Road Trip to Outback Australia: White Cliffs, Broken Hill, Mildura and Mungo National Park #Longform
The thought of driving over 3000km (1900 miles) in only twelve days was confronting. To my dismay I had agreed with my husband to go on a road trip to outback Australia with our three young children in tow.
Outback Australia Road Trip Vision
Travel inspirations can develop unexpectedly, or sometimes take a while to come to fruition. Our inspiration to visit outback Australia had been bubbling quietly in the background for many years now, and had been bypassed several times by other ideas whose time had come. And we have had many other vacation ideas which may never actualize.
What is outback Australia? Outback Australia is an area that I have never previously visited. I have previously driven on the Newell Highway from Canberra to Brisbane. And I have travelled from Darwin to Kakadu National Park. But the next nearest town was always within one hour’s drive. In my mind outback Australia is no one single place but is a part of Australia where very few people live. And there are long distances between townships so there is greater danger if your car breaks down or you have an accident.
The closest we have travelled to outback Australia was a driving journey through a mostly verdant irrigated landscape beside the Murray River from Echuca to Mildura. We travelled in convoy with an American couple who had been inspired by reading In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. They decided to take a few extra days to travel beyond Mildura to see the real Australian outback.
Upon their return we were regaled with the fascinating story of how they travelled northeast to Mungo National Park. They subsequently drove on mostly gravel roads to White Cliffs, and felt that they were in danger of never being found if their car had failed due to the remoteness of the area. We had never heard of White Cliffs before, so were amazed by the concept of an underground town along with the absolute remoteness of their route.
So a travel maybe was born. A tiny inkling which was nurtured by periodic articles and television segments. Eight years since conception this idea finally reached maturity when we travelled to outback Australia.
We were temporarily seduced by some other tempting holiday options. We also considered the option of flying to Adelaide and travelling by motorhome back to Sydney; however this option significantly increased the overall trip cost.
After flirting with the other holiday options and concepts we finally decided to proceed with our original vision of a road trip in a large loop from Sydney via White Cliffs, Broken Hill, Mildura and Mungo National Park.
Outback Australia Road Trip Route
After much deliberation we finalised our itinerary for our road trip to outback Australia. We had limited time during the winter school holidays so our plan was to travel approximately 3100 kilometres (1900 miles) over 12 days.
Below is the map of our route. The key destinations which we were keen to visit were White Cliffs, Broken Hill, Mildura and Mungo National Park.
Outback New South Wales Road Trip Route Map
Outback New South Wales Route
|S||Drive Sydney to Nyngan (520km, 6:39 hrs)|
|M||Drive to White Cliffs (485 km, 5:02 hrs)|
|T||Explore White Cliffs|
|W||Drive to Broken Hill (287 km, 2:58 hrs via Wilcannia)|
|T||Explore Broken Hill|
|F||Explore Broken Hill|
|S||Drive to Mildura (3:20 hrs, 297km), then to Turlee Station (1:00 hrs, 101km)|
|S||Explore Turlee Station and Mungo National Park|
|M||Return to Mildura (1:00 hrs). Afternoon riverboat cruise.|
|W||Drive to Wagga Wagga (558 km, 6:14 hrs)|
|T||Drive to Sydney (455 km, 4:58 hrs)|
Road Trip to Outback Australia: On the Road from Sydney to White Cliffs
Our outback Australia road trip commenced with the lengthy 1000km (650 mile) drive from urbane Sydney to the isolated opal mining town of White Cliffs. We were unsure where the real outback began and looked forward to exploring new territory.
The start of our drive was initially on a familiar route west through the spectacular Blue Mountains. We quickly transitioned into unfamiliar terrain after passing through the town of Lithgow. We headed north towards Mudgee, a well-known wine and gourmet food destination.
We enjoyed the unexpected sights of the Capartee Valley and the historic town of Ilford. After arriving in Mudgee we had the opportunity to squeeze in some winery visits prior to proceeding to our night stop at Nyngan. The highlight of our short visit to Mudgee was the atmospheric Pieter van Gent winery tasting shed.
After taking a bit too long in Mudgee we were concerned that we would not arrive in Nyngan until after sunset. Driving on country roads in Australia in the period prior to sunset and at night time can be risky. Kangaroos typically come out to feed on the road verges and vehicle accidents with kangaroos are a frequent occurrence. Fortunately we arrived without incident and had a quiet night in Nyngan, halfway to our first true outback destination of White Cliffs.
