The famous Silverton Hotel / Picture: Peter Lynch

Broken Hill - where there are more traffic lights below ground than on the surface.

This quintessential outback town in the far west of New South Wales, near the South Australia border, is a major stop on the Indian-Pacific rail route between Perth and Sydney.

I paid a brief visit 10 years ago and liked the place so much I was determined to return - and here I am.

The next passenger train wasn't coming through for another three days so I booked into the Palace Hotel, one of Broken Hill's many grand Victorian buildings.

Broken Hill became a boom town after station-hand Charles Rasp stumbled across a massive silver, lead and zinc deposit in 1883, and by 1907 it had become the second largest town in NSW.

But it's not just any old mining town: Broken Hill is an icon in Australia's mining history.

It's Australia's longest-lived mining town, with the world's biggest deposit of silver, lead and zinc - worth in excess of $100 billion dollars.

In 1907 a young jackaroo called Philip Charley became so rich he imported Australia's first Rolls Royce.

Broken Hill miners pioneered unionisation and led the way for modern industrial relations and it may also have seen the first terrorist attack on Australian soil.

Mining is still a big part of Broken Hill life, although you wouldn't think so, because there are more trucks and traffic lights beneath the town than on the surface.

It is still a thriving place; Argent Street is the town's elegant main street and shows off how rich the town has been since Victorian times.

The street is wide enough to turn a team of horses, its broad covered footpaths shade residents from the baking sun and its grand buildings are festooned with wraparound cast-iron balconies.

The Palace Hotel was built in 1889 and is famous as a film location for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) but locally it's best known for its excellent food and evenings are routinely booked out.

Its elaborate 6m-deep balcony wraps around the hotel and all first-floor rooms open on to it - perfect for watching the world go by as the sun goes down.

The interior is unbelievably kitsch thanks to Mario Celotto, who owned the Palace from 1974 and obviously loved 50s and 60s furniture and decor.

Mario painted a copy of Botticelli's Birth of Venus on the hallway ceiling after replacing the roof that blew off in a storm.

It took him six months and he offered $1000 for anyone who would continue his watery decor theme.

Local Aboriginal painter Gordon Whey took up the challenge and covered the interior with dozens of extravagant wall murals that now smother every centimetre of public wall space. It may not be high artistry but it's a mind-boggling sight.

On a bus tour to the almost deserted mining town of Silverton our driver/guide, Jonny Ferndaux, stopped at a memorial and told us the strange story of what may have been the first Australian casualties of the Gallipoli campaign.

On January 1, 1915, two former camel drivers of Pakistani origin ambushed a group of holidaymakers on their way to the annual miners' picnic.

Several people were killed and letters found on the gunmen stated they did it for their faith and in obedience to the order of the Turkish sultan, because of hostilities between the Ottoman and British empire.

The Silverton area has been the site of hundreds of films and the iconic XXXX beer ads. The Silverton Hotel is regularly filmed whenever an authentic outback pub scene is required.
Big action scenes for Mad Max II were filmed nearby and on the sand-blown high street there's a Mad Englishman who is a Mad Max fanatic.

Adrian Bennett saw Mad Max when he was a teenager and became enthralled by its style, the characters and the bleak setting of the film. In 2004 he made his first "pilgrimage" to Australia to explore Mad Max film locations - he fell in love with the place and promptly emigrated with his wife and children.

Adrian settled in Silverton and built up his Mad Max museum, starting with a V8 Interceptor he built himself, then adding creek buggies used in the film and a host of leftover props and memorabilia.

Many Broken Hill residents worked as extras on the film so he has dozens of insider stories about the film and heaps of behind-the- scenes photographs of the production.

The Mad Max museum at Silverton / Picture: Peter Lynch

I arranged a stay at the Eldee outback station, 56km north-west of Broken Hill; it's at the foot of the Barrier Range and on the edge of the Mundi Mundi Plains.

Stephen Schmidt's family has worked the station for generations and with his wife, Naomi, they run sheep and cattle and specialise in 4WD excursions.

The rocky red Martian-like landscape is beautifully eerie; big skies, amazing sunsets and little oases that bring kangaroo, emu, wild pig (movie Razorback was filmed locally) and thousands of wild goats.

Some visitors were camping at Eldee but I stayed in a beautiful self-contained room and opted for Naomi's spectacular home-cooked meals.

Guests can do their own thing, explore the working sheep and cattle station, join Stephen on rugged 4WD excursions or take a romantic sunset picnic at Lookout Rock on top of the Barrier Range. This is the outback in style and comfort.

Broken Hill is surrounded by several spectacular national parks, I visited Kinchiga National Park with the vast Menindee Lakes system, brimming over with more than three-and-a-half times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour.

People were camping in isolated spots along the Darling River, some with simple tents and others in impressive RVs. For non-campers or those interested in pastoral history there are shearers' quarters where visitors can bunk down and use communal kitchen and lounge facilities, but you need to bring all your own food.

The lakes were surrounded by flooded forest: it was amazingly beautiful, teeming with birds and more kangaroo and emus than I've seen on every previous outback trip combined.

The nearest town is Menindee, where you can still have a drink in the Maidens Menindee Hotel, NSW's second-oldest pub, where Burke and Wills stopped off in 1860 on their ill-fated expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

There are no hotels in the area but it's possible to stay in uniquely refurbished 1923 and 1945 railway carriages called Minintitja Accommodation. This initiative by Menindee Central School is a hospitality training project for local kids.

Back in Broken Hill I took an Art of the Outback tour because the town has become a famous artists' colony. I asked local artist Ian Lewis why this small outback town had developed and attracted so many Australian artists.

He was quite certain about the reason - "it's the light, it's so clear". Jack Absalom, Howard Steer and Pro Hart are probably the most well-known Broken Hill artists.

There was so much more I wanted to see and do that I'm determined to return yet again - but next time I won't leave it 10 years.

fact file
For Broken Hill visitor centre, phone (08) 8080 3560. Palace Hotel is at Silverton & Art of the Outback tours -, Eldee Station is at

The West Australian

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