I was fascinated by the idea of Amyton from the early days researching Days of Innocence and Wonder. It was just a passing mention in a collection about the early years of colonisation in which a ‘pioneer’ described the area where Amyton was later built as ‘like a garden of Eden’.
I looked it up, then looked closer. Aerial images of this region in South Australia’s Mid North show a damaged landscape from which Amyton has all but disappeared. Bone dry Amyton Creek meanders through dun-coloured paddocks. The land is marked with scars and welts: dams, one or two avenues of trees leading from the road to the square green patches that are all that remain of farmhouse gardens.
Zoom in on the crossroads of Amyton and ghostly lines that might be remnants of circular drives or sheds or farmhouse walls emerge pale against the darker land, as if from deep water. The slumped stone of fallen buildings resembles piles of bones.
Amyton started with grand dreams. The land was surveyed in 1879, divided into 204 house allotments and 180 larger blocks and parklands, but very little was built. So what went wrong?
The truth is that it had always been a gamble. Rainfall was uncertain from the first, the good rainfall of earlier years having been an anomaly. Archival photos show hopeful times: bullock drays outside the only shop in town, a farmer driving a team of draught horses as they plough a paddock, and Amyton school.
But farm profits dwindled and the school closed in 1930. Even in its heyday, Amyton had only four buildings and some agricultural sheds. The town’s non-existence was officially declared in 1957. It was un-made. All that’s left of Amyton today is heaps of rubble. It is the ghost of a ghost town.
It was useful to me. Looking at the shadows of Amyton was like looking into the future for towns that have become marginal further south as climate change shifts rainfall patterns.
I came upon one of these towns accidentally on my first research trip – Terowie, southeast of Amyton – and it was on this that I based the fictional Wirowie of Days of Innocence and Wonder. It was exactly what I wanted: a place caught between a hopeful past and a bleak future – unlike Till, who is caught between a bleak past and hopes of a better future.
Many of Terowie’s buildings are already in a state of collapse. It’s impossible to look at it without wondering whether in a hundred years aerial images will show only puddles of stone and the long scars of streets. Another ghost of a ghost town. How strange that looking at the past might show us the future.