Broken Hill stretches out beneath me as I survey the city from its enormous man-made lookout. It strikes me as a town forgotten, a satellite city thrown to the edge of memory by civilisation.This is how itexists— lyingalone between coastlines, between cities, between history, the present and the future. Although it is the latter that always appears as an uncertain blur, this is a town that continues to endure,defiantly facing up tothe inhospitably dry environment of Western NSW.
The lookout I am standing on could be considered the centre of town. It lies on top of what the locals affectionately call The Slag Heap, the elongated, mountainous pile of rubble that separates Broken Hill from South Broken Hill. The Slag Heap runs parallel to the main drag, Argent Street, but visitors mustfirst cross the railway line to get to it. Driving up the steep slope to the top, the broken intestines of the earth can be seen at close range as they rise up from the landscape at an almost impossible angle— their valuable nutrients having long since been removed.Grey and slippery, this man-made mountain is all that remains of the original Broken Hill. Now exposed, these heaped discards have been crowned with a magnificently angular visitor centre and a memorial to those miners whose lives were lost in creating this testament to the power and ingenuity of mankind to alter the environment. From up here, one gets a full sense of the isolation encircling the town and the determination of people to survive in a landscape that seems hell-bent on driving the weak or irresolute to more forgiving environs.
Looking down on the rooftops, the general rules of the local building code become clearly visible — corrugated iron rooves and walls — replace and re-model as desired and as necessary — an ironic nod to the town’s moniker of ‘The Silver City.’ Most buildings are adorned with unattractive, cubic evaporative air-conditioning units that rumble and thump with the effort of trying to knock a few degrees off the generally baking summer temperatures. Some buildings manage to rise a few storeys above the ground – Mario’s Hotel and the Post Office catch the eye – but generally, the buildings stay low to the ground — flat, squat and purely functional.
Connected to the outside world by three black, bitumen arteries, Broken Hill lies alone, baking under the glaringAustralian sun. The streets, a latticework of connections, run at right angles to each other. The map of town reads a little like a periodic table, streets mainly named after elements, but also gems and other minerals. Cobalt and Chloride Streets run off Argent, an acknowledgement of humanity’s need to break through the earth’s skin,namely in the pursuit of wealth, whatever the consequences may be. Regardless of their names, all but a handful of the streets meet the same fate – at the edge of town, they are confronted with the flat, dry, redness of the stony soil and the dry khaki forms of the cowering, knotted mulga. These two elements combine to form the natural fence-line that encircles the township, keeping people safe within the predictable confines of the man-made environment. The three bitumen roads that do make it out eventuallylead on to larger centres – Adelaide, Mildura or Dubbo and the cities of the east coast.
Those who do venture outside of the town’s natural, recognised boundary, beyond the agreed line of control, can find haunting reminders of life, death and forgotten dreams from long ago. Under the expansive sky, abandoned mine shafts, the slowly decomposing remains of miners’ camps, cemeteries and deserted outposts lie, being silently reclaimed by nature who endures, as always, inevitably victorious. The silence and solitude beyond the town can border on being overwhelming at times – that is, if the flies leave you alone for long enough to appreciate it. Stumbling across and exploring these unintended memorials can provoke uncomfortable reminders of the extremely difficult nature of surviving in this environment. I constantly find myself shaking my head in wonder at feats of survival and hardship.One’s insignificance and powerlessness out here, once the decision to step across the border between civilisation and nature has been made, is readily apparent. Each choice made out here in the semi-arid landscape carries with it the potential to be the last. The unspoken and often invisible line between sanity and insanity, control and desperation, is drawn clearly in the red silica of the sand. It’s the toughness of this land that can be seen, reflected in the faces of the people who determinedly inhabit the town.
The sky out here is big. Often cloudless, it offers spectacular daily shows at sunrise and sunset. The colours, pinks and purples of varying hues and intensity, intermingle seamlessly with the transient blues of the sky, forever shifting throughout the day. Then, at night, there is an unparalleled clarity between the eye and the stars. The Milky Way can easily be mistaken for light cloud cover on a clear night. The sky boasts theability to command an audienceat night and obedience during the day.
It’s hard to forget a townsurrounded by a landscape as striking as this. Time appears to be tangible out here. Therelentless savagery of the elements and their impact on the visible earth will remain firmly rooted in my mind long after I have left and travelled elsewhere. But as I leave the safety of town, driving eastward,dreaming of a distant blue coastline, I feel compelled to contemplate my own insignificance, my impermanence. What I see around me, this barren landscape, this was all once the floor of a living, ancient ocean, hundreds of millions of years ago in the prehistoric past— a very long time before we humans were even a twinkle in our mother natures’ eye.