There is a saying, I’m told, in Broken Hill that the best kind of currency is a conversation. Paul Hanna, the resident distiller at Broken Hill Distillery, imparts these wise words as he hands over tasting paddles of his award- winning gins at the Tydvil Hotel & Bistro. The words linger with me long after the last drop, and I’m reminded that it is a helpful phrase to have in the pocket for any traveller coming to town.
Broken Hill is a small mining town located in NSW’s Outback, with a population of around 17,000. International travellers may never have heard of this place as a tourist destination and for those whom it does ring a bell, it’s probably from the iconic 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, where two fabulous drag queens and a transgender woman embark on a disco-fuelled road trip through the Australian Outback, finding themselves in the heart of Broken Hill at The Palace Hotel.
On first impressions, Broken Hill is a charming, sleepy country town, the main street dotted with lovingly preserved heritage architecture, boutique gift shops and delightful cafés.
Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find the city is a thriving haven for creatives and artists from all walks of life, from the ‘brushmen’ painters drawn to the red dirt and vast open plains, to queer performers bringing the town alive.
Brushmen of the Bush
One of the best things to do in Broken Hill is to hit the art gallery trail and a first stop for many is the Pro Hart Gallery. Widely considered the father of the Australian Outback painting movement, Kevin Charles ‘Pro’ Hart was part of a group of self-taught artists known as the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s.
Having worked as a miner himself, Hart’s work offers a window into the industry that dominates the town, his haunting paintings of masked miners reflective of the hardships mining workers experienced. Spread across three levels and featuring a look inside Hart’s own eclectic studio, the Pro Hart Gallery is a must-visit for art enthusiasts.
The legacy of the brushmen artists is carried on by many other creatives in Broken Hill today; people drawn here by its vast landscapes where vibrant and dazzling sunsets offer endless palates of inspiration. “I love the effects of light,” says Wendy Martin, a landscape painter and jewellery maker who shares the gallery Bush ‘n’ Beyond with her partner and fellow artist, Ian Lewis.
“It turns something ordinary into something magical – the magic that is out there in the bush.” The couple have converted two miner’s cottages into their home, gallery and studio space and can often be found painting out the back.
Other worthwhile stops along the art trail include The Big Picture, the world’s largest acrylic painting by a single artist (100m x 12m), the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and the Jack Absalom Gallery.
One of the best ways to experience the magical landscapes that have inspired so many artists is a trip out to Silverton, an historic mining town that drew in thousands of prospectors in the late 19th century, but now is home to only a few dozen residents. Here, wild horses roam freely around the 12,000 acre Crown Reserve that surrounds the town and you may even spot Patsy at the Silverton Hotel feeding the friendly donkeys.
About 12 years ago, British panel beater Adrian Bennett arrived in Silverton and set about building the Mad Max 2 Museum, his homage to the 1981 George Miller film shot on the open desert plains around Silverton. “For me, it was movie perfection,” Bennett says about the film. “I dreamed about living in Australia after watching it. There is a rawness and a realness.”
Even if you’re not much of a Mad Max fan, Bennett’s quirky collection of memorabilia, film props and vehicles is well worth checking out on a visit to the town.
Just down the road (and easily identifiable by its paint-splattered vintage car) you’ll find the John Dynon Art Gallery, where the artist can often be spotted working outside his colourful ramshackle studio.
It’s impossible to talk about Broken Hill’s art scene without talking about the First Nations people who settled here long ago, and their descendants who are working hard to keep their culture alive.
Mark Sutton is a proud Malyankapa man and guide with Mutawintji Heritage Tours, running tours at Mutawintji National Park, a couple of hours’ drive from Broken Hill. The traditional home of the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people, the park’s river-lined gorges and rocky arches feature thousands of examples of ancient Aboriginal rock art, with over 300 recorded sites across the land.
“There is cultural knowledge alive in this place. For us, one of the greatest things is being able to share our knowledge with any visitors to these landscapes,” says Sutton. One of the many tales he shares about this sacred place is the significance of ochre. “Each of the four gorges in Mutawintji are named after a different colour of ochre – black, red, yellow and white. Every Aboriginal tribe in Australia reserves one of those four colours as their sacred colour. There are restrictions on its use, and normally, the local people would only use that sacred colour when they’re decorating their own bodies just before they enter into ceremony.”
Contemporary Indigenous art can be found at the Amanya Mitha gallery, home to works by artist Clinton Kemp of the Dieri people. The gallery showcases Kemp’s paintings, wood carvings, jewellery and wooden bowls, crafted using traditional techniques passed down by his ancestors.
At sunset, visit the Living Desert Sculptures, a stunning art attraction just 15 minutes’ drive out of Broken Hill. Atop a rocky hill with sweeping 360° views over the desert landscape, sit 12 giant sandstone sculptures by artists from around the world, including a piece by Sutton’s family member, Badger Bates, inspired by his ancestors’ stone carvings at Mutawintji.
When Priscilla producer Al Clark stepped into The Palace Hotel, he described the place as “drag queen heaven”. The history of this hotel is a fascinating and eclectic one. Built in 1889, it was the hotel’s eccentric Italian owner Mario Celotto who started painting murals in the 1980s, plastering the walls, doors and ceilings with lush landscape scenes, including his own version of Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ on the ceiling, and many other murals by indigenous artist Gordon Waye.
The Palace Hotel remains the spiritual home of Priscilla, and its current owner, Esther La Rovere, keeps that fabulous spirit alive, giving guests the option of staying in the Priscilla Suite, where many of the iconic scenes were filmed. “The atmosphere of the hotel seeps with the ‘If only these walls could talk’ vibe,” she says.
For a week in September, the town comes alive with feathers, frills and frivolity, as the Broken Heel Festival kicks off, showcasing Australia’s best drag kings and queens, showgirls, and performers from Australia’s diverse LGBTQ+ community.
“The balcony makes a superb viewing point to the street below and the festival’s main stage – a perfect spot to catch all of the fabulous shows as well as just for people watching in the crowd and the fantastic outfits out there.”
Along with its thriving arts scene, Broken Hill boasts world- class stargazing experiences at Outback Astronomy, the epic Mundi Mundi Bash music festival and many natural wonders in its vast surrounds.
If you’re not sure where to start, try asking a local. You never know where a conversation might take you.