FROM BOOM TO BUST, FROM RICHES TO RUINS.
Everything is fleeting. Look around at everything you see right now and it’s hard to think it won’t still be there everyday, forever, even when you’re not.
In the Aussie bush there are towns that went from boom to bust overnight, usually pushed over the cliff by one drought or flood too many, or a change in demand for minerals that was decided in a board room somewhere overseas.
All over Australia, rural roads are chequered with such towns, but there are some that are worth stopping to check out. We recently went around the staff room and compiled a list of seven notables…
BROAD ARROW, Goldfields, WA.
The arrow may have been broad but it only hit its target for a narrow window of time. When it did, this Westralian gold town got so big, so fast, that it was home to a hospital and a stock exchange.
Drive half an hour into the desert furnace north of Kalgoorlie and you can still see what’s left of it.
You’ll find buildings in various stages of decrepitude, a dust willy-willy or two and an actual thriving hotel, where slack jawed tourists like us gawp at the void outside the pub’s window and write our names on the walls as a testament of our mortality, that we are alive, at least for now.
Well, OK, the pub is more than that, it’s famous for being 120 years old, and for its monstrous hamburgers.
The boom time began when three Irish chancers stumbled on gold here in 1893, and soon after people from all over the empire were tripping over the stuff. So much so that a railway was immediately built to accommodate for an instant bustling outpost of 2000 people.
The bust came just as quickly. By the dawn of the 20th Century, seven years after the first nuggets were exhumed, the town went off a cliff. The gold vein was exhausted, overnight, and the new Broad Arrow residents couldn’t afford to waste any more time in this place if they wanted their children to eat.
The great paradox these days is that the ghost town can actually get crowded at times, in the pub at least. The Broad Arrow Hotel can do a brisk trade on weekends as tourists rock up to check out the hot crumbling buildings while drinking ice cold beer.
MOUNT MULLIGAN, Mareeba, QLD.
Irish expats really threw themselves into it when they arrived in Australia, especially when they took their pink skins north of Capricorn.
They founded and worked the Hodgkinson mines west of Cairns, blinded by sweat that drizzled into their brow like the constant rain back in their home country.
The mining towns of Tyrconnell and Mount Mulligan soon became loud with celebrationary music and carousing each evening as their sweaty graft paid off with chunks of gold.
This was a land so tough and a ground so rough that even the bullock teams had to be shoed, so when the gold stopped being easy to access, the original guys pulled the pin.
Before too long, while gold was off the menu, more expats arrived in the town, to mine another fertile mineral deposit, coal, that lay in the shadow of Mount Mulligan, a scarp the local Djungan people referred to as Ngarrabullgan.
A theory abounds that the very area itself was not hospitable to the now-rich Micks.
According to our NQ contributor Matt Larsen: “One of the most interesting stories of the town’s demise is the Aboriginal belief that the spirit of the mountain, a presence known as Iku, was unhappy with the men interfering with the land. Iku was reportedly seen by locals sitting in the trees around the mine days before the disaster.”
The disaster, of course, being one of Queensland’s worst ever tragedies. No, it wasn’t Iku, it was an actual explosion that killed all the men in the town, bar a handful who were off sick.
There were 75 of them, who were all underground when a controlled blast wasn’t controlled very well and caught on to some other explosives.
Says Matt Larsen: “You get chills when you wander through the cemetery, imagining the impact of such a disaster on the then tiny community of around 300 people. Many of the widows & their families remained in town, despite being offered free rail travel anywhere in the state if they wished to relocate.”
These days, there’s still a couple of buildings standing in the shadow of Ngarrabullgan and it’s the focal point of what we reckon is one of the region’s best 4WDing trips.
WALHALLA, Alpine Country, VIC.
Walhalla looks like a town that a kid would draw – nestled into a valley, bisected by a babbling brook and a snaking road, surrounded by bushy trees, sprinkled by houses with puffing chimneys.
It was so picture perfect from the outside that the town’s location was named after the Viking word for heaven.
These days, if you’re driving through this celestial and frosty fringe of Baw Baw NP, just glancing at the idyllic heritage town can warm your cockles.
