho-hum. For most of the 300 km trip we passed between partly submerged paddocks and road verges. They keep telling us the farmers need the rain; well farmers, you've got it with knobs on.

We passed through one little town with a quaint name . . .


Nevertire, previously Warren Pond, has a population of 331. The main building, the Nevertire Hotel, serves as a bar, hotel, motel, post office and restaurant. Once this little village had a railway station, a school and a general store but ... no more.

On arrival at Cobar's one and only caravan park we were greeted by a "NO CARAVAN OR CAR WASHING" sign. Bum! We had hardly finished setting up when, for no apparent reason, the wind rapidly increased to gale force bringing down one of the park's trees. Then it died, just as quickly. Creepy!

Fallen Tree

It was as well there was no caravan on the concrete pad when this tree fell.

I've often suspected Pam has occult powers. Mr Park Manager, next time we call at Cobar Caravan Park you'd better wash our car and caravan if you value your trees. Okay?

The average rainfall in Cobar is only 352 millimetres a year but a week or two before we arrived they had received over 100 millimetres in just two hours! Part of the roof of a pub we visited had collapsed and water had poured through, demolishing part of the floor in the bar. They were still open for business, however. They're made of stern stuff in Cobar.

This town was quite a bit larger than Gilgandra and is very much a mining town. The local Information Centre incorporates a museum, some of which was very interesting. In the yard outside there was a beaut twelve cylinder diesel engine that had put a rod through its crankcase and had the heads removed from one bank of cylinders. Magic! And poor Pam missed it. The lady attendant pointed us towards the local New Cobar Gold Mine which has a viewing platform on its rim. This vantage point afforded an excellent view down into the open cut section of the mine.

Open Cut Gold Mine

A truck descending 500 ft. down the precarious zig-zag track cut into the side of the pit. At the
bottom the road disappears into a tunnel which descends to a depth of 2,000 feet below the surface.

Haulpack and Mine

Left: A huge dumper truck appeared out of the wormhole and ground its way slowly up the switchback
carrying a load of ore. After it had tipped its load it returned empty and - right picture - popped back down its hole.

When the open cut pit had been worked out, they bored into the side of it and carried on down for another 1,500 feet in tunnels well below sea level. The deeper they went, the richer the ore became.

After being deposited on a stockpile, the ore is transported by road to a larger mine where it is processed and gold and copper is recovered from it. We asked if there were mine tours available but this mine works 24/7 so one of us was disappointed. No way was the other one going into some giant bug's nest anyway.

We only stayed in Cobar two nights before hitching up again and heading for Broken Hill, nearly 500 km to the west.
Broken Hill

Well, we'd been given conflicting reports on Broken Hill which just proves you gotta go and see for yourself. People told us there was no point in staying. Others told us a week was too long. We found the place was just fabulous, there is so much to see, so much history - living history. After two days we realised that a week wasn't going to be enough. The Tour Director, Short Wheel Base, also known as Pam, had left the Information Office bare-shelved as her eyes lit up at everything we could do and see.
The Birth of the Broken Hill Proprietory (B.H.P.)

Has anybody not heard of BHP, one of the biggest companies in the world, presently attempting to purchase Rio Tinto? Come on, you're kidding, right? Right. Well, this corporate giant started life in Broken Hill when a boundary rider called Charles Rasp thought he'd found oxide of tin on a hill in 1883. He sent a sample for analysis and the results showed no tin but good quantities of lead, zinc and some silver. Charlie pegged a claim and told his boss, the land owner, that he could stick his job. Well, the land owner didn't like the idea of loads of prospectors roaming over his land so he suggested to Charlie that he form a syndicate of seven, Charlie and six more of his employees.

"Charlie," he probably said. "This mining business costs money to set up. How much you got, Charlie? Right, I thought so. Well, I suggest you set up a syndicate of, say, seven. You and six of my other lads. Each must invest £100. If the claim is as good as you think it is, you'll all be rich."

And so it was. A syndicate was formed which did not include George McCulloch, the land owner. He must have thought it was a wild dream and would soon blow over. The syndicate immediately bought all the land adjoining the claim to prevent other miners moving in next door and burrowing into their find. Within one year they struck a rich vein of silver which stretched for 7½ km. The syndicate bought up all the land. Mining started and they soon discovered more rich veins of silver. Realising the need for considerably more capital, on 10 August of 1885 they registered the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited on the Melbourne Stock Exchange with 16,000 shares at £20 each. By the end of the year the mine had produced ore worth £42,866. The company went on to become BHP and later, BHP Billiton - 'The Big Australian'.

Did all seven members of the original syndicate become millionaires? No, some did, some didn't. Some sold their shares for a pittance before the true value was realised and the purchasers went on to become rich beyond their dreams. What about the land owner, George McCulloch? Did he kick himself all the way back to his native Scotland? History doesn't tell us . . . but we can guess.

