Greendale Farm, near Forbes, NSW. Friday 14th April 2017.
If you’ve been following my travels you may remember that I met a Danish biker named Michael, and his Honda Africa Twin, down in Kyrgyzstan. We said we’d try to meet again and, after two and a half years, we managed to make it happen. It took a bit of doing and was mostly thanks to a guy named Ben, who has a farm near Forbes, in north western NSW. He and Michael had ‘met’ on Facebook, Ben had invited him to visit, Michael had told him about me and he’d invited me too. Michael had arrived in Aus a month or so before, had holidayed with his mother and was now staying with a friend in the Blue Mountains. My plan was to head north to Broken Hill, NSW, but Ben was near enough to both our routes to make a diversion to his farm worthwhile.
I was happy to leave Melbourne the easy way, via the motorway. I finished that first day on a campsite at Bruthan, with just over 300kms under our wheels. Trixie was running well and seemed to like southern air. But how would she like mountain roads? A run up through the Victorian Alps was our next challenge and she liked it very much. I felt very confident on the twisties and the bike handles very well indeed. A bit too well in some ways. On the really sharp bends I was scraping the bottoms of my soft panniers on the road and wore holes in them. They were clearly mounted too low. ‘Lift and patch’ seemed to be the order of the day.
Another night in a campsite, then a pleasant ride through gentle hills and farmland saw me reach Grenfell, where I met Michael. It was great to see him again after all this time. He’d travelled through Central Asia, China and most of South East Asia since I last saw him. He’d also met Hera in Laos, the Dutch cyclist who I’d met in Kazahkstan and who I’d gone to Kyrgyzstan to meet again. It’s because of her I know Michael in the first place. Michael has plenty of information, hints and tips to share with me about SE Asia. His experiences will be a very useful guide to me when I go there.
We rode out to Ben’s farm and found ourselves in the company of a very lovely man. Warm and hospitable, Ben is widely traveled and had many tales to tell us. He looks about the same age as me, although I discovered later that he’s in his early seventies. Now that gives me confidence for the longer term because Ben still jets off to other continents and goes exploring by bike. He was in South America recently and regularly travels to Canada and Ireland, where he has bikes waiting for him. He no longer farms his land, but leases it out to a neighbour, although he still gets involved in the work, as we found out. So the three of us chatted and swapped stories, enjoying the camaraderie that bikers always seem to have.
His family have farmed this land for a very long time and that’s the reason why Ben has several very fascinating sheds. A shed is just a shed, no? Well yes, but it very much depends on what’s in it. Ben never seems to throw anything away with regard to vehicles. Not only most of his old motorbikes but also several 1930s and 40s tractors, including a very odd looking twin cylinder diesel two stroke. It seems that every Ute the farm ever used is also in one of the sheds, along with an old Commer truck. “You’ve got a small fortune sitting here,” I said to Ben. “If you’re ever short of cash this lot could fund years more traveling.” He agreed but reminded me that his nephew was keen to restore several of them, especially the 1950s De Soto.
We’d already met Rob and his family the previous evening, when we went round for dinner. He’s a senior constable in the local police, which obviously keeps him busy. But he also owns a block of land, which he farms and will eventually build a house on. He’s a typical Aussie, with lot’s of ambition and energy.
Have you ever been traveling through the countryside, seen smoke on the horizon then as you got closer realised a farmer was burning stubble? Well that’s what the three of us went out to do one morning. And what a flaming good time we had! Ben and Michael were in a small tractor-like quad, setting things alight, while I stood by in Ben’s Ute towing the water bowser. The aim was to burn the stubble but keep the flames within the field. We failed, and spent most of the time chasing around putting out the fires we’d started. Ben had to go back a couple of times to refill the bowser while Michael and I beat at the flames with branches. All had seemed well when we started but the wind kept changing direction blowing the flames across the boundaries. To a casual observer we must have looked like arsonists on a bonus scheme, but Ben knew what he was about and it was all done properly in the end. Ben’s neighbour Paul could now plough and plant the huge fields, an operation that involves some big machinery that is all achieved by a GPS guided, computer operated tractor. Things have certainly moved on from when I used to hoe fields of mangold wurzels as a teenager.
Setting the field alight. Maybe a bit too much!
What with the stubble burning, chats with Ben and also with his neighbour, I’d gained a better understanding of rural life in these parts. It was strange to hear that the fields we’d been burning had been completely submerged two months ago after some extremely wet weather. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the level of investment that must be involved in running these huge farms. Paul has several huge grain silos, which are the largest privately owned silos in NSW. The tractor and associated machinery is also a huge investment. And yet extremes of weather could render that money wasted, or at least make the loans much more of a burden than they might have been. Fortunately his sheep manage to largely look after themselves.
