Broken Hill and Silverton – Outback NSW 2006 and 2007
Although these two trips were a year apart, I have grouped them together to reduce any duplication of experience or comments, particularly given the time lapse between the events and time of writing about them (July 2009).
The Ghost Town Rally has been on the motorcycle calendar for years. Its name is derived from the fact that it originally took place in Silverton, which, in its heyday, was a thriving mining settlement, but is now virtually a ghost town, with the old pub, a few original stone buildings converted into tourist attractions of one sort or another, and a steady stream of tourists. I’m not sure whether the rally moved into Broken Hill, about 26km from Silverton, because of the demise of Silverton or because it just got too inconvenient to hold a rally in a ghost town.
A visit to Silverton is a must for any tourist going to Broken Hill. For those not familiar with Oz, Broken Hill ‘means’ mining, mainly silver, lead and zinc. Silverton was the centre of it all at one stage.
And, a little bit of trivia. I did discover one new thing (amongst many): although Broken Hill is in New South Wales, it’s on South Australian time. As you approach the town, you pass a sign telling you are entering a different time zone. And South Australian area code for phone calls.
With the flyers being circulated for the 2006 rally, it emerged that there were a few regulars in Canberra who would be attending. It was a big decision to attach myself to them. At an expected 2,500km round trip, this would be the longest motorcycle ride I had ever undertaken. It was an exciting prospect.
In preparing for it, I decided that I did not want to do such a long ride on my leaner legal GS500. I mention this story under My Bikes. That’s when I bought the VFR. As I said on the My Bikes page, in retrospect, it was a totally unnecessary purchase. The GS would have been quite adequate. But it obviously seemed a good idea at the time. And, besides, the VFR was an unforgettably fantastic bike to ride.
Departure day came upon us soon enough. It was six days into spring, 6 September 2006. I’d spent a long time packing and was setting out with the VFR equipped with a full set of Honda luggage – a top box, two panniers and tank bag. In addition, I had an Andy Strapz bag attached to the pillion area of the seat.
Every cubic centimetre was taken up, mainly with clothes. I’m not sure whether it was the mockery of my colleagues or a natural evolution of a more practicable approach to ‘carry-on’ luggage when motorcycling, but I learnt to travel considerably lighter. However, I’m a far cry from one of my fellow travellers, who comes away on multi-night stopovers, seemingly with no luggage at all. I always make a point of not sharing a room with him.
There were eight of us setting out that day. The day was one of those not-untypical, early spring days: wet. In fact, it was very wet – all the way to the first night’s planned stop at Hay, some 520km from Canberra. When we dropped into a restaurant (more a ‘diner’) at a service station in Narrandera, the staff quickly had us surrounded with the often seen bright yellow A frame signs, usually kept for spilt milk shakes and floor cleaning, that warn customers of a wet, slippery floor.
We all had pretty uncomfortable sleeps that night in a Hay motel, with every heating device on high to try to get some dryness into water-logged gear.
The next day was mostly dry but overcast, cold and windy, as we struggled across kilometre after kilometre of the Hay Plains – flat, open, exposed countryside with no protection from the westerly onslaught. We had just short of 600km of those conditions that day. But we got there.
We had booked ahead at the Theatre Royal Hotel in the main street. It looked pretty much the same as most country town pubs, but it was a bit different! Its local clientele seemed to be confined to a few, hard core poker machine addicts. The owner lived somewhere in Queensland and seemed uninterested in the pub’s welfare. The proffered food wasn’t to be tried a second time. None of this was necessarily of much consequence to us. The publican made room for our bikes in a lock-up garage. That was a plus.
But the rooms were cause for consternation. Not only were they so tiny you almost needed to walk sideways to fit between the bed and the wall, but the carpet, if it was carpet, was so filthy that I bought $2 hand towels from a bargain shop across the road for everyone to use as floor mats beside their beds, to avoid having to have bare feet touch the floor. I found one source of compensation. It didn’t take long to assess that the hotel’s room guests were all male. That left the ‘ladies’ bathroom free – used as my private ensuite!
I think we all made a mental note to avoid the Theatre Royal on any future trips.
