Cancer Town

… children run and laugh, kicking a ball across the yard.  The neighbor across the street is mowing the lawn, the drone of his lawnmower covering the sound of the wind chimes that dance delicately in the breeze.  The smell of freshly cut grass drifts past his neighbor’s homes.  Two dogs chase after the children barking with excitement.  A sprinkler sprays water on another neighbor’s lawn while a man reads a newspaper on his front porch…

I wondered what this neighborhood was like when it was last inhabited.  As we drove around Wittenoom we saw house after abandoned house that look like they were just lived in.  Aside from the uncut lawns and some weeds growing in the middle of the road, Wittenoom looks like it was abandoned yesterday.

Located just north of Karijini National Park, the abandoned town of Wittenoom is on the northern road between the main entrance of the park and Hamersley Gorge.  The Lonely Planet Guide book and our Australian road map advised against travel to Wittenoom.  There may be some risk to visit but it seemed minimal so we decided to have a look at a modern ghost town.

Asbestos mining began in Wittenoom Gorge in 1937 and continued until 1966.  The town reached its height in the 1950′s as a mining boom town and was the largest town in the region.  Asbestos fibers are an excellent insulator against heat and the town was busy mining the crocidolite (blue asbestos) for shipment all over the world.  The dangers of asbestos were known as early as the 1920′s, but unfortunately, the dangers were ignored in favor of mining the profitable fibers.

After the mine was shut down in the 1960′s, the town withered a bit but survived until the Australian government tried to close it completely in 1979.  Empty buildings were bulldozed, later the water was turned off and more recently, the government cut the town off from the power grid.  When we visited only two or three resilient families remained.

There probably isn’t much asbestos risk in town; the mine is located miles up into the canyon and most, if any asbestos dust is up in the canyon.  The Australian government has told local tourism offices not to promote Wittenoom as a tourist destination and – aside from seeing the warnings on the map and in the travel book – the locals we met didn’t talk about it.

As we drove around town we could see cement slabs where old houses once stood.  Weeds and grass covered lawns, sidewalks and encroached into the roadways.  The houses that remained were closed up but looked like they were recently abandoned.  A street sign still provides directions even though it now lives amongst the weeds.

The Wittenoom Church has fallen prey to nature and its metal roof rusts under the sun and morning dew.  The gate remains open as if churchgoers left service this morning and never returned.  Weeds shot up around the gate, its hinges rusted, forever locking in place like a timeless statue.  If this church could talk, I wonder what stories it could tell us.  Stories of church services, holidays and weddings followed by years of silence.

We drove around for an hour or two and had chance to experience a real live ghost town.  I would like to have explored some of the buildings or walk around a bit, but we weren’t exactly sure if there was any asbestos dust or not so we mostly stayed in the camper van.

The “Doc Holidays Cafe” looked like it could have served burgers this week.  The windows and doors were closed but the building looked in decent condition besides.  Grass and weeds infiltrated the parking lot and the gas pump slowly rusts as the numbers on its dial bleach in the sun.  I wondered if the town was only abandoned recently but the age of the gas pump tells me that this town has been a “ghost town” for two or three decades.  It seems as though time had just stopped.  It was an eerie feeling, as though we had crossed time and distance and somehow teleported onto the set of the “Twilight Zone.”


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