White Cliffs, Outback NSW
Corner Country, Outback Australia
White Cliffs is a truly unique outback experience. Like silence? Tired of the bright lights and noises of the city and want a peaceful night's sleep under a million brilliant stars? White Cliffs has that for a truly restful night and plenty to explore during the day.
White Cliffs is Australia's oldest (seam) opal field and developed from a chance finding of opal in the 1880s by a group of kangaroo hunters, and the opal rush began.
There are four significant opal mining settlements in Australia. Coober Pedy (popular with backpackers and tourists because of its closeness to the Stuart Highway), Andamooka (still like the Wild West), Lightning Ridge (quite sophisticated and suburban) and White Cliffs, which seems to have just the right balance between wildness and civilisation.
Of course to outsiders all opal mining towns, where miners dig endless holes looking for seams of opal-bearing rocks, possess a certain level of craziness. 'The largest unfenced loony bin in Australia,' is how one person in Broken Hill described the town.
White Cliffs Services
For a small town, and a mining one at that, White Cliffs provides pretty much all the traveller needs, and some more.
- White Cliffs Outback Store: Food supplies, Meals and Fuel facilities available. Also the local Tourist Information Centre
- White Cliffs Clinic: Open 9 am to 5 pm Mon-Friday. RFDS Doctors fly in for clinic day Wednesday. (08) 8091 6605
- White Cliffs Hotel
- White Cliffs Sporting Club
- Red Earth Cafe
- Opal Mine Tours
- National Parks Office
Driving to White Cliffs
White Cliffs is a very easy 98km drive from Wilcannia on a sealed road and is a great side trip of the Darling River Run and joining up to the Run (at Broken Hill or Wilcannia) allows the traveller to experience the Wilcannia <> Tilpa and Wilcannia <> Menindee sections.
Or, for the adventurous, a loop back to Broken Hill via Mutawintji National Park (gravel road) is highly recommended.
There are many different routes that can be taken when driving from any of the capital cities to White Cliffs. The following is an overview of the routes from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide that may help you in planning your outback experience.
As a general overview:
Warrego Highway <> Newell Highway <>Gwydir Highway <> Darling River Road <> White Cliffs Road: Distance = 1,343km approx
Castlereagh Highway > Golden Highway <> Mitchell Highway <> Barrier Highway <> White Cliffs Road: Distance = 1,043km approx
Hume Highway <> Cobb Highway <> Long Paddock <> White Cliffs Road: Distance = 909km aprox
Barrier Highway <> White Cliffs Road: Distance = 806km approx
To the visitor, White Cliffs is really a single purpose town. Miners started coming here in the 1880s, and its population peaked in the late 1890s at around 5,000 and started to decline after WW1 and now boasts a population of about 200 people.
Apart from its minor function as a service centre for the surrounding properties, it remains a town driven by opals.
The local First Nation people, the Wandjiwalgu, have been in the area for 40,000+ years. They even found it far too hot for permanent settlement and occasionally visited the place as they travelled to and from the Darling River.
The town was established in the late 19th century when opal was discovered. Opal has been mined ever since. The first Australian opal was found 20 years before in Queensland in 1872 when a party of kangaroo hunters were operating in the White Cliffs area. One of them, who had left the party to track down a wounded kangaroo over some low stony hills, picked up a pretty stone that appealed to him. When taking back the stone, they suspected it could be opal which the local jeweller confirmed. He advised getting as much opal as possible since this could be more profitable than kangaroo hunting. When the group filed a claim, opal had not yet been listed under gemstones, and it was decided to file the claim under the "Gold Mining Act".
The early days of mining opal and living in White Cliffs were harsh; outback heat, water shortages and lack of building materials sent the population underground.
Today, the underground town works very well for locals and travellers and the scarcity of water that the early settlers experienced is solved nowadays with extensive use of rainwater tanks. This plus a classic outback pub means the traveller will not go thirsty.
The famous Australian cricketer Bill O'Reilly (1905-1992) who Don Bradman referred to as the 'greatest bowler he ever faced', is White Cliffs favourite son. Bill's father was a school teacher in White Cliffs.
