The jewel of the New South Wales outback lives right here in plain sight, come and see why White Cliffs is such a gem.
The outback is a special place for many Australians. Sure, some would say it’s just a massive field of absolute nothingness, but it’s the smart ones who understand that those same empty fields are a spectacle in their own right. Yep, it’s not uncommon for a traveller to seriously crave the kind of wide open spaces that outback New South Wales provides, but those wide open spaces are only a part of the adventure. Who can resist a true desert oasis? Especially one that’s as quirky as it is fascinating.
That’s exactly what you’ll find at the little town of White Cliffs, NSW. This place has a real last-frontier kind of feel to it; one that’s bizarre if I’m totally honest. It’s a town born off the back of the discovery of opal which, believe it or not, is still being mined today! But let’s rewind this story back a little because, like the old saying goes, the journey there is half the fun!
ON THE ROAD
The run from Nyngan basically heads west through Cobar along the Barrier Highway out to Wilcannia before roughly a hundred kay stretch to White Cliffs. But if you’re after some riverside camping, you can take the dirt road south of Wilcannia and down the Darling River towards Kinchega NP and Menindee Lakes.
When you’re on the main stretch to White Cliffs, it starts to get desolate. There’s not much around, and we came through after rain so I could only image what it’s like in drought.
THE DISCOVERY OF OPAL
Just on the other side of town, you can take a drive around hundreds of opal mining holes. Old relics are scattered around everywhere in a place that for all intents and purposes remains as it originated. You just never know what you’ll find either.
As you might have guessed, there’s some truly fascinating history around here too. Like the fact that the town of White Cliffs was actually Australia’s first commercial opal mining field. A couple of kangaroo hunters stumbled across a stone back in 1889, which led to the discovery of the world’s first seam opal! For roughly 35 years it was the only major producer of opal for the entire world’s markets and in 1899 the White Cliffs opal field become the largest producer of precious opal anywhere in the world.
Back then, there were roughly 2000 people living within 2km of White Cliffs, although that number has dwindled down to between 80 and 100 depending on who you believe. Either way, the town itself is as interesting as it is bizarre.
What do I mean by bizarre? Well, most of the town lived, and still lives, underground. Yep that’s right; intense heat drove miners and residents underground by roughly 1900. In fact, by 1999, about 90 per cent of the local residents lived in dugouts; roughly 135 dugouts in total. With temperatures regularly hitting the high 40s and bugger-all rainfall, it’s no surprise things went this way.
While the town still has its fair share of opal miners striving to strike it rich, White Cliffs is becoming more reliant on tourism to keep it afloat. So there are a few tourist attractions that will not only keep you occupied while you’re there, but really give you an insight into what it was like to mine this town back in the day.
There are several mine tours, five different opal showrooms and a photography gallery, along with a couple of coffee shops and cafes to keep you going. And if you don’t mind stretching your legs and going for a walk there’s even a heritage trail that pretty much covers everything to see if you’ve got the time and stamina to walk it. Oh, and don’t forget the absolutely stunning sunrises and sunsets; the outback is known to produce some spectacular sights but for some reason this place seems to nail it hands down every time!
While White Cliffs probably isn’t the sort of place you’d drive 10 hours to visit for the weekend then head home again, it’s definitely a must-see place if you’re heading out that way at some point. Definitely take the detour if you’re passing by; you just never know you could even strike it rich!