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The Western Australian Goldfields in 1986

Updated: Jul 12, 2023


Australia has its share of ghost towns, some in surprising locations. In 1986, as a field botanist, I stumbled on a few. For example, in 1986, I was driving with a companion north west of Kalgoorlie, in the goldfields area of Western Australia. On this trip, we were under the benevolent supervision of a group of Australia’s best bushmen. We drove a vehicle belonging to the WA Government department CALM ( Conservation And Land Management), because I was looking for different types of Cassia (now called Senna) shrubs in the area. The Department also maintained a team of dingo trappers in isolated areas between Kalgoorlie and Warbuton. The vehicles were all equipped with 2-way radios, and for the duration of our trip, we became part of the regular radio schedule, reporting our position and safety. When we couldn’t reach base with our weaker transmitter, some of the trappers relayed our messages. If we had missed a call, someone would have been out looking for us within hours. It made us feel much more secure in our exploration. My companion and I met in Kalgoorlie. She had driven the vehicle from Perth. I arrived from Adelaide by train. Then we discovered that both of us had grown up in Queensland, not far from each other. The co-incidence was extended when we settled into the Department compound in Leonora for several days. The only other occupant was another employee of the Department, who spent most of his time far from towns, and was making a rare visit to ‘civilization’. There in Leonora, we discovered that he was a Queenslander too. Not only that, but he had actually been at school with my companion. Australia is not such a big place after all! From our base in Leonora, we went looking for the township of Teutonic, created in this isolated spot about 60 kilometers North of Leonora, to house the workers in a copper-silver-lead and zinc mine that was sited there. When we reached it, the town was quite impressive, rows of comfortable houses, beside sealed roads lined with healthy ornamental flowering gum trees. We found the Community Centre, with its green lawns and swimming pool. Through the windows of the Centre, we could see a bar and billiard tables, and lots of small tables and chairs. But there was dust over everything. The Centre was locked tight. Then we began to realise that everything in the town was locked up tight. The houses were silent. No cars were parked in the driveways. No children rode bikes along the footpaths. Where were all the people? We drove the streets, eventually realizing that this was a ghost town. The people had gone, probably because the mine had closed. But their town remained. Later we discovered the opencut mine had opened in 1980, but had closed in 1985. So it was just one year later that we visited. Eventually we found a house with a utility in the driveway, and caused considerable surprise to the family living there, with our unheralded arrival. They were paid to act as caretakers of the town and its buildings, against the unlikely possibility of the mine one day reopening. But apparently, there are new mines nearby, so perhaps the houses are in use again. A few days later, we discovered a ghost town of another era … Mt Ida, a settlement located about 100km ESE of Leonora. Gold was discovered in this area in the mid 1890s, and by June 1896 there were around 200 people in the area, resulting in the mining warden suggesting a townsite be declared. The townsite was gazetted in May 1898, in the great days of the Western Australian goldfields. All that remained when we visited in 1986, were a few dry-stone walls, showing where the police station had stood. Apparently most of the townspeople had lived under canvas, which naturally left no trace of their passing. But there was certainly evidence that many people had lived … and probably drunk … there. Vast areas of the site were carpeted with shards of broken glass. There must once have been immense piles of discarded bottles … of spirits, perfume, ink, medicine … of all shapes and sizes and colours. Over the years, bottle collectors had rummaged the piles, scattering them far and wide. Apparently they also deliberately destroyed what they could not carry away, seeking to increase the rarity and value of their treasure trove. So as we visited there on a sunny day, we could stand off to one side, and watch a magical inland sea, where the light danced off the waves of broken glass. According to Google, Mt Ida is now the site of a lithium mine! As we drove rthrough the area, we came across numerous active mine sites, some apparently major operations, others seemingly more of an amateur enterprise. We took photos from a distance, as we had been warned that many miners did not appreciate tourists looking over their shoulders! And as a botanist, I classed it as a good trip, as I found many of the shrubs I was interested in, in the Western Australian Goldfields and amid ongoing mining.

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