Current Issue #478

Good Country:
Wheat over water at Wallaroo

Grain terminal at Wallaroo
Michael X Savvas
Grain terminal at Wallaroo

The Yorke Peninsula town of Wallaroo emerged in the mid 19th century as a bustling copper-smelting and harbour town. The town is still vibrant – today tourists savour the scenery, crabbing and fishing off the charming jetty. Many consider Wallaroo the best place in Australia for catching Blue Swimmer crabs.

Nearby Moonta retains a distinctly Cornish flavour, but Wallaroo reveals traces of the largely Welsh immigrants who made copper smelting such a success from 1862 to 1923. Some of Wallaroo’s early buildings demonstrate the Welsh style, being symmetrical, close to the road and without a verandah. The one remaining smelter chimney has sides and corners, whereas Moonta’s old chimneys are round, as the Cornish believed that the devil hides in corners. At one time, it was common to hear Welsh spoken in Wallaroo.

Long-time resident Gwynffa Thompson has a Welsh given name. Her maternal ancestors travelled from Wales to work at the smelter in 1864. Her parents left the town but came back with Gwynffa in 1944. She too eventually left, to work as a nurse, but returned and retired in Wallaroo 13 years ago.

Wallaroo Town Hall
Michael X Savvas
Wallaroo Town Hall

Gwynffa says, “I came up here thinking I could fit in, but it’s not easy to join clubs in the country, especially as I’m not sporty. But the city was getting busier and busier.”

Ironically, Gwynffa returned to a Wallaroo that has also continued to get busier. She and friend Fay McKee (one of whose children Gwynffa delivered) aren’t big fans of the changes to their hometown. Says Fay, “I love Wallaroo, but I don’t like change. I don’t like how all the old buildings have changed.”

Yet the tide of change continues to advance, with extensive housing development, stylish eateries (yes, The Smelter café, I’m looking at you), the lavishly stocked Foodland (where the friendly employees have a quaint habit of saying “Right here” when serving the next customer) and multicultural tourists.

Wallaroo’s life force is the jetty. At its base are two restaurants and the Wateroo, a safe enclosure for swimming. The jetty’s long enough to accommodate the many people who gravitate there (particularly in months with ‘r’ in them, which, as any fisho will attest, are the best months for crabbing). The far end of the jetty is where large ships load grain from the looming Viterra grain terminal via an enormous conveyor belt over the ocean. This enabler of industry lends an appealing surrealism to an already lovely seascape.

It’s pleasant to feel the cold salty water on your hands from a rope, and the splash on your arms and face as you haul up a drop net with hope (and excitement if the net c ontains a good-sized bluey). A quick stroll along the jetty confirms that fellow fishos share such delights. For example, Federico Areola brought his wife, daughter and sons to Wallaroo, and they’re all having a go. Says Federico, “First time we come here. My friend said to come here, but we caught nothing. Only crabs. I bought a $300 fishing rod, and something pulled it in the side, and I’m trying to use my squid jig [on a hand reel] to get it.”

A pelican by the waterfront at Wallaroo
Michael X Savvas
A pelican by the waterfront at Wallaroo

Moving on. Another punter, Lewis Cantone, says of Wallaroo, “It’s bloody beautiful. Been coming here for 25 years. Always go crabbing and fishing. I got 30 or 40 crabs one night … between six of us, I mean.”

Someone who can outshine Cantone (and friends) is Irina Zelenskaya, formerly of Kazakhstan: she and her partner once caught 28 crabs in one day and night. But Wallaroo means more to her than this,: on a magical New Year’s Eve, her partner turned himself into a fiancé, and the happy couple spent the rest of New Year’s watching fireworks at the Wallaroo country fair, dazed with love and cinnamon doughnuts.

Wallaroo has been home to Australians of national significance: Caroline Carleton, lyricist for The Song of Australia, and AFL footy great Adam Goodes. Although Carleton is recognised in monuments, signs and walking tours around the town, Goodes, who was born in Wallaroo, isn’t. This needs fixing. It’s apt to honour such an admirable man, whose people, the Narungga, are the traditional owners of the land that’s brought prosperity and pleasure to so many visitors.

Michael X Savvas

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