Wyndham - Culture and History

The traditional Aboriginal inhabitants of the area were the Djeidji, Dulngari and Aruagga tribes who lived on the rich harvest of seafood available in the gulf.

The first European explorer into the area was Phillip Parker King who sailed the 83 ton cutter Mermaid around La Crosse Island and into the body of water he subsequently named Cambridge Gulf after the then Duke of Cambridge. King arrived in the region on 19 September 1819. He had been given the brief to explore the far western Australian coast and discover a river 'likely to lead to an interior navigation into the great continent'. He sailed up a river (which was subsequently named after him) and, unable to find any signs of fresh water on the mudflats, departed.

King's description was so pessimistic that no Europeans visited the area for the next sixty years. It wasn¹t until 1879 that Alexander Forrest (see Kunanurra for more detail) travelled through the area and sent back reports of the huge pastoral potential. These reports excited the interest of Solomon Emanuel and Patrick Durack who sent a party to the area in 1881 which confirmed Forrest's earlier assessment.

In 1883 John Forrest, at the time the WA Commissioner of Lands, surveyed the area and hinted that the area Œbore distinct indications of gold¹. It was in that same year that Patrick 'Patsy' Durack began his epic trek from southwest Queensland to the region with 7250 head of breeding cattle and 200 horses. It was the longest overlanding of cattle ever attempted in Australia and lasted 2 years and four months.

1884 saw the first settlement of the East Kimberley. The isolation of the area at this time was truly horrific. The Cushidoo was the first ship to land supplies at the site of Wyndham. The supplies were meant for the Ord River Station but by the time people from the station arrived to collect the shipment the local Aborigines had removed all but a few bags of well hidden flour. This was also the year when Charlie Hall (see Halls Creek) discovered gold in the East Kimberley thus sparking a goldrush to the region.

In 1885 Wyndham was established as a port and trading station. A couple of general stores were opened and the first shipment of cattle and sheep arrived in the Gulf.

By 1886 the town was booming. There were six pubs (including a large two storey building which was only knocked down in 1965), ships landed at least 5000 miners who all headed off to the Halls Creek goldfields, a townsite near the present day meatworks was surveyed and blocks of land sold (mostly to speculators who never inspected their purchases), and a number of shanties and resting spots grew up along the track to the goldfields. It is known that during this boom there were times when up to 16 vessels were moored in Cambridge Gulf.

The goldrush at Halls Creek was short lived. By 1888 the rush was over and the effect on the fortunes of Wyndham was obvious. One remnant from this period is the ruins of the Magistrate¹s Residence (turn east around the northern end of the mudflats beyond the hotel at Wyndham Port - it is worthwhile stopping at the Tourist Information Centre and getting a copy of the mud map of the two townships).

There seems to be some confusion about the Magistrate's Residence. Some sources claim that it was never completed because the local Aborigines harassed the builders. Others claim that the walls once rose to a height of 22 feet (6.7 metres) and that a number of magistrates lived in the residence until it was closed down in the early 1900s.

From 1888 until 1919 Wyndham was a tiny settlement serving the pastoral interests in East Kimberley. Stories of this period have an amusing, outback feel to them. The arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line in 1889 provided the local Aborigines with an excellent source of spearheads as they climbed up the poles and helped themselves to the ceramic insulators. In 1900 the population of the town comprised 61 people of voting age of whom 60 voted for federation. The solitary anti-federationist never disclosed his or her identity.

By 1912 money had virtually disappeared from the town's economy with everything being paid for with promissory notes known as 'shinplasters' which were issued by publicans and storekeepers. To the delight of the people who issued them these 'shinplasters' often became illegible if left in a sweaty pocket for too long.

By World War 1 the town was effectively controlled by the Duracks who owned the nearby cattle stations. It was therefore appropriate that in 1913 the WA Government started constructing the Wyndham Meatworks. Work was interrupted by the war but the Meatworks were finally completed in 1919. They continued to be the town¹s main economic raison d¹etre until they was closed down in 1985. The last bullock was killed and exported on 10 October, 1985.

Today Wyndham Port is still operational but it exports live cattle to Asia and lead and zinc to Korea. The town¹s newest industry is an export crocodile farm (located just beyond the old Magistrates Residence). It is hoped that eventually up to 3000 crocodiles a year can be farmed.

With a population of between 1200-1500 Wyndham is now partly sustained by tourism as more and more travellers visit this strange and exotic old port.

Writers and commentators have not been terribly kind to Wyndham. Most of the travel writers have suggested that the town has a special charm but, having said that, they have proceeded to paint a picture which has more than a passing resemblance to hell.

In 1951 George Farwell in his book The Outside Track described the town as 'a lonely pin-point of settlement upon a vast and empty landscape of tidal estuaries, mangroves, unpeopled valley floors and barren, tree-less ranges' and two years later Leslie Rees painted a grim picture of the town as having a foreground of 'empty 44-gallon drums, beer bottles, old tins, bits of sheet iron, termite-eaten wood. A background of salt marshes and harsh, desolate hills under the torrid sun'. Neither of these descriptions is flattering to Wyndham. However they do evoke the strangeness of this town on the far edge of the continent.