Isolated township which came into existence with the arrival of gold fossickers
Located 949 km from Perth, 185 km east of Meekatharra and 518 m above sea level, Wiluna (the name probably comes from the Aboriginal word weeluna¹ or weeloona¹ which could have meant either bush curlew¹ or place of winds¹) came into existence after gold was found in the area in 1891.
The first European into the area had been John Forrest who, in 1875, passed through the area, established a food and supplies depot at Weld Spring 230 km north of the present townsite, and experiencing problems with the very unfriendly local Aborigines, built a small fort.
Gold was first discovered by William Earl and John Connelley in 1891 and, due to a reliable water supply, the town prospered while never becoming a boisterous boomtown like Menzies or Leonora.
Travelling through the area in 1900 May Vivienne, whose account of her visit appears in Travels in Western Australia, observed that the town had three hotels and stores¹ and that watermelons, tomatoes and fresh water helped relieve the awful desert temperatures.
Wiluna¹s great claim to historical fame is based on its location at the southern end of the lonely Canning Stock Route. This is not a drive to be undertaken lightly. 1800 km from Wiluna to Halls Creek (or vice versa) through the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert, past vast salt lakes and hopping from one well to the next is enough to test the mettle of any 4WD vehicle and its occupants. It is essential to be totally self-sufficient for the entire journey and to notify the police at both the departure and arrival points.
The original stock route was surveyed by Alfred Wernam Canning - who gave his name to the route. The proposal had been in existence since the 1890s. It had been championed by the graziers of the East Kimberley who, because their cattle suffered from red water fever¹, were quarantined from the West Kimberley and Pilbara. The graziers argued that a dry, overland route (in spite of the dangers) would kill off the red water fever¹ ticks. The route was surveyed in 19067 and the 54 vital wells (each about 30 km apart) were dug in 190810.
The town really came alive in the 1930s. The low grade ore had discouraged many miners but a Perth entrepreneur, Claude de Bernales, developed a successful extraction method and in the 1930s his Wiluna Gold Mines Ltd saw the town boom with the population reaching 9000 and businesses springing up to meet the increased demand.
A fascinating account of life in Wiluna at this time is available in writer-prospector James Doughty¹s Gold in the Blood. His image of the street where he lived captures Wiluna¹s isolation perfectly: If one cared to walk to the end of Seventh Street, and keep going into the trackless, sometimes stony, sometimes sandy desert, one might go a thousand miles without encountering another living soul.¹
His image of the town at this time is powerful and evocative:
It lay in the desert on the road to nowhere, an isolated township of tin-roofed shanties, drab and dilapidated with the passing years. More than a hundred empty miles to the west was Meekatharra. Leonora was almost double that distance to the south and the east. These two faded towns were railheads, outposts on the edge of things. Wiluna lay beyond; a central point for a fan of desolation that swept out and upwards into uncomputed distances.¹
Today Wiluna is nothing but a glimmer of its former glory. A lonely outpost on the edge of a vast desert with all its raison d¹etres removed. Little mining. No railhead. No Canning Stock Route. The only recent achievements have been those of the local Ngangganawili Community who have set up a citrus orchard and an emu farm both of which have proved successful.