“STEP ONTO the platform and then across to the ladder,” tour guide Dick Wagner informed us as we looked at the small hole we were about to descend into. “It’s only about 40 feet to the bottom,” he continued. “And there is a light down there,” he said as he disappeared into the earth while I was still trying to placate my fears of small dark confined places.
Underground, I found myself on the small jack hammer used to break up the soft clay at the head of the mine and where the mouth of what looked like a giant vacuum cleaner lay waiting, whistling and sucking the clay debris to the top of the mine where it was dumped straight into the back of an old truck.
“I pulled some good opal out of here a few weeks back,” Dick informed us above the noise of the vacuum cleaner, but whether he was just saying that for my benefit or it was the truth, I wasn’t sure and never found out.
Like gold prospectors, opal miners rarely tell the whole truth, fearing either a swarm of miners descending on their plot, or worse, the tax commissioner asking tough questions on treasures unearthed and monies earnt.
Certainly, Dick had shown us some magnificent specimens taken from his mine and his son’s next door, and his shop, the Stubbie House, is full of quantities and qualities of opal.
We were at White Cliffs, the opal mining town in the far west of NSW, where the latest census counted 103 people living and working there. After a few days in this isolated settlement, though, we reckoned absolutely everybody must have been home when they did the count; certainly it was not done in summer when the population drops to near single figures.
Opal was first discovered here in the 1880s, and soon men were chiselling soft clay and burying themselves into the low cliffs of the hills to not only find the gemstone, but escape the area’s blistering heat.
Within the first three years there were 700 hardy souls living on the field, eating stolen sheep and drinking putrid water from wherever they could find it. No wonder the small cemetery just outside town has so many gravestones.
Since those early days hundreds of holes have been dug (some say 50,000, but I’m not sure if anyone has counted them) in the quest for the coloured stone, so much so that from the air it looks like a strange moonscape or the work of giant gophers.
Our trip had started a week or so earlier as we headed north from Broken Hill to Innamincka and then onto the famous ‘Dig Tree’ of Burke and Wills. From there we had travelled across the gibber plains heading east, crossing the wide braided floodplain of the Cooper Creek again, between the modern aberrations of the Ballera and the Naccowlah gas fields and associated processing plants.
Our camp on the Wilson River at Noccundra with its long, near permanent waterhole (has it ever dried up?) is a magic spot to spend a few days as the travellers’ camps dotted along the water’s edge testify. Adding to the charm of the place is the old hotel that lazes away time under the shade of a few tall gums while dispensing cooling fluids to weary travellers.
4x4 opinion: The last grave of the Burke & Wills expedition
Leichhardt possibly passed this way in 1848 before he vanished into the depths of the Outback, never to be heard of again. While the Burke and Wills party, heading for what we know as the ‘Dig Tree’ on Cooper Creek, crossed the braided channels of the Wilson River, south of today’s pub in 1860. Later that decade pastoral settlement had reached out this far with the surrounding Nockatunga Station originally being taken up by the Drynan brothers in 1868.
In 1874, the little known Andrew Hume-led expedition, while out searching for Leichhardt’s lost expedition, itself went missing with most of the party perishing somewhere west of the waterhole; only the piano tuner survived!
The Noccundra Hotel was built in 1882 with sandstone mined at Mt Poole, south of Tibooburra, and transported the long distance here by camel train. It was a hell of an undertaking, which the owners must have thought was worthwhile.
Today the pub remains much as it was, low roofed (to stop the stockmen riding their horses into the bar!) and with wired-up roof supports on the veranda as the gidgee trees used in its construction is too tough to nail. The pub, as you probably guessed, is heritage listed.
We headed east along the blacktop passing quickly through Thargomindah – although it has a lot of history with the town being established at a crossing point of the Bulloo River. Time didn’t permit us to dally, however, and after a coffee and pie at the bakery we cruised onto Eulo, the X-Class Mercedes utes eating up the kilometres effortlessly and surprisingly quietly in what is a very refined cabin for a dual-cab workhorse.
4x4 reviews: The X-Class takes on the outback
Crossing the ephemeral, muddy, sluggish waters of the Paroo River we stopped for a cold beer at the famous Eulo Queen Hotel in the heart of the small town of Eulo. Established in the early 1870s, the town once had three pubs servicing travellers heading for the nearby opal fields of Yowah.
The ‘Eulo Queen’ was one Isabel Gray, who ran pubs, grog shops and more intimate rooms during the 1880s and ’90s, as well as finding time to be married three times. As Eulo’s importance faded, Isabel’s lavish lifestyle went west and she died in 1929 in poverty, but her legend remains.
In scientific circles though, the area around Eulo is well-known for the discovery in 2011 of one of the highest concentrations of ancient megafauna to be found in Australia. Celebrated by a life-size statue of a giant wombat, or diprotodon, that is just across the road from the pub, the site also revealed fossils of five-to-six-metre long meat-eating lizards, giant forest wallabies, an extinct monster kangaroo and a five-to-seven-metre long freshwater crocodile. Maybe we’re lucky that the Paroo is such a transitory stream these days?
We turned south heading along the lesser used dirt road on the east side of the Paroo River, which happens to be the last free-flowing river in the whole of the Murray-Darling basin – that’s when it is flowing!
We entered Currawinya NP, one of the larger parks in Queensland covering 344,000ha and considered to be one of the most important wetland bird habitats in all of Australia. Salty Lake Wyara in the far west of the park and nearby Lake Numalla, which is fresh, can be a birdwatcher’s paradise, while the famed bilby enclosure, designed to protect these delightful and reintroduced animals, is out of bounds for travellers.
