With its melancholy name, off-the-beaten-track appeal and seductive images, I had wanted to get out to Broken Hill for some time. The fact 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. But where the bloody hell is it? I looked at a map. I got my magnifying glass out. Being 1200km from Sydney and 5000km from Adelaide – holy smoke – towns don’t get much more remote. But too much of the Aussie “she’ll be right” attitude had sunk in. And we hit the road. Broken Hill is something of an Australian anomaly: a town with a tangible sense of history. It’s also a surprisingly beautiful place. 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 and devour the treasures, predictably with little thought for human cost. Hundreds of miners suffered and died in horrendous conditions. 1919 saw an 18-month strike which ultimately 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”.
No brain no game
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 landscapes which surround it. Paradoxically, as the town slowly dies, it’s blooming spectacularly. There are bits of preserved machinery and pit-inspired sculptures dotted about town. Pro Hart’s black metal masks, depicting the men of head lamp and pic-axe, look haunted and forlorn. We spent nearly three hours visiting the poignant Miner’s Memorial, ducking in and out of the town’s numerous galleries and museums. Best of all was The Big Picture in the Silver City Mint & Art Centre; a 360-degree outback desert scene which you feel you can disappear straight into. At the disused Delprats mine, we donned jackets, helmets and headlamps, 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 the 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 taken-for-granted heroes was both sad and awe-inspiring. But Broken Hill isn’t all melancholy. The day was topped off memorably with our excellent decision to catch sunset at the Sculpture Symposium – Australia’s Stonehenge (pictured). 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. There was plenty to reflect on as we started the endless stretch of Bitumen back to Sydney. Not least that often in Australia the toil just makes the trophies even more worthwhile.
Steering our gazes south, we arrived at the Persil-white sands of Jervis Bay. This beautiful little spot is home to pods of dolphins, an Aboriginal community and some very pleasant little villages. The sand is some of the whitest in the world, making the sheltered waters of the bay a very inviting shade of turquoise. The main town in the area is Huskisson, which offers all sorts of adventures, from dolphin cruises and scuba dives to live pub music and weekend markets. It’s all very pleasant and seaside-ish. But to get away from civilisation and into the wilderness, head for the Booderee (Jervis Bay) National Park on the southern shore of the bay. Its highlights include a ruined lighthouse at Cape St George, traditional Aboriginal lands (the national park is under Aboriginal management, being an important heritage site) and the surf-tastic Cave Beach, which offers a wild alternative to the calmer waters of the bay. Less shy, though, is the wildlife around Green Patch campsite, the best place to camp in the national park. Right on the beach, it has barbecues, campfires and hot showers, and each tent gets its own little plot in the bush. ANNA SCRIVENGER
Somewhere along the line the good people of Bellingen got confused. The river and the region around the town are called Bellinger. But the town itself is called Bellingen. Which is right? The answer, like Stonehenge and Paris Hilton’s singing talent, is lost to time. Whatever the case, the Bellinger region, from the Pacific Ocean to the western heights of Dorrigo’s plateau, is lush with national parks, water systems and beaches, not to mention the quaint town of Bellingen. Like all good Australian country towns, the pub is at the centre, both geographically and socially and Bellingen’s Federal Hotel is testimony to this – it’s friendly, spacious, and has a welcoming verandah. The town is cooking with delicious food, such as pies and desserts that are only rivalled by your nan’s specials. There’s also plenty of cafÃ© culture around town. Live music plays most nights at the pub and it’s stumbling distance from one of the best YHA’s in the country. Backing on to the town and overlooking the Bellinger River, the YHA is a beautiful old farmhouse, polished and retouched. Don’t expect rock ‘n’ roll all night and parties every day though. Maybe an acoustic session and a drum circle at dusk is a lil’ more the norm here. Heading upstairs you might notice some odd wallpaper. The entire upstairs hallway is covered in human nude bits as photographed by Greg Kenny. People from all over the world have returned to stay at the hostel just to get their picture taken in some awkward or unique way, always tasteful. Everyone here is represented; cyclists, smokers, surfers and Swedes. From the YHA there are loads of activities and adventures to tackle. Try some canoeing down the Bellinger, a peaceful sojourn in the clear waters with a guide will introduce you to the local natural environment. Once you’ve mastered the still waters thrust yourself onto an inflated rubber dinghy for a frothy wet ‘n’ wild ride of your life that will have you panting for more – oh behave. I’m talking about rafting down the Nymboida River just west of Dorrigo. If you’re more equine inclined, there’s horse riding for all abilities on trails near Valery. Obviously, with half the region dedicated to national and state forests, there are plenty of walking trails to explore with waterfalls as your refreshing destination. In Dorrigo head to the Rainforest Centre to take the spectacular skywalk lookout. From there you can branch out. You won’t be the only one amongst the trees. The Bellinger region and in particular Bellingen Island, is the ultimate hangout for flying foxes, which socialise, groom and sleep by day before venturing out at night to party – and damn are they loud. You can see them in their thousands silhouetted against the orange and red sunset sky. A thousand metres from the heights of Dorrigo’s plateau lies Urunga, where the Bellinger and Kalang rivers spill into the sea. It’s all pretty laidback and low key here – surfing, beach combing, fishing, lazing in the lagoon. In Bongil Bongil National Park you can walk among the eucalypt forests, and keep your eyes peeled for koalas, hunting ospreys and wallabies. Time your visit right in October and you’ll land in a big party. For three days and nights you’ll experience the Bellingen Global Carnival of world music, theatre, electronica and arts.
