Historic gold mining town now the starting point for the Canning Stock Route and Gunbarrel Highway
There was a time, back in the 1930s, when Wiluna was a thriving mining town with a population of around 9,000 people. Today it has a single function: it serves the 4WD enthusiasts who drive through on their way north on the Canning Stock Route or east across the Gunbarrel Highway.
Wiluna is located at the southern end of the Canning Stock Route and the western end of the Gunbarrel Highway. These are some of the most dangerous and challenging drives in the world. The Canning Stock Route is 1500 km from Wiluna north to Halls Creek (or vice versa) through the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert, past vast salt lakes and moving from one well to the next. The Gunbarrel Highway travels east from Wiluna to Uluru and Yulara and is rugged enough to test the mettle of any 4WD vehicle and its occupants. It is essential to be totally self-sufficient for the entire journey and to notify the police at both the departure and arrival points.
Wiluna is located 1,127 km north-east of Perth via Kalgoorlie and 1,047 km via Mount Magnet and Sandstone. It is 183 km east of Meekatharra and 518 m above sea level.^ TOP
Origin of Name
Wiluna probably comes from the local Aboriginal word ‘weeluna’ or ‘weeloona’ which meant either ‘bush curlew’ or ‘place of winds’. Most sources opt for the latter definition.^ TOP
Things to See and Do
Wiluna Heritage Trail
There is an unusual, and genuinely fascinating, Heritage Trail which comprises a total of 30 places of interest. The way to make sense of it is to download the useful map of the town which depicts the Northern and Southern Heritage Trail loops. It can be downloaded at http://www.wiluna.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Wiluna_Town_Map.pdf.
Then download the 30 page Wiluna Walk Trail (http://www.wiluna.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Wiluna_Walk_Trail.pdf) which provides detailed information about all the places which once defined the town. There are lots of amusing stories about the "characters" who lived in the town. One favourite is the story of Ted Jessop - it relates to the local police station which was demolished in 1981: "By 1938 there were nine policemen, a detective and a Sergeant in Charge based here. At the peak of the town’s growth they had to deal with all sorts of local characters, including Ted Jessop, a wild giant of a man with a wooden leg. George Nicholson, who served here at that time, is reported to have said, “if he was causing disorderly conduct the best thing was to try and quickly tip him over – you could control him better that way!” It really was a wonderfully wild and unruly outback town.
Northern Heritage Trail Loop
Many of the places mentioned on this 17 stop loop are no longer in existence but their stories, all told on the brochure, are a reminder of the vibrancy of Wiluna when it was a prosperous mining town. Of particular interest are:
8. The Club Hotel
The Heritage Trail records: "The original Club Hotel was built way back in 1898, to serve the first prospectors and miners in the district. It was bought by Tom O’Shaughnessy (Snr) in 1918 and remained in the family right through until 1970. When “old” Tom died in the 1930s the hotel was taken over by his sons, Barney and Tom junior. The old hotel was demolished in 1933 and replaced with the L-shaped brick and iron building you see here today. As the only double-storey building left in town – and the only remaining hotel of the four that once operated here – the Club is a significant reminder of Wiluna’s chequered history. It has been the scene of many a celebration, many a wild brawl – and many a kind act, too. During the depression years hundreds of destitute men came to Wiluna in search of work. Old Tom would not see anybody go hungry, and gave dozens a good feed at night. At Christmas long tables were placed on the back veranda and men out of work were given a fine meal, waited on by the whole O’Shaughnessy family."
14. Methodist Church
The last church in town. The Heritage Trail explains: "Before 1930 ministers stationed in Meekatharra made regular visits to Wiluna. Then, as the town began to grow, the Australian Inland Mission worked with the Methodist Inland Mission to establish a “proper church” in Wiluna. This block was purchased in 1934 and the church was probably built soon afterwards. The concrete blocks have been laid in alternate rows, forming a decorative feature to what otherwise may have been a very plain building. The steeply pitched corrugated iron roof is typical of churches of that era. The 1930s also saw the arrival of an Anglican church (relocated from Day Dawn) and the construction of a Catholic church further down Scotia Street."
