Ghost towns, trespassing tourists and Midnight Oil: How Burra turned COVID into a tourism boom

Some 160 kilometres north of Adelaide, Burra is blessed with an abundance of grand civic

Some 160 kilometres north of Adelaide, Burra is blessed with an abundance of grand civic buildings, stately stores, quaint bridges, and streets lined with graceful bluestone and sandstone period homes.

But strangely, Burra hasn’t always been a wildly popular tourist destination, more a stopover for travellers heading north to the Flinders Ranges or north-east to Broken Hill. And when COVID struck, the town became quieter.

“We actually asked people not to come because we’ve got an ageing population,” says Barbara Button, the Goyder council’s community development and tourism manager.

A woman in a vest and beanie shepherds a flock of sheep through a gate
Farmer and former Burra councillor Jane Kellock.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

“Amongst the town’s older population there was quite a bit of fear,” says farmer and former Burra ward councillor, Jane Kellock, “because it was advertised that their age group was the most vulnerable. But once that fear deteriorated [after lockdowns were eased] people were thinking, ‘okay, this could be a real bonus for us’.”

It certainly was.

The town has had a post-COVID tourism boom. “You could not get a park in the main street and shops were completely swamped with people,” Kellock says.

In the last financial year, sales of the Burra passport key, which provides close access to local heritage sights, increased by 47 per cent from 2019.

A man with white hair and bear looks sternly in front of an historic building
Peter Mattey says the council and businesses shouldn’t get carried away with the tourism boom.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

“COVID certainly did change things because South Australians couldn’t leave the state for about 18 months,” says Peter Mattey, a four-times mayor of the Goyder Council.

“Because people were trapped in their own state in their own country, COVID’s been a real boon for regional tourism.”

a pond in an abandoned mine, surrounded by a tiered bank from the mining process
The Burra Burra copper mine was the main driving force of the town’s growth in the 1840s.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

The pull of history

What helps Burra promote its history is that so much of it has been preserved. The copper mine that led to the area’s white settlement in the 1840s still survives, as do a few 1850s dugouts that were homes for mining families until disease and flood forced their abandonment a decade later.

There’s also the 1856-built Redruth jail, the 1860s ruins of the nearby Hampton village, and a delightful railway station built in 1883.

A series of crumbling stone walls and foundations surrounded by lush green grass
Ruins of the 1870s Hampton village near Burra, South Australia.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Little wonder, then, that the state and national heritage town is currently applying for world heritage status.

The most famous historical site in Burra is the old Cobb & Co. depot that features on the cover of Midnight Oil’s 1987 Diesel and Dust album, and on a popular 1990s poster, both images taken by photographer Ken Duncan.

A woman takes a photo of a man posing in front of a tidy cottage in an empty field
Burra’s most famous historical site is the ruin that features on the cover of Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust album. (Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Visible from the Barrier Highway, the ruin site became so popular — and the landowners so frustrated by trespassing tourists — that the council built a service road for safer and closer access.

Throughout town, plaques detail the provenance of dozens of shops, public buildings and private residences, which, according to local historian Meredith Satchell, have benefited from continual occupation.

“If somebody lives in a place and it’s looked after, those places still stand,” she says.

Unoccupied shops are a common sight in many rural towns throughout Australia, much less so in Burra.

A woman in an Aztec-patterned scarf on a restored railway platform
Meredith Satchell, a passionate Burra historian, was one of the volunteers who helped in the preservation and restoration of the town’s train station.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Perhaps owing to its location on the outskirts of town, for 30 years the Burra railway station was unoccupied following the line’s closure in 1980.

“It was invaded by pigeons, white ant and salt damp, a beautiful heritage going to ruin,” Satchell says, before volunteers lobbied for a $200,000 government grant to start restoration in 2010.

A giant cogged wheel in the foreground, with the station and a train in the background
The Burra train station was “a beautiful heritage going to ruin”, historian Meredith Satchell says. (Supplied: Ian Kenins)

The not-so-ghost town

North of Burra are several towns within the Goyder council’s boundary that have not enjoyed any post-COVID boom. Instead, they’re part of what Barbara Button refers to as the region’s “changing landscape”.

Spalding and Booborowie to the west and Mt Bryan, Hallett and Whyte Yarcowie to the north have little in the way of services and quality housing, have suffered decades of declining populations, and are extremely hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

And then there is Terowie.

A long shadow cast over an empty high street, with no sign of life
Terowie’s main street — Main Street — is a perfectly preserved example of 1960s small town Australia.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

South Australia’s rail network once operated on three different line gauges. When one line met another line with a different gauge, passengers and freight had to change trains.

Terowie was the junction for three different gauged lines and a well-serviced township supported an extensive workforce and a population of approximately 2,000.

In the late 1960s common sense standardised the rail system, but that sent Terowie into freefall. The railway junction and station soon closed and jobs disappeared almost overnight.

Then, in the following decades, the hospital closed, and then both pubs, the local newspaper, the bank, the coffee palace, the bakery and the school as property prices plummeted. Last year’s census recorded just 135 people living in Terowie.