A person who did make a killing was Sir Sidney Kidman who swapped 41 rather poor steers for half of one of the syndicate member's shares. One version of the story says that Sid was repaying a favour he owed the man and, at that time there was no way he could have predicted what this half share would yield. However, it was 'coals to Newcastle' as far as Sid was concerned for he was probably the richest man in Australia, already owning cattle country covering half the east side of the continent. Just out of interest, Nicole Kidman the actress, is from the same Kidman family.

Quite close to Broken Hill are the remains of a town called Silverton. In its day it was a silver mining town as its name suggests, but when the rich mineral ore body was discovered in Broken Hill in 1882, many of the inhabitants packed up and moved, some even transporting their houses. Today Silverton is better known as a ghost town and over a hundred and forty films have been shot on that location. Many of the films are well known, such as A Town Like Alice, Mad Max II, Golden Soak, Pricilla Queen of the Desert, Dirty Deeds and Razorback. Also many television commercials have been filmed there.

The only businesses remaining in Silverton seem to be the old Gaol Museum, a café, several art studios and, of course, the pub ...

Silverton Hotel

The Silverton Hotel has been renamed for so many different films that it must be suffering an identity crisis.

Parked at the front is a replica of the car used in Mad Max II. In its day it gleamed but time and sunshine have taken their toll.

Inside the Silverton Hotel the walls are covered in photographs from the various films and hanging from the ceiling are placards such as:
By a strange coincidence, in the bar with us was the State Minister for Tourism with his entourage. He stood on a stool so he could hold the placard and be photographed with it. I watched all this performance going on, not knowing who he was at that time though his smart attire should have been a clue. What a photo opportunity missed!

On the way to Silverton we diverted to a disused silver mine where I took a tour below ground. The Daydream Mine had been a small, manually operated affair with no machine winches to lower miners and haul up ore. It was more like a foxhole in the earth sloping steeply downwards. There was a handrail but only the roughest of steps and the roof was usually too low to allow upright stance.

Mine Entrance

This was another entrance to the mine. It gives a good impression of the hole we went down but without the railway.

Below ground it was deliciously cool but we were soon all sweating with exertion. There were no lights other than the battery operated ones on our helmets. Among the group was a friendly German couple, the lady being the only female amongst us. I only show the following picture to illustrate the gear we all wore.

German Couple

Deep underground the guide lit a candle and asked us all to turn off our helmet lights so that we could experience the conditions under which the miners had worked. Even though our eyes had accustomed to the gloom it seemed impossible that men could spend so many hours working by candle-light. The guide produced a long steel chisel and inserted the sharpened end into a hole in the rock.

"Right", he said, "Who wants to swing the sledge hammer?"

There was silence. Eventually somebody was coaxed into having a go.

"There were two or three men working together," he told us. "One would hold the chisel while another hit it. The one holding the chisel had to turn it between each blow so that it cut a circular hole in the rock. Every so often they would scoop out the rubble, perhaps swap jobs, then carry on cutting. One hole could take an hour or more. When the hole was about eighteen inches deep they would insert explosives, light the fuse and then get the hell out of there."

Miriam and partner about to go underground.

Keep imagining all this by the light of a candle. After allowing time for the worst of the dust to settle, they would return and their first task would be to make the place safe by removing any rock that might become dislodged and fall on them, then the rubble would be cleared and taken to the surface where boys were employed to sort it. If there were no minerals in the rock, it would be left below ground, stacked in disused sections of tunnel. The average lifespan of these miners was considerably less than any other occupation of the time, but there was always that rich vein just a few inches ahead that would make them all rich. It was the Daydream Mine after all.
The Umberumberka Reservoir

From Silverton we visited the nearby Umberumberka Reservoir which supplies a percentage of Broken Hill's water. It was very difficult to imagine any water in that environment. As we drove out to the reservoir we came across a lookout just before the road dropped down onto the Mundi Mundi Plain. The lookout faced west and we were able to see forever, it seemed, across a parched desert to the shimmering horizon. Although still in New South Wales we were close to the South Australian border and much of what we could see was in that state. Scattered about were maybe a dozen dust devils (also known as willy-willies; small whirlwinds carrying dust high into the air).

Dust Devils across the Desert

The Mundi Mundi Plain with Dust Devils sucking sand high into the air. Looking left or right, the picture was the same.

Looking at the photograph above you can appreciate how surprising it was to find so much water so close. We drove up a short access road, over a crest, and there it was ...


The Umberumberka Reservoir has a capacity of nine megalitres.
The average annual rainfall in the 407 square kilometre catchment is only 225 mm.

A small reservoir, and the watermarks on the dam wall indicates it is far from full. However, the water wasn't the only surprising thing we saw there. Walking towards us along the top of the dam wall were six people who looked totally out of place in such a harsh environment. There were three men in office attire, one wearing a tie, and three women, equally smartly dressed, and all wearing high heels! I couldn't resist snapping them from the rear as they passed me.

Suits in the Desert

Now what was this bunch doing in the middle of nowhere, the nearest buildings being a ghost town?
High heels and cuff links? Hardly approved outback attire.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 61 was completed on 11th June 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.