After an early departure we arrived in the historic mining town of Cobar. The eastern town entrance is framed on the south by the impressive slag heap remnants of the Great Cobar Copper Mine which operated from 1876 to 1919. On the north side there was sufficient large scale mining equipment on display to set machinery minded people panting with rabid enthusiasm… With stampers, head frames and loaders you knew you had entered a whole new world of mining terminology!
A very short distance south of Cobar is the Fort Bourke Lookout and the New Cobar Open Cut Gold Mine. The viewing platform provides a fascinating view 150m down to the bottom of the open cut mine which then transforms into an underground mine. The platform also provided a perfect place to teach our children about echoes!
Twelve kilometres south of Cobar we visited the Peak Gold Mine, which is a fully underground mine only evident by the parking lot and the mine headframe. The miners obviously like to drive big four wheel drive vehicles!
In addition to viewing the above ground component of a modern underground mine, the Golden Walk provides a fascinating insight into the mining practises of the late 1800s. Hand dug mining shafts litter the grounds around the Peak Gold Mine which have been fenced to be safe for visitors and also signposted to better explain the original mining techniques and equipment used.
Forty kilometres west of Cobar was the turn off to travel 32 kilometres on an unsealed road to the Mt Grenfell Historic Site. Turning off the sealed road provided us with our first taste of the true outback Australia. No other cars or people to be seen, a relatively barren landscape and plenty of opportunities to run into a plethora of emus, kangaroos, cows, sheep and goats. At one exciting moment we had two emus racing at top speed beside us in parallel to the road.
The Mt Grenfell Historic Site contains some magnificent examples of aboriginal rock art. At first glance the seemingly infertile landscape led us to speculate what it must have been like for the Aboriginal tribes to live in this area, particularly in the summer when it was blazing hot without much water. I could imagine that sitting under the few large rocks in the heat of the day would have been relatively pleasant, which could account for the sheer quantity of rock art present in a small area.
After an enjoyable interlude we finally settled in for the long drive to the remote town of White Cliffs. Prior to Cobar we had experienced fertile countryside with many trees and towns appearing at most 100km apart. West of Cobar the landscape became noticeably barren with shrubby trees. The next town of Wilcannia was a 262km drive from Cobar, with only a single roadhouse stop at Emmdale to break the journey.
As a result of making the most of sightseeing opportunities en route, by the time we left the Mt Grenfell Historic Site our GPS advised that we would not arrive at White Cliffs until sunset. Fortunately the road north from Wilcannia to White Cliffs is fully sealed, but due to the lower volume of traffic there was significantly more wildlife along the road.
As sunset approached we both actively searched for wildlife hazards, and along the way spotted copious numbers of kangaroos which necessitated regularly braking our car. We were also fortunate to see several massive Wedge Tailed Eagles eating road carrion, which from a distance appeared larger than kangaroos! I had never previously seen such large birds of prey before, with wingspans greater than 2 metres.
After travelling over 1000km (650 miles) over two days we finally arrived safely at White Cliffs just prior to sunset. Our long drive to White Cliffs was complete, and we had definitely crossed the threshold to the real outback Australia.
Road Trip to Outback Australia: Fascinating White Cliffs
Around the world there are many locations where people have dug their homes into the ground due to stable soil conditions and a lack of building materials. The troglodyte caves of the Loire Valley in France and the amazing geography of the Cappadocia region of Turkey are just two examples. In Australia there is also a long history of underground homes called dugouts, primarily in the opal mining towns of outback Australia. The most famous dugout town is Coober Pedy in South Australia, and the lesser known dugout option is the tiny township of White Cliffs in New South Wales.
The remote township of White Cliffs provides a fascinating expose of human behaviour and the desire to get rich quickly. The discovery of opals in 1884 subsequently led to a population explosion from around 30 people to the lofty heights of 5000 people living in the township area. As sadly evidenced by the Children’s Cemetery, life in White Cliffs was tough and a combination of a poor water supply, drought, disease and a reducing market for opals caused the population to reduce back to 30 people by 1914. Since then, a small number of optimistic miners have continued to seek the precious white opals, and according to the 2006 census the population of White Cliffs has marginally increased to 119 people.
We pre-booked into the White Cliffs Underground Motel so we could experience what it is like to live underground. Before arriving I mistakenly assumed that we would have to enter the motel through a vertical entryway. Upon arrival in White Cliffs we realised that the town consist of three rocky outcrops, and all of the dugouts are actually dug into the sides of the outcrops. The motel consisted of a maze of underground passageways connecting the rooms and amenities. Our children loved running through the passageways.
