If it’s true that we learn from our mistakes, I should be brighter than Stephen Hawking by now. But I’m not. I’m the travel writing equivalent of David James.

My life seems to be a litany of howlers: missed penalty kicks, girlfriends recklessly dumped before they became highly appealing TV presenters (no, not Charlie Dimmock) and a near catastrophic failure to tell the difference between “bars” and “brothels” in Argentina.

Though conversations with prostitutes were absent from my trip to Broken Hill, my excursion to the remote Outback town involved mishaps aplenty. With its off the beaten track appeal, melancholy name and seductive images of the sculpture symposium at sunset – Australia’s Stonehenge – I had wanted to get out to NSW’s far west for some time.

That the town is seen in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and neighbouring Silverton in Mad Max 2, added some dusty glamour. Being 1,200km from Sydney and 5,000km from Adelaide, towns don’t get much more remote. And this was my first mistake.

Although it’s billed as the “accessible Outback”, it isn’t very accessible – it’s bloody miles away. I looked at a map, but perhaps a bit too much of the Aussie “she’ll be right” attitude had sunk in. “Four days should do it”, I thought a few weeks beforehand. “One there, one back, two to look around.”

A day before collecting our hire car I looked at the map again. Got out a calculator. Looked at the map again. Checked the calculator batteries.

Yes, that was 1,200km.

Even if we didn’t stop anywhere and sped at 100km/h through all the country towns (Australia has too many rednecks anyway, knocking down a few wouldn’t hurt. Well it might hurt them, but you get the point), it was a 12-hour drive. Each way. We decided to leave Sydney a night early.

We arrived in Bathurst after four hours and holed up in a B&B, congratulating ourselves on such masterful progress over a schooner. And then checked the map again. It really is a very long way.

Luckily we had stocked up on nosh for the road, mostly fruit. Unluckily, not only does Broken Hill run on SA time, but there’s an invisible border before you reach the Outback town; meaning we could take our fruit no further.

So we pulled over in the dark and ate until we were close to popping. I managed four kiwi fruit, an apple, two bananas, a handful of grapes and a plum. Was I feeling fruity? I’ve never felt more like a lemon. We arrived around 8pm after a long, long day on the bitumen and were soon asleep.

Broken Hill is something of an Australian anomaly: a town with a tangible sense of history. It’s also a surprisingly beautiful place, with some interesting stories to tell.

Nicknamed “Silver Town”, it was founded in 1885 on the seven kilometre “Line of Lode”, at the time the largest lead, silver and zinc deposits in the world.

It didn’t take long for unscrupulous mining companies to swoop down to devour the treasures, predictably with little thought for human cost. Hundreds of miners suffered and died in horrendous conditions.

An effort to improve conditions led to an 18-month strike in 1919-20 and spearheaded Australia’s trade union movement. It’s said the hard-nosed unions pretty much ran the town for many years afterwards. Even today the Trades Hall is still nicknamed “the Kremlin”.

As the Line of Lode slowly dwindled, and machinery replaced human hands, Broken Hill’s population did the same. However, the oasis town has attracted many artists who soak up inspiration from the dreamy desert landscape which surrounds it. Paradoxically, as the town slowly dies, it’s blooming spectacularly.

Some of the architecture gives Broken Hill a wild west feel. Preserved machinery (and even an old mine shaft) are dotted about town, seemingly where they were left. Ditto pit-inspired sculptures by miner-turned-artist Pro Hart. His black metal masks, depicting the men of head lamp and pick-axe, look haunted and forlorn.

A giant slag heap dominates the horizon, making it clear what the town is all about. We drove to the top to check out the Line Of Lode Miners’ Memorial. It’s surprisingly elegant and poignant, considering it’s made of orange, rusty metal.

Inside are names of the deceased with their age (from 12 to 65) and cause of their death; from the regular, “caught in machinery”, to the odd, “fell off pushbike.”

We spent nearly three hours ducking in and out of the town’s numerous galleries and museums. A few galleries were tacky, but many had wonderful, romanticised Outback scenery, and excellent Aboriginal art. Best of all was The Big Picture in the Silver City Mint & Art Centre. It’s a 360-degree Outback desert scene which you feel you can disappear straight into.

Whistling the Billy Bragg classic “There Is Power In The Unions” and feeling inspired by lefty ideas of the strength of workers’ solidarity, I strolled forcefully into the Kremlin; and straight into the middle of an under-10s ballet class. Drat!

Even before my unwelcome appearance, it was beginning to feel a bit like a school trip, so I was pleased at the chance of something more hands-on.

Next was a chance to experience the miner’s lot. At the disused Delprats mine, we donned jackets and helmets and attached headlamps and batteries, squashed into the ricketty lift and descended 130 metres underground.

It was dark and damp, but Richard “Murph”, a former miner, kept us day-trippers warm with laughter and engrossing stories of life down t’ pit.

“There’s an easy way to tell if someone wasn’t going to crack it as a miner,” he said. “If they’ve got any brains at all, they’ll never last.”

Learning more about the arduous life of these heroic, taken-for-granted men was both sad and awe-inspiring.
A rare day without mistakes (I like ballet!) was topped off memorably with our excellent decision to catch sunset at the Sculpture Symposium.

The symposium is a circular collection of rock sculptures perched on a small hill, six kilometres from town, amidst the rugged, inhospitable, yet alluring desert. The setting sun threw magical oranges and crimsons across the rocks and the arid earth; one of those postcard perfect sunsets which has you falling for the Outback all over again.

The next day we drove the 25km to Silverton. Everyone in the former mining town upped sticks when the ore resources ran dry, leaving a picturesque ghost town. Or they would have if it wasn’t such a unique place that a handful of artists have flocked here, as well as numerous film crews to use the Silverton Hotel in 44 (and counting) TV and film appearances. Indeed, Mad Max’s car is still outside.

The red soil seems to go on forever and old brick houses are scattered about sparingly; some 100 metres apart. It’s the sort of place where you half expect to see a band of wide-eyed feral children running amok.

We checked out the numerous film-shoot photos in the tiny hotel and walked between lazy stray donkeys and nervy wild horses to reach quirky galleries. One had flower-festooned VW Beatles scattered about outside, others offered humour and inspiration aplenty.

We had planned to visit Mutawintji and Kinchega National Parks and the opal-mining town of White Cliffs, where it gets so hot locals live underground. But there just wasn’t time. Before we
hit the road to start our 14-hour return journey, that night, there was time for just one more Captain Klutz-like error.

We returned to the hostel to collect our bags and a five-year-old lad had befriended a bob-tailed skink lizard. It seemed happy enough being carried around on a cushion, like a king. He seemed so cute and tame.

So I proffered a finger to, I don’t know really, stroke his cute little scaly head, or something. And he hissed. Then bit into my finger. And wouldn’t let go. For quite some time – until I shook my hand vigourously and he fell off. Gah! Like I said, Stephen Hawking.