22 Jun 21 · 8 mins read
On the edge of the desert within the Lake Eyre Basin, South Australia, 600 kilometres north of Adelaide, sits the abandoned railway town Farina. Historic crumbling buildings yearn for a by-gone time the busy town bustled with energy. Once a rail head from Port Augusta, a centre for mining and transport route for stocks and goods from the outback, now it’s a ghost town. In recent years, however, volunteers from the Farina Restoration Group have been working to restore its original stone buildings, preserving and exhibiting the town’s history for visitors. With walking trails, information boards and a camping ground open for 365 days of the year, it makes for an appealing tourist destination for lovers of history.
Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Farina town as part of our 18 day small group tour to the Oodnadatta Track and Flinders Ranges starting and finishing in the city of Adelaide. We pause on the way from Marree to the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary to visit Farina and its historic buildings. This article explores the town’s history and attractions to assist your tour.
Farina was founded by the South Australian Government on an outback gibber plain in the 1870s. It was first surveyed in 1876 and then proclaimed a town on 21 March 1878 with plans soon following for 432 quarter acre blocks and 88 suburban blocks which ranged in size from 5 to 11 acres.
The town was originally called ‘Government Gums’ after the mature River Red Gums located in the creek to the north of the town but was later changed to ‘Farina’ (Latin for wheat or flour) by optimistic farmers who hoped to turn the vast flat lands here into fields of grain. It was erroneously thought to be a good wheat growing region with recent flooding giving a false impression of its potential.
With the introduction of the Great Northern Railway, also known as the Ghan Railway, in 1882, Farina became the rail head from Port Augusta for supplies and stock from remote station and outposts as far away as Innamincka and South East Queensland. The rail line wass Farina’s link with ‘civilisation’. Trains from the south brought farm supplies, corrugated iron, delicacies for the pioneer women, and mail for the isolated. Construction of the railway then continued north, extended to Maree in 1884 and eventually to Alice Springs in 1929, and Farina became the place where the lines switched from narrow to standard gauge.
With the coming of the rail, Farina’s strategic location as the terminus at the southern end of the Strzelecki Track was vital in maintaining the economic life of the town through the latter decades of the 19th century and first years of the 20th. Supplies for the stations of Mt Lyndhurst, Murnpeowie, Blanchewater and Tinga Tingana along the track came from the stores of the town.
Cattle from the south-east corner of Queensland used the Strzelecki, the beasts plodding southwards in mobs of 800 to 1000 head. The Cattle King, Sidney Kidman used the Strzlecki track as a north-south ‘Chain of supply’ with Farina and the railway as the end point. From Farina the markets of Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and even Perth were within easy reach.
For a few years, the rains were unusually good and the farms and towns flourished. Farina’s cosmopolitan population grew quickly to reach approximately 600 at its height in the 1890s. Afghan cameleers, whose camel trains provided a reliable transport service of goods and stores to distant station and outposts, set up home on ‘Afghan Hill’ to the east of the town. The Afghan mosque was a small tin hut not very different from those which housed those who saw the building as especially sacred. A water tank, adjacent to the mosque fed bath in a nearby hut in which the community bathed.
Diyari, Arabana, and other Aboriginal peoples also lived in and around the town as they had for thousands of years. They camped on the margins or in wurlies along the creek, gaining casual employment around the railway yards or as domestic help within the town. Many of them chewed pituri, the result of burning a particular bush and mixing the ashes with gum. The end result was potent for the mixture would stun fish when thrown into a waterhole.
Meanwhile, the nearby copper and silver mines attracted Chinese, Germans, and other Europeans. The small group of Chinese were initially employed as railway labourers having been recruited from the Ballarat goldfields. They established vegetable gardens on the edge of the creek, selling their produce around the town and today there is the remains of a Chinese whip along the creek.
For a short time, Farina was the first stop for refuelling on the Adelaide to Darwin air journey run by Guinea Airways. The aerodrome itself was three miles east of the town on a lake bed, ‘Lake Farina’, which was dry for most of the year. However, planes crash landed in 1922 on the gibbers near the school whilst in 1929 a plane was photographed landing in the main street next to the store.
At its peak, Farina had two hotels, a school, a post office, a bank, a general store, several other shops, two breweries, an Anglican church, five blacksmiths, and even a brothel. However, the normal climate eventually returned bringing years of drought and dust storms and the hopes for a booming wheat and barley industry faded. The town then also had to deal with competition from the development of Hergott Springs (Marree), which had permanent water issuing from springs, giving it a critical advantage over Farina. As the railhead had reached Hergott in 1884 so businesses followed thus further diminishing Farina’s significance.
