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In awe of the Outback

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on December 06, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and took off around the world with books for company. In her latest exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from the Outback north of Melbourne

Driving through the Outback is really the only way to get an idea of the vastness of Australia and, having driven five hours north of Melbourne, we stayed the night at the Grand Hotel in Mildura, opened in 1891 and now owned and run by Don and Anna Carrazza.

Mildura was founded in 1846 on the Murray River and much has been written about its river trade. The novelist and future Prime Minister Alfred Deakin investigated the possibility of setting up Victoria’s irrigation system here and Ernestine Hill wrote about ‘Grant Hervey’ [George Henry Cochrane] in Water into Gold (1937) who arrived in 1921 and attempted to defraud the locals: “ … a strange character arrived in the place … and offered to make it the capital of a new state”. The locals did not take kindly to his deception and he got his come-uppance by being tarred and feathered.

Stefano’s Restaurant is run by celebrity chef Stefano de Pieri – a prolific author and television star and son-in-law of the hotel owners – in the cellar of the Grand Hotel; the waiting list is three months long and I soon discovered why. The food was sensational. There is a set menu and the prospect of six courses somewhat alarmed me but as delicious course followed delicious course I found myself eating the lot … especially memorable was the Murray cod mantecato which literally melted in my mouth, the steamed blue swimmer crab with Asian herbs and the cotechino with salsa verde, lentils and horseradish. Next door is the brand-new Mildura Brewery, where beer is brewed in spanking new vats and people can drink and eat.

None of this was quite how I had imagined the Outback. Three hours due north of Mildura is Broken Hill where you really begin to see the Outback. Matthew Flinders described it as “a poor dried-up land, afflicted only by fever and flies” (Voyage to Terra Australis, 1801-3) and when we first began to drive all I saw was flat, flat country with the odd scrubby tree, but gradually I began to pick out different plants and birds and it was thrilling to see kangaroos and emus.

Two of Charles Dickens’ sons worked in Broken Hill at various times: “ … a mulga range covered with wallaby in 1883 … to a city of 30,000 by 1889” wrote Randolph Bedford in Naught to Thirty Three (1944). The reason for the speedy growth was mining – a boundary rider was checking the fences and found silver, zinc and lead. The boom began as the ‘Line of Lode’ (the largest single lode ever found in the world) was tapped: “It’s a man’s town. If you are born in Broken Hill a male, and 18, everything falls into your lap” (Elspeth Huxley, Their Shining Eldorado (1967).

It is still a prosperous town – clean and orderly with street names such as kaolin, chloride, iodine, oxide, sulphide, silica, slag and talc. There is only one mine still working, but over the years the mines have produced £40 billion. Today it is well-known for its art galleries – Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery in Argent Street is an eccentric collection of pictures – at least I thought it was until I went to the Pro Hart Gallery which is a mixture of the owner’s work (the best known of the Broken Hill artists) and his private collection. There is a wonderful room of Sir William Dobell’s drawings and notebooks and other paintings of mixed quality by artists, many unknown to me, but the better known ones include Arthur Boyd, John Constable, Lord Leighton, Monet, Sir Sidney Nolan, Picasso and Chagall.

Arthur Upfield had extolled the virtues of Argent Street for meeting and eating – “Argent Street is unique. Besides being a street of shops it is the universal place of rendezvous. . . eat at ultra-modern cafes run by smart Greeks and Italians; hire a gleaming automobile and shop at lush emporiums” – The Bachelors of Broken Hill, 1958, despite the fact that in the book, Upfield’s detective, the half-Aboriginal Napoleon Bonaparte, was investigating the case of two bachelors who had had cyanide put in their tea. However, we couldn’t resist lunch at the top of the slag heap slightly out of town – a brand new restaurant Broken Earth is next to the miner’s memorial.

About 15 miles north of Broken Hill is Silverton, abandoned in 1889, and now a ghost town with its pub used in many movies including Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max 2 and A Town Like Alice. Mungo National Park is about 70 miles north-east of Mildura along an unpaved road. A day there with John Grima, one of the few indigenous tour guides, was eye-opening (You can see us pictured together on the front page of the Travelling Lit homepage). On the way we saw many emu, kangaroo and lizards and John’s knowledge of Aboriginal culture – he works with the elders and is himself from the Wiradjuri tribe in New South Wales – is enthralling as he is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

As we walked round parts of the dried up Lake Mungo where Mungo man thought to be 32,000 years old was discovered, we saw fossilized shells, animals and ancient cooking hearths – 40,000 years of Aboriginal life is recorded here. The ancient dunes at Mungo are known as the ‘Walls of China’ and wandering among them in the burning heat, despite being accompanied by the ubiquitous fly, was awe-inspiring. We were fortunate as this random walking is soon to be stopped and visitors will be limited to wooden-walkways.

I feel so lucky to have driven through some of outback Australia – not only did I get an idea of the size of the country but also a feeling of its spiritual soul – despite doing most of it from an air-conditioned car.