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Exploring Wiluna: Western Australia's Historic Goldfields Town and Its Nomadic Heritage
Words and Images by: Colin and Prue Kerr

As we travelled through the Northern Goldfields just over 500 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, we couldn’t help getting tied up with the interesting Aboriginal and European history of Wiluna. Yes, it might be just another of Western Australia’s small goldrush towns – but in fact Wiluna has many more interesting tales that visitors will not find anywhere else in Australia.

Image: Statue of Warri and Yatungka

The Fascinating Story of Warri and Yatungka: The Last Desert Nomads

One of the first things in town that quickly grabbed our attention was the story of two now quite famous desert Aboriginals. 

Widely recognised as the last of the desert nomads to give up their traditional lifestyle and ‘come in’ to the welcoming Outback community of Wiluna, Warri and Yatungka left behind a life of solitary desert exile which they had endured for most of their lives.

This Outback story of love and survival made news around the world in 1977 as the ‘old couple’ reluctantly gave up the life they had known together in the vast Gibson Desert of Australia’s western State.

This story in fact has its beginnings back in the 1930s when Warri and Yatungka met and fell in love. Tribal law however forbade them from marrying because they were the wrong match according to the ‘skin group’ law of the Mandildjara desert Aboriginals.

The consequences for breaking this law in those days was often a punishment of severe physical injury or even death, and so these star-crossed lovers ran away together in the middle of the night from their tribal families … telling no-one of their plans.

Image: Rabbit Proof Fence

Over the years in their world of desert isolation, the couple had three children. Their daughter died at a young age but their two sons survived and eventually returned to their estranged Mandildjara family, leaving their now ageing parents to once again wander naked and alone from waterhole to scant waterhole, living off the land. Despite the couple’s continued defiance of tribal law and their clandestine departure years ago, the Mandildjara elders had not forgotten them; nor indeed had they ever stopped being worried and concerned about them.

Over the years, most of these struggling desert people progressively gravitated to urban settlements, but the couple continued their life in isolation. It was not until 1977 when several years of drought had dried up virtually all the known waterholes, that the elders in Wiluna became anxious for their welfare and initiated a search party out into the vast Gibson Desert to find them. After several weeks the couple were found, still inseparable, but physically very weak and close to starvation.

After much discussion (including the promise that they had been forgiven for their ‘indiscretion’ and there would be no retribution against them) they were persuaded to reluctantly leave their desert home.

On arrival in Wiluna they were greeted with much joy and relief by their extended families, and another real bonus for them was their reuniting with their sons Ngunyunytjarra and Rumi.

Being the last of the Mandildjara tribe to ‘come in’ from the desert, and now safe and being cared for by their welcoming family, this still deeply-in-love old couple are believed to have been the very last (although this is possibly challenged elsewhere in Australia) of Australia’s desert nomads leading a traditional lifestyle that had stretched back more than 40,000 years.

Sadly, having never fully recovered from their weakened condition, nor completely adapting to their new community life, Warri and Yatungka both passed away just two years later within a few weeks of each other.

Today, standing proudly at the entry to the town that welcomed them in from the desert, is a splendid sculpture of the couple together with a plaque briefly recording their story. Warri, tall and thin, is proudly standing upright looking over the country; whilst Yatungka sits beside him with a coolamon (dish) full of quondong fruit.

At the time of our visit (winter 2022) the sculpture of Warri was missing the spear he was originally carrying. It seems it had been broken off and presumably souvenired by someone. There are local plans to have the spear replaced.

Located almost in the geographic centre of Western Australia, we found on our recent visit to the town that the remote community of Wiluna has, in addition to the ‘old couple’ story, many other interesting and historic facts that kept us busy over a couple of days checking them out.

Exploring Wiluna: A Goldfields Town with Rich History

To begin with, any historic account of Wiluna necessarily must have two parallel threads – one detailing the European history and the other recognising the infinitely longer story of the Mandildjara (commonly referred to as Martu) people and their connection with the region.

For the Martu, this place was simply an outlying part of a vast tract of ‘country’ stretching into the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts. They knew the area well and regularly passed through here, according to the dictates of seasonal conditions (waterholes, hunting and gathering) and visiting culturally significant sites.

European involvement with the area began when surveyor Lawrence Wells recorded aspects of the region in 1892. Four years later prospectors Woodley, Wotton and Lennon discovered gold just a few kilometres south-east of the present town site.

Unlike many other WA Goldfields towns, the population of Wiluna did not immediately see a rapid ‘goldrush’ increase – with the town only peaking to around 600 by the early 1900s.

It was not until the advent of new mining technologies in the 1930s that Wiluna started to boom. By 1932 in excess of 9,000 lived here, with town ‘suburbs’ stretching three kilometres to the south of the present town site.

By the mid-1940s however, when the Wiluna Gold Mine (once the biggest mine in WA) closed, the population shrank. By 1953 there were less than 400 residents. The town reached its lowest point 10 years later with only 90 still here.

Today with renewed local mining activity in the district (including nickel, gold, uranium and other minerals – mostly FIFO operations) and, more particularly, growing numbers of Martu people, the population has increased to around 700.