There was also a lengthy set of stairs which took you to the top of the Smith’s Hill outcrop to an enclosed viewing room which also provided access to the top of the outcrop. As a result of the perfectly clear and light free sky the stars at night were spectacular. Courtesy of the Space Junk application I had downloaded onto my phone we were able to identify many of the constellations and planets on view. The top of the outcrop was also the place to view the cold but amazing outback sunrises and sunsets across the barren countryside.
As you would expect there are many places to purchase opals. A surprising alternative experience is to visit Jock’s Place, where Jock provides a tour of his personal dugout. Jock is a larger than life character and he tells the story of the recent history of the White Cliffs area. In Jock’s opinion, finding a worthwhile seam of opal is pure chance, so every person who decides to search for opals is a gambler. After Jock’s monologue he then takes you for a tour of the dugout in which he has accumulated a lifetime of historic opal mining equipment and other junk. The dugout itself is amazing, as it is presented in the raw unlike the carefully coated walls of the Underground Motel. Seeing how tiny a vein of viable opal is gives you a clear idea that searching for opal is the equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack.
The opal diggings areas are also fascinating and dangerous to explore. We mostly drove through the diggings areas as with three young children we didn’t want to take chances with their safety. Most diggings are started via a vertical shaft until it is either decided to abandon the shaft or expand it further. These shafts are everywhere and are a real danger if you fall into one. There are photos of White Cliffs from the air where the holes create the effect of a bizarre moonscape.
After staying in White Cliffs for two nights we felt as if we had truly commenced our exploration of outback Australia. After thinking for several years about visiting the remote town of White Cliffs we had finally accomplished our aspiration.
The next leg of our journey was to Broken Hill. One of the other visitors to the Underground Motel had provided an intriguing recommendation to visit the café at the top of the slag heap to see the views across Broken Hill. We had no idea what to expect but looked forward to discovering Broken Hill.
Road Trip to Outback Australia: Broken Hill Revealed
Arriving in Broken Hill is an awe inspiring experience. As you drive in you are immediately struck by the vision of what on first glance appears to be a mountain towering over the middle of town. On second glance you realise that the behemoth is manmade.
It is even more surprising when you realise that the man-made slag heap is located where the series of hills called the Line of Lode used to be. Photos of the original Line of Lode were on view at the Railway Museum and provided some perspective on the significant amount of rock which has been processed since the original Broken Hill silver mine was established in 1885.
As promised by a previous traveller recommendation we enjoyed the view from the café on top of the slag heap. It was sobering to reflect on the monuments to dead miners. Over 900 miners died whilst working on the Line of Lode. Broken Hill is notable for the formation of strong unions in 1920 which after leading an 18 month strike managed to improve the working conditions for miners across Australia.
The central township area of Broken Hill is a fascinating place to explore with many historic buildings and museums.
A highlight of any visit to Broken Hill is the guided tour through the Royal Flying Doctor Service base just south of the township. The tour provides an appreciation for the work being done to provide both routine and emergency medical and dental services to remote stations and communities. A real highlight was their video where my children got to see what happens if you do not look after your teeth!!
The Royal Flying Doctor Service museum provides a fascinating insight into how the medical service developed in conjunction with the School of the Air. Pedal powered radio sets were the foundation equipment to establish the service, many of which are still in use and being given to third world countries to enable radio communications.
When you drive the long distances between outback towns you start to appreciate how remote the outback Australian communities are. Combined with the remoteness is understanding how far away medical help is if you need it, which you take for granted if you live in a city environment.
Road Trip to Outback Australia: Discovering Silverton
The underpopulated township of Silverton near Broken Hill is an unlikely candidate to be a tourist destination. Most of the original buildings are gone and the current population is less than 60 people. The few buildings which remain provide a microcosm of the essential elements of a town. There is an iconic Aussie pub and the old gaol and school which have been transformed into fascinating museums.
The mines of Silverton were established in 1883 on the back of silver and lead deposits only two years before silver was discovered at Broken Hill. As a result of the discovery of silver in Broken Hill the Silverton population progressively declined from a peak of 3000 people in 1885 until the town disestablished in 1899. Most of the houses were relocated to Broken Hill due to a limited supply of building materials being available. Silverton has now re-established itself as a tourist destination with fascinating museums, art galleries and as a television and movie location.
Silverton Gaol provided an eclectic collection of local memorabilia and equipment through the past century. Our children were fascinated by being inside an actual gaol, and the questions kept coming to find out what various things were. The steam engines were of particular interest, along with the ‘washing machines through the ages’ collection.
