Arltunga, Northern Territory: Travel guide and things to do

Located 111 km east of Alice Springs Arltunga, the first substantial European settlement in Central Australia, is now a superbly preserved mining ghost town. It is located on the 5 000 hectare Arltunga Historical Reserve.

The town was named after a subgroup of the Arrente Aborigines who had been living in the area for at least 22 000 year before the arrival of Europeans.

The South Australian explorer, David Lindsay, passed through the area on his five week trek from Port Darwin to the South Australian coast in 1887 and observed that there appeared to be 'rubies' in the area. The goldrushes which had been such an important part of the history of Australia since the 1840s attracted miners to the area and the miners found both alluvial and reef gold which they worked for a few years in the early 1890s.

The town was deserted soon after but it enjoyed another flurry of activity with the construction of the Government Battery and Cyanide Works in 1896. This kept the town active until about 1916.

These flurries were relatively small. The population of the town in 1911 was 56 and this had dropped to 25 in 1933. The problems of the town are still evident - a lack of water, isolation and the difficulty of shipping in equipment and supplies all conspired to make any permanent settlement extremely difficult.

The journey to Arltunga from Alice Springs is a mixture of pleasure and discomfort. The first 80 km is good quality sealed road. The last 40 km is corrugated and winding. After passing through a gate the visitor passes a campsite and pub before arriving at the Historical Reserve. There is a roughly circular road which leads firstly to the Information Centre then on to the Old Police Station, the Government Works, the Mines and, by 4WD only, to the dramatic and isolated White Range Cemetery.

Things to see

The Arltunga Visitors and Information Centre
The Arltunga Visitors and Information Centre is a good starting point. It has excellent photographs and plenty of information about the early history of the area including detailed descriptions of the mining techniques which were employed in this dry, desert environment.

The harshness of the early settlement is dramatically created in the Information Centre with descriptions such as 'Life on the Arltunga goldfields was very hard. Arltunga was extremely isolated, it lacked water, had limited supplies of basic foods, suffered extremes of temperature, and the cost of living was exorbitant. To reach Arltunga in the 1880s you would need to walk or ride alongside the Overland Telegraph Line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs, then follow the MacDonnell Ranges east for around 120 km. This would take at least a week and often longer in temperatures which often exceeded 40�C. The shortage of water meant that fresh vegetables could not be grown and limited water supplies were drawn from wells and water soaks in creeks. Because of the lack of feed and water for stock the transportation costs for food were very high. These high costs were passed onto the Arltunga residents. Aborigines, miners, stockkeepers, publicans, battery managers, engine drivers, fitters, carpenters, labourers, clerks, cooks, blacksmiths, assayers, foremen, battery hands, housekeepers, stockmen and pastoralists, are some of the residents of early Arltunga.'

The Arltunga Historical Reserve
The Arltunga Historical Reserve was established in 1975 and since then there has been a systematic attempt to restore and maintain the existing buildings.


The most interesting area of Arltunga is undoubtedly the Government Works. It was constructed during the second wave of settlement in the area. The first miners had arrived in 1887 with the discovery of gold at Paddys Rockhole. The first wave of miners didn't last long. The lack of water and harshness of the conditions meant that by the time the South Australian Government Geologist H. Y. L. Brown arrived at the town in 1888 he found it nearly deserted.

By 1896 the alluvial gold in the area had all but disappeared. The miners successfully petitioned the South Australian Government and two years later a Government Battery and Cyanide Works were opened and ore was being crushed.

The Government Battery area included offices, a battery shed, assay and bullion rooms and residences. Originally these buildings stood at Claraville to the north but due to shortages in materials they were dismantled and rebuilt at Arltunga.

The structures at Arltunga are mostly stone buildings. Schist and quartzite rocks were usually chosen and stacked together to form dry walls or cemented with mud or lime mortar. Other buildings were made from timber, corrugated iron or canvas tents. Arltunga's buildings show several innovations designed to assist survival in hot climates. Some buildings were partially set into the ground for insulation and orientated towards the cooler south-easterly winds. This technique is now common in mining towns like Coober Pedy and Andamooka. One structure even had an underground vent system that fed cooled breezes into the storage room. Despite the large number of buildings remaining at Arltunga there is little written evidence about the structures.

The whole area is preserved as though the inhabitants simply walked away from it only yesterday. The curious visitor who walks just a little way off the paths will see signs of previous habitation. Old pieces of meat safes, pieces of rusted wire, rusted cans, and pieces of broken glass litter the ground. There is nothing of great importance but each little shard is reminder of the people who once lived and worked here. For more information check out:

Police Station and Gaol
It is possible to walk from the Government Works to the Police Station and Gaol (both of which have been carefully preserved). The walk down a creek bed is pleasant but the walk back along the road is much longer and of little interest. It is better to use the creek to walk both ways.

The Old Mines
Beyond the Government Works and the Police Station are the MacDonnell Range Reef Mine, the Christmas Reef Mine, the Golden Chance Mine, the Joker Mine and the Great Western Mine all of which are worth a visit. Visitors with a 4WD will find the journey out to the White Range cemetery fascinating. The few graves stuck forlornly on the side of the hill look so lonely and so isolated. It is reminiscent of the images of 'Boot Hill' depicted in western movies.

There's another sad little cemetery at the Crossroads with just four or five hastily constructed wooden crosses. This is all that remains of the original township. It is said that a rumour that gold was hidden in the walls of the old stone buildings resulted in their destruction. Ironically no gold was found.

The Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory runs two tours each day in winter. One starts at 11.00 a.m. at the Government Works and there is another one at the Great Western Mine site at 2.00 p.m. The Conservation Commission's free brochure Touring Historic Arltunga is an informative guide for people who want to explore the ruins and the mines at their own pace.

For tourism information, see Arltunga website