Michael tore himself away from our fun filled farming lifestyle and headed back to the Blue Mountains. And after another day of stubble burning, I left too. Ben helped me plan a cross country route to Broken Hill, 800kms away. There were some gravel roads to ride and I was wondering how Trixie would be on her first foray onto the dirt. Come to that, how would I be? The last dirt road I’d been on, six months earlier, had cost me my luggage and a very scorched Doris. It had been a terrific visit to Greendale Farm. Meeting Ben had been a privilege but the time to go always comes. Thanks for the terrific hospitality Ben. I hope to see you out on the road somewhere.
Ben’s pets. The possum that lives in a stove. And the dog that lives in a boot.
The two day ride to Broken Hill once again told me some tales about rural NSW. Mostly a sad tale of towns that seem to be dying. Empty shop windows with ‘For Lease’ signs prominently displayed. Buildings wanting for a lick of paint. I didn’t actually see any tumble weeds but half expected to. It seems to reflect a trend of people moving away from the land caused by, as much as anything else, mechanisation and ownership of more stations by fewer people. Inevitable, probably, but still sad to see. I’d passed through several ghost towns on my travels but it was strange to see it happening almost before my eyes.
But on the plus side, Trixie was handling the dirt with aplomb, and so was I. I shouldn’t really be surprised as that’s what she was designed for, and riding a bike you feel confident on improves your own riding skills too. So we had fun. Warm weather; a night camping in the bush; billions of stars to gaze at; easy riding and a pleasant feeling. All previous doubts about whether or not I’d enjoy the traveling again disappeared, roughly half way along a dirt road which had a surface worn out enough to get me and Trixie working at it a bit. I suddenly thought “I’m really enjoying this! The bike’s good and so am I.” I had to smile at a conversation I had with the old fella who owned a servo where I refueled. I commented on the road and he said “Yes, it needs regrading but they can’t do it without water and we haven’t had any rain since November.” I said nothing but smiled at the thought that only 400kms south they’d had fields that were drowning.
When I’d been in Broken Hill Base hospital last August, where they’d fixed up my broken hand, I’d realised that the town had a fair bit to offer the tourist, which was why I’d decided to come back. It was on my route north anyway. The cheapest bed I’d found was in a small hotel with self catering facilities. I got booked in, settled my self into the room and made some plans for next morning. When I got up it had started raining. And didn’t stop until lunchtime. A visit to the tourist office showed there was quite a lot to see in and around the town so, clutching my Heritage Trail leaflet, I got walking. The first thing I noticed is that all the street names relate to mining, such as Sulphide Street, Chloride Street and Bromide Street. Oddly appropriate, I thought.
First and foremost Broken Hill is a mining town. It’s known as Silver City and it grew out of the discovery of silver, lead and, later on, zinc. These days it’s a cultural centre as well, with many art galleries and similar, but mining still goes on and keeps the town busy and prosperous. Have you ever heard of BHP Billiton, one of the world’s biggest mining and resource companies? The BHP part of the name stands for Broken Hill Proprietary Co Ltd. In 1885 seven friends, who worked on a local cattle station, formed the company to mine the newly discovered ore in the Broken Hills, so named because of their irregular shape and part of the Barrier Ranges. Three years later the town itself was proclaimed a municipality and BHP continued mining there until the late 1930s, later growing its interests into coal, steel and shipbuilding. Billiton was a mining company which originated in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century, and the two combined in 2001. The most recent news about the company is that it’s dropping the Billiton part of its name, having felt the need to “reconnect with its community” and re-identify as an Aussie company. But there’s no sign of it returning to its roots just yet.
A visit to the Geology Centre helped me to understand how it all came to be there and the nature of what was dug up. Lead and zinc only exist inside other minerals and obtaining them led to the discovery of many new minerals, often in crystallite form. The display of crystals is marvellous and the beauty of their form and colour is striking. Many of them were named in recognition of their finder. Oddly though, the valuable ore is invariably the dullest of all. So in this case you could say that all that glisters isn’t gold.
There’s several stages of history on show in the town’s heritage buildings, a kind of tin roof display of prospects and prosperity. It’s invariably the big buildings which attract the attention, the grand statements of success, if you like. There’s a fair number of those, including the old post office, the huge Palace Hotel and the Trades Hall, which has a very important story to tell. A bit more on that later. Smaller buildings included the premises of the local newspaper, the Barrier Daily Truth. Started in 1908 it was the world’s first English language newspaper to be owned by a labour organisation, the mining trades unions in this case. It is still going and still has the same type of ownership. Its rival, the Barrier Miner, was funded by the mining companies but closed in 1954. That’s one battle the unions won!
The Trades Hall is a very grand looking building and was the centre of activity of the mining unions, providing them with office space, education facilities, technical libraries, meeting rooms etc. It was also the hub which supported the two miners’ strikes of 1892 and 1909. Working conditions in these huge mines were dreadful and the unions, as is their role, were always trying to improve them. Illness – such as lead poisoning – and death were all too common. Although the strikers were forced back to work on both occasions, the strikes helped to push forward many improvements. An all too common sight for the townsfolk was to see a black flag flying above the Trades Hall. This meant that a miner had died and people would gather outside to get news of the tragedy. The frequency of this was brought home to me when I walked up to the Miners’ Memorial, an iconic building which sits on top of the Line of Lode.