Just around the corner the Silverton Public School museum with its single classroom was an interesting experience for our children. They had the opportunity to use slates and chalk, in addition to trying out quills and nib pens which needed to be dipped in an inkwell. Seeing the old fashioned readers made me realise that the fundamentals of teaching children to read and write have not changed very much over the past 100 years with the exception of the punishment regime.
The area around Silverton is also worth exploring. Five kilometres away is the amazing view over the Mundi Mundi Plains, which is the flattest view I have ever seen. The Mundi Mundi Plains observation point is one of the few places on Earth where you can see the curvature of the Earth.
We visited Daydream Mine on the way back to Broken Hill which is one of the few publically accessible underground mines in Australia. The approach to the mine is spectacular with the ruined remains of the first smelter in the region. Daydream Mine was established in 1882 and mining operations continued on and off until 1983.
The underground mine tour was fascinating. Our guide was able to provide a comprehensive picture of what life a miner would have been like. My overwhelming memory of the tour was realising that when people decided to work in mining in those days that they were committing themselves to an early death and a painful life.
Between the effects of silicon in the rock causing silicosis, the risk of being crushed in the mine, lead poisoning from the food cans, and early loss of vision there was little quality of life for the miners. Boys as young as 8 years old worked in the mine to pick out the good quality rock, and would only have a few years before their eyesight would deteriorate and have to shift to other jobs. The tour through the underground workings caused such an impact that when we asked our children whether they were interested in working in a mine they all answered with a resounding ‘NO’.
The next leg of our journey was to depart the mining zone to head towards the food and wine zone of the Mildura region and onwards to stay at Turlee Station near Mungo National Park.
Road Trip to Outback Australia: On the Road from Broken Hill to Turlee Station
Staying at an outback station (or farm) is a great way to experience a small taste of what life is like in the remote outback. After researching several options we booked into Turlee Station near both Mildura and Mungo National Park.
We had a long driving day from Broken Hill (385km, 240 miles) via Wentworth to Turlee Station. The drive between Broken Hill and Wentworth consists of an arid plain with scrubby plants, broken up by the occasional watercourse with magnificent river red gum trees complementing the vivid red soil.
As you enter Wentworth you have the option to take a small diversion to stop at a seemingly innocuous location called the Perry Sandhills. Upon arrival you can see an amazing expanse of red sandhills which follow the course of the Murray River. All around the sand hills is flat land so the contrast is amazing. It is worthwhile to take a toboggan so you can slide down the hills at great speed!! We had a lovely time when we were able to borrow someone else’s toboggan after they became exhausted from climbing back up the hill.
The verdant drive from Wentworth to the Mungo National Park turnoff provides such a contrast to the previously dry terrain. The great Murray River provides the water to irrigate the many fruit trees and other agriculture of the region. After the turnoff the drive to Turlee Station is 90km, of which 70km is unsealed road. We were driving in a conventional 2WD vehicle and managed the journey. However since they had recently had rain there were parts of the road where we could easily have become bogged. We occasionally felt like we were in a slalom race to avoid the wet spots!
We finally arrived at Turlee Station before dark and after being welcomed by our hosts Nathan and Sophie we happily settled into our comfortable bush cabin. Our children loved running around with the other kids in a safe environment. The camp fire was a real favourite as it was the first time our children had had the opportunity to enjoy an open fire. After travelling such a long distance it was great for our children to be able to run, play and just relax.
We stayed at Turlee Station for only two nights, but wished that we had booked for a couple of extra days. All of the guests were invited to see some sheep being prepared for transportation which was ‘a short distance away’. A convoy of cars followed Nathan’s vehicle for half an hour on dirt roads which gave a real feel for just how big the station is. Australian stations are significantly larger than farms in many countries due to the arid conditions requiring larger grazing areas for livestock.
Our children were enthralled by the sheep awaiting transportation. These were no domesticated petting zoo lambs like they had seen previously. These were fully grown, woolly and burr covered sheep. Our older children were able to enter the pen and experience the sheep running around them.
After returning to our accommodation the children were also given the tour of the farm equipment. The massive GPS controlled tractor was a highlight for my oldest son who is a transportation aficionado.
Road Trip to Outback Australia: Mungo National Park
Sometimes you have an experience which is profound. You never know when those moments will strike so you can’t plan it. Our visit to Mungo National Park in outback Australia gifted me with one of these rare overpowering moments.
