Farina – An Outback Ghost Town

Farina, Outback South Australia, Transcontinental Hotel
The Transcontinental Hotel at sunset

We’ve been here every winter for the last five years… one couple tells me. We love it.

As I walk about Farina’s ruins in the late afternoon light, I understand the enthusiasm: this is my third visit in as many years.

But how to describe the town’s appeal to those who haven’t yet been? What’s the magic ‘must see’ drawcard that brings so many people back, year after year?

The chance to see Farina being lovingly transformed from ruins to town by devoted volunteers?

A crackling fire at a campground with a thousand stories to tell?

Or the smell of fresh bread straight from the underground bakery?

I can’t decide . May be YOU can be the judge.

Farina, outback South Australia, ghost town

History

Every year I’ve returned, more of the town has been lovingly resurrected from the stones and red dust.

And each year, I discover new signage that reveals something more about Farina’s history.

Farina, ghost town, South Australia

Farina started as a well sunk by the South Australian Government near a scrubby patch of eucalypts in the 1870s.

The place was called ‘Government Gums’, and a short walk from the eastern end of campground (near the loo and the windmill), leads you to the original well hidden away amongst the saltbush scrub.

Government Gums on the Overland Telegraph Route, 1870, sketch by Benjamin Babbage

In 1876, a couple of city surveyors with big ideas rode their camels to Government Gums.

Inspired by Colonel Light and the planned grid of Adelaide, the surveyors divvied up Government Gums on a similar design: a series of rectangles for terrace housing and shops, with encircling belts of parkland.

The result was 432 quarter acre allotments – optimistic to say the least!

At any rate, progress was slow, and people lived in tents for some time.

Farina

The Great Northern Railway arrived in 1882, making Farina the end point for supplies for remote stations and outposts as far away as South East Queensland.

Construction of the rail line continued north, eventually reaching Alice Springs in 1929, and Farina became the place where the lines switched from narrow to standard gauge.

By the time the railway arrived, the town had been renamed Farina, meaning ‘flour’ in Latin, echoing hopes that wheat farming would become an important industry.

Afghan cameleers, whose camel trains carried goods and stores to distant stations and outposts, set up home in the town.

Farina, outback South Australia, Afghan cameleers

Dieri, Arabana and other Aboriginal peoples also lived in and around Farina as they had for thousands of years.

Nearby copper and silver mines brought more people: Chinese, Germans, other Europeans.

At its height in the 1890s, 600 people lived in Farina. Today, it’s hard to imagine, looking around at the gibber plain and red dirt.

Farina, Outback South Australia, Transcontinental Hotel

There were two hotels, a school, a post office, bank, a brewery and several stores.

After a few good years of rain, the area returned to its 165mm (6 1/2 inches) or less of rainfall. Drought and dust storms were common. Golden dreams of wheat and barley crops faded.

A visit to the cemetery tells me this was not an easy life.

Farina Cemetery, outback South Australia

The passage of two World Wars and expansion of the railway line saw people drift away from Farina over the next fifty years.

The school closed in 1957, and the post office in 1960.

In 1967, the store shut its doors for the last time, whilst the final permanent residents departed in the early 1980s, although the pastoralists at Farina Station stayed on.

The railway line was closed and moved further west in 1980.

By the early 2000s, Farina was marked as a ‘ruin’ on the maps.

Rising from the Red Dust

Which leads me to Farina’s stunning restoration, fuelled largely by the passions of the nearby station owners, Kevin and Anne Dawes, and Tom Harding, a former tag-a-long tour operator from Victoria.

I spend almost an hour on the phone with Tom when I return home, listening to his story.

Tom’s love for Farina and the potential for restoration grew over many years of bringing tag-along tours to the site.

Farina, Outback South Australia, Transcontinental Hotel

The Transcontinental Hotel at sunset

In 2008, after discussions with the Dawes, Tom formed the Farina Restoration Group.

The following year, a group of 30 volunteers began a six week mission to start resurrecting the town’s crumbling ruins from the red sands.

A decade on, and close to 150 people make the annual winter pilgrimage to breathe new life into the town.

Carpenters, stonemasons, builders and other tradespeople all donate their skills and time.

Volunteers are welcome and YOU can learn more about helping out at Farina here.

The next day, I take another walk around the town and chat to some of the volunteers. Word soon goes out I’m an archaeologist.

I’m told to visit the Police Station and see what’s going on there.

The volunteers here are a couple of older gents from Victoria, digging out the floor with shovels. In a corner, there’s an array of rusted and broken treasures they’ve found.

Their smiles are huge as they chortle about the work they’re doing. Farina is Time Team in the outback, for eight weeks or so every winter.

As an archaeologist, this is the highlight for me: watching ordinary people bubbling with excitement over the cultural heritage of everyday Australia.

I get the sense from these volunteers that they’re uncovering history, and remaking it. It’s hard not to catch their enthusiasm.

Of course, if you ask Gary and many other visitors what the best thing about Farina is, there’s no hesitation: it’s the BAKERY.

Farina’s Underground Bakery

Tom Harding describes Farina’s underground bakery as the town’s ‘centrepiece’, and it’s hard not to agree.

The bakery is a drawcard even for those who aren’t interested in history.

Farina underground bakery, outback South Australia

Gary’s champing at the bit to sample the latest treats, so he heads off into the ‘new’ cafe.

The cafe used to be a simple canvas marquee, but in this age of risk and regulation, and at great cost to the Restoration Group, a new rule-compliant transportable cafe has now been built.

Ignoring the cafe, I head down a short, narrow stone staircase and into the bakery’s gloom.

