Echoes of the Past

Chris Whitelaw — 4 June 2020
Ghost towns are a fascinating part of history as they detail the times things didn’t work out. Here are some to visit and explore.

Australia’s history is littered with booms and busts and every state has its ‘ghost towns’. Many were bustling mining towns or centres of commerce before misfortune or fickle circumstance rendered them obsolete. For one reason or another their populations just drifted away. 

A few such towns have experienced a revival, but most languish in quiet oblivion, with empty streets, forlorn hovels and a dry pub with a drooping veranda. The sun-bleached timbers, crumbling masonry and rusting relics have a story to tell and despite their eerie stillness, or perhaps because of it, many of these melancholy places attract tourists who want to hear it. It’s not known exactly how many ghost towns we have, but here are ten that offer a tangible glimpse of the past. 


In 1887, explorer David Lindsay saw what appeared to be 'rubies' near Paddy's Rockhole in the East MacDonnell Ranges, triggering a rush of prospectors who found gold instead. The town that grew around the diggings was the first significant European settlement in Central Australia, supporting 400 residents in its heyday. But conditions were harsh — temperatures were extreme and there was little water. Supplies were expensive as they had to be brought from Oodnadatta, 650km away. The gold rush was short-lived, but the town struggled on when the SA Government built a battery and cyanide works to extract the gold in 1898. The battery closed in 1933 and the settlement was converted to an Aboriginal mission until it was moved in 1952. The 5000ha Reserve and its well-preserved buildings were listed on the Register of the National Estate in 2014 and are maintained by the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Where: 110km east of Alice Springs along the Ross Highway and Arltunga Road.

When: Accessible all year round but best in the cooler months (April–September).

Do: Bushwalking, picnicking, wildlife spotting, four-wheel driving, self-guided walks, ranger-guided tours, fossicking (with a permit on the nearby Fossicking Reserve).

Stay: Camping is not permitted in the Reserve but is available at nearby Trephina Gorge Nature Park (2WD access) or N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park (4WD access), both with basic bush camping facilities. Commercial accommodation is available at Ross River Resort (08) 8956 9711 or Hale River Homestead (08) 8956 9993.

More info: 


Gypsum mining began at Marion Lake during the late 19th century. In 1913, a Melbourne-based company owned by William Innes began operations near another salt lake and built a wooden tramway to convey bagged gypsum to ships at nearby Stenhouse Bay. The mining development grew into a town known as Inneston, which expanded rapidly with the addition of crushing plants and factories to process chalk and plaster. Workers and their families were accommodated in simple cottages made from limestone and more substantial homes were built for the manager and the engineer. 

When it was proclaimed a town in 1927, the flourishing community numbered almost 200 with a butcher, baker, bank and post office, as well as recreational facilities that included a public hall, tennis court and cricket pitch. Falling gypsum prices during the Great Depression rendered the mine uneconomical and it was closed in 1930. Inneston was abandoned and is now a protected heritage precinct that comprises the remains of stores, stables, the crushing plant, tramway and other infrastructure. Some of the residences have been restored and are available for hired accommodation.

Where: 300km west of Adelaide within the Innes National Park at the south-west tip of Yorke Peninsula.

When: Accessible and can be enjoyed all year round.

Do: Surfing, fishing, scuba diving, bushwalking, birdwatching, sightseeing and photography.

Stay: Camping for caravans and campers is available in the national park, with accommodation and a caravan park in nearby Marion Bay, as well as renovated lodges within the precinct.

More info: 


Even if you've never been to this tiny village you've probably seen it featured in more than 140 films, television shows and commercials, including Mad Max 2, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Razorback. Miners flocked to the region in the early-1880s after two men struck a lode of silver while drilling a well on Thackaringa Station. A settlement established on Umberumberka Creek grew to a bustling town of 3000 people, connected by a privately-owned tramway to the South Australian rail network at Cockburn. However, the town was soon eclipsed by Broken Hill, where richer silver-lead-zinc deposits were discovered (and have since proved to be the largest in the world). Silverton declined as families moved to the new mines, many taking their houses with them. 

