Friday, August 13, 2010

A Trip to South Australia 2 / Broken Hill to Flinders Ranges

After 3 hours driving through flat semi arid desert country, the Barrier Range starts to appear on the horizon. This is the location of Broken Hill, the ‘Silver City’ and a new time zone despite the fact we are still in New South Wales. Very isolated from the east coast and Sydney, the city considers itself part of South Australia and Adelaide its contact with the outside world.

First explored by Europeans in 1841 (Aborigines had lived here for 40,000 years), this area soon became pastoral land. By the 1860’s most of the small farms had failed and it became a huge holding owned by the ‘cattle king’ Sir Sidney Kidman. One of his boundary riders, Charles Rasp, was a amateur geologist and collected a few rock samples from a broken hill during his patrol of fences on Mount Gipps station (ranch) which he thought had some potential. Assay results were positive and he and a syndicate of six others filed a mining claim. In 1885 they struck a rich vein of silver. The lode would turn out to be an arc 7.5 km (4.5 mi) long and 250m (275 yds) wide. It is the largest and richest ore body of its kind in the world already yielding $100 billion worth of silver, lead and zinc with no end in sight.

The population of this new town mushroomed to 20,000 within eight years of this find and soon the main street, Argent, which runs parallel with the ore loaded hill, The Line of Lode, boasted numerous fine public buildings as well as many of the sixty licensed hotels that had also sprung up.
Chronic water shortages were offset by water carrying camel trains led by their Afghan drivers. The camels were subsequently let loose, became feral, and have become quite a problem in the outback since. The water supply difficulties were finally resolved in 1952 with a 109km (68 mi)pipeline from the Menindee Lakes on the Darling River.
Conditions for the miners were terrible. They suffered all sorts of lung diseases and heavy metal poisoning. Hundreds were killed underground. Industrial unrest lead to the formation of one of Australia’s strongest union movements, the Barrier Industrial Council, which is an affiliation of eighteen unions. The miners went on strike in the 1920’s for better safety, health and wage conditions and stayed out for 18 months. They won in the end and were the first in the country to be awarded a 35 hour week. At the height of mining activity in the 1950’s, 6000 men worked underground there. It is still very much a union town with the Trades Hall and the Social Democratic Club (The Demo) prominent in the main street. There is also a monument in the town square to the women who stood by their men during the troubled industrial times.
Broken Hill is also home to the Royal Flying Doctor Service that provides medical care to the outback and the School of the Air which provides education via radio to the remote mining and aboriginal communities as well as outback rural properties.

It's difficult to forget you are in a mining town with the huge mullock heaps that dominate the skyline. We drove up onto the one above the Line of Lode. They have built a restaurant up there as well as a a miner's memorial to the 900 or so who lost their lives underground and another to the only two whose bodies have never been recovered after a rockfall in 1902.
It's an impressive view over the surrounding countryside from this vantage point.

In complete contrast is the development of a very strong arts movement in the city. "The Brushmen of the Bush" were five artists who started painting the starkly lit outback images back in the 1960's. Today there are at least 50 painters, photographers, sculptors and potters with 27 or so private galleries and studios to visit. In addition there is the impressive public Regional Art Gallery chock full of work for local and indigenous artists.
One of the original five was the late Pro Hart. He has been a favourite of mine for many years although all I could afford was a signed print back in the early '70's. He had many styles but I liked his outback country life scenes which are painted in naive form. These have lots of characters going about their business and always, if you looked closely, some amusing mini scenes eg. like the drunk Santa Claus lying in the dusty street outside a pub in one of his Bush Christmas paintings. His horses always have wheels! He is very Bruegel like in his depiction of every day life.

We visited his gallery which hangs a host of his paintings and shows off some huge outdoor sculptures. And his studio is exactly the way it was on the day he died in 2006. Pro was born in Broken Hill and was a miner. He took up painting to preserve his sanity after 19 years of long days underground. "Discovered" in 1962, he eventually dedicated the rest of his life to art. He experimented with sculpture, etchings, silkscreen and giclees. He worked with oils, acrylics, watercolours and used layering, chiaroscuro, glazing and alla prima. Always the eccentric, he dropped paint from hot air balloons, fired paint out of cannons as well as blowing up sheet metal with black powder and turning the results into sculpture. He also loved music and taught himself to play a huge pipe organ which takes pride of place in the gallery. He was very fond of Bach. He also collected cars, especially Rolls Royce and Bentleys and did some pretty amazing things to some of them. The co driver has never been a fan of his work but I think she may be a convert now after seeing many of his other styles.
About 25km out of the city lies the ghost town of Silverton which was initially spawned by a gold and silver rush in 1883. In 1888 the first privately owned railway in Australia linked the town to Broken Hill. However the ore soon ran out and by 1900 most of the 3000 inhabitants had up and left for Broken Hill, many taking their houses with them via jinkers pulled by camels, bullocks and donkeys. It's strange to see the few permanent solid stone buildings sitting among blocks of vacant land and dusty streets.
Most people have seen Silverton and surrounds whether they know it or not. It has been the set for such movies as "Mad Max" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" as well as many TV series and advertisements. The only pub in town has Mad Max's car parked in its lot.

