25 August 2017

“Wilmington appears to be a flourishing and progress making township, with many fine buildings, of which the finest is the Globe Hotel.”
Kapunda Herald, Friday 26 August 1881, page 3. ‘Rambles Northwards. No. IV’.

I’m treasure hunting. I creep along the wide, hot gravel streets of Wilmington, the almost deserted South Australian town, a little east of Port Augusta. Everything is faded here. The sky sighs white in the heat. Trees are chalky with ash, their straight spines dressed with dark green and black spurts of branches. There are five geocaches hidden in Wilmington, modern day treasure troves. Little tins and boxes filled with endless pages of names and dates. Passers-by scribble greetings like meticulous, secret records of the town. One is a small, round salt and pepper tin magnetised under the bridge at the start of town. I leave a sticky note message saying ‘Merry Christmas!’ I discover a painted brown bottle, soaked and worn from recent rain, in the middle of a sprawling cactus. The spiny leaves cut my arm as I leave my note. I try to find another cache near a wheat silo, where a portable building rises above reams of dried grass. It seems abandoned, so I scale the steps. I peer inside and blinking faces peer back, startling me. I flee, my face flaming. Geocaching isn’t easy to explain to the locals.

I’m in Wilmington for seven days. It is the very definition of a sleepy town, and I am here in the sleepy season when most shops are closed and the owners head to Adelaide for Christmas. The whole sweeping plain edging the Flinders Ranges seems to be a hotbed for disturbing weather, the sky never seems to rest here.

Ants climb in frantic black lines, up and down the knotted white paint of the Wilmington Pub, once the Globe Hotel. The owners have placed a tall, slim, dark-haired mannequin in a large sunhat on the front verandah. I pass by several times before I realise her white limbs don’t belong to a trendsetting tourist.

Besides Kool Cat Vending Machines, there is only one tourist attraction in Wilmington. The Antique Toy Museum has a four-dollar entrance fee. A monkey in a tall glass case by the door grips an accordion in welcome, eyes wide in silent grimace. High on crumbling shelves, old soda cans stack to the ceiling, their labels peeling and scratched. Faded Meccano Ferris wheels and construction cranes are suspended on wires sticky with dust. The edges of paper dolls are browned and curling. Cut-outs of milk bars and milk men, ladies in powder blue paper dresses with sharp cut handbags browse shelves lined with folded groceries. A pianola, its wood oiled and dark, is embedded in the clutter. A little roll of paper turns in its chest, dotted with perforations like bullet holes. The revolving paper revolves, strikes the perforations, making the bony, yellowed keys dance and sing.

Mount Maria is a strenuous ascent over yellow fields that you can see from Wilmington’s main street. Further, you can see that wavering slope from the highway, where the land reaches right over dried mud flats into the sea and vermilion sand. Spider holes and feverish ant mounds pock the dirt. Blue metal bar stools sit discarded in the heat. Age has scratched the paint away in places to reveal a white skeleton beneath. Black square mats of tar, like boxing rings with calf-high wire, are planted paces down the hill. In the centre of each square is a small black hole, the yellowed remnants of a golf course.

At night, a lightning storm floods the embankments and roads outside of town. I watch from inside the pockmarked walls of the Wilmington Pub as light blinds the sky with electric blue and purple. One crack rattles my skull and strikes a house across the road. Lightbulbs, the old television and a record player screech and splatter light and, with a pop, go dark.

“[In] Wilmington, a township in Beautiful Valley, […] long desired rain appeared to have at length set in, for almost immediately after starting it was plainly to be seen that rain was falling in the immediate vicinity of the ranges, and ere long, these ‘showers of blessing’ began extending over the plains.”
Kapunda Herald, Friday 26 August 1881, page 3. ‘Rambles Northwards. No. IV’.

Spider weeds float past in downpour. Giant spindles of dandelion heads blow through dark skies. After the rains, it takes three or four days for Stony Creek to peter out; fully ingrown with long rushes and prickly bushes, and bladelike grass. Don’t try to hold on to it – I ran mine through that kind of grass once when I was little, it sliced and stung like tree sap in papercuts. The crooked neck of a tree surfaces from a rise in the stomach of the creek, still alive after half a week of drowning.
“The Orroroo coach when crossing Stony Creek last night, one mile from here, was washed away, and a little girl, daughter of Mr. A. Hayward, of South-terrace, Adelaide, was drowned. Mr. W. H. Taylor, uncle of the deceased, reached the bank, and immediately came on for assistance. The mailman also got on an island and afterwards reached the bank.”
South Australian Weekly Chronicle, Saturday 17 May 1884, page 10. ‘Floods in the North, Little Girl Drowned’.

The Stony Creek campsite is owned by a married couple. The man also works crops, driving tractors in the nearby wheat fields. After the storms, flash flooding and winds, he combs through the wheat for gumnuts that have blown in from miles away. He says it makes the flour taste terrible, so he picks out every single one. Some of the gum trees uprooted there too, crashed through fencing with dirt still clinging to their roots.

“The old, old story; no rain, no rain […] little birds, such as larks and quails seek refuge in sheds and houses.”
The South Australian Advertiser, Thursday 24 January 1878, page 6. ‘Country News’.

Moving on, I pass the fields and dried out valleys and the land becomes impossibly flat. Wavering upturned ground on the horizon is the only thing that interrupts the expanse. Orange dirt, real sunset dirt, fizzes beneath minty shrubs that hug the land. Clouds in the distance are shadowed in lilac, they reach to hug the earth too. Heat presses everything to ground.

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