Tales from the past, The Thirsty Country.

Flinders and the Mid north, RAA (Stuart Nicol), pg248-251


Hammond was a classic town of the wheat bonanza that went wrong, but one way or another the town thrived or survived for a hundred years. Now it has just about died.

The Economic fortunes of a community were, by the early 20th century, reflected in car ownership - when times were good there were plenty of new car registrations, and visa versa. Between the two world wars Hammond had six good years and sixteen bad. Until the good years there were few cars in Hammond. Then in two years to June 1922 it's people bought seven new cars - every one the cheapest on the market, a Model-T Ford. In the next two years there were 24 new registrations, most of them a deal more expensive than the ford. It wasn't a bad collection for a community of around 200.

This Bonanza ceases abruptly when drought returned, and it is a fair bet that many of the existing vehicles were no longer seen on the districts roads. That drought was the final straw for Hammonds wheat grower. After decades on a knife-edge, the district switched to sheep.

Does that tale of drought-ravaged Willochra Plain belong only in the pages of history? The following words opened a chapter in my book, Bullock Tracks and Bitumen, and they described a journey in 1977. when the temperature was hovering at 40c and a north wind howled:

I was driving towards Hammond…which was lost in a brown haze somewhere ahead along a potholed gravel road. The dust grew thicker, hiding bare brown paddocks.

With starling swiftness we were in semi-darkness Even the edge of the road was invisible… Another dense cloud, another wait; then on again through the half light; past stony fields, empty and lifeless; past a kangaroo skeleton picked clean by crows; past a narrow sparse line of scrub and saltbush, half-hidden in the haze, low and grey and covered in fine white dust.

At last the car rolled slowly in the wide main street of Hammond.. Half a dozen miserable sheep, huddled beside the road, scampered off at the sight of a motor car and left a trail of dust behind them…

Hammond had begun as a part of the great wheat push of the 1870s. Until recently there were at least a handful of buildings occupied - even a little museum to mirror this saga of the thirsty country. Now they, too, have closed, leaving only the occasional home in the district occupied. Out of the wheat boom, the Willochra Plain has produced another ghost town.

Willochra Plain

Willochra Plain runs south to north for some 80km and in places 25km wide. It's focal point is Willochra creek, which flows onto the plain from Mount Remarkable near Melrose, then north between the ranges until it emerges on the western flank. From there is crosses the plains to lake Torrens.

On there short journey from Port Augusta in 1802 the Matthew Flinders Party climbed Mount Brown, from whose summit Willochra Plain filled their vision; what they saw was "a dead, uninteresting, flat country'.

The creek's run is around 150km. When you visualize the climate at its source - a lush landscape with some 600mm of rain per year - and then the dry salt bush plains flanking its lower reaches, you begin to understand the complexity of this creek's influence and of the plain of which it is the centerpiece. No wonder a town like Hammond could thrive one year and be hidden in the dust the next.

This southern portion on the plain and adjacent areas supported other wheat towns of the 1870's - Amyton, Bruce, Johnburge, Gorden, Stephenston and Chapmanton were among them, The chances are you never heard of any of them, for none still exist. Some are empty historic sites , a few boast a surviving building or two and others posses a few ruins.

Their continuing presence on maps is an acknowledgement of an optimism with tragic consequences. The dramatic climate change through the short length of Willochra creek reflects the teasing nature of the weather - remember that much of the northern portion of Willochra creek is further north than broken hill.

In those latitudes, the Quorn Hawker road crosses Willochra Creek, and it was near here that the town of Willochra was planned. The story behind its genesis reflects well the nature of the plain. The Land was occupied as early as 1849 by the Ragless Family, and from the start water was the principle hurdle.

This came to a head when Gorge Goyder (at time Deputy Surveyor-General) was passing Willochra on his way back to Adelaide after strenuous months of surveying in the outback. Willochra Plain was a cauldron of stifling heat and a blinding dust storm. The party was in desperate need of water, which they started to raise from a well on the Willochra property.

A perverse whim of the weather cleared the dust long enough for their action to be spotted from the homestead and they were promptly warned off the property as "they had a good many sheep to water", Goyder was less then impressed and strongly urged the Surveyor-General to lay out a town by Willochra Creek to overcome such an appalling state of affairs.

Within a month a notice of resumption had been issued for a portion of Willochra, and the township was duly planned on a part of it. Willochra lived for a while and then - in the middle of the heartless plain - it died. One end of a ruin building, its chimney rising like a tower, marks the town site. Dramatically set off by the stark vision of dead gum trees flanking the creek.

Kanyaka and Coonatto Stations

The Land which became Kanyaka station was probably first settled in the late 1840s, when a young Scotsman named Hugh Proby took on the land with and Occupational License. By 1851 he had taken out three Pastoral leases and stocked them with cattle. Two were adjacent and formed the genesis of Kanyaka, while the third was further south and in time became Coonatto.

Proby, the son of the Earl of Carysfort, was among the early monied pioneers whose investments South Australia needed badly. Though comfortably off and used to the finer things of life, he chose to head into almost unknown country to carve a new livelihood amid an untamed landscape. This was a not uncommon situation in the colony's early days.

Hugh Proby established Kanyaka as a cattle station. After a year or so the district was enveloped on day by a great thunder storm; it was violent enough to spook the cattle, which took off across the normally sun-blistered Willochra plain. Proby and an Aboriginal Stockman rode after them, in the process crossing Willochra creek. Later, when they were returning, the creek had to be re-crossed and was by then a raging torrent.

Proby tried to swim his horse across it but he was swept away and drowned. His body was later recovered and buried on a narrowing wedge of land where Willochra and Mount Arden creeks converge.

