Mining towns of the Copper Coast give up haunting secrets

The Wallaroo Mines smelter, which was once a vital part of the town, is today just a majestic, skeletal belltower.
The Wallaroo Mines smelter, which was once a vital part of the town, is today just a majestic, skeletal belltower. Tracey Papandrea

SQUINT against the chill ocean air. Fold those arms tightly around your body. Slurp that hot coffee.

Do whatever you can to repel the icy winds ripping up the Spencer Gulf and through your bones as you walk the many jetties jutting from the sleepy seaside towns of Wallaroo and Moonta, about an hour north of Adelaide.

As unpleasant as the experience sounds, it's mandatory when visiting Yorke Peninsula's Copper Coast, especially when you are there to retrace the faded footsteps of childhood memories in the mind, and delve deeper into an intriguing family history dating back to the 1800s.

Wallaroo, Moonta and Kadina form what is known as the Copper Triangle, or Little Cornwall, given the large settlement of Cornish miners there.

The region's connection to mining runs as deep as the green veins of copper still visible as peacock-hued pebbles popping from the red dust.

Various enterprises over the decades have also extracted limestone, granite, dolomite, gypsum and sand from the earth there.

But copper started a boom when it was discovered in Wallaroo in 1857 and in Moonta soon after.

European settlers flooded in and, by 1890, the population had swelled to 30,000.

The Moonta Company was the first in Australia to pay dividends of more than a million pounds - a remarkable feat that happened in 1877.

By 1889, the value of the ores sold from the Wallaroo Mines was nearly 2.25 million pounds.

In 1905, the company employed more than 2200 people and the boom period continued until the First World War when the price of copper plummeted.

The closure of the Moonta and Wallaroo mines in 1923 triggered a major population decline as families deserted the area.

Wheat and cattle farming took over as the main industries before being overtaken by tourism in more recent times. The area is now one of the state's most popular family and fishing holiday spots.

This potted history of a fascinating part of the country sums up many boom-to-bust stories felt around the nation.

It seemed impossible to imagine those wind-blown jetties as thriving ports, shipping tonnes of copper night and day.

The Moonta Mines Museum, SA.
The Moonta Mines Museum, SA.

It seemed impossible to imagine the main street of Wallaroo bustling and active when the quiet shops struggled to open up before 10am when we were there.

It seemed impossible to imagine this place as a thriving mining metropolis.

But those imaginings are entirely possible when you visit the Moonta Mines Museum.

This excellent attraction, run by the National Trust and housed in the old Moonta school, is so well done, it makes time travel easy if you have a bit of imagination.

Twenty minutes away is the Wallaroo Mines smelter: today, nothing but a majestic, skeletal belltower of creamy yellow sandstone plonked amid saltbush, wattle and rusted fencing that lost its slack years ago.

This is where my partner's great grandfather saved lives when the smelter caught fire in 1904.

A historian at the Wallaroo Museum knew his name and said we should be very proud of what he did as he showed us a broad landscape photo of holidaymakers on the same beach where we were staying.

There, to the far left of the photo, sits an ice-cream cart.

It was the same one that her great grandfather used to sell ice cream, or gelati, as it was in his homeland of Italy.

Is the figure standing next to that cart him? Most likely.

Then we gasp as we realise we are staying in an old shack on North Beach, the same beach in the photo, taken 60 years ago.

Did we walk on the same patch of sand that he did? Most likely.

This is harsh, quiet and beautiful country. And it is cheap. Dirt cheap.

Compare the cost of a lunch out in regional South Australia to downtown Mooloolaba and be amazed.



  • Wallaroo Heritage and Nautical Museum: including George the giant squid
  • Moonta Mines Museum: including tourist train
  • Moonta Chocolates Sweets and Treats
  • Fish for whiting, snapper or snoek off the many jetties
  • Find a beach shack online for a true taste of a popular SA family holiday


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