Queens of the desert and the Silver City

Festival hosts Art Simone and Philmah Bocks at the Broken Heel festival street parade

Amid a land of sunburnt ochre and sweeping blue skies, a sequin-encased, opera-singing drag queen is a welcome image of cool silver. She stands atop a silver bus named Priscilla, a stream of shiny metallic fabric billowing behind her like a flag in the red dust.

Fast-forward 25 years and the frontier mining town of Broken Hill is still drawing inspiration from the iconic Australian film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In fact, the famous bus scene forms part of a performance on the opening night of the town's annual Broken Heel festival, a fabulous celebration of drag in the outback.

More than 1000km from Sydney, Australia's only heritage-listed town has taken great strides since its mining start in the late 1890s. As Broken Hill mayor Darriea Turley says, "who would have thought that a drag queen could change the economy of a rural town?"

The people of the Silver City have embraced the festival since it started in 2015. Every September they don feather boas, sequins and false eyelashes and head on down to the Palace Hotel, where the three main characters from Priscilla stay overnight on their way to perform in Alice Springs.

More than 3000 people attended the festival's events over the weekend, with a record turnout of more than 150 people in Saturday's colourful parade along Argent Street.

On the 13-hour train trip from Sydney, we tick off stops through the Blue Mountains, Bathurst, Orange and Parkes.

It's the first year the festival has had a dedicated train service, and each station is marked with cheery staff dressed in - you guessed it - feather boas. When the train staff switch over halfway through the journey, the towns become smaller, the dirt redder, and the accents more ocker.

It seems so sudden - we're in the outback.

To the mobs of emus, kangaroos and herds of wild goats, our train is terrifying. With phone reception gone, and drag queen bingo yet to come, attention turns to the wild animals darting away as we shoot through their territory.

The contrasting mash of outback larrikins and bejewelled drag queens comes early when we stop at Ivanhoe, 800km into the journey, shortly after an inevitable road kill incident. The train driver tells me, deadpan, how "cows do a bit of damage when you hit 'em".

He's wearing a bright red wig, rainbow tie and pink gloves.

We're still 300km away from the silver city and its drag queen festivities.

The dusty, pub-filled downtown area of Broken Hill is a mix of holidaymakers in campervans exploring the heart of Australia, art lovers seeking out the 25 local galleries, and locals sipping on schooners.

While there's no concrete jungle or skyscrapers, the towering stilettos are on their way.

The country town charm is true blue, from locals that greeted the train on arrival and offered lifts to festival-goers, to a hotel owner who removed a spider with his bare-hands from the room of a guest.

Being known for the drag queen disco musical couldn't be further from the town's days as the base of Broken Hill Proprietary Company, better known now as BHP. The historic pubs whisper Broken Hill's history, while the rainbow flags flying through the main streets shout out its progressive turn.

The festival is a mix of family-friendly daytime activities such as a costume competition, street parade and the Silverton day out. As the sun goes down on Friday and Saturday, the Palace Hotel comes alive with outdoor drag shows, an indoor cabaret stage and "So You Think You can Drag", where anyone can sign up for a shot of being crowned the Queen of Broken Heel.

Melbourne-based drag queen Karen says she wasn't sure what to expect, but felt immediately welcomed by the town.

"I got up early on my first morning here and went down the street, and the town hall is flying one of the biggest rainbow pride flags I've ever seen," she told AAP.

"It brought a tear to my eye, it really made me feel welcome, appreciated - but also special, real and human."

Held just after the High Court gave the government's same sex marriage postal survey the green light, she said it felt important to be in Broken Hill for the festival this year. The need for a welcoming community atmosphere for the LGBTQI festival revellers was apparent, and the silver city delivered.

There's a resilient spirit to the queens and the town, and as Ms Turley says of Broken Hill, "the more isolated you are, the more resilient you are".

"No matter what the world throws at it, whether it's the toughness of the outback, whether it's the isolation of the travel ... this community will still thrive," she said.

Perhaps it's this resilience that inspired Priscilla director Stephan Elliott, who told Palace Hotel managing director Esther La Rovere that Broken Hill was the "spiritual home" of the film.

It gave Ms La Rovere the idea of putting the festival together in 2015, coupled with the knowledge the movie was reaching its 21-year milestone.

"I thought: why not chuck her a 21st birthday party and see what happens?" she said.

I hear festival goers chatter excitedly about returning next year and in a flash, they've all departed. Once again Broken Hill is a frontier town, with the light desert breeze wafting fluffy bits of red feather boa along the dusty main street.


GETTING THERE: Broken Hill is isolated - it's about 1100km from Sydney and 830km from Melbourne. There are limited direct flights from Sydney, which takes just over two hours, usually stopping in Dubbo. Flights to Broken Hill from Melbourne stop in Mildura.

If you're travelling to Broken Hill for the Broken Heel festival, you can catch a coach from Melbourne or the early-morning Stiletto Train from Sydney. Visit https://www.bhfestival.com/catch-the-stiletto-train/

STAYING THERE: Ibis Styles Broken Hill offers three star accommodation with included continental breakfast. It has an outdoor pool and is a short stroll to Palace Hotel. Pay $140 per night for a double room. http://www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-8085-ibis-styles-broken-hill/index.shtml#rooms

PLAYING THERE: There's an arty undercurrent to the outback town, with a vast range of local galleries including renowned Pro Hart, Jack Absalom and the world's biggest painting, The Big Picture. The Living Desert is about 9km out of town and home to 12 sandstone sculptures.

For more info, visit https://www.brokenhill.nsw.gov.au/ or www.visitnsw.com/destinations/outback-nsw/broken-hill-area/broken-hill.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Destination NSW.