The large sign on the side of a slag heap welcomes visitors to Cobar. Driving into town, a large sign on the left of the highway reads “Welcome to Nyngan” while, on the right, the sign continues with “and the Great Outback”. I must confess that it’s the second part of the welcome sign that excites me more.
There’s not too much to see in Nyngan and I stop only briefly for a quick stroll along the main street and to take a photo in front of the Big Bogan, a rather quirky addition to the list of Australia’s big things. It was erected in 2015, not because Nyngan has any more tinnie-drinking singlet-wearing folk than anywhere else in rural New South Wales, but because it sits on the shore of the Bogan River in the Bogan Shire Council. (And I’m told there’s an excellent caravan park on said river that’s particularly popular in school holidays.)
But I don’t have time to stay there myself, instead pushing ahead into the reddening dirt of the Great Outback of NSW that the sign has just welcomed me to, with a plan to stop for a day in Cobar.
Driving along the 600-kilometre stretch of the Barrier Highway between Nyngan and Broken Hill, Cobar stands out as a town of note. Your arrival is certainly not hard to miss, with the word Cobar spelled out with enormous rust-coloured metallic letters jutting out from a concrete wall on the side of an old slag heap.
This isn’t just any old slag heap, though. This is where Cobar began to flourish, after copper was discovered on the site in 1870. The Great Cobar Copper Mine, as it came to be known, was one of the largest mining and processing operations in the world at the time, employing more than 2000 people. The mine’s new administration building, constructed in 1912, is now the town’s heritage museum (although it’s currently closed for a refurbishment until the middle of next year).
Copper lost its value after the World War I and Cobar may have fallen the way of many former mining towns, except something even more precious was found here – gold! The first gold mine opened in Cobar in 1934 and there have been operations in the area on and off since then. Today mining, including gold, is still an important part of the town’s dynamics.
As a visitor, you can get a sense of this at the Fort Bourke Hill Lookout. From the viewpoint just out of town, you can look into the New Cobar Mine, with a snaking dirt road winding down from the surface to the lowest level of the open cut pit, where I spot a large vehicle emerging from a black entrance into the rock. Apparently more than 200 dump-truck loads are brought out of the mine every week.
A little further down the road is the Peak Gold Mine, which unfortunately isn’t as visible for tourists. Still, there’s a short trail set out for curious visitors like me, leading past historic mine shafts, with rusty equipment on display and some information signs. A ‘lookout’ less than two metres off the ground gives you a vantage point of some of the mine’s buildings and a small sign explains, almost apologetically, that the trail will be redeveloped soon.
Back in town, you can follow suggestions for a different heritage trail that will take you past the historic buildings of Cobar, including miners’ residences, churches, and shopfronts. Aside from the big beer can above the Grand Hotel (perhaps left there by Nyngan’s big bogan?), my highlight is the Great Western Hotel. Built in 1895, it’s said to have the longest pub balcony in New South Wales and, by my estimation, the largest meals and the cheapest beer too! The next morning, when I meet up with Trudy Rogers, she tells me I was lucky I wasn’t there on a Wednesday night, which is when the miners finish their long shifts and pack the place.
Trudy was born in Cobar and owns Gumnuts Gifts and Homewares on the main street. Although a lot of the space is taken up with souvenirs and arts and crafts, there is also a cafe serving some of the best coffee in town – something the locals appreciate.
“The mining community is really good for our town and that’s generally what sustains us,” she tells me.
But it seems the tourists also recognise the community spirit.
“I think they get a sense of the friendliness; I get that feedback a lot,” Trudy says. “They don’t expect Cobar to be such a good clean sort of little town.”
I’ve heard a few stories of travellers who were so pleasantly surprised with Cobar that they decided to stay longer than expected. But, having said that, I feel like I’ve exhausted the town’s sights by the end of my full day here.
The only thing left for me to see is at Mount Grenfell, a historic site about 70 kilometres drive west. The property contains some of the best Indigenous rock art in the country, with about 1300 images painted on overhangs by the Ngiyampaa people, human and animal figures alongside colourful representations of the landscapes. (From the art sites, there’s a five-kilometre hiking trail to see more of the natural environment.)
These ancient paintings, treasures of Indigenous history, get their vibrancy from the natural tints in the earth – the same earth that would eventually be mined for the metallic treasures within it. Riches, heritage, community. These days, it’s all part of the ‘Great Outback’.
Take me there
What to do:
- Get a great view across an open cut mine from the Fort Bourke Hill Lookout.
- See a bit of mining history on the Golden Walk at the Peak Gold Mine
- Explore the history of Cobar with the Heritage Trail through town.
- Discover hundreds of Indigenous artworks on the rocks at Mount Grenfell, about 70 kilometres’ drive from Cobar.
Where to eat:
Where to stay: