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A tourist in my third life


Publishing: June 23rd 2017

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I have three lives.

Not consecutively like a two-thirds-lived cat, my lives are sliced and spliced together like one long kebab.

There’s my Real Life, based in London, occasionally accessorised with work, happily decorated with culture and a wide range of friends, both fellow Londoners and visitors from overseas.

Then there’s Edinburgh, back to my roots, a tranquil, easy existence, with lots of fresh air and friends who knew my parents, my childhood home, my past. There’s a timelessness to this life, and it’s a welcome blast of sanity after the hurly-burly of London.

Then there’s Australia, my escape from the northern hemisphere’s winter and the mundane responsibilities of Real Life, where I can pretend that I too may lay claim to the big skies, the wilderness, the endless vistas, the hopping wildlife. Australia isn’t a “holiday” for me, it’s just one of my lives, a distinction I find hard to convey to those on the more traditional wheel of life. Here I spend several months each year living a funny kind of sociable existence, bouncing happily between friends and relations, creating new memories and revisiting old ones.

I only wish I could live each life

– and one or two more besides – on a fulltime basis, dividing myself into ever smaller segments. But until that becomes possible, I’ll zip from one to another to the next, and back again.

I don’t tend to blog about Australia, for the same reason that I don’t write about either of my other lives. It’s just life – no big bananas – though I am very aware of my humungous good fortune in being able to regard it so casually.

But every so often, I do something Down Under that’s just a little bit different and which might be of interest. And last Wednesday was one of those days. After more than seven years of visiting Fowlers Gap, the outback research station 110km north of Broken Hill where Bloke has been director since tearing himself away from the fun and adventure of Africa, I finally got around to checking out the sights of the local metropolis and its environs.

Broken Hill is up there with Mount Isa for many urban Australians in terms of conjuring images of remoteness, and the edginess and unrelenting heat of a distant mining town. Not everyone remembers that it is

still in New South Wales, though it’s so far west that it adopts South Australia’s half-hour different time zone. It’s a three-hour flight from Sydney, or a 14-hour/1,150km drive. (To put this in context for non-Australians, Perth, the capital of distant Western Australia, is a five-hour flight from Sydney – on a much bigger plane than the little twin-propped Regional Airlines number that services the intra-state routes – or a 42-hour/4,000km drive.) Named after a perceived break in the Barrier Range, it has in turn given its name to what has become one of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP (originally, Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited). Home to a massive silver-lead-zinc mineral deposit nicknamed the Line of Lode, mining has been the town’s raison d’être from day one. The population peaked in the early 1960s at around 30,000, but is now closer to 18,000, punished by the shrinking of the mining industry and changes in mining technology. It now boasts a thriving artistic community and hails itself the “Capital of the Outback” to bolster its tourism credentials

It’s a curious place. I feel as if it would take a long time to be accepted there, as if the locals

might be defensive of their town and the aspersions they fear others might cast on those who remain in – or cannot escape from – what feels like a has-been settlement. History rather than the present seems to prevail, with the town’s often crumbling facades, the lurking presence of the slag heap, the now-silent old mines. Yet the town provides remarkably well for the surrounding area in terms of supplies and services, its nearest rival being in the neighbouring state and a good three-hour drive away. It is home to the Broken Hill School of the Air and one of the bases of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, both of which make for easy photo ops on visits by Australia’s “princess”, the Tasmanian-born Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. And it provides the occasional unexpected treasure, such as The Silly Goat coffee shop, first established about three years’ ago, and my erstwhile temporary office when Fowlers Gap’s internet proved too slow to service my sporadic work commitments. (I feel a little guilty that I no longer frequent Charlotte’s, where the proprietor remembered my order across the nine-month gap in my visits.)

At the urging of my passenger last Wednesday, the

artist Janis Lander who’d been out at Fowlers Gap for her annual dose of quietude and inspiration, and whom I was taking to the airport, I finally visited the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery. To my chagrin, I hadn’t even known where it was, and found it only a very short stone’s throw from The Silly Goat. (I’ve now resolved to drop in there every time I stop for a coffee.) It contained an eclectic variety of exhibitions, including, to my bemusement, the Alice Springs Beanie Festival competition entrants and winners. Who knew that the simple woollen headgear could be decorated and transformed in so many different ways? More to my taste was Badger Bates’ exhibition Movement, displaying both his monochromatic linoprints, each capturing a childhood memory or story from his people, and his fabulous wooden carvings. I was sorely tempted to add one of the metre-high stylised pelicans or brolgas (a member of the crane family) to my quirky collection of artworks back in southeast London, but, conscious of my travel-rather-than-work plans for the rest of the year, managed to keep my credit card safely in my pocket.

Mining is the town’s lifeblood, a fact reflected

in the street names which read like a chemistry textbook: Argent, Uranium, Radium, Sulphide, Iodide, Bromide, Chloride, Cobalt, Silica. The slag heap overshadows the centre of town, silently hunkered down on the far side of the railway track. At its summit is the continuingly poignant Miners’ Memorial. Below the stark rust-coloured tented sheets of weathered steel is a set of glass plaques listing the names of each of the more than 800 who have perished in or around the town’s mines from 1883 to 2007 (with room, sadly, for more, should they be required). A few words outline the cause of death in each case – “suffocated in ore”, “fell down chute”, “rockfall”, “premature explosion” – their brutal simplicity skating over the inevitable agonies suffered. White fabric roses poke out of the steel uprights between the panels. It’s a brutal reminder of the appalling price so many have paid for the extraction of this country’s natural wealth.

Down the road is Silverton, made famous by countless movies, notably the Mad Max series. Nowadays it’s a ghost township, with a tiny population and a daily throughput of tourist vehicles. I was expecting the main street to be straight

out of a Western, but Silverton’s buildings are widely scattered giving an incoherent feel to what’s left. There’s a tiny church, an even smaller Masonic hall, a corrugated iron shack-museum to Mad Max II (I’m not enough of an aficionado to know why the second instalment should merit specific treatment), a café that was closed, a small hotel (also well known for its cinematic appearances) and a smattering of artists’ gallery-shops. But the colours of the township were for me its most striking feature. The depth of the blue in the autumnal sky was simply glorious, contrasting dramatically with the red stone of the buildings and the brightly coloured graffiti decorating the artists’ workshops and, for some reason, a smattering of VW Beetles. One of the resident artists is John Dynon whose quirky emus feature on my favourite local postcards and therefore now adorn various fridges and mantelpieces back home.

Just beyond Silverton are the Mundi Mundi plains, allegedly one of the few places in the world where the enormity of the view allows you to see the curvature of the Earth. But I’m spoilt: I’m used to the view from the Fowlers Gap’s lookout across the

research station’s flats, a view that seems to transport you to the year-after-next. Mundi Mundi’s view is sawn in half by the tarred road, and the lookout itself lacks enough height to dramatise the view sufficiently for my greedy requirements. I admit that, not being the aforementioned Mad Max aficionado, I couldn’t appreciate the view as the location for the opening sequence of the second instalment. But that’s me being picky. It’s a pretty fine view all up.

To the north of Broken Hill is the grandly-named Sculptures and Living Desert Sanctuary. It was the sculptures that had attracted me. The product of an international symposium in 1993, the dozen sandstone monoliths were carved by a range of artists, some of whom had never worked in stone before. Each has a story to tell, reflecting the influence of the surrounding desert on its creator as well as the artist’s own background. Scattered over a hilltop with views in every direction, the sculptures would create a fabulous sunset setting, but I had to make do with the early afternoon of this chilly but bright autumn day. After all, I still had to get to the supermarket and then

tackle the drive back to the research station, something no-one willingly undertakes after dark for fear of hitting the often unpredictable wildlife. There’d been quite enough carnage on the road on my way into town, which the wedge-tailed eagles and crows were clearly enjoying, a consequence of the recent light rains greening up the verges; I didn’t want to add to it, both for the sake of the kangaroos and the number of dents on Bloke’s car.

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