Line of Lode Miners Memorial. Outside and inside.
This memorial lists the names of all those killed in mining accidents, the year of their death and the cause. I counted over twenty five deaths per year, some for health reasons (heart attacks for example) but mostly from accidents. Electrocution; falls; cave-ins; tunnel collapses; and many others. Even as late as 1989 there were over ten deaths per year. Over eight hundred deaths since the start of mining in 1883. It’s no wonder the unions wanted better conditions for their members.
A much brighter visit was to the town that preceded Broken Hill as a mining centre, Silverton, 25kms away. I’m sure you can guess what they were digging for out there. Often thought of as a ghost town, Silverton still has a population of over sixty people, some of them artists, but most of them involved in the heritage business. The town was founded around the same time as Broken Hill and grew to around 3,000 people, but was slowly overshadowed by its more productive neighbour and eventually fell into decline. Many of the buildings were transported to Broken Hill, solving some of the problems associated with the shortage of building materials.
I had a look at those that were left, including the museums housed in the former gaol and schoolhouse. The hotel still operates and seems to be a popular weekend ride-out destination, judging by the the crowd of Harley Davidson riders I saw there. One of the nicest places was the studio of artist Justin Cowley, or Cowz, as he signs himself. I really liked his style and subject matter, capturing the essence of outback life and the depth of feeling people have for it. I liked it so much I even bought a couple of prints, something I’ve never done on this journey so far. A more famous Aussie artist also has a studio in the town, John Dynon. Unlike Justin, he was at work there but I wasn’t so taken with his painting. It lacked the subtlety of Justin’s, I thought.
Two examples of Justin Cowley’s work. I liked them very much.
But easily the best place in Silverton was a museum set up by British immigrant Adrian Bennett, from Barnsley, solely dedicated to the film Mad Max Two. You could say the man matches the film, but in the nicest way. His obsession began back at home in 1982 when he went with some friends to see Mad Max 1 & 2. He emerged a changed man. He was totally absorbed by the film and researched as much information about it as he could – with no internet to help him. He and his family immigrated to Adelaide in 2006 and once his visa status was secure he bought a property in Silverton, then built the museum on spare land in 2009. He began to collect items as soon as he reached these shores but ramped up the effort when he got to Silverton.
So why there? Because most of the film was shot just outside the town, on the road to Mundi Mundi, and many people from Broken Hill were involved in its making, either as extras or on the production side. Adrian was puzzled as to why the area had pretty much ignored the biggest grossing Aussie film made to date, but he set about begging, borrowing or buying as many artifacts as he could to display in his museum. He managed to dig up many of them from the film location where they’d simply been bulldozed into the ground. Once they heard about the project the people of Broken Hill dug around in their attics and sheds and sold, donated or loaned items to Adrian and the museum. He was given an original script too. He has several of the vehicles used in the film, including the original gyrocopter, although he has built some replicas himself. He has hundreds of photos of the action, many of them from Max Alpin, the head stuntman. Mel Gibson’s sister came to visit recently and was very impressed. No sign of Mel himself though. So far. An amazing place, with a slightly barmy feel to it. I loved it! (http://silverton.org.au/mad-max-museum/) Very well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.
Silverton was one of the stops on the tramway which linked Broken Hill with the railway that went down into South Australia. The town petitioned the NSW government to build a line but they refused. So they built their own private line. It’s referred to as a tramway because it was privately run. It was hugely profitable. It was also involved in the only enemy action of WW1 which took place on Australian soil. Two cameleers, one Turkish the other Pakistani, felt strongly enough about events in Turkey to arm themselves and fire upon a train of open wagons packed with townsfolk heading on a day trip. Several were killed before the attackers were also shot and killed. This story, along with others, is told in the Sulphide Street Railway Museum, where I spent an hour or so wandering happily around their collection of old locos, carriages and wagons. Visitors are allowed to wander through the rolling stock and get up into the cabs of the locos as much as they liked. A refreshing change from most places.
My last visit before leaving for pastures new was to the Living Desert Sculpture Park. The idea for this fascinating place came from a chance conversation with the mayor at the opening of an art exhibition. “Not enough sculptures” was one artist’s comment and before too long funding had been found to create this sculpture park. Many local businesses provided support and sandstone boulders were moved to the chosen site, where the leader of the symposium of sculptors felt was the right place spiritually . It’s on the top of a hill, which now lies within the Living Desert Reserve. Many of the sculptors came from Europe and the Middle East and have created some amazing artwork. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
‘Motherhood’, by Badri Salushia from Tblisi, Georgia.
It was time to leave this fascinating town. I was very glad indeed that I’d returned, but was also regretting my short visit. There is a huge amount to see in and around Broken Hill, gateway to the outback, but I had to move on. I read that today’s value of all the minerals taken from Broken Hill would be around $300 billion. I took was the road north.