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Broken Hill's Living Desert
Photograph: Destination NSW

The best outback and desert holiday destinations in NSW

Swap golden beaches for the rusty sands and unspoiled bushland of the state's most beautiful inland getaways

By Maxim Boon
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When the summer hits its stride, the glorious New South Wales coast offers the perfect combo of clear blue skies, blazing sunshine, sandy shores and refreshing ocean breezes. But if you simply can’t wait until the sunny season for your next holiday, a jaunt inland is an ideal option for a spring getaway.

While temps in these outback regions can soar to blistering highs at the peak of summer, the milder spring months are the perfect time to go bush. In these remote communities, you'll discover rich histories stretching back millennia, as well as a stark yet captivating natural beauty quite unlike anywhere else on earth.

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Time to go bush

The Miners Memorial at Broken Hill
The Miners Memorial at Broken Hill
Photograph: Destination NSW

Broken Hill

It’s been dubbed the ‘the capital of the outback’, but the more you learn about this remote town in the state’s far west, the more Broken Hill defies such a simple description. Built atop the richest tin and lead deposit ever discovered, mining has always been the area’s dominant industry and a defining part of its culture. The town is littered with both current operations and long-defunct pits dating back hundreds of years, and a towering slagheap in the town centre is crowned by the striking Line of Lode Lookout and Memorial (pictured), chronicling the scores of miners who have lost their lives beneath Broken Hill over the years. The mining boom may have given birth to this oddball outpost, but today it’s tourism draws are a checkerboard of contrasts. Immortalised in the movie classic Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the town is firmly embedded in Australia’s LGBTQIA+ lore, with the annual Broken Heel Festival attracting thousands of devotees of Down Under drag from all over the country. There is also a thriving art scene, established by the late, great Aussie artist Pro Hart and the Living Desert sculpture park

Where to stay: There are several hotels in town, but outback accommodation, like the Broken Hill Outback Resort, offers a more up-close-and-personal encounter with Broken Hill's awe-inspiring desert.

Getting there: It’s an epic 12-hour road trip if you aim to drive here from Sydney, or a 2.5-hour flight.

Lightning Ridge plains
Lightning Ridge plains
Photograph: Destination NSW

Lightning Ridge

Deep in the heartland of NSW's opal country, 700km inland from Coffs Harbour, the promise of a fortune dug up from the desert first drew settlers here in the 1850s, and in some parts of Lightning Ridge, not much has changed since. A frontier spirit still resonates strongly; a sign on the road into town reads “Lightning Ridge. Population: ?”, and the area is legendary as a place for those who want to quietly slip off the grid. Solitary prospectors who seem to belong to a different era continue to seek the vanishingly rare black opals, which can only be found in this remote corner of the world. But it’s this enigmatic, eccentric local culture that makes Lightning Ridge a fascinating destination for tourists. You can, of course, find mining tours here, but it’s also a great base from which to explore the quintessential Aussie outback. And after a day on a desert safari, you can treat yourself to a dip in the local bore baths, where warm, mineral-rich spring water is naturally heated to a soothing 42 degrees.

Where to stay: There are several motels on the fringes of town, but the Fossickers Cottages are in the heart of Lightning Ridge, self-contained and are fully kitted out for self-catering stays.

Getting there: By road, it’s roughly a nine-hour drive from Sydney. Flying only saves you about half an hour's journey time, as you’ll still need to make the lengthy drive from Moree or Dubbo regional airports.

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China Wall formations in Mungo National Park
China Wall formations in Mungo National Park
Photograph: Destination NSW

Mungo National Park

The history of our continent is both long and layered. Australia as a nation has existed for 232 years, but Aboriginal culture stretches back unbroken for at least 40 millennia before this. Within Mungo National Park, both these chapters of our country’s past can be read at once, earning this area World Heritage status as an archeological and anthropological site of outstanding importance. An Aboriginal Discovery Tour with one of the Mungo Visitor Centre’s official rangers is a must. You’ll discover the history of the ancient burial sites, fireplaces and spiritual shrines of the Paakantji, Nygiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi peoples, who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps the most striking natural wonders in the park are the Walls of China rock formations (pictured). The otherworldly remnants of a riverbed that has been dry for at least 14,000 years, the site is best explored at sunset, as the last rays of the day bring out a vivid palette of orange, yellow and crimson rock.

Where to stay: The local area is well served for campgrounds, but the Mungo Lodge, located on the edge of the park, is a more comfortable retreat after a day in the bush. Featuring all mod cons including a charming restaurant, you can also book a number of tours from here, including scenic flights over the park from Mildura Airport.