The rally was enjoyable enough, if a little puzzling. Remember, it was my first exposure to this age-old motorcycle tradition. A lot of sitting around yarning and drinking. I soon got the gist of it all. Motorcycle rallies are very much about getting together, reunions, reacquainting, swapping stories of happenings since the previous rally (and many repeats of those told then). They are simply all about the strong camaraderie that permeates the world of motorcycling.
Against that revelation, I started to better understand the interest in and commitment to the rally from its seasoned attendees. And it was nice, when returning in 2007, to see familiar faces from the year before.
A few of us who had travelled together made the best of a few days of pretty ordinary weather, like, a very unseasonable cold snap that included almost unheard of sleet to complement the freezing temperatures. Even our hotel started to look good relative to the hapless campers.
We made the run to Silverton. While famous for its mining history, perhaps its key attractions these days are the car from Mad Max, parked outside the pub, and the memorabilia of the movie’s filming in and around Silverton. Over the few days we spent in Broken Hill, we did justice to most of the tourist attractions.
Having subsequently been to a couple of other rallies, I felt justified in thinking at the time that the rally could have benefited from a bit more information. There didn’t seem to be readily available information about what was happening within the rally at any time. Also, here was a significant tourist destination that could have been a centrepiece attraction of the rally, and it was practically ignored; or, maybe in fairness, taken for granted. Participants were left to fend for themselves. Most probably managed well enough. We certainly did. We enjoyed some good eating (in town) and the bonhomie of a motorcycle rally. Overall, the memories were good.
We had planned our return via the ‘northern route’ (having arrived by the ‘southern route’.) That would take us through Wilcannia and Cobar. Apart from lots of gratuitous advice from other participants about the challenges of the northern route, we opted to return via the southern route because one of our group had his back brake line irreparably fused by heat from the exhaust. He was told he had been going too far too fast. He did the full trip back with only a front brake. Vespa later conceded they had a design problem.
There was no doubt that I thoroughly enjoyed the venture. The VFR was magical. I particularly loved the surge from the VTEC operation. The horrors of the first day out of Canberra became more part of the adventure than the misery, with each passing day and each retelling. Nonetheless, it seemed a trip that didn’t have to be repeated. There’s lots to see, certainly, but the 2,500km round trip – a fair amount across the Hay Plains and from Wentworth to Broken Hill – didn’t have perennial appeal.I figured I had done it; and that was enough.
I guess some people are beggars for punishment.
As Spring came around in 2007, the word was out again: Ghost Town Rally.
No, once was enough!
But I went – as did several others.
By this time, I was riding my BMW F800ST.
We lingered more this time on the way across to Broken Hill. In 2006, we did it in two days. This time, we gave ourselves three days. That meant a leisurely start and early arrival at the first night’s accommodation at Griffith. Then another easy ride to Gol Gol on the Murray River, arriving in good time to have a walk along the river banks. A short ride to Broken Hill next day provided time for a few hours in Wentworth to take in the old jail and the confluence of the Darling and Murray Rivers. We even visited the cemetery. There’s something fascinating about old cemeteries, particularly in country towns. They tell you a lot about the settlement and early history of the place. In Wentworth, there was an additional interest for me. There’s an old Crick grave – brother of my great grandfather. The latter used to run wool barges on the Darling between Wentworth and Bourke.
In Broken Hill, we gave the Theatre Royal Hotel a big miss. One of the regular attendees came up with the West Darling Hotel. Was it a great improvement? It certainly had style, with its enormous verandah around two streets. It had plenty of clients for the rally, so facilities were pushed; but the pub was fine.
I found the overall experience a little anti-climatic at the start. The weather was good – and would have been perfect for all the sightseeing to be had; but I had done most of that the previous year. I didn’t even feel the need to ride back out to Silverton. We had enjoyed the visit in 2006, but we figured it would be the same. However, we soon got into the groove and spent time at several of the tourist attractions.
Two of us did a run to Menindee. That was a good investment. It’s about 115km on a good road. Menindee is on the Darling River and was a significant river port in times past. It was also the final staging point for the tragic exploration venture of Burke and Wills. I discovered a Crick Park there; and later traced the name to my great grandfather.
We were set to come home via the Northern Route, which we dipped out on last year, but the weather forecast was for a savage front to come across from further west, heading east – our direction. We set out to head home on the most direct way; and covered 720km that day to keep ahead of the front. We encountered a bit of next day, but returned home feeling we had had a good tour.