The Terowie sign stands over an overground train track
When South Australia standardised its track system from three gauges to one in the 1960s, Terowie went into freefall.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Ghost towns in the United States are popular tourist destinations; less so here, which is a pity for Terowie where Main Street has remained a perfectly preserved example of 1960s small-town Australia.

In fact, the town is so obscure it’s yet to attract the attention of the Instagram crowd obsessed with photographing strikingly desolate places.

Quite surprisingly, according to Mayor Mattey whose farm traverses the area, “apart from those empty shops on the main street, most of the houses have got someone living in them, believe it or not”.

a woman in a black tracksuit carries a box of bread into the back of a van
Every day Leanne Adams picks up bread and pies from the Burra Bakery to sell from her general store in Terowie, 64 kilometres away. (Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Today there is just one business operating in town. Leanne Adams, a fifth-generation local, has run Murray’s Corner Store since she was just a 20-year-old back in 2008. As well as selling groceries, the store is also Terowie’s post office and Adams is the town’s unofficial community notice board, passing on news of escaped horses, lost dogs and social events.

“Those who live here get a bit funny when they hear us referred to as a ghost town,” Adams says, “and a couple of the locals have said, ‘Well, we’re not ghosts, we’re still here’.

“I understand when people come through here and there’s no one around, their natural reaction is, ‘Oh, it’s a ghost town’. But there are people out and about, floating around and getting on with their little lives.”

a woman in a red sweater leans against a sandstone building
Barbara Button, Goyder’s community development manager and tourism officer, outside the historic Paxton Square cottages in Burra.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Button says they’re aware of the sensitises of the term ghost town.

“In some of our work we talk about it [Terowie] being less than what it was, but we have to be sensitive of the people living there and be sensitive of calling it that.

“Yes, it is very quiet when you go there but what I love about Terowie … is it’s very unique in its buildings and there’s just been some recent filming for a BBC TV series, The Tourist that features the amazing main street.

“But it is a real balance and we’re looking at different ways to sell the towns for what they are and their uniqueness, and every town in the region is unique.”

a very neat and tidy old hotel
With few local customers, the Imperial Hotel in Terowie closed down and is now a private residence.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Is it too good to last?

Making the best use of that uniqueness is a challenge for the region’s tourism promotion.

A few years ago, the Goyder council hitched their wagon to the popular nearby Clare Valley wine region.

Button says that raised concerns within local Burra businesses worried they’d get bypassed by tourists more interested in wine.

“We sold the uniqueness of our heritage, and that we’re on the way to the outback and the Flinders Ranges, and we’ve got a changing landscape,” she says, “and so we’ve promoted it as ‘come for the wine but come for a totally different experience, too’, and people are starting to do that. We’ve now got a bit more of a brand and have become a bit of a destination.”

A man behind a bar, holding a beer, gestures while chatting to a customer
Publican Tim Phillips spent seven years refurbishing the Bon Accord Hotel.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

Lockdown was an opportunity for the council to reassess how it promotes the region.

“We went beyond the heritage … and highlighted what else is outside our region,” Button says. “The Redbanks Conservation Park, Burra Gorge and World’s End. Now every visitor to our information centre gets the Goyder Goodness pack, which includes example itineraries of what you could do for a day.”

Local tourist data shows stays have extended from one day to three days, and sometimes longer, and that visitors are re-visiting. Button attributes this to the rural region’s open spaces.

“The walking trails and driving trails would have attracted people who weren’t comfortable with going into enclosed spaces like museums in the immediate post-COVID period,” she says.

Burra has also won over people wanting to move there permanently, says Raine & Horne estate agent, John Hogarth.

A man with grey hair and a beard uses a level on an old stone brick wall
Burra’s only qualified stonemason Chris Kelly is kept busy restoring period homes and public infrastructure like the bluestone wall of the local cemetery.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

“Burra’s always been popular because it’s got quite a bit of charm about it with the beautiful quaint stone homes. Prior to COVID, a three-bedroom home in Burra was worth about $180,000 to $200,000,” Hogarth says. “Now they’re worth $340,000 to $380,000.”

Hogarth, himself a Burra resident, says the huge price rises in capital cities in 2020 had people re-thinking their lifestyle.

“All of a sudden they had equity on their own home which they’d never seen before. And what also changed is that people were saying, ‘we don’t need to be in a city; we can work from home, or we don’t even need to work’. So what they’re doing is cashing in and moving here.”

A quiet street lined with historic buildings
Commercial Street, Burra.(Supplied: Ian Kenins)

However, Peter Mattey says the Goyder council and local businesses shouldn’t get too carried away by the convoy of trailers and campervans cruising through Burra’s streets.

“The first thing you need to understand is that this is a farming area,” says Mattey, himself a fourth-generation farmer.

“Tourism is an adjunct, which enables a lot of businesses in Burra to keep open. But in an area like this, you’ve got to look at the long-term picture and we need to be very careful there’s not investment put in on the basis of all that.

“People will change their habits again, they will travel overseas again, and they will travel interstate again.”