Home to subterranean hotel rooms, sand dunes, and charming river towns, the interior of New South Wales has plenty to explore, especially now that water has returned to the land.
Words and photographs by Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Sydney, Katoomba, Bathurst, Dubbo: they vanish like mirages in my rear-view mirror as I surge westward on a mission to witness one of the rarest natural occurrences of our times: the Australian outback in bloom. Following two consecutive summers of record-breaking rains across eastern Australia, the country has officially been declared drought-free for the first time in more than a decade. Huge bodies of water have moved south from Queensland into the Murray-Darling Basin, turning the desert green in its wake.
I get a taste of what it was like here during the Big Wet when a savage electrical storm erupts on the horizon as I drive down a lonely stretch of the Barrier Highway deep in the interior of New South Wales. White-blue rain comes down in sheets, the desert releasing its giddy aroma as lightning bolts sizzle across a pitch-black sky. Iâ€™m heading to White Cliffs, a mining town-cum-tourist trap some 1,000 kilometers northwest of Sydney. Itâ€™s the closest town to Paroo-Darling National Park, one of many conservation areas transformed by the rains, a place where once-dry lake beds have become inland seas so large they have islands and weather systems of their own.
The next morning, I wake up staring at a 64-million-year-old ceiling inside PJâ€™s Underground, a bed-and-breakfast built inside an old opal mine. My grotto-like room feels like something out of Fred Flintstoneâ€™s Bedrock, providing the perfect escape from the blistering heat and biting winds for which White Cliffs is renowned.
The sun is already high by the time I emerge at the surface. Itâ€™s my first time in the outback and Iâ€™m awed by the vastness of it allâ€”rocky red soil and tumbleweeds as far as the eye can see. The only break in the flatness is a sandstone ridge that borders the shore of distant Lake Peery, centerpiece of the Paroo-Darling. Fed by torrents of water flowing 600 kilometers south from Queenslandâ€™s gorge country, this string of pools has in recent months been transformed into a complex wetland system.