A few years later his Family, in far away Scotland, decided to produce a tablet to be placed over the grave. Suitably inscribed. It was made from granite and shipped from Scotland to Port Augusta. This monster slab (estimated to weigh a ton and a half) was hauled across the southern Flinders Ranges by bullock team and at last was laid on the grave of the young Scot - he was 24years old when he died.

Those who Followed

Of the names linked with kanyaka and Coonatto after Proby's death, the most strongly associated with them was Grant. When Alexander Grant - also from a well-to-do family - elected to try his hand at sheep farming in Australia he was givem 1000pounds to set himself up and a promise of more when he needed it.

Alexander knew nothing of sheep or of Australia, so he started be spending a few months 'working among sheep' in the scotish highlands. His destination in the southern hemisphere was chosen through name associations. His god father was Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the Colonies when South Australia was settled in 1836, so when Grant came out the Following year, he selected South Australia's Glenelg as his destination.

During the early years he dabbed in sheep in a small way and lived a tough life with 'no better home that afforded by a bark humpy'. Like Proby, the innate desire for an adventurous pioneer life over-rode the luxuries which he could have enjoyed.

When he began to seriously build a pastoral empire he sent home for his younger brother Fredrick to join him. Fredrick stayed in Australia for most of the 19th century to guide the family's affairs. Their properties were expanded enormously, including the leases Proby had held. A third brother, James, joined them and was traveling northwards to one of the stations when he and a companion vanished. Their bodies were not discovered for two years. The Kanyaka leases thus claimed three victims within five months.

James Grant's none-too-young mother traveled to south Australia after his death and spent time at Coonatto station, where Alexander had settled. From this visit in the wake of tragedy came a lasting memory of the event, for a peak in the Hourseshoe Range north of Coonatto was named after her - Mount Helen.

Alexender and Fredrick Grant built Coonatto to massive proportions. The vast and regimented infrastructure of the head station practically forming a village. Strongly threatened by Aboriginal attack in it's early days, the entire head station was ringed like a fortress with a high stone wall. F.W. Stokes was appointed manager and it time became a partner, the firm of Grant and Stokes ranking among the leading pastoral groups. Stokes Hill, near Wilpena, was named after him, and it a reasonable to suppose that Mount Stokes (close to Mount Helen in the Horseshoe range) also remembers him.

As the Eldest son, Alexander Grant in time inherited the family fortune. He returned to England to enjoy the fruits of that (though still involved in the company's ventures), while Frederick ran the affairs locally until he returned to England after more than half a century in South Australia.

The Legacy

The name Coonatto station is little known these days and may seem to have been an unexpected choice for a ship owner seeking an icon of the wool trade with which to christen one of it's ships. It was however, the name of a fine little clipper ship belonging to Orient Line, whose ships were well known in the Australia trade for more than a century.

Coonatto station was resumed for farming in the 1870's - the farmers even used the stones from it's wall to build their homes. In it's heyday this huge station (over 2300sq km) was known to see 130,000 sheep pass though the shearing shed in a season

Coonatto Station is passed some 7km beyond Hammond along the Wilmington-Carrieton road. Unlike Kanyaka it is still an operational property and therefore not able to be visited, but at least one throwback to it's heyday is clearly seen from the road. That is the former Coonatto station chapel, a bluestone structure (which, unexpectedly, has a prominent chimney) dating from the early 1860's. The presence of a station chapel reflects the magnitude of Coonatto's operations.

Adjacent to the old chapel is the present homestead. Built in the 1920's. Elsewhere, and mostly hidden from view, are other elements of the old complex - the ruins of the original homestead, restored shearers' quarters and more. A small portion of the great encircling wall had also survived.

As for Kanyaka, that became the domain of Grant's original Partner in the enterprise, John Randell Phillips. His ownership of Kanyaka lasted from the early 1850's unit the property's resumption for subdivision in the 1870's. He increased its size and was responsible for the great array of head station buildings whose ruins today form such an icon to the pastoral era.

Though Kanyaka was smaller than Coonatto, its homestead complex, beside the main road to the Blinman mines, was every bit as well known and popular with travelers. Phillips was noted for his hospitality at the 16-room homestead; so much so that he had to build a hotel nearby to divert some of the activity. Officially known as the Great Northern Hotel but was generally known as the Black Jack, after a nearby hill. A township laid out adjacent to the hotel was never built. The great two-story hotel, with over 20 rooms, stables and coach house, thrived until the late 1880'sm when the railway arrived but bypassed the district. It closed then, and its location is marked now by a small pile of rubble.

The rambling stone homestead ruins which provide such an evocative vision today could speak not just for john Philips and his dedication to the property, but also on behalf of the Grant brothers and the still-surviving Coonatto; and for the dramatic years of drought in the mid 1860's when 20,000 sheep (two-thirds of the stock) died of starvation.

Like so many spots highlighted in this text, this was no country for growing wheat, but the Government resumed Kanyaka in the 1870's for just that purpose. When that happened, a tiny remnant surrounding the homestead was retained. Phillips sold out but stayed on as manager until 1888. The new owner soon discovered that 20,000 acres was not viable for pastoralism, and the same conclusion was reached by a succession of later owners. So Kanyaka declined, the region's wheat crops failed, and gradually the northern blocks were merged again into lager properties necessary for economic success.

So the wheel turned full circle, and there is no better memorial than the Kanyaka ruins to the thread of controversy woven though so much of the mid north and Flinders Ranges - pastoralism versus wheat.

Flinders and the Mid north, RAA (Stuart Nicol), pg248-251, reproduced with perrmission from RAA of S.A.

RAA of South Australia Website