But scratch a little deeper and things get much colder and darker. And it was this Alpine frost that tells of a hellish time to be a gold miner here, with miner’s families dropping like flies from tuberculosis during the harsh winters.
Sure, they’d occasionally score a little bit of scratch, but most of the work, in the 50 miles of underground shafts was done in freezing waist-deep water.
Deaths were brutal, whether in one of the frequent underground accidents, or from a water-borne disease up on the surface.
Even with the death toll, the towns population got up to 3000 during the height of the gold rush in the 1880s, and when the gold started to run out, so did the people, who ran right out of this frozen hell hole before World War I.
In the 100 years since, the town’s population continued to decline, buildings burnt down or collapsed. Until recently, that is, when concerted community efforts have rebuilt much of it to its former state.
There are bridges, band rotundas, museums, and railways, it’s as stunning as ever, but you know that just below the surface, metaphorically and literally, lie the remains of a much different world.
A trip here is a mindblower, it gives off an eerie Twin Peaks vibe, and that’s before you even embark on one of the town’s regular ghost tours.
PORT ESSINGTON, Cobourg Peninsula, NT.
When it comes to lost civilisations, Port Essington is Australia’s first, our Atlantis, our Colossus of Rhodes. A once grand idea now ingested by salt water and vines.
It was originally supposed to be Australia’s great maritime port, a British settlement that would not only trade with nearby Asian neighbours, but defend any incursion from French and Dutch empire builders.
After all, the Dutch had been trading with Aborigines here since the early 1600s. The British needn’t have worried about the French though. The frogs had already assessed the place and were sharp enough to realise that this land was as inhospitable to the white man as it gets.
For four years the Brits persisted with the town, before the early settlers eventually capitulated, pock-marked with diseases and spears.
They kept trying to turning their northern utopia into a reality, having a go at other nearby destinations like Fort Dundas and Raffles Bay, and when those too failed, they tried again at Port Essington.
The Sydney Morning Herald recently expounded on their futile second shot at building a town here.
“(It) involved the rebuilding of the settlement but this time the builders were assisted by a brick maker who had been shipwrecked during the cyclone. The result was a mixture of local materials (again rough hewn) with stone chimneys and some brick buildings including fortifications and a bakers’ oven.
Until the northern jungle swallowed their idea, they believed this could be the basis for a sophisticated cultural colonial hub like Singapore or Hong Kong, believing that with art and architecture they could raise a great city out of these mangroves.
They were hell-bent on the folly of a theatre and the production of plays featuring actors shipped in to perform for the very few confused and miserable residents who happened to be stuck there.
When it came to an audience reaction, there weren’t just crickets, there were tiger beetles crawling on the viewers’ faces, this being a future city sinking into a swamp faster than it was being built.
The great evolutionary scientist, Thomas Huxley, had cause to visit the town in those early days, dubbing it, “the most wretched” he’d ever seen. “The climate the most unhealthy, the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten.”
The idea of the grand city was finally nixed in 1850, and another organically growing town nearby became the real heart of Top End trade and commerce, it also happened to be named after Huxley’s good mate, Darwin.
The ruins of Port Essington remain today, very difficult to get to, under the perma-humid haze and croc-infested waterways of Gurig Gunak Barlu National Park.
WITTENOOM, Pilbara, WA.
When looking at the bust cycle of any ghost town, the story is always bleak. But there are none as heartbreaking as Wittenoom.
While gold shafts and coal tunnels always came with dangers, the miners in those towns were not killed by the very item they were trying to extract from the earth.
At Wittenoom, it was a different story that can only be explained in one word – asbestos.
This was once a small, overlooked spec of land in the Pilbara’s stunning Hamersley Range, until crocidolite, or blue asbestos, was found here by mining magnate Lang Hancock in the 1930s.
After WWII, CSR took over the company and despite knowing the potential dangers of blue asbestos, (with inhalable fibres 1000 times smaller than white asbestos) they continued to work their mill, even when workers complained of poor ventilation and a lack of facemasks.
Then people started to get sick, lung problems mostly, workers and ex workers’ found their air bags filling with fluid, and stippled with seams of an aggressive form of cancer known as mesothelioma.
With 7000 workers making a living here over a quarter of a century, it’s believed one in ten was likely to get the terminal illness which can take decades to metastasize.
By 1980, the government began a winding-down process at Wittenoom that lasted for the next 15 years.
The government even considered removing all the topsoil in the region so it would be livable again, but nope, this place was more unlivable than Bikini Atoll, and it would be indefinitely.
In 2007, the town was degazetted. It was officially wiped off the face of the map, although the tailings dam at nearby Wittenoom Gorge is still believed to be a dangerous hotbed of poison.
NERRIGUNDAH, South Coast, NSW.
Where dense bushland met rolling dairy hills and freshwater streams, Aborigines named the region because it describe an area bountiful with mulberries.
Beneath those plump mulberry trees were rivers of gold.
The early gold diggings around the Tuross River were as profitable as the region was stunning; with Gulph Creek having the honour of being the ‘purest gold in the colony’.
Over 2000 folk moved to the region, picks in hand, to start a new life. To say they were all good guys would be a stretch, but aside from a few punch-ups outside one of the five pubs they mostly played with a straight bat.
That was until the Clarke Brothers started to get on a roll. They were from the district and would steal miners’ horses, before returning them to claim the reward money.
The whole family of bushrangers wreaked havoc at the same time as the underground gold seam started to run dry. They held up miners, the post office, coaches, you name it. They even shot the cops.
To give you an idea on just how bad they were, check out this quote from an early newspaper: “No more remarkable confederacy of robbery, violence and murder that has ever been known to exist in any civilised community.”
Word of their goldfields terror reached the government and top banana Henry Parkes put together a crack team of mercenaries to go out and bring them down, mainly because they were obstructing any gold profits from coming back to the authorities.
The mission failed, with the bushrangers outsmarting them at every turn. That was until a bunch of jail wardens from Sydney got together and told the government they would capture them. They failed as well, all murdered within a week.
In a final bloody fight, it ended up being a couple of rogue cops who captured them. They brought them in alive, but only so they could be paraded around and executed in a ‘show’ hanging.
The brothers were hanged in 1867, and it was a story that ran parallel to the very town they terrorised, as it was almost to a day when the town’s mines ceased to be turning a profit.
FARINA, Lake Eyre Basin, SA.
Farina was the final station on the Great Northern Railway, which ferried all the goods from the deep interior, from farms as far afield as western Queensland.
It might have been the end of the line, but for a time it was also a place of new beginnings.
Farina had a bunch of mines and was a proper melting pot of different people; Taoist Chinese silver miners, Lutheran German copper miners, Muslim Afghani cameleers, and the Dreaming-led local Dieri Aborigines who worked with the cameleers.
They all created a thriving community and had a common belief (bar the local Aborigines who knew better) that this was a town that could be one of the great inland centres, not just for transport but for crops. They even optimistically named the town Farina, after the latin word for ‘wheat’.
By the turn of the 20th Century, there were 500 permanent residents, a school, a bunch of pubs, a cop shop, and a shower of breweries.
This was all fine and dandy until a yearlong drought turned into a decade-long drought and the Simpson Desert swept south like a hot red amoeba.
It wasn’t just the livestock and crops that took a pounding. As the drought continued, bodies already weakened by poor nutrition fell to a strafe of diseases that knocked the Farina residents down like skittles.
For the first time, the local headcount stopped climbing around town, but increased in the local cemetery. You can still check the graveyard today, so too the crumbling buildings of the original town.
Many of us have driven through the sandstone ruins and the bone-dry creek bed, with both of them being a stark reminder that, sure, you might get a couple of fertile years on the trot, but in the long run, the land has got to be able to make it through the longest of droughts, and nowhere does droughts quite like the climes of Lake Eyre.
Nowadays, it’s rarely doom and gloom for those of us who drive out here in air-conditioned comfort. The 4WDing here is outstanding, particularly some of the tracks on Witchelina Station, where you can even crash out in the old shearers quarters.