Recent Witchelina Nature Reserve visitor, Anne Dawes from nearby Farina Station, was on the hunt for evidence of Chinese market gardens, copper and gold!
Photo: Group of locals checking out Mirra Weir (Anne Dawes)
Picturesque Mirra Weir near Bungerider Well was Anne and her friends’ first destination after consulting with Property Manager Chris Reed. Anne had heard stories of Chinese market gardeners setting up in the vicinity and using water from the weir.
“But we could not work out where the vegetables would have been grown though, as the ground appears salty and stony,” said Anne.
One of Nature Foundation’s Rotational Managers, Greg Bannon, provided some insight: “It’s possible that the water quality at Mirra Weir was better when the weir was built because the stonework is very high quality and a lot of physical effort and cost went into building it. It has puzzled me that someone would have gone to that effort to contain water that was not fit for use.”
Next, the group headed towards Rischbieth Well where they looked around the old copper mine.
“I found out recently that my great-great grandfather purchased a 32nd share in it back in 1888. This area has been mined quite extensively and the shafts appeared deep!”
Next stop was Rischbieth Well itself.
“There are also stories of vegetables being grown and taken to Callanna where they were sold to people from Marree as well as being taken to the railway and sold along the line,” Anne said.
Another Rotational Manager, Phil Cole, confirmed that there were Chinese gardens in the northern part of South Australia: In the late nineteenth century, Chinese gardeners were active supplying vegetables in Birdsville, Marree, Innamincka as well as Oodnadatta… The usual pattern was for a gardener to establish a patch in the fertile alluvial soil on the river flat beside a reliable waterhole and plant a market crop which could be watered by hand: usually including potatoes, cabbages, watermelons and maize. (DEH publication)
“It’s plausible that the garden at Rischbieth could have supplied Callanna or Marree. Rischbieth Well is the best water in the region,” said Phil.
Greg provided further insight: “The links for these Chinese vegetable gardens, sometimes fairly short-lived, was the railway and water”.
“The railway tracks were surveyed to include water sources of good enough quality to top up steam train boilers. Vegetables, like steam trains, need reasonable water!
“There were a lot of Chinese labourers and stonemasons employed in track construction.”
The South Australian Register, 24 February 1879 provides some insight to why there was a demand for vegetables: (The Chinese railway workers) spend very little in drink, but on the whole they live in far superior style to the white men… They live to a great extent on rice… and preserved fruits, but their demand for fowls and pork outstrips all the efforts of the farmers to keep them supplied. They purchase their supplies… from the European storekeepers, but there are also some stores which are run by Chinese.
“The gardens moved as the railway lines progressed. Some may have stayed a bit longer after the construction gangs moved on,” said Greg.
Anne had also heard rumours of a lady going off to mine gold near Rischbieth Well.
Although she couldn’t find any on the ground, Phil unearthed a reference in the South Australian Register, 15 November 1888: Gold Discovered Near Hergott*. A telegram has been received by the owners of Mount North-West Station** which states: — Splendid gold is being obtained at Rischbieth Well. About 1 oz to the load in alluvial.
Anne and her party topped off their day of exploration with an enjoyable meal at the Marree Hotel!
If you are interested in visiting some of the sites mentioned in this article, please speak to the Rotational Manager on duty when you arrive at the reserve.
*Hergott Springs, approx 25 miles from Rischbieth’s Well
**now part of Witchelina
Thanks to Greg Bannon, Phil Cole and John Mannion for the information contained in this article.