Some of you may have seen Yerranderie Ghost Town at times on Television. Years ago, the ABC “Australian Story” featured my Private Town in the Southern Blue Mountains of N.S.W. Elsa Atkins of the National Trust, who introduced the documentary, remarked that she’d heard of many people who had restored a historic building but thought it a bit over the top for one woman to take on the task of restoring a whole town! That’s what I’ve done - well not quite the whole - there’s one building to go. The General Store is still a ruin.
40 years or so ago, for better or worse, I bought the Company which owned Yerranderie, a former silver mining town. It was derelict, deserted, and a true ghost town. No one had been there for 10 years. Was I mad to do so? Having travelled the world I considered Yerranderie ranked with the most scenic and legendary spots in other countries – and it was so close to Sydney’s burgeoning metropolis.
First, I restored the old Post Office. This was a two storeyed timber framed building, now over a hundred years old. Mrs. Byrnes, the postmistress of the turn of the last Century, had conducted an Accommodation House there. So I remade it into a comfortable Lodge for 30 people to stay. As there were no convenience shops and no townsfolk, I asked visitors to bring their own food and linen – like an outback lodge. This still works well. There are six bedrooms with five bunks in each, great for families or groups. It was white-anted so the building was lifted up on car jacks and new concrete foundations constructed. As there was no such thing as electricity or water, I had to use solar power and devise a water system. The telephone had been cut off, so a message used to travel via the Flying Doctor Radio to Broken Hill and back again to get to Sydney – a journey of nearly 2000 kilometres. Believe it or not, the Sydney GPO is just 100 kilometres away in a straight line. We now have a solar-powered radiophone, thanks to Telstra.
Next to the Lodge I had to dig out of the ground the original Tailor’s Shop. It has been rebuilt as a tiny Art, Craft and Souvenir Shop. It did belong to Sam Meldrum, the tailor, in the early days. His name is again proudly painted on his old window. It has been reproduced from an old photograph. A suit of clothes, hand sewn, of beautiful wool barathea lined with silk he made and sold to “Slippery” Norris in 1926 for £6.10.00 and it had an extra pair of pants. “Slippery” gave it to me and it is displayed in Mrs. Barnes’ (not to be confused with Mrs. Byrnes’) Boarding House. This is an original slab dwelling – well over a century old, as was attested by the newspapers, which lined the wall. They were under 7 layers of wallpaper. Mrs Barnes' house now has the role of folk museum with the furniture and furnishings of the former harsh bush life, pre First World War. Mrs Barnes’ boarders were the single miners who didn’t have womenfolk of their own and needed her kangaroo tail soup and rabbit stew, cooked on the cauldron over the open fire. These were the hectic days of the silver mines of the late 19th Century and through the boom of 1907 – 1914 when up to 2000 inhabitants made Yerranderie their home. I have coaxed back her May bush and Lilac and other heritage plants like Irises and Daffodils and edged the garden path with local bottles as they used to be. It is very picturesque and especially loved by artists and photographers.
“Slippery” Norris lived across the road. He was a miner and Gallipoli veteran. When he died a few years ago (at the age of 96), he asked his daughter to have his ashes buried under the Cypress tree in front of his cottage. So I complied with Norma’s wishes. I’ve restored his cottage and it is now a little haven for six visitors. They say his ghost may occasionally be seen on a moonlit night. It is rattling something. Could it be his false teeth? Before he died he most generously gave these to me and his suit of clothes, his bankbook, his union card and the lamp from his cottage. These are all on display in Mrs. Barnes’ Cottage. The false teeth, made in Yerranderie, are in the pocket of his suit. Please don’t ask me how he got his name, even his daughter doesn’t know! Of course the noises may not be his ghost, just an inquisitive possum looking for something to eat in the dead of night.
The Shops I have converted into a museum to house the wonderful collection of artefacts of the mining era. Former residents have donated photographs and found objects. Their children and grandchildren make a pilgrimage to see where grandpa and great-grandmother used to live. On display also is a bottle with a marble in the top, which has “Silver Mine Hotel – Yerranderie” moulded into the glass. It was given to me by Les Seibright, whose own grandma was the beloved licensee of the hotel. He has written poems about her. Another neighbour, who is reputed to have drunken the entire contents, donated a small rum keg to me. So he is still with us “in spirit” so to speak.