Why do animals hate me? I’m kind to most of them. Except dogs obviously; dogs are noisy and dumb. But every time I do some sort of animal-related activity, horse-riding, say, or trying to befriend lethal snakes via a well-honed tickling technique, they retaliate, entirely without provocation. Must be my pheromones… As we rode through the film-set pretty Bellrowan Valley, a 20-minute drive from Port Macquarie, what began as a good- natured tussle with a mare went down hill, becoming, well, a bit of a ‘mare. Of course, I get the moody one with a penchant for bottom burps. She purposefully leant me into low hanging branches (or possibly I hadn’t got hold of the whole steering concept). When neither were available, a simple fart let me know we weren’t likely to become best buddies anytime soon. Still, it’s a gorgeous place, the morning sun spraying a cheery light across the cute rolling greenery and gleaming gum trees.
It’s raining piss
It may have an ordinary name – christened by one of those greedy early governors trying to name half the continent in their honour – but Port Macquarie, halfway between Newcastle and Coffs Harbour, is no ordinary place. Think cosy beaches, forests, mountains, genuine small town charm and Australia’s official best year-round climate married to enough adrenalin hits to render you a nerve-decimated, serotonin-torched, saucer-eyed, thumb-sucking mess within a couple of days. Not forgetting zoo-fulls of interesting wildlife (gah!). Anyway, did you know that when fruit bats take off, they automatically urinate? I didn’t either, but I soon found out when I took to the Hastings River in a kayak. We paddle down secretive wooded corridors, where large water dragons clung to trees, and a mangrove swamp was home to thousands of fidgeting fruit bats. We continue on to Hell’s Gate. “Why’s it called that, then?” I ask. “Erm, I’ll tell you in a minute,” says the suddenly coy guide, adding, “We need to get some speed up.” Then we’re heading full pelt for a tunnel in the bat-infested mangroves. As we enter, the air becomes thick with startled, squeaking bats – freshly awoken, they take to the skies. And it’s starting to rain. Hold on, that’s not rain. Eugh.
Taking the Michael
A much better way to admire the town’s handsome scenery is in a Tiger Moth biplane. We don flying jackets, hats and goggles and jump into the open cockpits. In flight, the Tiger Moth feels gloriously authentic. There’s a very real sense of what it was like for early aviation adventurers – and better still – fighter pilots. We’re patrolling along the coast and just as I’m about to announce, “Ginger, bogies at three o’clock, dug-a-dug-a-dug-a-dug-dug,” the antique plane spins upside down, then twists and turns. Luckily my stomach begins to function again as we pull in to land. Next up, go-karting. Now these aren’t the wooden crate, pram wheels and string combos of yore. They’re devilish, mean-machine speed-monsters that actually laugh at you if you don’t push them all the way to 100kph. After a safety talk, including something-or-other about “Hell’s Corner”, and some of that unnecessary engine revving that blokes have to do, I speed off. First lap completed, I look up to see my two competitors, who… are… oh, about half a lap in front. By lap five I seem to have the hang of it. I was doing 80kph on the straight, slower for the first bend. Round the second. And round. And round. I seem to be spinning. I’m no longer on the track. That’ll be “Hell’s Corner” then. Michael Schumacher? More like Michael Bolton. The experience: Coastwings Australia, Ph: (02) 6584 1130; Adrenalin Rush Karting, Ph: (02) 6586 3555; Port Macquarie Sea Kayak, Ph: (02) 6584 1039; Bellrowan Valley Horse Riding, (02) 6587 5227; The Port Venture cruise boat, Ph: (02) 6583 3058. The accommodation: Port Macquarie YHA, Ph: (02) 6583 5512.
