Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Town Centred on Rocks (Cobar, Australia)

Driving south 150 kilometres from Bourke, along a sunburned highway past the enigmatic Gundabooka National Park, visitors arrive at Cobar. The town sign leaves an immediate impression as to the history of Cobar. Pinned against a giant slag heap, ore hoppers topped with a large metallic sign greet drivers. Slag heaps litter the fringes of the town. A few yards further on, the heritage park contains giant pieces of mining equipment with mysterious names like a poppet-head and a stamper battery. A fine two metre statue of a miner oversees drivers entering town.

Copper was discovered in Cobar in 1870. The story has it that three failed gold prospectors were travelling out west guided by aboriginal trackers when they camped overnight near Cobar. Seeing the unusual water colour and the tell-tale green rock markings, the prospectors believed that they had stumbled across a great find, later shown to be one of the richest copper deposits ever discovered. The red ochre earth used by the indigenous people for body decoration was called kubbar in the local language and the town got its name.

The undoubted mineral wealth of the area is still visible and best seen from two vantage points. Within the grounds of the truly excellent local museum (maybe the finest rural museum in New South Wales) is the original 1870 Great Cobar Copper Mine where huge pits were dug by hand and hauled by horse and cart. At its peak, 12 smelters bubbled and brewed away extracting the rich copper deposits from the rough dark rock. Some of the waste rock has been well utilised for building or as the base for the town’s roads.

World War I saw a dramatic drop in mineral prices and soon after the war the mine closed. The main pit (over 150 metres deep) is filled with water and makes for a striking sight against the rich red environment. A second mine in the area also closed in 1920 from a fire that burned for 16 years! Copper and gold and more continues to be successfully mined today.

The outstanding museum (housed in a 1910 heritage mining office) has many humbling reminders of the harsh life and deprivations of mining families in such remote areas. The museum is presented chronologically starting with Aboriginal occupation and displays of artifacts and bush foods and moving to displays on the issues of water shortages. It highlights the bush skills required by Europeans settlers to survive the harsh weather and inhospitable land moving through to more modern times growing up in Cobar. The second floor includes historic displays on the mining of copper, gold, silver and other minerals (including a small recreated section of mine) and a farming section including a realistic local woolshed of the time (shearing must be at least as tough an existence as mining).

Outside are a fine collection of old vehicles, farming and mining equipment. Most memorable is a carriage of the Far West Children’s Health train which visited the area on occasions to bring some healthcare and medical assistance to mothers raising their children.

Overlooking Cobar is a second fine vantage point known as Fort Bourke Lookout (see top photo). A deep russet brown seam runs for miles bringing wealth to the companies and to Cobar itself. Like all mining towns, the fortunes and population of Cobar has seen steady rises and falls over the last century as the demand for copper, gold and other minerals fluctuate.

With an entrance road that curls like a wonky nautilus shell, the massive pit is the entrance to a giant underground mining system for gold. The scale is immense, the wheels on the vehicle being taller than a human. Operating every hour of every day, trucks meander up and down the slope and along the underground road travelling several miles to the main worked area.

The main street of Cobar has a number of fine historic buildings. Most attention seeking is the Great Western Hotel (1898) which has a glorious cast-iron lacework verandah that is supposedly the longest balcony in the Southern Hemisphere at over 100 metres in length. Another is the fine courthouse and its neighbouring Courtyard Hotel (maybe the accused and the court officers needed found some solace with a refreshing ale).

Cobar is a spirited town and makes for an interesting diversion with its rich mining history so apparent throughout the town and a superb local museum bring to life the demanding family life of yesterday.


Barbara Weibel said...

Wow! This is right up my alley. I've been a rockhound since I was old enough to pick up rocks and I'd love to see this in person. I wonder if they let you pick through the slag heaps for crystals?

glenn | relocatetomaui said...

haven't really tried going to cobar but might consider going there.

Tanaris said...

The downhill road is already a wonder. How much more the town itself? I would love to visit that place in the near future but I'm worried about landslides.

Mark H said...

@glenn: Certainly worth a detour.

@tanaris: The ground i sstable. I am sure the risk of landslide is very minor.

Mark H said...

@barbara: Most of the areas looked offlimits to me but I am not sure if there is somewhere for rock hounds to search around.

Anonymous said...

The "Peak" gold mine on the Hillston Road has an open day every two years (i was there for it this year) and takes visitors and tourists underground. There are massive workshops, haul trucks and mining equipment everywhere down there - amazingly tidy and organized. The lookout into the open cut is open all year round. If you get there after some rain it brings out all the colours in the rock - brilliant. In the town there is a pub with the longest verandah in Australia. Lots of girls and boys go shoping in town after work in their bright orange mining clothes - surreal.

Mark H said...

@anonymous: An open day would be superb for such a key element of the town. The lookout is excellent as a couple of the photos show.

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