The town has a few artists and artisans eking out a living from the tourists and I noticed that Mad Max Museum was being built. Even further west at the edge of the mountain range lie the Mundi Mundi Plains. There is really nothing between here and the central Australian deserts. It must be one of the flattest places on earth. I swear I could see 'the curvature"

We drove a little further on looking for the Umberumberka reservoir and realised that once we had left the bitumen and were on a straight red dirt road disappearing over the horizon, we were on the wrong track. A quick check of the map saw we were on the 'road' to Cameron Corner (where the states of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia meet) some 500km away with no fuel, no habitation and probably no water in between. We quickly turned around.

Back in the the city we had heard about 'The Sculpture Symposium' so headed out of town once more around 10km. On a lonely hilltop called Sundown on 1st April 1993, in an area to become known as the Living Desert, 12 international sculptors began work on 53 tonnes of sandstone floaters that had been transported there. Seven weeks later the work was finished. To see these sitting on the skyline as the sun starts to set in the clear outback air is truly impressive and worthy of a separate blog entry which will come in due course.

It became apparent when walking around this area that the desert was indeed living. Flowering plants, shrubs and trees were everywhere. Another separate blog entry one day!
On the road out from the sculptures we suddenly saw a carpet of red ahead of us.
Sturt Desert Peas! And coincidentally the state flower of South Australia.

But it was time to hit the road west again.
Desert soon gave way to arid scrub and crossing the South Australian border we were soon across Goyder's Line and into rich green rolling hills. This was obviously wheat, sheep and eventually wine country.
We made a stop at Burra. It's hard to imagine that this tiny little sleepy town was, from 1845 to 1877, the site of one of the richest copper mines in the world with 5000 residents. Cornish, Welsh, Scots and English, 1600 of whom lived in dugouts cut into the banks of Burra Creek, extracted the ore by hand.
The mine opened again in 1970 and operated by open cut until 1981.
It was here that the co driver experienced her first Cornish pastie while she looked with envy at my South Australian specialty, a pie floater ie. the traditional Australian meat pie sitting in a plate of thick green pea and ham soup and usually covered with tomato sauce (ketchup). I know what you foreigners are thinking but it tastes delicious. Honestly!
Then it was onto the Clare Valley and our wonderful accommodation in Watervale for a few days.
The entire Clare Valley wine region covers only a length of 35km and ranges between 5 - 10km in width and produces just over 1% of Australia's wine. It is broken up into five sub-regions ie. Sevenhill, Clare, Watervale, Polish Hill River and Auburn. The Clare is prime Riesling country and nearly every winery in the valley produces it. The climate has a lot to do with the its success. The area experiences a continental climate with long hot days and cooling nights in summer which contribute to the flavours and the crisp acid retained in the wine. The valley is one of mainland Australia's coolest wine-growing regions. It was here, towards the turn of the last century, a collaboration of local winemakers saw all Clare Valley Rieslings put under Stelvin screwcap seals to minimise any chances of defect which was a watershed moment for the Australian and maybe the world's wine industry.
We tasted and bought this variety from Pikes, Annies Lane and Crabtree. The area's Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris were also interesting so some of those went in the back of the car too.
Our special lunch was at Skillogalee. Wild rabbit terrine and wild barramundi was for me while the co driver settled for a caramelised onion, goat's cheese and tomato tart followed by a duck based pasta dish. All this was washed down with one of their winery's excellent 2010 Riesling.
Clare Shiraz has an excellent reputation too but I was more interested to try their new plantings of Tempranillo. They are achieving good early results with this variety too.

The oldest winery in the Clare is Seven Hill. Established by the Jesuits in 1851 to produce altar wine, it has been making premium table wines for many years. It is a very pretty area with the church and immaculately kept gardens set amongst the vines. They have some of the oldest vines in Australia that were planted before 1860. The winemaker, Brother John May conducts tours of the grounds and winery two days a week and the tasting room and museum is open Monday to Friday.

After a couple of days in this beautiful region we realised we had not allocated enough time to do it justice. There is more there than just wine. But we had to move on. So heading north through the Mount Remarkable National Park which lies at the southern end of the Flinders Ranges and down onto the coastal plain through Horrocks Pass we suddenly saw the ocean, or rather Spencer Gulf, for the first time for a week. Then it was onto Port Augusta at the tip of the gulf to pick up supplies for our trip into the Flinders Ranges and to find an illusive quilt shop on the co driver's list. This we did at the junction of the Princes, Eyre and Stuart Highways. We has come as far west as intended. Perth and the Indian Ocean were 3000km further west across the Nullabor Plain and Darwin was 2700km north through the red centre. Stocked up with goodies, we headed into the mountains towards Wilpena.

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