These factors, along with the closing of the nearby mines in 1927 and the movement of the railway further west in 1980, eventually forced the abandonment of the town. The school closed in 1957, the post office in 1960, and the general store shut its doors for the last time in 1967. Finally, the last permanent residents departed in the early 1980s leaving a ghost town to ruin.
Several original stone buildings remain today in a remarkable state of preservation thanks to the Farina Restoration Group, a dedicated group of volunteers who work tirelessly eight weeks a year, May to July, to resurrect the town’s crumbling ruins. Since 2008, carpenters, stonemasons, builders, and other tradespeople having all donated their skills and time working towards restoring nine old buildings including hotels, the post office, and the police station. Signage boards have also been added to explain the history of the buildings that once stood and the people and the lifestyle of those that lived in Farina.
The recently completely restored Patterson House – former home of John Patterson, one of the last residents of the town – is set amongst the ruins of the original township. It is now home to a soon to be opened information centre, library, kitchen, café, dining space, and retail outlet for tourists.
Right next door is the original underground bakery – fire box ovens underground with the roof at ground level. Here during the eight-week season you can buy freshly baked goods including bread and pies. All proceeds from sales go back to the restoration group and enable them to continue the maintenance and historical information work they are doing. Revived after lying dormant for almost 100 years, it is now the town’s centrepiece and heart of the operation.
A key attraction at Farina is the cemetery, located a few kilometres away from the town via a signposted track. The headstones and signage provide an insight into the human cost of this harsh part of Australia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Infant mortality, women dying in childbirth, men dying from accidents, thirst and heat stroke, and deaths from dysentery, typhoid and other infections caused by unsanitary living conditions were all common.
The cemetery also reflects the town’s diversity. Of particular interest is the well-marked Afghan section in one corner, which contains several headstones with both English and Arabic inscriptions plus several without any inscriptions. These mark the resting place of former residents connected to the Afghan camel trains. All these gravestones face Mecca in the Islamic tradition. Chinese, Aboriginal, and Hindu burials are also recorded at the cemetery.
The Anzac Memorial
The war memorial is located directly behind the campground at Farina on a hill with far reaching views over the station and town. It contains the names and background information of all men born in Farina who served, were wounded, or were killed in action during WWI and WWII. An organized public Anzac Day service is held here every three years. The hill itself is perfect for stargazing and uninterrupted landscape views.
Farina Short Loop Walking Track
A short loop walking track of less than two kilometres takes you from the eastern end of the campground, along the creek to the railway bridge and then back to a series of historic wells. It features interpretive signs about local history, the wells that once serviced the town, and how to identify the prolific birdlife.
Tour of Farina
Odyssey traveller visits Farina during our 18-day small group tour to the Oodnadatta Track and Flinders Ranges, designed for mature and senior travellers, limited to 12 people. Starting and ending in Adelaide, our tour takes you on an odyssey through the rugged, weathered peaks and rocky gorges of the Flinders Ranges in outback South Australia. These are truly some of the most dramatic and beautiful landscapes in all of Australia and are often topped off with an amazing sunset at the end of each day.
Our adventure takes you not only to the well-known sights such as Wilpena Pound and Flinders Range National Park, but also to lesser-known gems, including Brachina Gorge, Parachilna Gorge and Bunyeroo Gorge, which we see and explore on a collection of day trips through the Flinders regions.
During this trip, we seek and explore an ancient landscape that is more than 600 million years old. We learn about the Aboriginal culture and history, dating back 60,000 years, and reflect on the history of European settlement in the 18th and 19th centuries. We also see a wide diversity of abundant wildlife in their natural habitat of the extraordinary landscape of the Australian outback.
Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:
- The Kimberley: A Definitive Guide
- Uncovering the Ancient History of Aboriginal Australia
- Aboriginal Land Use in the Mallee
- Understanding Aboriginal Aquaculture
- Mallee and Mulga: Two Iconic and Typically Inland Australian Plant Communities (By Dr. Sandy Scott).
- The Australian Outback: A Definitive Guide
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to the Oodnadatta Track and Flinders Ranges:
- Oodnadatta Track (Outback Travel Australia)
- Vanning the Oodnadatta Track
- Flinders Ranges and Outback (South Australia tourism)
- Essential Guide to the Flinders Ranges
- Flinders Ranges things to do: 20 reasons to visit South Australia’s largest mountain range
Originally published December 8, 2020.
Updated on June 22, 2021.
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