NSW outback roads: Broken Hill to Tibooburra, now sealed, opens up opportunities

Never believe what you read on a road sign, at least not the one you'll spot as you enter Tibooburra. It states that the population of the far-flung Corner Country town, 1182 kilometres north-west of Sydney, is 150.

These days it's less than half that number, according to Senior Constable Vicki Shipley, the lone police officer in town and the first female to "man" the Tibooburra station, which has a front yard studded with Sturt Desert Peas around this time of year.

"The local caravan park usually has more tourists in it these days than there are local residents," she says. "There's more traffic and more people coming to town which is good for Tibooburra. In fact, one of the shopkeepers was telling me the other day that it's the busiest the town's ever been."

The reason? In a bit of welcome pandemic serendipity, the last unsealed section of the Silver City Highway between Tibooburra and Broken Hill, 332 kilometres to the south, has been fully bituminised by the state government in recent months. It forms part of a $145 million project to seal the last dirt roads in NSW's intricate highway network.

With more people travelling intrastate due to border closures combined with the ban on overseas travel, the sealing has proved a fortuitous boon, not only for the sparse number of isolated Tibooburra residents, who can now more easily travel to and from Broken Hill, but also for the 17,000 or so citizens of the famed mining hub.

Melissa Thomson, who with husband William, owns Tibooburra's historic, 17-room Family Hotel which dates to 1882, says the sealing of the highway, which stretches 684 kilometres north-south through outback NSW from the borders of Victoria and Queensland, has inspired a nascent "staycation" market.

"Now that there's no dirt sections left, people from Broken Hill can now safely drive their little two-wheel drive town cars up here rather than needing a four-wheel drive," she says. "Before the sealing of the highway a lot of them had never even been up here."

The section between Broken Hill and Tibooburra, which runs roughly parallel to the recently reopened NSW-South Australia border, is no mean feat of engineering since it represents a longer distance than that between Sydney and Canberra. Now there's just a final, 42 kilometre-long section between Tibooburra and Wompah Gate on the Queensland border that is yet to be bituminised.

Silver City Highway new sealed road map

While Melissa Thomson says the sealing of roads may rob the region of some of its travel adventure sheen, there are plenty of other dirt tracks left to explore, such as the one out to Cameron Corner, where the NSW, South Australia and Queensland borders meet, and the Sturt National Park.

For Senior-Constable Shipley, the sealing of the road has brought a major benefit to her work on the Silver City Highway.

"Not many people get bogged along the highway anymore, even though there's still a lot of dirt roads around here, which means I don't have to winch them out," she says. "It used to be a big part of my job."

One of the most unusual features of the sealed highway is the fact that part of it further on from Tibooburra now doubles as a rare emergency, all-weather landing strip for aircraft.

Complete with broad white runway "aiming point" stripes, it was specially constructed for the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the event of medical emergencies and as an alternative for dirt runways on remote sheep and cattle stations.

The nearest all-weather airstrip is at Tibooburra, more than 130 kilometres away, and which these days, according to Senior Constable Shipley, is receiving more aircraft piloted by tourists and their companions than it is RFDS planes. It seems all roads and strips are leading to the Corner Country these days.

Anthony Dennis and James Brickwood travelled courtesy of Destination NSW. See visitnsw.com