Today, fewer than 50 people live in the town, which is a popular tourist destination. Several substantial buildings remain, such as the gaol (now a museum), the Municipal Chambers, a church and the charismatic Silverton Hotel. Several artists live in or near the town and maintain galleries in miners’ cottages.

Where: 26km from Broken Hill in far west New South Wales.

When: Accessible all year round but best in the cooler months (April–September).

Do: Arts and craft galleries, Pioneer Museum, Mad Max Museum, Silverton Hotel, heritage walking trail, Mundi Mundi Lookout, Penrose Park Recreation Area, Day Dream Mine tour, camel treks, Silverton Historic Cemetery, Umberumberka Reservoir.

Stay: Penrose Park Recreational Area has powered caravan and camping sites with amenities. Other accommodation is available in private cottages and motel-style units at the hotel.

More info: 


After its launch on the London Stock Exchange in 1898, the Sons of Gwalia Mine went on to become the largest Western Australian gold mine outside Kalgoorlie, and the deepest of its kind in Australia (at 1080m). It produced 2.644 million ounces (82.24 tonnes) of gold, valued at A$4.55 billion in present day prices. One of its managers was 23-year old Herbert Hoover, later 31st President of the United States of America (1929–1933). The nearby town’s population peaked at 1200, settling in rustic shanties around a general store and co-operative, several churches, a school and recreation facilities that included the state's first public swimming pool and the first state-owned hotel (the State Hotel, 1903). 

By the early 1960s, the mine struggled to maintain profitability and, after a fire damaged the headframe, it closed on 26 December 1963. Virtually overnight, the town’s inhabitants departed. Today, Gwalia ghost town stands eerily frozen in time, exactly as it was the day it was abandoned.

Where: 4km from Leonora, 830km north-east of Perth, in WA’s Northern Goldfields. 

When: Accessible all year round but best visited in the cooler months (April–September).

Do: Gwalia Museum, Hoover House, Assay Office, open-cut mine lookout, self-guided tour of the ghost town.

Stay: At Gwalia, Mine Manager’s residence (Hoover House) provides B&B accommodation. There is also a wide range of accommodation in nearby Leonora, including a caravan park.

More info: 


The small community of Branxholm hugs the Ringarooma River in a lush valley surrounded by thickly forested hills. It is a key waypoint on ‘Trail of the Tin Dragon’, a themed tourist route commemorating the contribution of Chinese immigrants to 19th century tin mining in Tasmania. Tin deposits were discovered in 1874 and within three years Branxholm grew from a sleepy hamlet to a bustling shanty town of 300, mostly Chinese, miners working leases in the surrounding hills. Although tourism and timber have replaced tin as the town’s economic mainstay, several attractions pay homage to its mining heritage. The present-day ‘Red Bridge’ — with scarlet painted balustrades adorned with Chinese calligraphy — replaced the original one, which was the scene of a violent confrontation between Chinese and disaffected European miners vying for local leasing rights. The pleasant Henry Ah Ping Heritage Walk explores the remains of an alluvial tin mine, now reclaimed by tree ferns, myrtle and sassafras forest, while the Briseis Water Race Walk traces the course and remains of an engineering marvel stretching 48km to the impressive Mt Paris Dam on the Cascade River.

Where: 270km north of Hobart, 93km north-east of Launceston on the Tasman Highway.

When: Accessible and can be enjoyed all year round.

Do: Mount Horror Forest Reserve, fishing, scenic driving, bushwalking, Mount Paris Dam, Imperial Hotel, Trail of the Tin Dragon Interpretation Marker, Briseis Water Race Walking Track, Henry Ah Ping Heritage Walk, the Red Bridge.

