I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published October 28th 2013
Wander Around WA's North-east Wheatbelt This Weekend
Far beyond the crowds of Perth, on the eastern side of the Darling Ranges lies the Western Australian Wheatbelt. The region covers an immense expanse of agricultural area; extending from north of Geraldton down to the far south and east to the goldfields. Tiny agricultural hamlets are scattered throughout - many, like small towns everywhere, are slowly succumbing to an aging population as their young people are drawn to an easier, faster life on the coast.
Nungarin Hotel is a classic Australian country pub.
Driving through these small townships, one can't fail to notice the pride the residents have in their place in the world, their agricultural heritage and the pioneers that struggled against all odds to transform the region into the 'bread basket' of Western Australia. There is many a pioneer museum nestled on a backstreet to honour the struggles of forebears and local parks display vintage farm equipment as reminders of the 'hard old days'.
With most of its delights located well off major roads, the Wheatbelt is one of Australia's hidden gems: an entire region that is largely overlooked by travellers. However, those that enjoy wandering off-the-beaten-track will be well rewarded, as they discover historic villages, dramatic granite outcrops, and picturesque fields of wheat stretching as far as the eye can see. The region is ideal for campers as many towns are extremely RV friendly and free bush camping is available in many nature reserves.
Spectacular Eaglestone Rock is approximately 2 kilometres from Nungarin
Nungarin, in the north east, approximately three hours from Perth, is a town like so many others in the region: small, remote and epitomising the rugged outback spirit. The area's pastoral history dates back to the late 1860s when Charles Adams and James Ward, along with their wives, set out by bullock dray on a long and arduous quest to find good farming land far beyond the more densely settled coastal regions of the colony. Still in their twenties, their tenacity and determination are a testament to the pioneer spirit, and almost beyond belief in this era of easy living and instant gratification.
Around 1875, after leasing land for several years in Yarragin, about eight kilometres north of Kununoppin, Charles and Jane Adams, accompanied by their young family, moved on to Mangowine Spring, a place that the colonial surveyor, John Septimus Roe, had noted three decades earlier, possessed good water and pasture. It was here, sixteen kilometres north of present-day Nungarin, that the young couple constructed their homestead from materials sourced from the surrounding countryside: stone, mud, native timbers and plant fibres, and raised their large family. Over a century later, the homestead is still standing: the earliest building still existing in the region.
Bumping along the track leading to Mangowine Homestead it's easy to feel that, out here, time is insignificant. Leaving the car behind, we wandered up to the homestead where we were greeted by Lurline Whyte, the only surviving grandchild of Charles and Jane Adams, who had kindly offered to escort us around the property. Born in nearby Kununoppin, Lurline moved to Mangowine in 1936 when she was just two years old. By that time her grandmother had passed away and her father had taken over the management of the property which had been his childhood home. After many years nursing throughout Western Australia, Lurline returned to Nungarin to retire and now resides on a property close to Mangowine, popping into the old homestead from time to time to chat with visitors and show them around.
Lurline Whyte is a grand-daughter of Mangowine Homestead's original pioneers
As we wandered through the historic buildings it was fascinating to listen as Lurline recounted anecdotes of her childhood during the years prior to World War II, as well as old sagas that her father had told her about her grandparent's early struggles to tame the bush and create a viable farming property to support their family.
Despite its isolation, Jane Adams created a family home at Mangowine.
It seemed that every nook and cranny in the property possessed a memory; from an underground cellar where Lurline's older sister had threatened to lock her younger siblings if they misbehaved; to a small bedroom where a child had tragically burnt himself to death as a result of playing with a candle. Despite the harshness of the climate and the isolation, it was a happy childhood spent riding horses, helping with the farm chores and playing hide-and-seek and 'chasies' with her sisters and brothers.
Mangowine has been beautifully restored by the National Trust of Western Australia to the way it looked in its heyday. Most of the homestead's rooms are filled with artefacts dating back from the nineteenth century although as Lurline wryly noted, very few are original items connected with the Adams' family. As well as the domestic exhibits, a few rooms have been set up to reflect the period following Charles Adams' death, when Jane, his widow, used part of the homestead as a wayside inn, catering to tired, thirsty prospectors en-route to the eastern goldfields.
These days, life at Mangowine continues peacefully and the property is open to visitors most days. The homestead is a RV friendly destination and there's a small camping area at the front where visitors can stay and experience the special ambiance of this beautiful and remote part of the country. Once a year in October the homestead comes alive to the sound of music during the annual Mangowine Concert, which is held in a small amphitheatre on the property and attracts a number of visitors from the area and beyond.
