Current Issue #488

Good Country: Long live Kapunda's king

Good Country: Long live Kapunda's king

The pleasing national colours of the fields of gold (canola) and green (wheat) welcome people to Kapunda.

A seven-metre high statue of Map the Miner emphasises that Kapunda, in South Australia’s Mid- North, is Australia’s oldest mining town (established in 1842). And a 2001 documentary, showing a terrified Warwick Moss weeping in a cemetery, fuelled Kapunda’s reputation as Australia’s most haunted town. Yet for me, the strongest theme to emerge from Kapunda was neither the underground workers nor the underworld lurkers but the omnipresence of Kapunda’s most famous resident: Cattle King, Sir Sidney Kidman (1857–1935). Yes, well before ScoMo, FOMO and combovers, SidKid was the man. He became the greatest pastoral landholder in modern times. With his bullock determination to drive his own destiny and his respect for Indigenous people (he learnt bushcraft as a teen from an Indigenous mate called Billy), he is also a hero for modern Australia.

If you’re interested in mining and ghost tours, Kapunda won’t disappoint. Indeed, Clyde, the brilliant mine horse sculpted from scrap metal is well worth a look. And a ghost/crime tour of the North Kapunda Hotel is thoroughly compelling, not only to hear eerie tales but also to learn about Kapunda’s heritage. For said pub is a microcosm of Kapunda’s history, so important to the state’s economy. Prince Albert visited the pub in 1866. It was also a brothel. As with many old SA pubs, the cellar doubled as a pop-up morgue. And a secret door allowed hotel staff entrance to the creepy wing that accommodated miners and separated them from the polite classes. Here, a doctor employed by the mines performed surgery. His name was Doctor Blood (incidentally, also the alternative title of writer Rafael Sabatini’s doctor-cum-pirate, Captain Blood). And Kidman kept offices at the pub. At the back of the pub were Kidman’s bustling, world-famous horse sales, the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sidney Kidman mural, KapundaA
Kidman’s contribution to Kapunda is writ large across the town

Ninety-five-year-old Ross Vogt is a well-respected and well-loved Kapunda citizen, founder of the Kapunda Museum and the Pines Conservation Reserve. Vogt also attended Kidman’s last horse sale. “I went with my father, but Sid wasn’t there,” Vogt says. “It was around 1926. The horsemen brought the unbroken horse into the circle. They had a long pole with paint, and they would put it on the rump or withers. And the colour and position told the officer who it was bought by. My father bought a Kidman horse. It was a mad thing. It just about destroyed our horse yard at Allendale.”

Bold raised lettering still announces ‘Kidman’s Buildings’ in Kapunda’s Main Street. Forget branding cattle and horses: Kidman was master of another type of branding. People wanted to work for the Kidman company, as it had status; only the best worked for Kidman. Kidman was non-judgmental about his workers’ drunken behaviour or mysterious pasts, as long as workers did their jobs well. The name Kidman is so well-branded that even Hollywood star Nicole Kidman never outright denies that she’s related to the great man (although this connection is probably an urban myth).

Vogt says that Kidman’s “reputation was very high, but envy cuts down tall poppies. He was our neighbour at Allendale North, so my dad got to know him very well and never said a bad word against him.”

Like many Kapunda locals, Vogt felt sad about Kidman’s land being sold recently, “but things don’t go on forever”. Or do they?

Apart from the suburb, bridge, buildings and streets in Adelaide and Kapunda that honour Kidman’s name, a Kapunda housing estate, ‘Five Shillings’, alludes to the legend of Kidman starting in Kapunda with only five shillings and a one-eyed horse. Kidman’s image even adorns the estate’s banners.

Allen Tiller, a paranormal researcher, says that several people have seen Kidman’s ghost upstairs at the North Kapunda Hotel. “He’s been seen looking out a window,” Tiller says. “He turns his head to the right, looks down at a pocket watch and then slowly dissipates.”

Whether ghostly or not, Kidman was so successful at branding his name that he remains a larger-than-life, spiritual presence in Kapunda and beyond. SidKidmania lives on.

Long live the king.

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox