I didn’t expect much from Burra. The caravan park looked small and non-descript when I arrived. The town’s supermarket only opened for a few hours each day on the weekend and I had missed those hours. But by the time I had pitched my tent, bought a takeaway pizza and enjoyed a few quiet hours inthe camp kitchen under the watchful eye of the Catholic church tower that was lit up across the road, I had decided to stay three nights instead of the original two. I don’t know what made me make that decision. All I know is that it was the right one.
I have had a load of fun here in this tiny town that straddles both the Heysen walking trail and the Mawson cycling trail. Thw whole town is part of the National Trust as one of the best preserved historic mining towns in Australia. For $20 (concession price – full price is $25) I bought a Burra Passport, which entitled me access to all the museums and locked sites in town (you get a key with the passport). My first stop was the Town Hall (entry is free without the passport). The Town Hall has lots of old photos from Burra’s heyday as a copper mining town, an old kitchen where women used too cook feasts for the townsfolk on special occasions and an old theatre stage. But my favourite thing were the dressing rooms above the theatre where you could try on costumes to your heart’s content. Forty minutes later and I thought it was probably time to continue my wanderings.
Johnny, the miners’ mascot stands tall and proud above the old chimney that has been relocatd onto the main road through town. He and the chimney are a constant reminder of Burra’s epic past as one of Australia’s biggest copper mines and as Australia’s first privately owned mining town (that’s right, the mining company used to own this town).
There used to be two mines here in close proximity: the Monster Mine and the Bon Accord Mine. The former was successful. The latter failed as a copper mine but was important in that it provided water to the town. Both mines started out as underground mines but was later converted into an open cut mine. It was a massive operation around which the current town of Burra (formerly known as six separate townships) grew.
The old buildings around the old Monster Mine are amazing. The old Cornish enginehouse has been restored close to her former glory (the pump and engine are obviously missing) and a nearby enginehouse stands tall like an old English castle in a field of yellow flowers on the edge of the now opencut mine. I felt awe at the workmanship the builders must have used to create such large buildings that still exist today.
I spent quite some time at the mine sites, taking in the scale of the operation. The interactive displays gave me some sense of just how hard life must have been in those mines and how tough the men and boys who worked them must have been. It’s a life I can’t even begin to fathom.
On my second day in town I focused my exploration on the civic buildings that supported the mining community. Over night I had met Christine and Ken in the camp kitchen. Both were solo travelers heading in different directions to me. Seventy-three year old Ken was traveling with a 4WD and camper trailer enjoying some sightseeing. Christine (aged somewhere between me and Ken) was on her first ever campervanning trip having recently bought a campervan to see what this traveling this is all about. After spending a morning working, I joined Chris on a jaunt through town to check out some more historic sites. We started with the old brewery, which has an old cellar network you can explore.
And then it was back to the Town Hall because Chris hasn’t seen it yet. This time I tried on some hats for a laugh in the women’s dressing room. I do declare that the orange hat goes quite well with my burnt orange jacket – haha.
So crowded was the township in it’s heyday that the Welsh miners built dugouts in a creekbed to live in. Four of these dugouts are all that remain of the many kilometres of homes that existed. They are tiny. Walking in them felt cool and damp, though I imagine those with fireplaces (yes, some had fireplaces) were quite cosy if the fire got cranking. The dugouts were known for all manner of infectious disease, including cholera and typhoid. But I guess that the chance of striking it rich in the copper mines and the alternative of living on the street with your wife and kids made them an acceptable option.
At the other end of the scale, the mine captain lived in relative luxury with a cottage that had a bedroom, kitchen-dining room and a drawing room. Both the drawing room and kitchen-dining room had fireplaces. I suspect the kitchen would have been opressively hot in the summer months but delightful in the winter. The gardens had an array of herbs and flowers. An old cottage has been decorated and dressed to resemble a typical mine captain’s cottage from the 1850s when the mine was at it’s most productive.
As I explored the town, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people’s hands had opened the many doors and gates I passed through and what stories they could tell. Photos of stern women and men looked out at me in the Town Hall while other images of hardened miners living hazardous lives greeted me at the Bon Accord Mine Museum. And what of the people who made this town home in the years that have passed since the mines closed down in 1877? Who decided to preserve this magical historic place that has captured my imagination and why weren’t it’s old buildings destroyed or recycled to the point of no return in the intervening 137 years? I am grateful to those who made those decisions so that this brief 32 year period of history could be preserved for us to see today.