Australiana

Exploring the Ghost Towns of Outback South Australia

The state's north is home to countless abandoned settlements, and a reminder about what happens when people ignore climate science.

by Julian Morgans
15 January 2019, 8:30am

An abandoned farmhouse along the Outback Highway. All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

Head north from Port Augusta and they’re everywhere. Crumbling homes, busted windmills, lone chimneys. You can take the Stuart Highway northwest towards Coober Pedy, or the Outback Highway towards Marree, but each horizon brings just the same scattering of dead farms and lost stories.

Back in June I set out to photograph some of these abandoned settlements and I was surprised to realise how many there are. They’re all unmarked, too, without plaques or memorials explaining who settled where, or why they were drawn to isolated swaths of salt bush. There is a kind of general answer, though—one that takes us back to the 1870s, when European settlers thought South Australia could support an agricultural bread basket like that of the American Midwest. They moved out there in their thousands, only to lose farms to drought and dust storms. But the interesting thing is that they’d been warned, in a way that feels frustratingly familiar in 2019.

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The kitchen in the house pictured above. The floor was missing, or possibly just buried under decades of sheep droppings

The story starts with a surveyor named George Goyder. Born in Liverpool, Goyder emigrated to Australia in 1848 and landed a job creating land surveys for mining and railways around South Australia. Known for his attention to detail, he was eventually promoted to Surveyor-General in 1861, just as the region slid into drought.

Between 1864 and 1865 South Australia received virtually no rain. Crops wilted and the topsoil was blown away, leaving farmers petitioning the government for assistance. Officials then asked Goyder to map the drought so they could figure out who was affected enough to claim financial aid. But the map Goyder produced was far more controversial than what they’d requested, because he tried to dictate where settlers could and couldn't plant crops, indefinitely.

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Stopping to listen was a strangely unnerving experience. There was nothing but my own breathing and the wind

By studying the native vegetation, Goyder produced a map of long term rainfall. It was known as Goyder’s Line, and it traced along the South Australian coastline into Victoria. According to the map, any land south of the line could be farmed because rainfall in those areas was reliable. Any land north of the line, on the other hand—meaning most of the state—should only be used for grazing livestock. Grains, vegetables, and fruit weren’t sustainable crops in the state’s north, meaning large towns were unfeasible. And while it now seems miraculous, the government sided with Goyder and the Waste Lands Alienation Act was officiated in 1872: allowing farmers to only purchase land on credit if they were buying south of the line.

No sooner had Goyder’s Line become law, however, than the drought broke and the state was drenched in rain. For most of the 1870s it poured and the rivers ran and South Australian agriculture boomed, while real estate prices soared. As most of the state’s coast had already been settled and subdivided there were angry calls to open up the north, and Goyder’s Line became known as Goyder's Line of Foolery.

To us in 2019, the arguments against Goyder take a familiar tone. There were sceptics who argued that it was impossible for him to make accurate predictions because no one had yet kept detailed rain records. There were also the straight-up conspiracy theorists who claimed he’d been paid off by southern pastoralists so their land values remained high. And nearly everyone agreed that Goyder’s Line flew in the face of a popular belief that the “rain follows the plow.”

The thinking here was that regularly plowed soil releases moisture into the air, which with the added propagation of water-holding plants saturates the sky and encourages rain. Today this theory sounds about as laughable as chemtrails, but in the 1870s it was considered firm science. And so after just two seasons of rain the Act was repealed and Goyder’s Line was forgotten.

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Some other mystery ruin near Beltana

A land boom erupted as settlers began flooding north, buying allotments that were briefly and misleadingly green. Broadacre crops were put in and towns were carved out, but of course they didn’t last. The good rainfall of the 1870s and early 1880s was a climatic anomaly, just as Goyder had warned, and by turn of the century farms everywhere were failing.

Today, many of South Australia’s abandoned towns and farmhouses are a product of this period, but it’s important to point out that there were other factors at play. As a 2009 article in Australian Geographic points out, the state’s unusually small holdings (single square miles) were too small to be easily profitable, which only became a problem when rainfall dipped. But by and large history sided with Goyder, and many of the people who thought that a combination of technology and denialism would prevail, ended up losing everything.

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Volunteers working to preserve the Transcontinental Hotel in Farina

Across the state there’s probably no better case study than the town of Farina. The place got its name from the Latin word for “wheat,” which was both a middle finger to Goyder’s supporters and an example of how farmers saw the region’s future. The town was some 300 kilometers north of the line, but throughout the wet years of the 1880s Farina boomed. At its peak it had a population of 600 and supported two breweries, a bakery, two hotels, five blacksmiths, a school, and a brothel. But when the rain stopped things quickly fell apart and by the 1930s the writing was on the wall. As one visitor described at the time, Farina seemed to be “the last place on earth God made and then he turned around and threw stones at it.”

When the railway was closed in the 1980s, Farina became a ghost town. Sand blew in from what were once fields and lay in drifts around the buildings. Roof frames rotted and collapsed, leaving just walls. And when I first visited in 2006 the place had basically returned to desert, with nothing but a row of facades to mark what was once the main street.

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It's surprising the amount of volunteers who travel from around Australia to patch together a broken town

Apparently I wasn’t the only person to find Farina affecting. The place is now undergoing preservation, thanks to a grey nomad from Victoria named Tom Harding who passed through in 2008 and took the town on as a personal restoration project.

"If we left it like [it was] our grandchildren would not really have an understanding of what an early inland Australian township was like," he told the ABC. And so every winter since 2010, Tom and his small army of volunteers spend a few weeks stabilising walls, installing signage—and to my way of thinking, mopping up all the vibe that made Farina so intriguing.

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Some tourist taking rubble-porn photos in Farina. It's funny to drive hours into the outback just to realise hoards of others are doing the same

I realised while driving around, taking photos, that it was this melancholy that drew me to the region. There’s a special mood about rural South Australia, that I guess Tom Harding responded to in his own way, along with the tourists snapping photos of Farina.

I kept thinking all day how lonely it must have been to live in these places; these houses with uninterrupted views to the horizon. And that’s the mood captured in diary entries from Farina’s residents. They all talk about the infuriating whistle of the wind, and how little there was to do at night. The district nurse of Farina, a woman named Claire Mincham, eventually got so sick of the quiet that she “sent down to Cawthornes for a banjo/mandolin, and taught myself to play that.”

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No fence, no driveway. Just the remains of a house in a vast paddock

In records from the Farina postmaster, a guy named Arnold Dawson describes how it was the dust that got to him. “A fence six feet from the windows of the post office became invisible,” he writes of a dust storm in the 1930s. “Each couple of days a four gallon tin of sand was swept from each room and at times it was necessary to shelter beneath a sheet to breathe.”

These are the kind of lives that people led on this expansive plain of abandoned farmland, where a strange energy seems to still pool inside empty homes. It’s sad, but it’s also a pretty useful picture of weather fluctuation, and how experts with annoying news are usually right. Even if we put a lot of effort into ignoring them.

Julian is on Twitter and Instagram

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