At the Silverton Hotel – the only drinking hole in town – publican Peter Price tells me that this little NSW outback community has a population of “35 people and 4 donkeys”. It seems apt. It’s not fair to call Silverton a one-horse town, but a four-donkey town is probably about right.
Because, in terms of infrastructure, there’s not much left here in Silverton, which is just past Broken Hill and about 20 kilometres from the border with South Australia. But what it lacks in buildings these days, it makes up with personality, because everyone here has a story … and they’re happy to share it.
It’s hard to believe now that, not long after it was officially founded in 1883, Silverton had a population of more than 3000 people, all here for the booming mining industry. There was once a hospital, a jail, a jockey club, even a stock exchange. And it was here that a company was founded that would make many Australians very wealthy. Its name? BHP.
There were once about 10 pubs in Silverton (“I often wonder whether drinking was the main way of earning an income or bloody digging holes was,” Peter Price jokes) but now there’s just the one, although Peter and his wife Patsy have expanded it, with a large outdoor area and accommodation.
“I often refer to it as the nerve centre of the world,” Peter laughs. “I think it’s typical that the pub is the centre point of any small community, because we’re always open and there’s a multitude of different services we provide.”
If the pub is the heart of the community, John Dynon is possibly the soul – although he describes himself as “the mayor, the sheriff, and the town drunk”. Born in Broken Hill, he worked on sheep stations and as a miner, and was inspired creatively by the Outback. Some 35 years ago, he became a full-time artist and set up his gallery and studio in Silverton.
It’s easy to spot the gallery, the corrugated iron walls of the shed painted a patchwork of colours, with old bikes attached as an installation, and a bushranger statue standing guard. Inside, John is sitting in front of a painting that he’s working on when I walk in, but he’s happy to have a chat, telling me in his cheeky tone how he still finds inspiration everywhere.
“Driving, when the sun’s setting, I’m nearly running into people the whole way home because I’m looking in the mirror at the sunset, I forget I’m driving!”
John’s paintings capture the NSW Outback, but so does Silverton. Only a smattering of original buildings remains, and it takes a few minutes to walk across the dry dusty ground between them. The Methodist church from 1885, the public school from 1888, the council chambers from 1889. The most interesting is the Silverton Gaol Museum where the 18 rooms and cells have been transformed into exhibitions on the history of the town and the region, with more to see than you could probably ever fit into one visit!
It would have been easy for Silverton to have turned itself into a caricature of an outback ghost town, but by staying authentic, the community has been able to embrace tourism in a natural way. The old buildings are used for genuine small businesses and passion projects.
There’s probably nobody in Silverton more passionate about their project than Adrian Bennett. An Englishman who became a fan of the movie Mad Max 2 as a youngster, he came to Silverton on a holiday in 2004 to see some of the spots where the movie was filmed. In the middle of the desert, 16,000 kilometres from home, he decided he should move his family here and open a museum dedicated to his favourite movie, which he did in 2010.
“I was really surprised to find there was nothing for people to visit that paid homage to any of the movies, including Mad Max 2, which I thought was really odd considering the impact it had not just on Australia but the world,” Adrian tells me.
The museum is full of memorabilia from the movies, including costumes and vehicles. Much of it has been donated by locals and crew but Adrian has also managed to find a lot of it buried in the nearby desert, from a time when cleaning up after a movie shoot wasn’t the priority.
The movie fans usually head out a few more kilometres from Silverton to the Mundi Mundi Lookout, where a famous chase scene from Mad Max 2 was filmed. But even for those who don’t appreciate the cinematic significance, the lookout is popular for the view – seemingly endless flat treeless plains that stretch to the horizon, where you can often clearly make out the curvature of the planet.
The lookout is a nice sunset spot, but I find an even better one. Or, by that, I mean that Stephen Schmidt from Eldee Station finds me a better one. Because I’ve continued past the lookout for another 25 kilometres to his station, where there are a few options for visitors. You can stay overnight in a camping spot or one of the rooms, drive along the great 4WD tracks that stretch across the property, or you can let Stephen take you on a tour to see a bit of real outback living.
“A lot of people reckon the Outback doesn’t start until Broken Hill, where it starts to get red and more arid and that’s what people want to see – it’s changed, it’s open, there’s vastness,” he says.
There is vastness, but there’s also detail. Stephen shows me a creek amongst the hills, ruins of old homesteads, feral goats looking for food, and some of his livestock. There’s a reason people tend to stay at Eldee Station for a few nights to explore the area.
As I watch the sunset from a hilltop (complete with a plate of snacks prepared by Stephen’s wife, Naomi), I realise that I started the day in a four-donkey town and am finishing it at a 1000-sheep and 50-cow station. The Outback sure can be mad.
Take me there
What to do:
- See the impressive collection of memorabilia at the Mad Max 2 Museum.
- Browse the art and have a chat at the John Dynon Art Gallery, or pop into some of the other galleries in town.
- Wander through Silverton to see the interesting collection of heritage buildings.
- Learn more about the region’s history at the Silverton Gaol Museum.
- Go 4WDing or take a tour at Eldee Station.
Where to eat:
Where to stay: