KATRINA DENOUX and her family swap the French Riviera for a trip to the NSW Riverina and beyond
Discovering a wealth of ancient history in the sand dunes of Mungo National Park in western NSW
Exploring the dramatic landscapes of Mungo National Park on a full moon, we felt like we were under a spell. Natural light illuminated the sand and clay dunes that surrounded us, sculpted over many years into imposing formations. We had timed this tour well, and spent a day with eco-tour operator, Outback Geo Adventures, who guided us through the ancient history, native flora and fauna in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area of NSW. This is where Mungo Woman and Mungo Man, who were buried more than 40,000 years ago, were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s – the oldest human remains ever to be found in Australia. We were privileged to also be accompanied by a Muthi Muthi woman, whose family has been instrumental in returning Mungo Man from Canberra’s Australian National University. She watched us from the viewing area, having suggested we remove our shoes to walk, reflecting on the ancient sand dunes, not only to feel the spirit of the land through our bare soles but also to respect these spirits, and the brothers and sisters buried under their sacred sites.
At this time of year, we’d usually be flying to Saint Tropez to work at the holiday retreat we own along the star-studded French Riviera coast. But with COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, our only option was an intrastate sojourn. My husband Christophe grew up in France, while I grew up in Sydney, where we now live. Our twins Maya and Rémy had never been further west than Bathurst, yet know Europe like the back of their 11-year-old hands.
Road tripping through Outback NSW
So, a road trip was planned, as far as we were allowed to go, into deepest NSW, covering 3,000km within the closed borders. We wanted to do our bit; to help with the state’s tourism rebound, and for Maya and Rémy to learn about the outback. As a clinical nutrition, tourism practitioner and gastronomic and sustainable tourism lecturer, I was also keen to do research I could pass on to my students. After speaking to several sustainable tourism providers, and hearing of their readiness to open and the wellness measures they had put in place, we planned what we could do to travel responsibly and benefit these communities.
We’re no strangers to road trips, strapping the kids in and taking scenic routes along the Pacific Hwy towards Brisbane a couple of times a year, visiting family and checking in on our other retreat in Byron Bay. A road trip really is something else. Having grown up with poetic travel novels – On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coehlo – we see them as being as much about the journey as the destination. After our original plans were thwarted, when our flight to the Bahamas was cancelled due to a hurricane, Christophe and I had even traversed the famous Route 66 from Las Vegas to Albuquerque for our honeymoon.
Our kids were not allowed screens or gadgets in cars until they turned ten. Even now, they are only permitted to play on screens after three hours have passed, and not when passing through towns or areas of historic or natural interest.
Visiting Yass & Griffith
After taking off in our trusty ‘city’ 4WD, the first stop was Yass, around 300km south-west of Sydney. Who could go past a town with that name? As one of the first groups of travellers to visit post-lockdown, we were welcomed with open arms at the first eatery we visited, Café Dolcetto. With hardly any other tourists around, we were seeing first-hand how the COVID lockdown, droughts and fires have adversely affected regional NSW.
We spent our first night in Griffith, at the homestead-style Kidman Hotel – a quintessential motor inn where the ochre red dirt-coloured roof matched the brilliant red western skies at sunset. We had breakfast at the legendary bakery, Bertoldo’s, pleasing the Frenchman amongst us. Produce tasting and learning about the Riverina region’s immigrant agricultural history, at the Riverina Grove HQ factory, was a delicious way to begin our second day. After purchasing some of the Goat-Chaser spicy condiment range, we set off to chase some wild goats of our own – those who make their home at the Hermit’s Cave atop Scenic Hill, where an Italian immigrant, Valerio Ricetti, lived alone for many years. A keen gardener, Ricetti created dry stone walls, paths and stone steps, giving access to areas that he named the Garden, the Chapel and the Main Cave, which features his paintings of daisies.
Riverina Murray: one of NSW’s most mesmerising destinations
Heading out of town, we passed grain silos and wineries before traversing the stunningly bare Hay plains, playing a squinting eye game – saltbush or sheep? Kangaroo or tree stump? Our next base was the one-café town of Balranald, where we stayed in a cabin in Balranald Caravan Park, on the banks of the Murray River. During a barbecue dinner over a firepit, paired with red wine and Riverina Grove Goat Chaser’s sauces, we toasted the magical river redgums lining the eroded banks. The next morning, as we lay under the mighty branches, staring up at them, I read aloud research about the Murray-Darling water sustainability situation, the fragile eco-system, and the communities that depend on it.
After exploring Mungo National Park, which lies around 1,000km west of Sydney, we took in the sights of the orange groves and wineries of the Mildura region, ticking off a bucket list item of mine – seeing a Sturt Desert Pea in the wild, at the Australian Inland Botanic Garden, near Buronga.
Heading north along the closed South Australian border, we hit the outback proper, and realised how prepared you need to be. It’s essential to check the weather, check spare tyres and check how far away the next petrol stations is; you can drive for 250km and not see one. With only one car passing every 15 minutes, it was a little hard to play some of our favourite road trip games, such as ‘make a sentence from number plate letters’. And with every creek called Dry Lake, ‘imagine a story about how the creek got its name’ was also out of the question.
Broken Hill & Silverton: getting A taste of Australia's isolated hinterland
Reaching the frontier town of Broken Hill, we learned about the area’s silver mining history and the importance of tourism. After months of droughts and COVID lockdown, locals were more than happy to chat to us city folk.
The million-star hotel and campground, Eldee Station, was the type of experiential accommodation you usually only dream of: sleeping in a sheep shearer’s quarters on a seemingly never-ending cattle property, spending time fossicking for geology finds during the day, and enjoying campfires and star gazing at night. Driving the 30km of red sand roads between the station and the desert town of Silverton, the Mundi Mundi Plains were so sparse you could see the curvature of the earth. The only buildings dotting the area were in Silverton, which provided the set for the Mad Max movies.
Exploring White Cliff: one of the only places in the world where white opal is found
In the opal-mining town of White Cliffs, Maya found a few shards of the precious gem, which she proudly displayed on the bedside table in the room of the underground motel where we stayed, where the rabbit warren of rooms was painted white.
It may not have been Saint Tropez, but there were infinitely more stars and shining jewels in this spectacular land.
Katrina Denoux is a Regional Tourism Ambassador, the founder of tourism planning service Byron Bay to Saint Tropez and lectures in sustainable and wellness tourism.
Broken Hill is around 1,100km drive west of Sydney, 800km north-west of Melbourne and 500km north-east of Adelaide. A 4WD is suggested for venturing into more remote areas.
Countrylink offers train services from Sydney and Adelaide, and you can also fly from both cities with Regional Express.
Where to stay
There are a variety of accommodation options, ranging from campgrounds in national parks and caravan parks to heritage hotels and outback stations.
When to go
The peak season is April to October, when daily temperatures range from 15-24°C. The summer months are extremely hot, with extreme amounts of flies!