WA ghost towns a window to our past

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which forced locals to abandon the Ukrainian city. But WA has its own fair share of ghost towns. Saxon Durrant investigates.

Thankfully, there has never been a nuclear power station meltdown in WA. But there are still more than 50 sites around the state where nothing but yellow rocks and wildlife rule.

Kookynie 2

Kookynie. Photo: Goldfields Tourism Network

Most of these towns are relics of a bygone era, when thousands rushed to the outback as part of the famous gold rushes.

Hidden away from public eye, these sites capture the essence of outback life; the heat, the desert and the iconic Australian wildlife running rampant.

The abandoned towns, many of them now a century past their prime, serve as important tourist sites for the Goldfields region, with towns like Gwalia, Kookynie, Mt Morgan and Kunanalling attracting visitors from across the globe.

University of Western Australia archaeologist Shaun Winters recognises the history these sites hold for WA, but shies away from the term “ghost towns”, instead prefering to call them “abandoned”.

“Basically, what they have is significant material remains of a really important part of Western Australia,” Winters says.

“The whole of the population should be able to appreciate and enjoy them”.

And WA’s Goldfields have some world-famous links. US President Herbert Hoover was involved in the management of the Gwalia mine, while the northern settlement of Wiluna is just one starting point for the Canning Stock Route to Halls Creek – one of the most challenging four-wheel-drive tracks in the world.

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Gwalia. Photo: Goldfields Tourism Network

But tourists seeking a comfortable road trip shouldn’t be put off. Despite the remoteness, a four-wheel-drive is not neccessary.

The Golden Quest Discovery Trail, managed by Goldfields Tourism, allows tourists to explore the area without having to fork out for a new vehicle.

Goldfields Tourism manager Neil McGlin says the route, which runs from Coolgardie to Laverton, is for people who want to explore at their own pace.

“The gravel roads are usually kept in pretty good condition, so mostly it’s pretty much two-wheel-drive access with care,” McGlin says.

But why are people so interested in driving thousands of kilometres for what is essentially a collection of old buildings?

Winters says it’s all about the idea of uncovering a time capsule.

“It’s that idea of a time capsule, that people lived there once and that they’ve left,” Winters says.

“As human beings, we’re interested in how other human beings lived.”

He says these towns are unique because people just walked away, leaving important material evidence of their lives behind.

Mt Morgan. Photo: Goldfields  Tourism Network

“When you ask people to self report on the rubbish they throw out, they underestimate all of the bad stuff. So, they’ll say I only drink two beers a week but when you look at their rubbish there will be three cartons of stubbies there so the material record is a really truthful record of how people lived,” he says.

“It’s the history of the town and the fact you’ve got the physical reminder of the past which can then provide a focus for interpretation.

“All these places have hidden history associated with them. They have the things that don’t make it into the history books and the documenatary records.

“The documenatary record is a middle class record and leaves out an enormous amount of people in our past.”