A Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Pilgrimage in the Australian Outback

Take a self-guided tour of Australia's outback inspired by the cult classic movie bus and its flamboyant passengers

Credit: John Thomson

The 1994 cult classic movie inspires a trip to Australia’s outback to the town of Broken Hill, hot on the heels of Priscilla and its outlandish passengers

It may be almost 20 years old, but cult classic film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues to inspire visitors in Oz to set out toward the outback in search of Priscilla-related sites and shrines.

In the movie, Priscilla the bus, the film’s unlikely star, carries female impersonators Mitzi and Felicia and transsexual Bernadette from Sydney to a cabaret gig in Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the country.

Along the way they encounter hostility, bigotry and eventually acceptance as the trio makes their way across sun-burnt Australia. And while the characters may distract from the landscape with their drama and flamboyance, their surroundings are stunning, and it’s a journey worth re-creating.

A fan of the movie, I caught up with the Priscilla legacy in a town called Broken Hill, 500 kilometres northeast of Adelaide.

Credit: John Thomson

Broken Hill: A silver town on the silver screen

Broken Hill may be arid, desolate and inhospitable, but in 1883 adventurers found silver in them thar hills and the settlement rapidly morphed into a mining town.

It wears its heritage proudly. Argent Street, named after the French word for silver, runs parallel to Crystal Street, which runs into Oxide Street, which runs parallel to Chloride Street.

Naming its downtown thoroughfares after rocks and minerals is only one of its many quirks.

Credit: John Thomson

Argent Street’s charms

Argent Street is the main drag and the sun can be unrelenting. Thankfully, huge verandahs and overhangs provide much needed shade. Walking along the street I expect to see workwear shops and dingy coffee bars. But I also find high-end fashion stores and charming sidewalk cafes. Maybe there’s more to Broken Hill than meets the eye.

Credit: John Thomson

First stop: Broken Hill’s Palace Hotel

In the movie, Broken Hill is Priscilla’s first major stop. Bernadette, Felicia and Mitzi get off the bus and check into the local hotel before putting on a show for the rough and tumble locals.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” says Bernadette, as the trio step into the garishly decorated Palace Hotel. The walls are covered floor to ceiling in kitschy murals – the Sistine Chapel on steroids.

“Who does the painting around here?” asks Felicia.

“Someone without arms I think,” is the reply. The décor fits the tone of the movie perfectly, and it’s a must-see if you want to steep yourself in mining and movie history.

Credit: John Thomson

Spend two dollars for two minutes of touristing

Inside, the Palace Hotel looks exactly the same as it did in the movie. The walls are still covered in bad art. Everything is familiar except for one thing; the hotel’s canny owners have installed coin-operated floodlights to illuminate the stairwell so tourists and gawkers like myself can take pictures. Two minutes for two Australian dollars.

I rattle off as many photos as my coins allow. Although the Palace is known throughout Australia as a movie location, the locals are unimpressed. They know it simply as a hangout for hipsters. “The Palace has changed its chef and is a good place to eat,” says local resident John Russell matter-of-factly.

Credit: John Thomson

Drive to the Mundi Mundi Plains

Promising myself a meal at the Palace later in my travels, I drive to the Mundi Mundi (pronounced moonday) Plains 30 kilometres out of town. I can only imagine what Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette were thinking when they eased Priscilla onto that unbroken road. All I can see is a ribbon of asphalt disappearing into nothingness. The Plains were the start of their outback adventure, the flat desert giving way to sandstone domes called the Olgas and the even more stunning Kings Canyon.

The Plains, and in fact the very rise I’m standing on, also served as the backdrop in another local movie, “Road Warrior” or as it’s known in Australia, “Mad Max 2.”

Credit: John Thomson

Stop at stunning Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon is a massive complex with walls over 100 metres high. It has a special significance for Australia’s aboriginals and for the movie’s cast too. “I have a dream,” says Felicia after arriving in Alice Springs. The movie ends with the trio triumphantly standing atop the Canyon in their female finery, their journey complete.

Credit: John Thomson

Then head to the nearby town of Silverton

The settlement of Silverton, 25 kilometres north-west of Broken Hill and five kilometres west of the Mundi Mundi Plains is the quintessential Australian outpost. A mere 80 souls live here tending bar, managing art galleries or guiding visitors through the world’s only Mad Max museum.

Credit: John Thomson

Check out Silverton’s Mad Max museum

I’m greeted at the museum’s door by owner and curator Adrian Bennett. Adrian is a self-admitted Mad Max superman who emigrated to Silverton from England 10 years ago driven by his fascination – some would say obsession – with the movie “Road Warrior.”

His homemade museum houses cast and crew memorabilia, many original vehicles abandoned by the crew when filming wrapped, and a few replicas he’s built himself. A gregarious host, Adrian tells me visitors often don’t understand his lifestyle choice.

“People say ‘don’t you get bored? There’s nothing to do.’ I say there’s no time to get bored, the people we meet, and the things we have to do. Living here is full-time. It’s great. No one is honking horns, there’s no screeching tires, there’s no traffic jams. I wake up every day with a big smile on my face.”

His museum is a fascinating jumble of artifacts not the least of which is Adrian himself.

Credit: John Thomson

There’s more to see and do in Broken Hill

“Razorback,” “Dirty Deeds” and elements of “Mission Impossible 2” were also shot in the Broken Hill area. Make no mistake; the city is proud of its past and has even converted an old power station into a movie studio to accommodate future shoots, but there are other sights to see, too.

Credit: John Thomson

RFDS planes, mine tours, art showcases and parks are amoung the other attractions in Broken Hill

Broken Hill is the regional base for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the state-run utility that flies emergency help into remote parts of the outback. I take an inexpensive public tour of the hanger and its facilities. Three planes are in dock, one is on the runway.

Mine tours are a popular attraction – there are three exhibits in the area – including the granddaddy of them all, the Daydream Mine en route to Silverton.

The arts are well-represented in Broken Hill. Over 30 galleries dot the city, a result of the many artists drawn to the clear, bright Aussie light. The Broken Hill Sculptures and Living Desert Sanctuary, nine kilometres west of town, showcases 12 limestone monoliths sculpted by 12 international artists.

And in Sturt Park in the middle of town, the city fathers have erected a memorial to Titanic’s eight-man orchestra, not because any of the musicians came from Broken Hill but because back in 1912 Broken Hill’s musical community felt a kinship with their ill-fated brethren and raised the money to do something about it. That’s the kind of place Broken Hill is, quirky and unconventional.

Back at the Palace Hotel bar, dining on a plate of marinated squid, barramundi and mussels smothered in spaghetti and red chilies, I’m reminded of another theme that permeates “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” Nothing is exactly as it appears, and while I first thought of Broken Hill as a dusty, non-descript town in the middle of nowhere I soon discovered it’s a cultural and gastronomic oasis with one foot in traditional Aussie culture and the other on the world at large. Civilization on the cusp of the outback and yes, drag queens are welcome.

Credit: John Thomson

Getting there

Broken Hill is 500 kilometres from Adelaide, 850 kilometres from Melbourne and 1,150 kilometres from Sydney. International travellers usually land in Sydney or Melbourne and take a two-hour connecting flight to Adelaide. From there it’s a five and a half hour drive over good roads and interesting terrain. Be on the lookout for stray sheep and goats though. They have no fear of cars. Kangaroos come out at dawn and sunset and it’s not unusual to see massive roo bars mounted on local vehicles to shunt them out of the way.

Rail links are provided by Country Link and the transcontinental Indian Pacific and buses connect from nearby Mildura and Adelaide.

January is the hottest month. July is the coolest month with an average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius.

A Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Pilgrimage