The beauty of Broken Hill is fluid, changing dramatically as the rains come and go.
The landscape around the outback town of Broken Hill, in far western NSW, is celebrated for its post-apocalyptic appearance; but in 2010, once-in-a-century annual rainfall broke a decade-long drought and the area is now so lush it looks more like heaven.
Dying or thriving, this desert-fringed, semi-arid environment speaks of Australia as nowhere else, luring painters, photographers and filmmakers from across the world. Its principal feature is the vast scale of the largely flat landscape.
Sporadically interrupted by contorted mulga trees and low, irregular undulations, it meets a pale-blue, seemingly endless sky at a distant horizon.
Spurred on by record rainfalls, inland Australia’s plants and animals have been furiously filling in the details, rapidly growing and reproducing as many generations as possible before the harsh climate once again puts life on hold.
“Droughts and flooding rains – it’s the classic boom and bust ecosystem,” observes Paul Seager, the far west’s operations coordinator for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). “It’s ‘add water and stir’ and suddenly there are hectares of Sturt’s desert peas.”
When dry, much of the soil hardens and cracks under a baking sun colouring it vibrant red. But in times of rain it’s largely hidden beneath a carpet of hardy foliage. It’s mostly saltbush – there are more than 20 species around Broken Hill – and largely appears grey-green; in some places, however, the saltbush species known as bluebush dominates, and the cover is a steely grey-blue.
In response to local rains and warm temperatures, pulse-like explosions of Australian plague locusts have been swarming, stimulating food chains across the region. The insects are eaten by reptiles and mammals, which, in turn, are food for birds of prey.
These include the wedge-tailed eagle, which soars high above the plains on rising thermals.
Paucident planigales – tiny nocturnal marsupial inhabitants of inland floodplains – are booming in Kinchega National Park, 100 km south-east of Broken Hill, in response to the locust bonanza. That’s good news for the barking owl, a threatened predator of small mammals, found around local billabongs.
The ‘trademark’ outback animals have become more conspicuous, too. Long trains of emus – dads with up to 20 chicks in tow – are showing dangerous tendencies to meander across hypnotically long, unswerving roads. Large mobs of kangaroos – reds, western greys and euros – looking muscular and well-fed, are also abundant.
While the explosion of life is spectacular, the feature that visual artists most love about this country is its much-vaunted light. It’s been of professional interest for three decades to longtime resident and retired photographer Doug Banks. The former marine engineer travelled the world as a merchant navy man but gave up the ocean 55 years ago for a Broken Hill girl.
The family of wife Bev were among the earliest immigrants to the area, arriving during the 1880s with other hopefuls from the English counties of Cornwall and Devon, and southern Wales, chasing new lives inspired by legendary mineral riches.
“I missed the sea for about two years,” Doug admits. “I used to tell myself lies saying, ‘Just over that hill, that’s where the sea is’.” But he soon found much to appreciate about his new home.
The area’s extraordinary light effects, says Doug, are a product of latitude and climate. While it’s usual for summer temperatures to reach the mid-40s for days on end, humidity rarely climbs above 15 per cent. “That’s why the light’s so amazing,” he says. “You feel as if you can grasp great handfuls of it out here; it’s so vivid and bright and crisp.”
Geographically, Broken Hill is pretty much as close to the middle of nowhere as a large Australian town can be: it lies 935 km north-west of Sydney, 725 km north-west of Melbourne, and 420 km north-east of Adelaide.
Culturally and historically, however, this sprawling desert home of about 20,000 people is at the hub of the Australian heartland known as ‘Outback NSW’. “We’re at the centre of everything and the middle of everywhere!” Doug happily volunteers.
And therein lies the appeal of this ever-changing outback gem.
*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.