Exploring the Town
Like most opal mining towns, White Cliffs doesn't have neatly sealed roads, curb and guttering or even street names - with the amusing exception of Struggle Street. And like many other outback towns, White Cliffs has a mud map for touring the town.
Bill O'Reilly Oval
The great cricketer Bill 'Tiger' O'Reilly was born in White Cliffs in 1905. At the time his father was the first teacher to be employed in the town. O'Reilly is recognised as one of the game's greatest spin bowlers. After the infamous 1938 Ashes Tour of England, he was described as "emphatically one of the greatest bowlers of all time". The town has honoured him with the Bill O'Reilly Oval (turn right at the pub) but, being White Cliffs, it is nothing but hard red dirt. It is a typical outback, desert cricket pitch.
St Mary's Anglican Church
St Mary's Anglican Church in Church Street is a typical small and simple stone building that is notable as one of the few solid, above-ground, structures in the town.
White Cliffs Solar Power Station
The Institute of Engineers Australia has put a plaque beside the unique White Cliffs Solar Power Station which reads: "Australian National University engineers designed and built this station in 1981 with $1.9 million from the NSW Government. Fourteen tracking parabolic dishes of 5 metres diameter concentrated the sun onto thermal absorbers to heat water.
The White Cliffs Post Office is one of those amusing idiosyncrasies - a building that does not make a great deal of sense. It was completed on 25 March 1900 at a time when, because of the intense summer heat, everyone in town was building shelters underground. Instead of underground the Post Office was built above ground ... and of corrugated iron. Go figure
Pioneer Children's Cemetery
The Pioneer Children's Cemetery (1890-92) is a reminder of the harshness of the desert conditions. Although the cemetery only operated for a short time, there are five graves of children who died from typhoid and other diseases. This element of 1900s life in the outback was an inevitable byproduct of the heat and the impossibility of maintaining proper sanitary standards in a primitive mining town.
Historic Dugouts - The Blocks
As early as 1894 miners, realising the summer temperatures were unbearable, started living underground. Near the Pioneer Cemetery, some of the town's first historic dugouts are located in the walls of the hill near the Red Earth Opal Cafe. These "residences" are remnants of the original underground houses and are known as 'The Blocks".
While visiting the shops and galleries, ask to inspect some opalised fossils. During the Cretaceous period, the area was under the sea and consequently, fossils of Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Crinoids, Belemnites, Brachiopods and Gastropods have all been found in the area.
White Cliffs Pineapples
White Cliffs is famous for its "pineapples" - not the fruit but rather a pseudomorph of Glauberite or Ikaite crystal clusters which is replaced by pure opal. These opalised pineapples have only ever been found in White Cliffs. They are available for sale in the local galleries and shops.
Fossicking at White Cliffs
Under the Mining Act of 1992, everyone has the right to fossick anywhere on the White Cliffs Reserve, and no licence is required. However, many miners have registered claims and those registered claims, which are quickly identified, need to be respected. They are 50 m x 50 m in size with a wooden or steel post at each corner. On the northeast post is a board that contains the details of the claim holder. There is a vast amount of unregistered ground on the town's Historic Mining Reserve.
Paroo-Darling National Park
- Paroo River (Overflow) is the only unregulated river in the Murray-Darling Basin and an area of outstanding conservation value and natural beauty.
- Ephemeral Peery Lake just northwest of White Cliffs where you'll be amazed by the birdlife - 60,000 birds were recorded in a recent survey.
Mutawintji National Park
Mutawintji National Park is a special place, reflecting the living culture and spirituality of Aboriginal people. Colourful gorges, rock pools and creek beds surround caves with rock art and paintings, and a reliable water supply supports spectacular bird and animal life.
White Cliffs Visitor Information:
- White Cliffs See & Do:
- Opal Mining
- Sleeping Underground
- Paroo-Darling National Park
- Mutawintji National Park
- Getting to White Cliffs (Car):
- From Brisbane: 1,450km
- From Sydney: 1,046km
- From Melbourne: 910km
- From Adelaide: 800km
- White Cliffs Information Centre:
- White Cliffs General Store