Getting there: By car, it's a 10.5-hour drive from Sydney, or you can fly into Mildura or Broken Hill airports.

Washpool National Park, Glen Innes
Washpool National Park, Glen Innes
Photograph: Destination NSW

Glen Innes

In the north of the state, deep within the New England Highlands, you’ll discover Australia’s very own Celtic Country. True, this part of the world can’t quite claim the same ancient connections to Gaelic heritage that Scotland, Ireland and Wales can, but it shares a deep affinity with this cultural lineage nonetheless, carried by the Scottish frontiersman John Oxley, who was among the first non-Indigenous settlers to explore the region in 1818. As of 1992, Glen Innes even has its very own mystical ring of standing stones ala Stone Henge, although this is more of a public sculpture-cum-tourist curio than anything a card-carrying Druid might recognise. Colourful anachronisms aside, with its crisp, snow-dusted winters and mild springs and summers, it does at least share some common ground with the climates of other Celtic nations and makes for a great holiday spot if you prefer cooler climbs to the scorched desert. The area is very popular with those in search of outdoor adventure, with great hiking routes through the Gibraltar Range and Washpool National Park and kayaking and canoeing along the Nybodia River. It's also got an excellent reputation for gourmet cuisine and superb local produce.

Where to stay: It's fair to say that Glen Innes is prone to theatrical flourishes when it comes to its history, so why not embrace that spirit with a stay at the Deepwater Bank BnB, a guest house in the settlement's original bank, complete with Victorian furnishings. 

Getting there: It's a 6.5-hour drive from Sydney, straight up Thunderbolts Way, or else a flight to Armidale followed by a bus ride, which will save you about an hour's journey time.

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Red Hand Cave, Mutawintji National Park
Red Hand Cave, Mutawintji National Park
Photograph: Destination NSW

Mutawintji National Park

This 68,912-hectare region in the far west of NSW is a place to commune with this continent’s distant past. This historic site and nature reserve boasts some of the most striking examples of ancient Aboriginal artworks anywhere in the country, and thanks to its protected status, the land remains under the custodianship of the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people, whose culture has been enshrined here for thousands of years. Within the hypnotic curves of Mutawintji’s wind-carved gorges, one rocky overhang in particular is of staggering cultural significance. Thaaklatjika, sometimes known as Wright’s Cave, is adorned by hundreds of hand stencils, rock engravings of dreaming stories, and painted depictions both pre and post-colonial life in the area, as well as the animals that live nearby.

Where to stay: The closest town to the park is White Cliffs, and when you’re in this part of Australia, there really is just one place to stay: the famous White Cliffs Underground Motel. Jackhammered deep into the rock of Poor Mans Hill during the '80s, these subterranean rooms are surprisingly comfy and remain a very pleasant 22 degrees all year round.

Getting there: It's a 12-hour drive to White Cliffs from Sydney, but you can cut that journey time down considerably by flying into Broken Hill and taking the 200km coach ride to your final destination.

Newey Reservoir Cobar
Newey Reservoir Cobar
Photograph: Destination NSW

Cobar

Like many of Australia’s older inland towns, mining is in Cobar’s copper veins. Quite unlike other mining outposts, however, this town is not surrounded by a parched desert, but rather lush wetlands, including the beautiful Newey Reservoir reserve (pictured). At the Great Cobar Heritage Centre, you can explore the area’s mining heritage including a recreation of a 19th-century mining shaft, but for a glimpse of the truly jaw-dropping scale of contemporary operations, the Fort Bourke Hill Lookout lets visitors gaze into the crater of the town’s first open cut gold mine. If industrial earthworks aren’t your thing, the Mount Grenfell Historic Site is an equally worthy reason to visit. Here you’ll find the ancient rock art of the Ngiyampaa people, depicting local dreaming stories in red, yellow and ochre pigments. If you visit at the end of October, you can catch one of the area's most surreal local traditions, the Festival of the Miner’s Ghost – a strange hybrid between a memorial for lost miners and a Halloween spectacular featuring cemetery tours and a grand fireworks display over the open-cut mine.

Where to stay: Options are relatively limited, but the Copper City Motel is an all-budgets bolt-hole that caters to both thrifty travellers looking for bargain accommodation and more up-market travellers who would prefer the plusher surrounds, plus mid-budget options in between.

Getting there: It’s an 8-hour drive from Sydney although you can catch a flight to Dubbo which is a more manageable 3-hour drive from Cobar. You will need a 4WD vehicle if you choose this option, however, as many of the roads are unsealed.

Take the road less travelled

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