Find out why the Australian outback is the perfect holiday with children, and a wonderful education too. Travel writer William Verity has more.
It started out as a way to distract the children from their computer games, and it ended up as a geography lesson.
As we crossed the fire-ravaged Blue Mountains, we created our own version of the ‘red car, yellow car’ game, adapted for train journeys.
So if we saw a dog or a cat, that was five points. A horse was 10 points, as was a sheep. Windmills were 20 points and we laughed about the absurdity of seeing an emu or wild goats out of the window.
‘Five hundred points each,’ we reckoned.
But as the day wore on, and the country changed from city, to bush, to paddock and then to salt bush and red earth.
By late afternoon, emus and goats were so common that they had been downgraded to 20, then 10, and finally, just two points for a single animal and five points for a group.
That day on the train was the start of an extraordinary week for our family, as together we discovered the endlessly surprising heart of our country.
That’s the thing about the outback. You go there expecting heat, dust, empty spaces, a few kangaroos and not much more.
Maybe the children will be bored without the usual distractions of televisions and computer screens? Maybe the whole family will simply find the place dull, empty and unpleasant?
The truth, as we found it, is that in the outback you come alive.
They say that if you don’t know the outback, you don’t know Australia, so it’s strange that more families don’t make the effort.
Perhaps people are afraid of the scorching heat, the red dust, or the misconception that there’s nothing much there – a kind of modern terra nullius.
Those who have been know that nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is that the right kind of outback trip, at the right time of year and at the right age, is pretty much the perfect holiday.
The area around Broken Hill markets itself as ‘the accessible outback’ because it offers an authentic experience without demanding any special skills or equipment.
Though the adventurous can hire a four-wheel drive and go bush-camping, the far west of NSW offers plenty for an ordinary family travelling in an ordinary sedan.
Though is possible to reach Broken Hill in a long day’s drive from Sydney, or three hours by plane, the weekly train service from Central provides a sense of the distance and changing geography like no other.
There’s only one direct NSW Trains service per week each way (others provide a less attractive coach link to the Dubbo train), so you’ll find yourself catching the train early on a Monday morning, arriving in time for dinner.
Then you’ll return the following Tuesday, arriving in Sydney around 9.30pm.
If you take the train option, you’d then need to hire a car from the airport. A four-wheel drive offers you more options, but a sedan would be fine.
There’s a well-worn route around Broken Hill that showcases the surprising diversity of this part of the world, and it’s all accessible via bitumen road.
At the centre, of course, is the unique mining community of Broken Hill, founded in the late 19th century when a boundary rider on Mt Gipps sheep station discovered the world’s largest deposit of silver, zinc and lead.
More than a century later, the mines are still going – some up to 2km underground, and though the number of pubs has fallen from more than 50 in the 1970s to around 20 these days, the main thoroughfare of Argent St still has life and grandeur.
There has long been a thriving artistic community, attracted by the light, beauty and isolation of the place, and it is still a popular location for film and television shoots.
It is possible to stay at Mt Gipps Station, now reduced from one million acres to 85,000 acres and 40km out of town.
Owned by John and Kym Cramp, the property is one of several around town to offer tourist accommodation and a fascinating insight into life on an outback sheep station.
Staying in the shearers’ quarters or overseer’s house, you can cook for yourself and take the guided tour around the property with Kym – watching the sun set from a hilltop with panoramic views, visiting an old mine, exploring a miner’s cottage and fossicking for semi-precious stones.
About an hour north of Broken Hill are the Menindee Lakes, formed out of a combination of dams and natural water courses made by the Darling River, which form a startling oasis out of the desert.
For just $60 a night, a family can stay in a clean, if basic, cabin on the banks of the lake, swimming, kayaking, fishing or watching the pelicans on the water.
It’s a surreal place – imagine Windang transported to the desert – and a place for children to rediscover the simpler pleasures of life like creating sculptures out of mud, hunting for yabbies, or marveling at the shimmering sky at night.
Then there’s White Cliffs, an opal mining community north of Wilcannia and about three hours from Broken Hill, where it is possible to stay a motel dug into the hill to escape temperatures that can reach 50 degrees in high summer.
Though this place is a shadow of what it was when mining was at its height, that faded glory only serves to increase its appeal for the visitor.
You can play a round of golf here, visit a miner’s underground home (and listen to his tall tales) for five bucks, or simply sit on the dusty front verandah of the pub, watching the world go slowly by.
While the best time to visit the outback is in the winter months – Easter to September is high season, you can strike it lucky in November and December with bearable temperatures in the high 20s and have the place to yourself.
The author’s trip to Broken Hill was supported by NSW Trains and Destination NSW