Farina underground bakery, outback South Australia

Today, Martin the baker shares the tale of Farina’s ‘scotch’ oven.

It’s been trial and error over the years, adding and changing firebricks or burning different timbers to get the oven baking just right.

There’s a note of satisfaction in his voice as he turns back to check his latest batch of goodies.

Saying goodbye to Martin, I head back upstairs to join Gary in the cafe.

Farina underground bakery, outback South Australia

I settle on coffee and a vanilla slice. Gary stocks up on rock cakes, cream buns and fresh bread. He sits chatting to visitors, waiting for the next batch of treats to be brought up from oven.

There’s an array of Farina port, wines, souvenirs and of course, baked goods to buy here.

All proceeds go straight back to the town’s restoration.

Is the bakery the BEST part of Farina?

I’m not sure…

See & Do

There’s a few places to explore in and around Farina, and the campground (more below) makes an ideal base for to head further afield such as Maree and Lyndhurst.

Walks

A short loop walk of less than 2 km takes you from the eastern (creek) end of the campground, along the creek to the railway bridge and then back to the series of historic wells.

It’s well signposted and interpretive signs along the way reveal more of the town’s past.

Another longer walk is out to the historic cemetery. This is about 2km along a road from the western end of the campground, and is well-sign posted.

Yes, you can drive out to the cemetery, but think about this: you’ve been sitting in your car for a few hundred kilometres AND I know you’ve been to the bakery.

Get out and walk. Your body will thank you.

The Anzac Memorial

Directly behind the campground is the Anzac Memorial.

Each year, on April 25, a public dawn service is held, remembering those who lost their lives in serving Australia in the Armed Forces.

Farina sent many young men and a few women to the both World Wars, and the extensive interpretive signage at the Memorial remembers them.

Interestingly, the rocky silcrete hill on which the Anzac Memorial is built is an Aboriginal stone quarry. Look carefully and you’ll find remnants of stone flakes and blades.

Farina Cemetery

Whilst Farina’s buildings suggest a town thriving against the terrain and weather, its cemetery documents the human cost of living here in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

A walk around the cemetery tells a tale of high infant mortality, women dying in childbirth, men dying from accidents, thirst and heat stroke.

Perhaps the most common cause of death seems unusual by today’s standards: unsanitary living conditions.

There were no proper sewers in the town’s early days and its water supply was frequently spoiled by stock. Dysentery, typhoid and other infections claimed many lives.

Farina Cemetery, outback South Australia

The cemetery also reflects the town’s diversity. There is a well marked Afghan section in one corner. Chinese, Aboriginal and Hindu burials are also recorded here.

Several hundred people are recorded as being buried in the cemetery, and most graves are unmarked.

Witchelina

A short drive (4WD recommended) from Farina is Witchelina Station.

A former pastoral station, Witchelina is now a privately owned nature reserve, focussing on protecting rare and endangered species.

The old station buildings are grand and well preserved (in fact, many of them are still being used) and it’s worth a visit just to see them.

It’s not hard to imagine tennis parties and picnics at Witchelina, like the one pictured below.

Witchelina station, outback South Australia

There are several 4×4 tracks on the property, including the Old Mt Nor’West Gorge Nature Drive Loop that includes Marree (more info here).

You can also camp or book shearers’ accommodation at Witchelina. Details here. 

Farina 4×4 Tour

Farina Station runs a 4×4 tour to Farina Springs to rugged hills and a hidden salt lake.

The tour takes 3-4 hours, and you can either hop in the station car or drive your own 4X4.

The tour must be booked a minimum of 24 hours beforehand at Farina Station. The cost is $30 per person.

Contact Farina Station: (08) 8675-7790.

Facilities:

Farina’s campground is spacious, shady and definitely one of the best we’ve stayed in.

There are toilets, hot showers, tables and firepits(see our Local’s Tips below for a few more details).

You do not need to book.

Farina campground, outback South Australia

You can bring your own firewood or buy some from Farina Station (details below).

The campground is caravan and camper trailer-friendly.

Dogs are welcome.

Farina campground, outback south australia

Cost is $5 per vehicle per night (yes, only $5).

You can also stay in the nearby Shearer’s Quarters.

These sleep 16 people, and have a self-contained kitchen, bathroom, laundry, BBQ, and TV. You will need to bring your own bedding.

Cost to stay at the Shearer’s Quarters is $25 per person, per night (school age kids are half price).

Bookings are essential and can be made by calling Farina Station: (08) 8675 7790.

Trip Notes:

Farina is located approximately 650km north of Adelaide.

It is 53 km south of Marree, where the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks start.

Lyndhurst is 26km south. Leigh Creek is about 72 km south.

The road is sealed all the way to Lyndhurst, and the last 26 km are high grade gravel, passable to 2WD vehicle EXCEPT after rain.

The best time to go is during the winter months, when the bakery is operation.

See the Farina Restoration Group’s website for this year’s dates and for information on volunteering.

Local’s Tips:

  • Campsites near the creek, although closer to amenities, can be very cold and damp
  • Farina gets frosts and heavy dews in the winter months – make sure your tent/campertrailer canvas is well-waterproofed, especially on the seams and allow air circulation to reduce condensation.
  • Unreliable Telstra reception is available from up on the Anzac Memorial if you hold your tongue in the right position and imitate a drunk emu
  • Firewood is available for purchase from the Farina homestead. It’s $5 per railway sleeper and you need to go after 4pm to make sure someone’s home.

I am indebted to the work of Rob Olston in his book Farina – From Gibbers to Ghost Town in preparing background for this article. Copies of the book can be purchased from Farina’s cafe, or at the Hawker Information Centre.

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