Byron Bay has an atmosphere that envelopes you as you arrive in town. I got into the hostel, kicked my shoes off, pulled on my boardies and even considered baring my pasty northern skin. No, hang on, don’t want to ruin it all by going in half-cocked. I was a busy man. Everyone else was there to take it easy, but I had things to do. First up, sea kayaking. Now, this looks like quite a gentle activity. cruising the waves, getting a bit of sun, looking hunky. But I didn’t count on two things – my girly arms, and having to ferry a lazy, moaning German around the lighthouse. Cape Byron lighthouse is probably one of the most photographed landmarks on the east coast. The steep hill lifts out of the endless blue ocean, topped by a pristine white tower against an impossibly blue sky. Sound nice? Not when you’ve got a miserable wench in the back, who can’t do more than four strokes without moaning and having to take a rest. The ocean here stops at the edge of the world and it’s a magical location for wildlife. Coming at it via the waves, we were treated to a whole new perspective and within minutes we had spotted a couple of dolphins mooching about in the waters nearby. As we slowly made our way towards them, we realised we were only 10ft away from a pod of about 15-20 beautiful blue-grey dolphins, playing in the surf. We “oohed” as they jumped and surfed the waves coming into the bay and “ahhed” as the males gang raped the females (it’s nature’s way of confusing parentage and ensuring survival). After a quick Tim Tam break, we headed back to the beach, although thankfully this time with Matt the guide – a tanned fridge with arms – as my kayak partner. It was like having a four-stroke engine on the back, as we surfed and sped our way back to dry land.
Riding the biaatch like a pro
Time to lie on the beach, I thought. But again, that Byron spirit was inside me. The water looked too good. It was time to make a fool of myself in the most Australian way I know – surfing. After a few failed attempts, I soon found a small wave with my name on it and rode that biaatch like a pro. The rush you get just from standing up is huge and I was cocky enough to “pump” the board for more speed and even managed to turn. Then I fell off. As fun as surfing is, it’s also very tiring and very, very frustrating. I spent the night warming down with a few exercises at the bar and was ready the next day for something more sedate. Scuba diving is my kind of sport – lazy. The less you do underwater, the less energy and air you use, allowing you to spend more time exploring. And everyone’s uncoordinated under water. Suits me just fine. In the short time we were down there, I was treated to a couple of massive leopard sharks, some very odd-looking wobbegongs, a turtle, a lion fish, and schools of silver and neon fish feeding on fantastical coral that I can barely begin to describe. Feeling suitably relaxed, I was ready to take the afternoon nice and easy. Few people venture out of Byron Bay to explore the rich countryside that surrounds it. The Brunswick River runs around the back of the town, under Mount Chincogan and out to sea further up the coast. River kayaking is a great way to see this neglected side to Byron, away from the tourists and the beach. I was back in a kayak but this time gently meandering my way along the tree-lined banks to bird calls, the rustle of leaves and the occasional sighting of a ray moving along the sandy bottom. But Byron isn’t all sleepy days and hazy sunshine. Once the moon comes up, the loons come out. There are plenty of good pubs in town – the Great Northern, the Rails, c-moog – but instead I chose to spend a few hours in the always-classy Cheeky Monkeys. Alright, let me try and paint a picture. There was cheap beer… bad music… dancing on tables, spillages, embarrassing stains. It was a great night. Byron Bay has plenty to offer the eager traveller – citrus sunshine days on the beach, heart-pumping activities and alcohol-fuelled nights. Take my advice – try everything you can. When you finally leave, you’ll know it was worth it. DAVID HALL The experience: Style Surfing, Ph: (02) 6685 5634; Kayak River Tours, Ph: (02) 6680 5580; Byron Bay Kayak Surfing, Ph; (02) 6685 5830; Pro Flyte Hang Gliding, Ph: (02) 0427 257 699; Sun Dive Byron Bay, Ph: (02) 6685 7755. The accommodation: J’s Bay Hostel, Ph: (02) 6685 8853.