Leaving Mangowine Homestead behind, we journeyed through spectacular fields of wheat back towards Nungarin, detouring to visit McCorry's Old Hotel, a few kilometres out of town. Built more than one hundred years ago, it is reputed to have been by-passed by the railway due to the owner having had a falling-out with an engineer prior to its construction. Isolated from the rest of town, which was built around the new railway, business dwindled and the fine old stone building fell into disrepair, eventually being used by a local farmer to store hay. Now renovated, it offers a range of accommodation options for visitors, including a small, friendly camping area.
McCorry's Old Hotel
Delving further into Nungarin's history, a visit to the Heritage Machinery and Army Museum gave us an insight into another important chapter of the town's life. During World War II Nungarin was the base of one of the largest army ordnance storage facilities in Western Australia, due to its strategic location close to regional railway junctions and far enough inland to avoid attack by Japanese bombers. The No-5 Base Ordnance Depot was an immense complex that included army vehicle workshops, storehouses, a powerhouse, administration blocks and living facilities for the hundreds of army personnel that were based there.
While most of the camp buildings were sold or demolished after the war, the Nungarin Shire Council purchased the army vehicle workshop, a huge timber structure, for use as its depot. These days, while a portion of the building is still used for this purpose, most house the Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum: a fitting tribute to a sturdy old structure that served the country well during its time of need.
We were greeted by Bill Hewitt as we entered the museum. Bill is the chairman of the management committee, and well-qualified to show us around and tell us a little about its background. He described how the museum was largely the outcome of a public meeting held in 1993, to debate a common dilemma in small rural communities: what the locals could do to stop their town dying.
Bill Hewitt kindly told us the story behind the Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum
Several innovative projects around the town were proposed, including the restoration of Mangowine Homestead and the establishment of a military museum on the site of the old ordnance base. Almost immediately, a committee was formed and work began to transform the dilapidated army vehicle workshop into a fitting homage to an important episode in Australia's history.
Donations of cash, resources and expertise began to flood in from the local community and beyond and gradually the building was restored and items of historical significance acquired. The results are impressive and the museum would have to be one of the most fascinating regional museums that I've visited.
As Bill escorted us around the various exhibits, we were awe-struck by their range and historical depth. Although the former workshop is huge, it's packed full with an impressive range of former army vehicles, trucks and tanks. The museum also houses displays of military uniforms, weapons, 'trench art', photographs, and all sorts of other memorabilia relating to Australia's armed forces, as well as a sizable collection of articles connected with the town's agricultural heritage.
Bill with some of the army tanks at the Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum.
Farewelling Bill, it was then time for us to leave town and follow the road to our next destination. Our sojourn in Nungarin was a pleasant surprise and we were sorry to leave. The people we'd encountered were warm and genuine and we'd learned much about a region that had, until then, been completely unknown to us.
The Nungarin area is a paradise for campers as it combines a rich pioneer heritage with beautiful pockets of natural bushland. These offer many attractive places to pitch a tent or park a trailer such as the rugged Eaglestone Rock in the Lake Campion Nature Reserve, twenty-one kilometres north-east of the township. However, campers need to be self-sufficient, as amenities are not provided in most of the small reserves.
Eaglestone Rock is a great spot to go camping and bushwalking.
For those eager to discover a rural community with a heart of gold, Nungarin is a spot which must be visited. Although small in size, the welcome is warm and there is so much to see and do. Regardless whether you're a history buff, a nature-lover or simply enjoy meeting the local people wherever you roam, this hidden gem on Western Australia's Wheatbelt should not be missed.
Nungarin is situated approximately three hundred kilometres east of Perth. It can be reached by driving to Merredin along the Great Eastern Highway, and then travelling north for forty kilometres along the Wyalkatchem Merredin Road. An alternate route is along the Pioneer Pathway, which begins in Toodyay and continues eastwards, passing through picturesque countryside and several small historic Wheatbelt towns.
The best time to visit Nungarin is during the cooler months of the year as summer can get very hot. A popular time to visit is from late July until October when the Wheatbelt comes alive with a myriad of exquisite wildflowers. The annual Nungarin Harvest Festival is held on the first weekend of October, and includes the Mangowine Concert and Nungarin Wheatbelt Markets. Markets are also held throughout the year on the first Sunday of each month.
Nungarin offers several options for campers. There are lovely camping sites in the grounds of McCorry's Old Hotel. Powered sites are $15 and unpowered sites $10. There are toilet and shower facilities, and barbecues in the garden. For more details call Mike on 08 9046 5187. The Nungarin Recreation Centre on Danberrin Road also welcomes campers, and provides all facilities including an outdoor cooking area for just $15 for a powered site or $5 without power. Bookings can be made at the Nungarin Shire offices on 08 9046 5006. It is also possible to camp at Mangowine Homestead for just $5 a night. Call Bob on 08 9046 5149 to find out more. Bush camping is possible at Eaglestone Rock although there are no facilities.