Image: Canning Stock Route

Visiting Wiluna: Key Attractions and Historic Sites

Clearly these days Wiluna, despite its Outback location, is not the isolated community it once was. As many of our readers will know, at the forefront of its attraction in recent years is 4WD adventurers starting or finishing the historic and quite challenging Canning Stock Route and/or the original Gunbarrel Highway. Wiluna strategically sits where these two Outback trails join and is a welcoming first or last piece of civilisation and service point for travellers undertaking these great adventures.

Heading north from Wiluna the Canning Stock Route (the longest stock route in the world) is an amazing 1,800 kilometres 4WD desert trail following the stock route surveyed by Alfred Canning in 1906/1907 to bring cattle from the Kimberley to markets in the southern part of the State. After the establishment of over 50 wells and watering points along the way, the first large mob of cattle was brought down the new stock route in 1911 and the last cattle drive was carried out in 1959.

Of course, the Gunbarrel Highway has a very different history – having been surveyed and created by Len Beadell who, with his road-making team, was commissioned to develop a system of access roads out from Woomera in 1955 (and into the 1960s) as part of the atomic weapons and rocket testing operations taking place at that time. Len claimed, during construction of this trail, that he tried to make sections of it ‘as straight as a gunbarrel’.

Coming back to the town’s welcoming reputation, a clever piece of promotion is a colourful sign at the town entry which reads ‘Pukurlarrinpalatjungku – welcome – we are happy to see you’.

Looking around town today there is clearly a feeling of civic pride with most of the old shanty town buildings, structures and ruins all cleared away – including virtually all of the relics from the sprawling ‘suburbs’ from the 1930s; now all gone.

The history of many of these historic features has not been lost however, with a splendid series of colourful ‘goanna plaques’ located at many places around town telling a brief history and giving a fascinating insight into life in the town over the years. Visitors here are, in fact, encouraged to pick up a local brochure and follow a couple of well-thought-out town heritage trails leading to the main points of interest. Not to be missed along the way is a visit to the wonderful Canning-Gunbarrel Discovery Centre where there are excellent displays and information on both the Canning Stock Route and Gunbarrel Highway; together with souvenirs and other information about the Martu people, the town, its history and local attractions, as well as local stations and mining history. Something I must mention here is that whilst at the Discovery Centre, visitors are offered a free cup of coffee – yes, real coffee (we’re talking latte, cappuccino, long black, mocha; plus tea or hot chocolate). Indeed it is worthwhile calling in here just for the coffee … and the excellent displays are a real bonus!

Adjacent to the centre is another great attraction worth visiting – the Tjukurba Art Gallery, where there is a wonderful display of high quality paintings by local Aboriginal Birriliburu artists, some of whose works have been exhibited around Australia and overseas. Quite often here it is possible to stand and watch some of the artists at work – a really enjoyable experience. Many of the quality artworks on display are also available to purchase with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars up to several thousand.

Image: Swimming pool

A few other places worth a special mention include the splendid modern town swimming pool, the historic morgue (once the local hospital’s operating theatre), an old WWII bomb shelter (can you imagine the whole town climbing down there in the event of a Japanese air raid?), the old pioneer cemetery (1893 to 1903) and the colourful display of silk and plastic flowers seen adorning many of the graves at the current cemetery. At each of these cemeteries, there are many sad and quite tragic stories to be read. The new cemetery includes the white posts and rails around the restored graves of Warri and Yatungka. Not far out of town is Lake Violet (rough access track) which would be quite a sight when full after rain. And there’s a beaut free camping or picnic spot at North Pool – a lovely white river gum lined permanent waterhole north of town. The Canning Stock Route Well No. 1 is also worth a visit – approximately seven   kilometres from town and accessible to all vehicles.

Image: The old morgue

Other services around town include a Post Office, two general stores (with a limited range of fruit, vegetables and basic food supplies), two fuel outlets (one of which is a 24-hour facility), gas bottle exchange (no refills are available), and basic mechanical and tyre services.  Telstra mobile phone service (and internet) is available in town, but is limited or non-existent elsewhere in this remote area.

All too soon it was time to reluctantly say farewell to Wiluna, but before setting off we had a bit of fun photographing our 4WD and caravan ‘posing’ beside the signs showing the beginning/end of the Canning and Gunbarrel trails – not for us to actually drive on however, this time! Our plans from here on this trip were to continue our wanderings through some of the back roads through the Northern Goldfields and see what other enjoyable places we could find.

Wiluna … it might be remote, but for the many travellers out there it is truly worth the effort to call in and say ‘hello’ to this historic and very welcoming community.

Image: Old railway goods shed

Travel Tips for Visiting Wiluna, WA

There is a 72-hour free rest area for travellers located in town adjacent to the Discovery Centre and at the time of our visit (winter 2022) there were current plans to set up a caravan park in town, but timing was unknown. 

The Gunbarrel Laager Travellers Rest – 13 kilometres east of town – has donga style accommodation as well as a caravan, RV and camping area with a shared kitchen and ablutions – phone 08 9981 7161. 

Access roads:
From Meekatharra – mostly wide gravel road in good condition with a number of sealed sections along the way. 

From Leinster – all sealed Goldfields Highway. Wiluna is 535 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie and 135 kilometres east of Meekatharra. 

Wiluna Heritage Trail brochures are available at the Discovery Centre – phone 08 9981 8000. 

Further information:
Wiluna Shire
Phone: 08 9981 8009

Category: Features
Written: Tue 14 May 2024
Printed: May, 2024
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