Southern Heritage Trail
There is a useful map of the town which depicts the Northern and Southern Heritage Trail loops. Check out and download at http://www.wiluna.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Wiluna_Town_Map.pdf. Like the Northern Heritage Trail, the Southern Heritage Trail mentions many buildings which are no longer standing. The places of interest which are still standing include:
22. Shire Offices (Former Hospital)
The Heritage Trail records, in great detail, the history of the town's hospital: "Wiluna’s original hospital was built on this site in the early 1900s. It was known as the Lake Way Hospital, and was a timber-framed structure with walls that were part corrugated iron and part whitewashed hessian. By the 1930s the local population had outgrown this old structure and a major rebuild was commenced.
The new hospital consisted of four wings forming a rectangle around a central courtyard, and joined by their wide verandas. It was a hugely expensive project for the time, with the State Government funding less than half the total cost. The Wiluna Gold Mine contributed substantially, with the remainder coming by way of subscriptions and fundraising. At its peak in 1937 it had a staff of 30, and had an average occupancy rate of 31 beds per night. At that time there were 5 doctors in town, but by 1948 the town’s population had plunged and there were none. The hospital closed in 1966, though it operated as a nursing post until 1970. It was restored by the Shire of Wiluna in 1981, and continues to serve the town as the Council’s offices and the community’s civic centre."
25. Wiluna School
The most modern building in the town is the Wiluna School - an interesting example of the power of politics. When the State Governor inspected the local school in 2006 he was horrified by its substandard structure and facilities. As a result a new school was built. As the Heritage Trail explains: "This bright modern and funky-looking school is a direct result of the furore that erupted in 2006 after the Governor-General’s visit to the "old” school near the hotel. Driven by a real sense of urgency an early decision was taken to use transportable buildings – but the way these have been integrated into this site is both unique and highly creative. The 13 modules were arranged into zones to serve particular functions (administration, pre-primary, library etc), and these zones were linked by a landscaped inner quadrangle. The integration of elevated timber decks and the eye-catching parasol roofs created a strong sense of permanency around the whole complex. These raised roof structures also help reduce the impact of extreme summer heat. Early involvement of the local community led to the bright art panels that protect the school from prevailing winds – and create such a strong street impact. The theme for these panels is the Canning Stock Route, and colours and patterns used have formed the basis of recent interpretative work around the town. The new school was handed over to the community in November 2007."
Other Attractions in the Area
Canning Stock Route
Wiluna is located at the southern end of the daunting and dangerous Canning Stock Route, a 1500 km journey through the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert, past vast salt lakes and hopping from one well to the next. It is enough to test the mettle of any 4WD vehicle and its occupants. It is essential to be totally self-sufficient for the entire journey and to notify the police at both the departure and arrival points. The journey is from Wiluna to Halls Creek (or vice versa). The original stock route was surveyed by Alfred Wernam Canning - who gave his name to the route. The proposal had been in existence since the 1890s. It had been championed by the graziers of the East Kimberley who, because their cattle suffered from ‘red water fever’, were quarantined from the West Kimberley and Pilbara. The graziers argued that a dry, overland route would kill off the ‘red water fever’ ticks. The route was surveyed in 1906–7 and the 52 vital wells (each about 30 km apart) were dug in 1908–10.
Today the route is popular with hardy 4WD enthusiasts who are happy to cross over 700 sand dunes. A useful and detailed guide titled the Canning Stock Route Outback Travellers Guide should be purchased before contemplating the journey. Check out http://www.chartandmapshop.com.au/280044/Canning-Stock-Route-Outback-Travellers-Guide/9780980515855. It also lists a series of other books about the route.
The Gunbarrel Highway traverses the Little Sandy Desert and the Gibson Desert as it travels east for 1,420 km to Yulara and Uluru. Unlike the Canning Stock Route it has a number of settlements along the way and it requires permission to access protected Aboriginal lands. The road was built by Len Beadell between 1956 and 1958. At the time there was strong criticism of the construction because it passed through lands occupied by Aborigines who had experienced little contact with Europeans.