Stay: Free camping area at Centenary Park, with powered sites, camp kitchen/BBQ shelter and toilet/shower facilities; Imperial Hotel, Branxholm Lodge, Branxholm Farm Stay.

More info: 


During the 1960s, Canberra was the focus of Australia’s participation in the NASA space program. Two tracking stations were established in what is now the Namadgi National Park, south of Canberra, at Orroral Valley (1964) and Honeysuckle Creek (1967). A third station was built further south at Tidbinbilla (1965) and is the only one that continues to operate. 

The Orroral Tracking Station supported earth-orbiting satellites and played important roles in the Apollo moon missions, the joint Apollo-Soyuz project and the Columbia space shuttle flights. At the height of its operation Orroral had more than 200 staff and was the largest tracking station outside of the United States. It closed in 1985. 

Honeysuckle Creek was the prime Australian tracking station for the Apollo lunar program and is renowned for providing the historic first pictures of astronauts walking on the moon. It later supported the Skylab missions and was part of the Deep Space Network. It was decommissioned in 1981. In 1990, all structures at both sites were removed, leaving only footprints and foundations. 

Where: 60km south of Canberra CBD in the Namadgi National Park.

When: Accessible and may be enjoyed all year round.

Do: Camping, bushwalking, picnicking, wildlife spotting, self-guided walks of historical sites.

Stay: Camping, with unpowered sites for caravans, campervans and trailers, is offered throughout the Namadgi National Park, including Honeysuckle Campground and Orroral Campground. Permits are required and fees apply. A wide range of commercial accommodation is available in Canberra.

More info: 


Small quantities of gold had been found near Cracow Station between 1850 and 1916 but the area wasn’t seriously prospected until 1931. In that year, lucrative returns from a reef called ‘Surprise’ sparked a gold rush and a town that adopted the station’s name. Gradually, the individual mining leases were bought out and consolidated as the Golden Plateau Mine, which sustained the town until it closed in 1976. 

At its peak, Cracow was the Banana Shire's largest town, with a population of more than 2000, a host of thriving businesses, a courthouse, a hospital and a school. The mine was re-opened in 2004 using modern technology to recover gold from deep underground. But hopes this enterprise would breathe new life into Cracow have gone unrealised, and the town has continued its decline. The only business still operating is the quirky Cracow Hotel, where publican Fred Brophy (and the resident ghost) welcome travellers and thirsty miners.

Where: 50km south-east of Theodore along the Theodore-Eidsvold Road, 485km north-west of Brisbane.

When: Accessible and may be enjoyed all year round.

Do: Camping, fishing, picnicking, self-guided Historical Walk, Heritage Centre (old Courthouse), Fred Brophy’s Boxing Tent (May), Camboon Campdraft (September).

Stay: Bush camping at ‘Cracow Beach’ on the Dawson River, free camping opposite the Cracow Hotel, small caravan park with powered sites and amenities (gold coin donation). Commercial accommodation is also available at Theodore.

More info: 


Newnes is nestled deep in Wolgan Valley, flanked by dramatic sandstone escarpments on the edge of Wollemi National Park, part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. After early settlement by pastoralists and timber-getters, prospector Campbell Mitchell discovered oil shale in the valley and began mining it in 1873. Thirty years later, the Commonwealth Oil Corporation (COC) developed major works on the south bank of the Wolgan River to mine the shale, extract the oil and refine it. At the time of its construction, this complex was the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Named after Sir George Newnes, chairman of the COC, a town was established close to house the more than 1000 people at the peak of operations. 

When operating costs and the availability of cheaper crude oil forced the mines’ closure in 1932, the buildings were dismantled, and the equipment was transported to nearby Glen Davis. All that remains of the town is the old Newnes Hotel and features of the industrial complex that are slowly being reclaimed by nature. The site was listed on the Register of the National Estate in 1995.

Where: 200km north-west of Sydney via Lithgow, Lidsdale and the Wolgan Valley Road (this latter suitable for large caravans).

