The Aboriginal people have described the powerful Australian Outback landscape in their Dreamtime legends for thousands of years. It can be a combination of many things – rock formations, unusual shaped trees, a hidden waterhole, the way the evening light etches a cliff face of red rock – for any one of a number of reasons, the location can be said to have “spirit of place”.
In Australia, in far western New South Wales, about 30km west of Broken Hill, half a dozen kilometres past Silverton — the old mining town turned artists’ enclave and the showpiece of many an Australian movie and TV ad — there is a place.
The funny thing is, there’s really nothing there.
But all that nothing is something.
Where the bitumen road dips down to the dusty vastness of the Mundi Mundi Plains, a few kilometres before the turn-off to the Umberumberka Reservoir, there is magic.
It’s here, on the edge of nowhere, that you can watch the sun set bruised red or bronze yellow in a treeless plain which is so flat that sweeping your gaze from left to right along the horizon, you can see the curvature of the Earth with the naked eye.
While I was waiting in the chilly air of the dying desert light to photograph the day’s sunset, a young couple parked their car nearby on the gravel verge of the road, unpacked a card table, two deck chairs, glasses and a cold bottle of champagne and quietly drank a toast to the setting sun.
The two station hands I had seen having a beer in the bar of the Silverton Hotel a half an hour before interrupted the silence as they passed in a 4WD ute, quickly lost from view where the road dips down to the plain.
The ute appeared a few minutes later in front of a plume of rising dust, heading for the glowing disc of the sinking sun to some place beyond sight.
This place on the edge of the Mundi Mundi Plains has so moved some that they have erected a small stone monument — a memorial headstone to a departed mate, its words roughly etched in concrete with a stone or stick – K.G. Dodd, 1940-2003.
Beneath the name are the words: “Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same again.”
You would be hard pressed to find a more humble epitaph to Australian mateship in a more fitting location.
Of course, there’s plenty more to see in Broken Hill than sunsets and monuments.
The fate of the Silver City has long been hinged on natural wealth. Since 1883, the vast ore deposits of Broken Hill have yielded more than 153 million tonnes of silver, lead and zinc.
But while mining has suffered the vagaries of tumbling ore prices and global recession, Broken Hill is still selling a priceless resource — art.
It’s the hometown of iconic Australian bush painter Pro Hart and the birthplace of the Brushmen of the Bush Outback art renaissance of the 1960s led by Hart and fellow artists Eric Minchin, Hugh Schulz, Jack Absalom and John Pickup.
You can lose entire afternoons mooching through the 27 art galleries around the Hill and in nearby Silverton.
The Living Desert Flora and Fauna Sanctuary and its iconic stone sculptures is a nine-kilometre drive from Broken Hill, where you can wander the Barrier Ranges on well defined walking trails which highlight the history and geology of the region.
Don’t go past the Daydream Mine, 20km out from Broken Hill on the Silverton Road and, through three gates, at the end of a 13km graded dirt road.
The mine tour takes you more than 100m beneath the desert floor, into the dimly-lit world of the 18th Century miners who first dug into the Barrier Ranges in 1882, taking six years to drive a shaft 288 feet through granite.
Over 14 years, 22,000 tonnes of silver was mined at Daydream, worth more than $45 million.
Stop at the Silverton Hotel to wash the dust from your throat with a beer. Check out the walls covered in memorabilia of past visiting film crews, including probably the most famous, the creators of the film Mad Max.
Bi-planes made from beer cans are on sale, suspended from the ceiling, and if you are looking for more exotic and eccentric forms of art, the locals are happy to pass the time of day out here, where there seems to be all the time in the world.
But, whatever you do, don’t head back to Broken Hill without driving the extra 6km west to the edge of the Mundi Mundi Plains.
Because it’s there you will discover a lot of nothing, which means everything.
For more information, visit www.visitbrokenhill.com.au
Heading home at sunset 2- Mundi Mundi Plains – © Vincent Ross
Heading home at sunset 1 – Mundi Mundi Plains 1 – © Vincent Ross
Ruins at sunset, Silverton © Vincent Ross
Daydream Mine 185ft down – guide Jason White © Vincent Ross
Silverton humour © Vincent Ross