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Chasing my grandfather’s ghost in the Australian outback

Broken Hill Post Office at twilight, New South Wales, Australia.


Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

I had to go to Broken Hill. I don't mean I wanted to, or I thought it would be nice to go there. I mean I simply had to. I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather's days as a silver miner in the Australian outback, of how the blokes would gamble on anything – even how many flies would settle on a piece of ham.

Well, this year I made it. I flew into Sydney and the following morning boarded the seven-hour train that would take me to the small town of Dubbo, from where I would take a coach for the remaining 8 1/2 hours through the New South Wales outback.

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The farther west I travelled, the smaller the railway stations: Rural Australia is a landscape of scrub, dead trees and the occasional mob of 'roos. The immensity of the outback became even more apparent when I realized that New South Wales has more than one time zone – the coach driver reminded everyone to change the time on their watches as we drove on into the night.

A little after 11, I got out in Broken Hill and walked streets that were eerily quiet to my hotel. I remembered what travel writer Bill Bryson wrote about British villages, whose names were in inverse proportion to their grimness – the prettier their name, the worse the place. The reverse is true in Broken Hill. It should win a prize for the most unattractive and unromantic street names ever devised – Cobalt Street, Oxide Street, Bromide Street, Tin Street. But the names, reflective on what this mining town has been built, belie the quirkiness of Broken Hill. No one would say that Broken Hill is like a Cotswold village, but it bursts with that sense of outback irony that is a raised middle finger to convention.

The train station has the most glorious art-deco exterior; the Palace hotel, the only place in Australia where you can legally play Two-up (games every Friday night), is famous for its floor-to-ceiling murals; the radio station is housed in a building designed to actually look like an old radio – I could go on and on.

As I explored, I tried to find traces of my granddad. Unfortunately, early mine records had been destroyed and Sam Smart's name did not appear anywhere in the town's records.

I walked the streets wondering if I was tracing the steps he had taken so long ago. I went underground in the historic Daydream mine in nearby Silverton, typical of where he would have worked. Everywhere, I was haunted by the thought that maybe he had been here, maybe he had been there.

On my last day in Broken Hill, I visited the miner's memorial that overlooks the town. One miner died by falling down a shaft; another in an explosion; of others there are descriptions of death almost too gruesome to imagine. Had my granddad known any of these men? Was I looking at the names of those with whom he had gambled on his days off? I reflected on the irony that details of these men, who had died, were largely known, while of my granddad, who had survived, there was no trace.

That evening I went into the Southern Cross Hotel for a beer and some tucker. Australian pubs are real watering holes, not ponced-up imitations of "Olde England." I was halfway through a Tooheys Old when one of the bar staff looked over. Indicating my glass he asked, "You right, mate?"

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I know he was just asking if I was ready for another, but "mate" is inclusive in a way that is difficult to describe. It is a word that defines a sense of welcome that is uniquely Australian, a welcome often commented on and more often than not, misunderstood. It is a word that made me feel that here "out bush," an often stark, unforgiving place – a place where I couldn't find my family history – I still belonged.

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