We crossed the stream on a dry causeway, a few puddles of water surrounded by gnarled red gums and thickish bush showing the whereabouts of the main channel, near the deserted ruins of the old Caiwarro homestead. As we cruised through the park on what are pretty good dirt roads, the occasional ’roo hopped across the road, but the drought has hit hard here and wildlife was not as abundant as it could be.
As we pulled into the tiny hamlet of Hungerford, a small group of kangaroos were feeding on a scattered pile of hay, opposite the cop shop, put out for their survival. It’s tough times when locals have to do that!
In a unique experience and certainly a first for us, we camped that night in the local campground and enjoyed a couple of beers in the unforgettable, rustic and historic Royal Mail Hotel – although we have done the latter a few times before.
Henry Lawson walked the road from Bourke to Hungerford in 1892 and would rate as the town’s most important visitor, I’d reckon. His poem, The City Bushman, a scathing rebuttal of ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s literal images of the bush, was written after Lawson had carried his swag though the west of NSW and his evocative words on the drought, which were just as bad then, as now, still ring true.
Next morning we passed through the Dog Fence at the border, the signs hanging from the gate indicating that we’d be severely dealt with if we left the wire portal open. Later that day after passing through Wanaaring, stopping at the King Charlie Waterhole on the Paroo where the river looks more like a regular stream, and then passing through the Paroo-Darling NP (there was no water visible at Peery Lake, the only accessible spot off the main road in the park), we pulled up to camp on the edge of a dry watercourse just outside White Cliffs.
Next day we had our meeting with Dick and headed underground, and then after checking out his incredible opal displays our photographer Ellen and I headed off to visit the ‘White House’.
Now, I’m not into walking around houses for the pure sake of it, but I gotta tell you the 22-room underground home of one-time shearer, part-time copper, roustabout, rabbit shooter and opal miner, Lindsay White, and his artistic partner Cree Marshall, is something that will blow your mind. It is exceptional, and just goes to show some of the jewels that lie underground at White Cliffs are not opal at all!
That evening, after an easy run, we threw down our swags in Mutawintji NP, one of the best places to visit in western NSW and a real oasis set in the Byngano Range, which has long been held as sacred by the local Aboriginal people.
There’s a very pleasant camping area located here on the edge of Homestead Creek, while a 4X4 track along part of the Old Coach Road takes you into a more northerly part of the park which has some great rock formations and is best viewed in the early morning or late afternoon.
Walking tracks radiate from the camping area; the easiest one being to Wrights Cave, where William Wright, who guided the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition for some time, made his mark amongst a range of more ancient Aboriginal paintings and engravings.
The Mutawintji Historical Site, which includes some of the most spectacular gorge country and Aboriginal art in the area, is only accessible via an organised tour with accredited guides. As we’ve found, it’s best to go with Tri-State Safaris which operates out of Broken Hill, but you can join them at the campground for a very reasonable price.
Heading south we took the often sandy Waterbag Road, passing some great old farming ruins along the way, including some aged wooden beam pumps, boilers and tattered wrecks of cars scattered around the remains of a few station outbuildings. Of course, we had to stop to explore the ruins and the battered remains of this one-time extensive endeavour to settle this harsh region.
Next stop was Wilcannia where the once mighty Darling River was a sad sight, the pool of water below the bridge seemingly more algae than anything else. No wonder so many people are upset about how much water is being pulled out of the river farther upstream.
Taking the River Road – on the west side of the Darling (there’s another road on the east side) – we headed to Menindee and camped on the edge of Lake Pamamaro, which was about two-thirds full of water; the wide stretch of aqua making a delightful sight after our days wandering through the bleached outback of drought-ridden NSW.
A few things you need to do while here is to have a beer (or a meal) in the historic Maiden Hotel (where ol’ Burke ensconced himself for a few days), visit the site where the Burke and Wills expedition camped for some time close to the Darling and Lake Pamamaro (while Burke was at the pub) and to visit the great woolshed on Kinchega Station, now included in the surrounding Kinchega NP. We’ve done all three before and we did them again this time around, and it was just as enjoyable as it was then.
After a day of taking in the history of the region we headed through the park before passing Tandou Station, which sold its water rights rather controversially last year to the Federal government, for a cool $78 million – nice if you can get it!
Our stopping spot that evening was the historic Bindara Station homestead located on the banks of the Darling, this time the river having a modicum of water flowing past as it was fed by the man-made storage system built around the Menindee Lakes. I hadn’t stopped here before and it is a great place to throw down the swag or pull the camper up under a shady tree for a night or three.
With the river having a pretty permanent supply of water downstream from the lakes, there’s always plenty of wildlife and birds around, there’s fishing and yabbying to be enjoyed, canoeing on the stream, while walking through the bush along the edge of the river will take you to many points of historic interest.
The backroad we followed south the next day parallels the river. In the early morning there was a heap of wildlife wandering to and from the water while corellas squawked relentlessly from the trees overhead, ducks glided on the stream and emus, running faster than a kangaroo, belted through the sparse scrub.
The small hamlet of Pooncarie, my favourite town on the Darling, came and went as we continued south to where the muddy, sluggish Darling meets with the more energetic and clearer waters of the mighty Murray River.
You get a great view of the junction of these two streams from Junction Park on the south side of Wentworth, the historic town which has played such an important part in the paddle steamer trade on both streams and which was a linchpin for the settlement of Outback NSW and Corner Country.
It made a fitting end to our travels through that very region and one we are sure to visit again in the future.