There are, of course, many reputed ghost sightings in the little ghost town. Each person sees his own. My own particular one is a sort of prevailing presence. He is William Russell or Werriberri, the last so-called “chief” or “King of Burragorang”. He was born in 1830 and died in 1914 as is shown on his most unusual gravestone in the Cawder Road Cemetery, near Camden. Shaped like the stump of a tree, it has a cross at the top and his totem emblem at the base. Werriberri and his mate Billy George found silver in Yerranderie in 1871. They were digging post-holes for a fence for the local landholder, Harold Clyde Manning. But it is a sorry fact that Werriberri was the last of the local Gundungurra Aborigines. That makes me sad. I sometimes feel I can see the figure of the old man keening for the vanished tribe of his mother’s people. For perhaps 40,000 years they were living and loving around these beautiful Southern Blue Mountains. I have written some of their history to bring their myths and legends back to life. Werriberri undoubtedly spurs me on when I give up.
I have restored a miner’s house for my caretakers and called it “Krubi” cottage, naming it after the very beautiful Dreamtime girl, “Krubi” whose form and red-feathered fur cloak were turned into the first waratah. I recount this legend and often dress the children up in a replica of the famous coat, which I made. The old Bakehouse has been rebuilt to form a gallery for my extensive collection of aboriginal art and artefacts. I have gathered these over the years from all around Australia and am pleased to see now a greater recognition of the artistic value of our indigenous peoples.
Yerranderie is set in a parklike environment and nestles at the base of an enormous peak, which dominates the area. Visitors climb it to take advantage of its 360º view of the Yerranderie Amphitheatre. I have painstakingly tried to eliminate the introduced weeds and native animals have returned. We foster the orphans and they become tame enough to approach. Wild Kangaroos, red necked wallabies, wombats and goannas do walk down our quiet streets in the evening.
Yerranderie’s original inhabitants left after the mines closed down in the Depression. The remainder were given the final blow in 1959 when the then Water Board flooded the Valley drowning the access road to Camden 45 miles away and taking away their services at the same time. Now the road trip from Camden via the original Aboriginal road, the Oberon/Colong Stock Route, necessitates crossing the Dividing Range twice and takes 5 instead of 1½ hours by the road around the lake. This is in a prohibited area, though there is a chance that the NP&WLS will again conduct some tours along the shore as it used to do. I have constructed a tiny airstrip and I fly from Camden in 15 or 20 minutes over the incredibly scenic Valley. Lake Burragorang should have 4 times the amount of water that is in Sydney Harbour though it was only half full at the end of last year. But the rains have come and I have never seen the wildflowers and trees look so well.
Environmentalists understand why I saw value in Yerranderie’s wonderful history and serenity. Surrounded by the National Park, the animals, birds and flora are all back again.
Eco-tourists from all over the world do seek us out because we are sitting on the rim of an ancient volcano, which erupted in the Devonian geological age. It put the silver-lead-copper-zinc and even a little gold in the rocks for the miners to dig up all those years later. I tell today’s tourists they are in Yerranderie because of what happened to the earth 400 million years ago!
When I bought the town, artificially isolated by the man-made lake, it was a decrepit and deserted place. Many said I was stupid, especially as the then Water Board and a local landholder tried to strangle all access. But now although the road to Oberon/Yerranderie is long, it is most scenic, as it follows the Aboriginal way and the pioneer stockmen’s route over the rugged mountains adjacent to Sydney’s nearest Wilderness Area. More scenic still is the way around the edge of Lake Burragorang, Sydney’s Water Supply. This follows the footsteps of Ensign Francis Luis Barrallier who, in 1802 adventured into the Blue Mountains as an ambassador for Governor King. I have written his story and published it as a beautifully illustrated book called, “Yerranderie is my dreaming”. His route should be honoured and followed.
It has indeed been worth the vast amounts of my money I’ve spent over the years. My labour is one of love and I am recompensed by the faces of city children, which light up as they see a baby joey or as the older visitors hear of the struggles of their pioneer parents and grandparents in this – or overseas visitors, as they realise that NSW has history to rival that of their own countries - the “Closest Outback to Sydney”.
Can you blame me for being so passionate about my tiny ghost town? The only permanent residents are my caretakers and myself (when I’ve flown in), but visitors swell the population as they arrive. Bushwalkers on their way from Katoomba to Mittagong find Yerranderie a convenient halfway stop on their mammoth 8-day walk. 4 wheel-drive enthusiasts, groups of geology and history buffs and especially their children love fossicking on the old mines or even in the streets when, after rain, there is a gleam or a glint of the crystals of silver-lead or iron pyrites (fool’s gold).
Yerranderie is the jewel in the crown of the World Heritage of the Blue Mountains and it is only 100 kilometres from the centre of Sydney. One quarter of the population of Australia is within 100 kilometres of Yerranderie. It deserves to be better known.