Mungo National Park contains an area called the Walls of China where over tens of thousands of years layers of soil have raised the ground level above what was previously a lake. In more recent times the rain and wind have progressively eroded the soil and every day new artefacts emerge. The artefacts include animal remains, Aboriginal artefacts and some of the oldest human remains ever discovered. Mungo Lady was found in 1968 and Mungo Man was discovered in 1974. Both remains have been dated as approximately 42,000 years old.
Mungo National Park is jointly managed by three local Aboriginal tribes and the New South Wales government. Our guide explained that the Aboriginal approach to their history is to leave it where it lies. Artefacts can appear one day and be gone the next, blown away by the wind as an ever changing natural museum.
Just before our visit significant rainfall eroded deep divots through the Mungo landscape. Our guide pointed out a blacked area about halfway down a 1.5 meter high divot which was the remains of an Aboriginal fire pit from approximately 40,000 years ago. Just considering how many years the Aboriginal people must have placed a fire in the same location to even hope to leave a mark amazed me. Trying to grasp the age of what I was seeing was too hard for me to comprehend.
I have had past travel experiences where the age of artefacts has been difficult to comprehend. In 1992 I embarked on my first independent overseas trip to Europe. At the time Australia had recently celebrated its Bicentenary of 200 years since white settlement. While visiting Budapest I recall feeling overwhelmed when I visited the Hero’s Square monument which was built in 1896 to celebrated the Hungarian people having lived in that part of Europe for 1000 years. I found it overwhelming to comprehend the amount of time which had passed. My experience at Mungo National Park was of even greater magnitude.
Mungo National Park is a long way away from anywhere in Australia but I am pleased we made the effort to visit this magnificent location. The insight the visit gave me of the Aboriginal history of Australia will be enduring.
Road Trip to Outback Australia: Mildura Revisited
When we drove to Mildura from Turlee Station we experienced bittersweet emotions. While we were looking forward to exploring Mildura we were also keenly aware that our outback Australia journey was almost at its end.
Mildura was also a place that my husband and I were re-visiting after our previous trip there in 2003, eight years previously. At the time we were living in Melbourne, and had travelled to Echuca and Mildura in convoy with friends from the USA. We split up after a lovely time in Mildura with the main highlight being dinner in the amazing Stefano’s Restaurant.
A surprising hit with the children was Orangeworld, where you can go on a tractor tour through the orange orchards. While a bit cliché, we all enjoyed the relaxing tour and learnt about orange production along the way. We squeezed in enjoyable visits to two gourmet producers, the Varapodio Estate olive grove and Trentham Estate winery. Trentham Estate is situated beside the Murray River, and provides a lovely view over the river and surrounding landscape. Many of the local producers on the Murray River have docks so river craft can visit. Hiring a houseboat is a great option for many visitors.
After lunch we went for a cruise on the Paddle Steamer Melbourne along the Murray River. The children were fascinated by watching the steam engine. While they had seen many old fashioned steam engines in our travels they had not seen one in operation before. The sight of how the pistons and crankshafts worked together kept them intrigued for an extended period.
The views along the river were of verdant greenery. The Murray River has a series of weirs and locks to conserve the water as it travels the long distance from the Snowy Alps to South Australia. It was interesting to watch the operation of the lock and appreciate that they do not need any pumps to operate the clever system to raise and lower boats to the different water levels.
After an enjoyable time exploring the Mildura region it was finally time to commence the 1013km (630 mile) long drive back to our home in Sydney. We completed the drive over two days, staying overnight in Gundagai. We found the trip across the Hay Plains to be a more tedious drive but I also think we were ready to return home.
When we arrived at home the odometer advised that in total we had travelled 3427 km (2130 miles) in twelve days!
Road Trip to Outback Australia: Wrap Up
Was our journey to outback Australia worthwhile? I had initially been unsure whether I wanted to travel such a long distance and had considered some other holiday options before committing to this trip.
Along our 3427 km (2130 mile) route we had a surprisingly diverse range of experiences. We enjoyed exploring aspects of the current and historical mining industry and its impact on developing outback Australia. We also enjoyed some amazing landscapes including the clear night sky. And we also learnt more about the Aboriginal culture of the region. Overall we all returned with a better appreciation of the sheer size and diversity of Australia.
We also enjoyed having a block of time where our family was all together, away from the usual routine of work, school and childcare.
The standout experiences for our family were many. It is hard to differentiate any particular experience as the best as it was the combination of different activities which made the trip memorable.
I would definitely recommend people to take their own outback Australia trip. While there is a lot of driving there are many gems to explore along the way.
Have you gone on an outback Australia road trip? Please share your experience in the comments below.
Category: Road Trips