Kicking around Old Halls Creek
Stan Brumby at Yarliyil Art Centre. Picture: Niall McIlroy

It's hard to imagine what men felt as they stumbled out of the desert into town - some close to death, others closer to insanity. Was it the oasis they sought or just another mirage induced by exhaustion?

Old Halls Creek marked the northern extremity of the Canning Stock Route to Wiluna, established in 1910 as a means of getting East Kimberley cattle to southern markets. It meandered south-west for 1850km, linked by a series of waterholes roughly a day apart.

Men died on the track, others were murdered. Local Aboriginal people were chained by the neck and forced to find waterholes. And so arduous was the trail that it was used no more than 30 times as a stock route.

But Halls Creek would always be known as the end of the line and remains a frontier town to this day. Hundreds of kilometres from anywhere.

Because of that isolation, each time I return to Halls Creek, I think about its importance to the pioneers, how it made the difference between life and death. I wonder how many prospectors reached its rugged embrace just in the nick of time.

A tribute to these men stands in the form of the statue of Russian Jack, who pushed his sick friend in a wheelbarrow from the Great Sandy Desert about 300km to Wyndham.

And these are the reasons Halls Creek was founded.

In 1885, the State's first gold rush started here - not in Coolgardie or Menzies.

Named after Charles Hall, who first saw the precious yellow in a nearby creek, the town swelled to 15,000 with people coming from all over the world - characters such as Russian Jack. But the boom was short-lived and Old Halls Creek has long since become a ghost town.

The death knell came with the building of the Great Northern Highway in the mid-1950s. After a vote, it was decided the old town would be abandoned for a new site 16km north-west straddling the main road.

And there it stands today, fulfilling its role as the only place for fuel, food and lodging for hundreds of kilometres.

Out on the rocky and unsealed Duncan Road, finally stripped of its highway status in 1976, the old town began to fade, left to be overtaken by the bush. Now road signs point nowhere, mocking the transience of life and of everything we build.

I try to imagine children playing, people working on the Duncan Road that speared eastward - next stop the Northern Territory. In the ruins of this small town that was moved somewhere else - taken like an organ to another body - I'm captivated by the still and the silence.

Old Halls Creek. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

I wonder about the handful of residents who decided to stay on, unwilling or maybe unable to leave their beloved patch.

There's little sign of them now. Instead, garden paths lead into thick grass. There are no homes save for the vaguely humanoid mounds favoured by termites. Halfway up the low ridge that stretches the length of the old town, I see a stone monument and pick my way gingerly through the thick grass to read a plaque:

''Butchers Shop
built by Jack Skeen
end of 1930s''

Behind it, a few bits of tin stick out of the ground, the only trace of where people bought their pork.

Further along is a big foundation pad, stubbornly halting the grass, and on it another monument. But the plaque is missing. Town hall, perhaps?

Rusting cogs and cranks may be the last vestiges of a workshop but - save for a couple of rotting pergolas, a barrel and a ramshackle noticeboard where people have left found china, screws and tins - little of the town remains.

There are other structures. The grave from the 50s. A monument to Charles Hall and company at roughly where they struck gold in 1885. And a memorial to David Carnegie and his group who surveyed an early stock route from Coolgardie and arrived exhausted in Halls Creek in 1896.

The only life is a brolga sipping lazily from Caroline Pool on the other side of the Duncan Road. This was a favourite swimming hole of, and I can almost picture it, tired and dirty Carnegie and Canning and an ecstatic Hall jumping in to cleanse or to celebrate.

Old Halls Creek isn't the only curiosity out on the Duncan Road. Not far from the Great Northern Highway, a dirt track leads into hill country where a single orange and white rib of quartz curves over a ridge.

Although it can't be seen from space, this is Halls Creek's very own China Wall and is a far older structure than its more famous Asian counterpart. It is being worn away although its fight against the elements will be a much longer running battle than that of the butchers shop in the bush.

At the bituminised end of the Duncan Road where the transplanted town "landed", the indigenous artists of Halls Creek are recording their Dreaming, painting their history. Many of the elders came in from the desert with their parents and were the first to work on cattle stations.

And at Yarliyil Art Centre, they now paint the stories of their families and of creation in dots and arrowed footprints, bright blue waterholes, white eggs and burning suns, determined that they will never fade into the outback. Acclaimed artist Stan Brumby is 90-something and spends most of his day at the centre, painting his memories.

"This is Mudba country next door to my home," Stan tells me from underneath his Akubra, as he continues to paint on an earthy canvas.

"We used to go there when I was a boy, plenty of bush tucker in that area; bush-tucker banana, bush orange, bush cherry," he says.

The Jaru man from south of Halls Creek was a drover for most of his life and took cattle down the Canning Stock Route, probably in the 50s. As with his birth, the details of when are not recorded but he has painted the occurrence a number of times.

"I was a young man and we took horses and cattle to Wiluna," Stan says and for the first time fixes me with big, liquid eyes.

"We went from waterhole to waterhole; it was a long walk. All we had to eat was corned beef and damper.

"Now there is no more cattle on the stock route and no need for me to drove. Now it's all done by helicopter."

And his hat dips again as he paints another memory.

Caroline Pool was a favourite swimming spot. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

FACT FILE

• Halls Creek is about 360km from Kununurra. There are daily flights to Kununurra from Perth via Broome.

• The Kimberley Hotel's reception and restaurant area occupy a colonial building with high roofs and wide verandas. There are 74 air-conditioned rooms which range from standard to family rooms and one and two-bedroom apartments. The hotel has well-tended gardens as well as a pool, spa and barbecue area. Since arriving in 2010, general manager Teresa Anderson has set about upgrading what is already a good resort and is about to refurnish the restaurant and pool area. See kimberleyhotel.com.au and phone 9168 6101.

• Drop into the Halls Creek Visitor Centre on Hall Street for advice and information. Go to hallscreektourism.com.au or phone 9168 6262.

•It's advisable to use a 4WD on the Duncan Road as all but the first few kilometres are corrugated or rocky. If hiring, check with the company that the lease terms allow use on the Duncan Road, which can flood. From Halls Creek, the turn-off to China Wall is a couple of kilometres on the left. Caroline Pool and Old Halls Creek are both about 16km from town. About 45km from town, Palm Springs is an old watering hole and great for a swim. A few minutes further on, Sawpit Gorge has high rock faces and placid pools at which to cool off.

• Visitors are welcome to watch the artists paint at Yarliyil Art Centre which is currently housed in the Shire Hall. Arts development officer Jeanette Swan says work will soon begin on a gallery as the group goes from strength to strength with exhibitions in Cairns, Melbourne, Sydney and Darwin. The core group of artists include Stan Brumby, Bonnie Deegan and Jeanette's grandmother Biddy Timbinah who won the Mid West Art Prize for My Father's Country - Ngaanyatjarra which depicts the 900km walk Biddy's family made as they came in from the desert near Uluru. The gallery is open on weekdays from 8.30am-4.30pm and on weekends by arrangement. See yarliyil.com.au or phone 9168 6723.

Niall McIlroy visited Halls Creek as a guest of Australia's North West Tourism and the Kimberley Hotel.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West