This remote route was once submerged by an ancient sea where dinosaurs bathed but will now take you from goldfields to opal mines with a lesson in pioneering history.
This trip starts at historic Milparinka and continues for approximately 170km before arriving at White Cliffs; the Opal capital of NSW. Driving along this track is far more than just travelling from one remote outback settlement to another. In prehistoric times this area was submerged by sea where large dinosaurs swam. In later years a track was carved through the dried-up seabed that eventually took the first pioneers from goldfields to opal mines.
Milparinka is an outback gem and well worth a look around. In recent years a small group of community activists succeeded in preserving, archiving and housing this deserted town and region’s rich history. Driving into this once thriving outback settlement is a bit like being transported back in time; its amazing restored colonial buildings provide a picture of what life was like at the turn of the century.
Following the self-guided Milparinka Historic Walking Trail provides a fascinating insight into the town’s past. The first white visitors arrived here well before the gold rush of 1870, and well before Milparinka became an outback settlement.
In 1844, explorer Charles Sturt and his party left Adelaide to search for the inland sea that was thought to fill the unexplored centre of the continent. They never found the inland sea, but they did experience the very harsh conditions this area threw at them, including a drought that held them up for several months.
By the summer of 1845, Sturt’s party – including his second in charge, surveyor James Poole – found themselves trapped by a hard drought at Depot Glen, not far from Milparinka. Due to the heat and drought, Sturt decided to rest the expedition for a couple of months. When the drought eventually broke, Poole was very weak with scurvy so Sturt organised for him to be carried back to Adelaide. But it was too late, as not long after leaving the Glen, Poole died. He was buried at the foot of a Beefwood tree, on which his initials and the date can still be clearly seen carved in the side. Hence why the area is now referred to as Poole County.
After leaving Milparinka, get on the Silver City Highway and head south on the blacktop for 78km before turning left onto the Kayrunnera/Cobham Road. This remote and dusty track takes you all the way to White Cliffs, and there are some breathtaking sights along the way to give you a real taste of outback NSW.
A large salt lake is one such sight. On our trip it was surprising to see the lake so full of water in what is usually an arid part of Australia. It’s interesting that most people travelling this route will be unaware of the prehistoric geography of this ancient land and the former settlements that were scattered here.
Along this track you’ll encounter all types of wildlife roaming around. It was a bit like driving through an open safari as we encountered wild boars, a large brown snake, lizards, wedge-tailed eagles, horses, kangaroos, and plenty of emus. No dinosaurs though.
During the Cretaceous period, plesiosaurs and the ichthyosaurs dinosaurs used to swim here in the inland sea. The plesiosaurs stood three to 12-metres tall with a long neck and small head; a bit like the very shy and aloof Loch Ness Monster. Opalised fossil reptiles have been found throughout this area, with more recent discoveries closer to White Cliffs.
Progressing towards White Cliffs you’ll cross a picturesque and open plain where the track can be rough in parts. The first bit of signage you will encounter on the road is approximately 60km before White Cliffs and directs you towards the Mutawintji National Park. If you have time, take the diversion as it’s definitely worth a look. The Mutawintji Nature Reserve was established primarily for the conservation and protection of the yellow-footed rock-wallaby. Dominated by the bright red Bynguano Ranges, this outback park is home to numerous cultural and historic sites, including a 30,000-year-old aboriginal stencilled hand, sketched on a cave wall.
Continuing towards White Cliffs, there’s around 75 minutes of stony dirt track ahead of you which can be challenging in parts, so it’s best to take your time. Eventually the settlement of White Cliffs will appear on the horizon. As you approach this remote settlement you’ll immediately be sucked in by the moonscape environment that surrounds it.
You can pick up fuel and supplies from the shop in town which doubles up as a cafe and information centre. And, the town campsite provides standard amenities.
To learn more about this unique settlement, take the heritage trail; a self-guided tour around the town using a map that you can pick up in the tourist information centre/shop. The trail passes historic fossicking sites, heritage buildings that include the pioneer cemetery dating from 1892, and the 1981 solar power station. White Cliffs was the first town in Australia to use solar power.
The town thrives on opal mining which began in the 1800s. The locals mostly lived – and still do live – underground in order to escape the stifling heat. Driving around town you are struck by the lunar-like landscape that is made up of thousands of small hills that were dug by miners in search of the much sought-after opal.
White Cliffs was Australia’s first commercial opal field in 1889 after it was discovered by a couple of lads who were culling kangaroos on nearby Momba Station. Within a year, White Cliffs opal was available on markets around the world. At its height, in around 1898-1900, White Cliffs was home to an estimated 5000 people and, in today’s terms, sold millions of dollars’ worth of opal.
You can’t leave town without picking up one of the precious stones from one of the small outlets that sells them. It’s a lot cheaper to buy them here, at the source, as opposed to the over-inflated street prices.
This trip has all the ingredients for a unique outback experience. You will discover what it must have been like for everyone who came here from around the world in search of gold and opals. The experience of driving on a track through what was once an inland sea and home to dinosaurs millions of years ago is a surreal experience.
*Originally published in 4X4 Australia magazine.