When: Accessible all year but best visited in Spring and Autumn. 

Do: Camping, swimming, bushwalking, photography, rock climbing, abseiling, mountain biking, self-guided heritage walking trails, historic Newnes Hotel, Glow Worm Tunnel, Mystery Mountain.

Stay: Unpowered camping for caravans and camper trailers in the national park and the privately-owned campground behind the hotel. Cabin accommodation is available at the Newnes Hotel Historic Wilderness Retreat and there are many hotels, motels and B&Bs in Lithgow.

More info: 


The tiny township of Walhalla clings to the banks of Stringers Creek on a road that winds through a picturesque steep-sided valley. In 1862, alluvial gold was discovered, triggering a rush that unearthed Cohens Reef. This proved to be one of Australia’s richest lodes and would be mined by several companies for more than 50 years, including the Walhalla Mining Company which lent its name to the early settlement. 

When the alluvial deposits were exhausted, mining operations followed the veins deeper underground and into the steep valley walls, an expensive and complex process that saw small claimholders replaced by big enterprises. Long Tunnel Mining Company worked the richest mine, producing over 30 tonnes of gold on its way to becoming Victoria’s fifth largest mine of the era. Walhalla prospered, its 4000 residents housed in ‘suburbs’ that sprawled across the gullies and ridge-tops, served by scores of shops, a dozen hotels and, belatedly, a railway connection to Moe. But eventually gold ran out, mines closed, and people departed. Today, Walhalla has only 20 permanent residents living among a cluster of refurbished heritage-listed buildings that attract large numbers of tourists, bringing new life to the town.

Where: 180km from Melbourne along the Princes Freeway via Moe and Tourist Route 91.

When: Accessible all year round but best in the warmer months.

Do: Fossicking, fishing, bushwalking, self-guided Heritage Walk, The Star Hotel, Windsor House, The Band Rotunda, Walhalla Goldfields Railway train ride, Long Tunnel Extended Mine tour, Walhalla Corner Store museum.

Stay: Camping, house rentals and hotels in Walhalla, motel-type accommodation and B&Bs in nearby Rawson Village and Erica.

More info: 


By day, the Port Arthur Historic Site is a picturesque 40ha parkland dotted with a mixture of genteel residences, austere sandstone buildings and grim ruins. By night, it’s one of the creepiest places in Tasmania. 

Since the 1870s, thousands of eerie occurrences and apparitions have been witnessed and documented, revealing a chilling cauldron of paranormal activity. Named in honour of Lt-Governor George Arthur, the settlement began as a logging camp but expanded to become a penitentiary in 1833. For the next 44 years it housed the hardest criminals from England, repeat offenders from other Australian prisons and stubborn rebels against colonial authority. Port Arthur was a “hell on earth”, a brutally harsh and inescapable prison, administering unremitting hard labour on near-starvation rations or solitary confinement tantamount to psychological torture. In desperation, some prisoners committed murder, to be punished on the gallows, to escape this inhumane captivity. The cemetery (‘Island of the Dead’) is the final resting place of some 1500 inmates. Today, it is one of Australia’s best known and most visited historical sites, offering what is unquestionably Tasmania’s premier ghost tour experience. 

Where: On the Tasman Peninsula, 95km south-east of Hobart.

When: Year-round destination.

Do: Ghost Tour (night only), self-guided tour, scenic driving, wilderness cruising, hiking, Eaglehawk Neck, Port Arthur Lavender Farm, McHenry Distillery, Federation Chocolate Factory.

Stay: A wide range of accommodation is available in or near Port Arthur, including hotels, lodges, guesthouses and the BIG4 Holiday Park for caravans and camping.

More info: 


Travel Ghost towns Arltunga Inneston Silverton Gwalia Branxholm Orroral Cracow Newnes Walhalla Port Arthur


Chris Whitelaw and Supplied