While the last official inhabitant left Farina, South Australia in the 1960s, this formerly bustling transport hub had given up the ghost long before. But now, in May each year, this remote Australian ghost town receives another breath of life, delivered by enthusiastic volunteers drawing upon historical records. Melanie Harwood explains the role of the National Archives in reviving the spirit of outback Farina.
On the rocky crust of a gibber plain along the Oodnadatta Track, smoke twists upwards from the stone ruins of an abandoned town. Through the mirage, shadowy figures play a far-off game of cricket, and the cheers of jubilant players are punctuated by the tapping of iron on stone. The smell of baking bread mingles with dry earth, and a rusting old Holden pushes up against the shifting sands. It’s a skeleton of a town, its rusting iron fences barely protecting the headstones of residents past; a grader, abandoned almost a century ago, serves as a monument to the optimism of Australia’s outback pioneers.
It’s an eerie outlook, and a once a year event. Not since the early 20th century has the town had 70 inhabitants. They are volunteers, and they bring human spirit and knowledge gained from archival material to Farina each May as part of a long-term project to rebuild the town and tell the stories of its past.
In the middle of nowhere
Farina is 650 kilometres north of Adelaide. Once a stop along the great northern train line or ‘Ghan’, it is a true ghost town. Far off the tourist path, between the Strzelecki and Birdsville tracks, Farina was once a thriving town with 300 inhabitants.
In the early 1880s, well placed at the end of the railway line, Farina was possibly the most significant transport hub in South Australia. The stepping-off point for cameleers, teamsters, pastoralists and shearers working northwards along the Birdsville, Strzelecki and Oodnadatta tracks, Farina supported two hotels, a police station, bakery, brewery, school, saddler, sports grounds and churches.
There was a multicultural flavour to the town. The Aboriginal community camped in ‘wurlies’ along the creek; Chinese farmers cultivated fresh vegetables; Afghans carried supplies to outlying stations on their camel trains. The Muslim community prayed in a corrugated shelter overlooking the railway station, which survived the winds and the sand for a decade or two.
High hopes for Farina
Initially called Government Gums, Farina was founded on ‘a few wells and waterholes’. An optimistic governor, Sir William Jervois, later renamed the town ‘Farina’ (the Latin word for wheat), born from high hopes that the settlement would become the furthermost town of the South Australian wheat belt. Ironically, Farina failed to dispatch a single bag of wheat.
In 1884, when the railway was extended further north to Maree, the town began its inevitable decline. Grand town plans and an ‘Intercontinental Hotel’ couldn’t save it. Farina’s relevance as a transport hub quickly diminished, and it soon became ‘just another stop on the way’. The town’s fate was sealed in the 1960s when the railway moved to the less flood-prone, more direct and easier grades to the west.
Hardship in life and death
If a ghost town is defined by desertion and hardship, Farina fits the bill. The town’s records of births and deaths, and its historic cemetery, tell a story of isolation, extreme hardship, drought and disease. The isolation and extreme heat are said to have driven many inhabitants to suicide.
Photographs from the 1920s and 1930s show women, men, and children in formal attire, boots, ruffled collars, hats and stockings: impractical apparel for a searing hot and dry climate where lack of water was a constant battle.
The arid gibber plain, with its shifting sands, could consume buildings overnight, and there were constant plagues of vermin, from bugs and beetles to rabbits and goats. There is a report of schoolboys removing ‘63 dead rabbits from under the school’ infested with maggots that were ‘the largest ever seen’.
Restoring the town
Several years ago, caravanner and tour operator Tom Harding visited Farina, a skeleton of the town that had existed more than a century before. He was intrigued by the place and its history, and was inspired to restore the ghost town. Almost 70 volunteers now visit Farina every year to work on the restoration project.
For a town built on waterholes and wells, and a northern railway, archives from various organisations have been an invaluable resource for the volunteers who are rebuilding the town. One of these volunteers is Peter Harris, who is also secretary of the Farina restoration group. He visited the National Archives’ Adelaide reading room and, with the assistance of reference officer Jeremy Sibbald, found the original railway plans and locations of the water wells in the Archives’ collection.
With these large-scale linen railway maps, the Farina restoration group was able to map the railway route through the town. Maps of the ‘Government Gums’ line revealed the exact locations of the Farina station yard and buildings, cattle yards and fencing, and tank pipes. With other records from the Archives’ collection that showed the location of wells, volunteers were able to ‘mark out’ the exact town plan. From Peter’s accounts, Farina was based on a scaled-down plan of Adelaide.
‘We literally marked out the line work, on the actual ground around the town’, Peter explains.
Jeremy says Peter’s enthusiasm was infectious: ‘The records were so large that we could only examine small sections of the plans at a time. We unrolled and re-rolled them along large tables, and were thrilled and surprised to see how well they had been preserved.’
The records were carefully digitised by Archives staff, a challenge given the size of the plans and their age – some date back to the 1880s. Digitised copies were then made available online.
Peter explains the importance of the records to the Farina volunteers: ‘The archives provided the underpinning factual evidence, and nobody can dispute that. Being able to provide the primary source gave us confidence in our restorations and we were able to reference these on the storyboards around the town.’
Farina is a town born and now being rebuilt on optimism. This mix of enthusiasm, hard work and archival records will ensure that this ghost town becomes a living hub once again. While its purpose is now historical, the rebuilding of Farina is testament to the soul that can be found within the files of the Archives’ collection and the hearts of the community. Now, beyond the physical structures, the crusting desert and engulfing sands, the stories of Farina and its people will live on.