Monday, June 22, 2009

Silvertown Blues

Our first opportunity to visit an outback outpost came early in the trip. Not long after sunrise on the first morning, the train pulled into the mining town of Broken Hill. There aren’t many stops on the Indian Pacific route, so we booked a bus tour to be sure to take advantage of this one.

The street names, which read like my high school chemistry textbook (Sulphide, Iodide, Cobalt, Bromide) were new to me, but I had seen some of the actual roads before. Broken Hill played itself in the 1994 film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s the place where the drag queens think they’ve won over the locals after a fun night at the pub, but wake up to discover that their bus has been vandalized.

For a small town—the population just dipped below 20,000, down from a peak of 30,000 in the 1960s--there is a lot to look at. In the heyday of mining, there were 72 pubs. Many of these handsome stone buildings with wrought-iron balconies still stand, cheek-by-jowl with “tinnies,” small buildings constructed at least in part out of locally plentiful corrugated metal. There’s a radio station housed in a building with a fa├žade that looks just like an old-fashioned wireless, and a six-story slag heap. The heap isn’t exactly pretty, but it’s interesting. The bus driver told us that there is $17 million worth of silver in that pile, and that the technology exists to extract it, but the process would cost $42 million—one of the cruelest examples of good news/bad news I’d ever heard.

After the town tour, we were taken to the bald, gouged, and artificially flattened top of the highest hill around. I assumed that this was the town’s namesake, but later I read that the original, eponymous hill has been mined out of existence. Lead, silver, and zinc are still being carved out of the remaining land. We were told that in the early 1900s, explorers complained that the dense foliage in this part of the country literally ripped the shirts of their backs, but today the landscape is denuded of trees, and full of deep crevices that have been mined for ore.

Our attention was directed to three flagpoles on the hilltop. One flies the Australian national banner. The other two were both unadorned. One, we’re told, flies a red flag when there’s been a mine accident, and the other waves a black one when there has been a fatality underground.

The black flag has flown over Broken Hill more than 800 times in the last 150 years or so. It’s not surprising, then, that the most prominent building on the mountaintop is a memorial to the miners who have lost their lives here. The rose-studded walls list the names and ages (one was only 12) of every victim. The date and cause of death are also listed, and the litany is darkly fascinating. There’s probably no good way to die in a mine, but I was still shocked at how many horrible ways there are to go. I noted falling, electrocution, tetanus, lead poisoning, explosive mishap, an ore-cart crushing, and a live burial under mine tailings before I’d even finished with the 19th century.

When we’d had our fill of underground death, we were bundled back on the bus and driven down the hill. The bus stopped at an art gallery, Silver City Mint & Art Centre on Chloride Street. Here we could browse what seemed like acres of art, including an impressive array of chains and bracelets crafted from local silver. There were paintings, heavy on horses and big-sky landscapes; whimsical pottery; only-in-Australia novelties like wine bottle holders fashioned from rabbit traps; and, incongruously, a large candy counter. (Australians do seem to have elevated liquorice to an art form, so maybe that’s the connection.) Not for sale was a work of art called “The Big Picture,” billed as the world’s largest acrylic painting on canvas by one man. That’s a lot of qualifications, but at 12,000 square feet, it will almost certainly fill your large-canvas viewing requirements.

Little of this art was to my taste, but if I’d been more ambitious, I could have used our allotted half-hour of browsing time to seek out something a little edgier. There are about two dozen galleries in town, giving Broken Hill one of the best artwork-per-capita ratios in the world, so I could almost certainly have found satisfaction somewhere.

When I got back on the bus, my watch told me it was about half-past eight, though it was in fact only 8am. Broken Hill is in the eastern state of New South Wales, but it has closer business connections with the South Australian city of Adelaide, 318 miles away. So the town operates on Australian Central Standard Time, making Broken Hill a chronological island perpetually one half-hour out of synch with the surrounding state.

Whatever the exact time, it occurred to me that it was very early on a Sunday morning for an art gallery to be open. Perhaps because I hadn’t yet had my morning flat white, I didn’t realize until we were once again rolling through the nearly empty streets that the place had, of course, opened especially for us.

From the top of the hill outside the mining memorial, three landmarks had been easily visible. One was the Palace Hotel on Argent Street, where the pub scene in Priscilla was filmed 15 years ago, testament to a movie career that never really got off the ground. Another is that silver-ridden slag heap, a daily reminder of the quickly diminishing returns to be had from mining these days.

The third was the 27-car, 2,332-foot-long Indian Pacific train that we had come in on. Today, as it does every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, the locomotive had disgorged hundreds of people who have purchased little and seen no color outside of the Arizona/New Mexico brownish-red range in as much as three days. Under these circumstances, almost anyone might acquire an appreciation for art.

If the Palace Hotel is Broken Hill’s boisterous past, and the spent pile of ore its uncomfortable present, then the train would seem to be its future. Broken Hill never made it as a movie Mecca, and will never again be a boomtown. But it’s interesting to consider a future that involves drawing people to Broken Hill’s mineral bounty, rather than selling the silver away, leaving Broken Hill with nothing but more and more names on a wall and ever-deepening holes in the ground.


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