There is a powerful description of two Aborigines seeing the graders in Douglas Lockwood's The Lizard Eaters: "Gunia and Wadi [two Pintupi men who had just come in from the Great Sandy Desert to Papunya] had one day of terror - one which still obviously affected them when they spoke about it. The first motor vehicle they had seen was a road grader in the charge of Len Beadell, of the Federal Department of Supply, who was grading a track across the desert to link Alice Springs with the Canning Stock Route, Wiluna, and eventually Perth, fifteen hundred miles away. To nomadic tribesmen who had never seen a vehicle of any kind, that grader was like a huge dinosaur coming after them through the sand hills, roaring and belching smoke and dust as it bit the red earth with its great mouth of steel, and pawed it with circular legs.
Nosepeg [the interpreter] questioned them and explained graphically that they were terrified. They ran for their lives, streaking across the dunes, never lighting a fire which might betray their whereabouts, and remained hidden for weeks. When they returned, the monstrous contraption had gone, and they were glad. But the immense track was there as a constant reminder of the devil that had passed: the imprint of the huge tractor tyres and the endless road bitten from the desert floor. They approached it while quaking with fear, afraid lest the tracks themselves should spring up to devour them. For none of these men had seen the track of anything bigger than a kangaroo."
There is an excellent and detailed website. Check out https://www.exploroz.com/treks/gunbarrel-highway. It offers maps, a detailed description of the road, information about the stopping points and the places of interest, and a little bit of history.
A Description of Wiluna in the 1930s
There is a fascinating account of life in Wiluna in the 1930s by writer-prospector James Doughty in his book Gold in the Blood. It captures the town's isolation: "If one cared to walk to the end of Seventh Street, and keep going into the trackless, sometimes stony, sometimes sandy desert, one might go a thousand miles without encountering another living soul.’
He describes the town as : "It lay in the desert on the road to nowhere, an isolated township of tin-roofed shanties, drab and dilapidated with the passing years. More than a hundred empty miles to the west was Meekatharra. Leonora was almost double that distance to the south and the east. These two faded towns were railheads, outposts on the edge of things. Wiluna lay beyond; a central point for a fan of desolation that swept out and upwards into uncomputed distances."
* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Ngangganawili Aboriginal people lived and moved through the area.
* The first European into the area was the explorer, John Forrest, who, in 1875, established a food and supplies depot at Weld Spring 230 km north of the present townsite, and built a small fort.
* Gold was first discovered by William Earl and John Connelley in 1891 and, due to a reliable water supply, the town prospered.
* In 1900 author May Vivienne noted that the town had ‘three hotels and stores’ and that watermelons, tomatoes and fresh water helped relieve the awful desert temperatures.
* Wiluna's first Police Station opened in 1901.
* The Canning Stock Route through the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert was surveyed by Alfred Wernam Canning in 1906–7. He left Wiluna in May, 1906 with 8 men, 23 camels and 2 ponies.
* A total of 52 wells (each about 30 km apart) were dug in 1908–10.
* In the 1930s Perth entrepreneur, Claude de Bernales, developed a successful extraction method and his Wiluna Gold Mines Ltd saw the town boom with the population reaching 9000.
* The first issue of the Wiluna Miner was published in 1931. A town swimming club was formed that year.
* The railway from Meekatharra reached the town in 1932.
* In 1933 the Canning Stock Route was revitalised.
* The Commonwealth Bank opened in 1934. A Methodist Church was built in town that year.
* In 1937 the School of Mines started offering night classes to the local miners.
* By 1938 the town had nine policemen, a detective and a Sergeant in charge.
* The last mob of cattle were taken down the Canning Stock Route in 1959.
* The Weeloona Hotel was demolished in 1978.
* In the 1980s the local Ngangganawili Community set up a citrus orchard and an emu farm.
* In 2007 the town's new school was opened.
* In the summer of 2012/2013, dubbed The Angry Summer by the Climate Commission, the temperature in Wiluna reached a new recorded high of 48°C.^ TOP
There is no specific Visitor Information Centre in the town. However the petrol stations and the police can offer useful advice. Make sure you download http://www.wiluna.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Wiluna_Walk_Trail.pdf if you are planning to look at the four buildings of interest in the town.^ TOP
Gunbarrel Laager, 11.8 km east of Wiluna on the Gunbarrel Highway, tel: (08) 9981 7162, 0428 817 161.^ TOP
There is a very useful local website which provides detailed information on the Canning Stock Route and Gunbarrel Highway. Check out http://www.wiluna.wa.gov.au.^ TOP