Flying to tropical resorts for drop-and-flop holidays is great but nothing beats the excitement, adventure and raw joy of a roadtrip holiday to the Aussie outback. When I’m cocooned in my office, I feel the pull of the open road, big skies, far horizons, red earth, friendly characters, new destinations, enticing road signs and a compelling sense of wonder.
And then there’s the camaraderie with your partner or friend as you sing along to your favourite tunes, share jokes or solve all the problems in the world. It’s time, it’s space, it’s a journey – and there’s nothing like it.
So when an opportunity arose suddenly, recently, to drive from Sydney to Broken Hill, I fled the office, grabbed my wife and hit the road, heading west, quickly swallowed by the vastness of our seemingly endless continent.
On the morning of our departure, our excitement was palpable. As almost empty nesters, our three kids grown up, we were like teenagers with no responsibilities other than a car and the road ahead. An early start meant a coffee stop in the Blue Mountains to fuel our journey, well aware the scenery of rolling green ranges would soon be replaced by equally beautiful desert plains.
It’s amazing how roadtrips also bring you closer to your companion. You talk, laugh, reminisce, dream and offer running commentary on the scenery that unfolds around you.
When most people think of the outback, they think of Uluru and Alice Springs – the Red Centre – but the NSW outback is also an enticing canvass of raw, desert beauty – without the crowds. An ideal outback loop from Sydney can take you to Cobar, White Cliffs and Broken Hill and back via Mildura and Wagga Wagga, covering a great swathe of western NSW and opening up places most city dwellers on the coastal fringes have never been to.
The food and wine centre of Mudgee called for a morning-tea stop and just past Dubbo we dug out our picnic and thermos of coffee and feasted at a roadside stop, toasting the point at which neat civilisation stops and the rusty outback begins. We knew we were ‘out the back’ because the Mitchell Hwy from Dubbo to Nyngan was dead straight and the scenery dead flat. Open, free-range scenery like this clears the mind, I think, and opens scope for new perspectives.
Nyngan is the first frontier-style town we encounter – the pace is slow, the air relaxed and the locals aren’t in a hurry going anywhere. Nyngan is now famous for The Big Bogan, a giant statue of an Aussie bloke in a singlet – a play on the name of the surrounding Bogan Shire. I get the customary Insta photo with ‘me mate’ and then we push on, west, along the Barrier Hwy this time, bound for Cobar.
And this is where the outback really hits – big empty spaces and red earth and not many cars either – so few that I have some fun practising handstands in the middle of the highway, no cars for miles. And that’s another tip on roadtrips – you need to stop now and then – in the middle of nowhere – and roam a little, just feel the place.
Cobar appears on the horizon late afternoon. When I was in grade six, my favourite teacher of my childhood in Melbourne often regaled us with stories about his upbringing in Cobar and 43 years later, I’ve finally visited this little copper mining town that held my fascination all this time. Mine shafts and Australia’s longest cast-iron pub veranda (100-metres long at the Great Western Hotel) catch the sun’s dying rays before we enjoy a hearty feast and a cold one – as well as a comfy bed and hot shower at Cobar’s Copper City Motel.
After a restful sleep, we head further west to the near ghost town of Wilcannia on the famed Darling River. This almost deserted town was once the third largest inland port in Australia during the great river boat era of the mid-19th century. Today, Wilcannia, with its wide, empty streets and historic but abandoned buildings would make a great film set for movies.
Don’t miss the nondescript turnoff here for White Cliffs. The one-hour detour off the highway on a lonely but sealed road through a whole bunch of nothingness leads to one of the wackiest and weirdest towns you’ll ever visit – White Cliffs. This tough, rough, sunburnt opal mining hamlet in the middle of nowhere gets so bloody hot in summer that almost everyone lives underground in perennially cool, dugout houses built into the sides of hills.
One of these buildings is the famous White Cliffs Underground Motel which offers the largest underground accommodation in Australia, with 30 rooms. Here we enjoy delicious soup, tour the maze of subterranean bedrooms and explore the eccentric shanty town with its abandoned cars, labyrinth of mines and quirky art displays. It feels like a lawless cowboy town where anyone does anything they want.
And what we want is to reach our cosy cabin at Warrawong on the Darling, a lovely, riverside camp, caravan and cabin park just outside Wilcannia. Here, around the communal campfire, the manager serves us hearty stew and damper as we enjoy wine and friendly banter with fellow roadies. One even gets his sax out and plays some jazz for us as the sun sets in the west.
Before sunrise next morning, we walk out along the sand dunes at Warrawong on the Darling and grab a vantage point to watch the sun rise over the arid landscape – it’s a moment of pristine beauty and I mark it with some contemplative yoga practice to salute the dawn. The shady riverbanks here, rife with roos, offer quintessential outback scenery and it’s tempting to linger but we head west again for another hour to reach our final destination, Broken Hill.
This sizable mining city – an outback oasis – is so far west in NSW that it runs on South Australian time. We grab a coffee in the beautiful main street with its fine heritage buildings and then head to the brand new Broken Hill Outback Resort, a Broken Hill caravan park which offers luxury spa cabins, fire pits and spaciously green campgrounds, all surrounding a restored and charming old pub which has been resurrected as a restaurant and bar.
We arrive on a Sunday afternoon which is great timing as a live band plays for diners in the sun as we enjoy a gourmet pizza and cool beverage, soaking up the rays. A more pleasant spot would be hard to find but we do find it when we enter our king spa cabin with its sun-kissed deck overlooking the desert, huge bed, jacuzzi with a view, lounge and kitchenette. Wow! Staying at this Broken Hill accommodation is a must. We only have a night here but we vow to stay longer next time, soaking in the spa and soaking in the Outback scenery.
With more time, we could have explored more of Broken Hill as well as the zany, nearby ghost town of Silverton with its character-filled outback pub and stark plains which were used in many movies including Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the Mad Max films. Next morning, we fly home from Broken Hill to Sydney. The flight takes a few hours but it makes a mockery of the lengthy road journey we undertook to get out west. But’s a little, three-day journey we relished and can’t wait to do again!