Pine Creek and the Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park

Friday, Jul 31, 2009 at 00:00


Heading to Pine Creek we a visit Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park, Copperfield Dam and on into the historic former mining town of Pine Creek.Pine Creek is also the gateway to Kakadu National Park, as the Kakadu Highway leaves the Stuart Highway near Pine Creek.

Having just read “No Place for a Woman”, the story of Mayse Young, I was keen to see the town where, during the ups and downs of her life, Mayse ran an outback Hotel. It is a book worth reading for anyone travelling through the north of the Northern Territory; it was a gift from another camper which I treasured.

Being dependent on the fortunes or failures of mining, Pine Creek has had a fluctuating past, and is now a small town just off the Stuart Highway where the now closed railway line which was an important part of the town’s development has been developed as a museum and a well maintained park and garden area.

Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park

The Nature Park covers around 970 hectares, and a basic campground is provided. Otherwise it is an easy day trip from Pine Creek along a 22 kilometres dirt road, which leaves the Stuart Highway in a westerly direction three kilometres south of Pine Creek.

A one kilometre walk beside a creek leads into and along a small gorge with sheer red rock walls. To go further than this walk trail requires some swimming and rock climbing; something we chose not to do as we were carrying our cameras. A further five kilometre walk can be taken by the adventurous.

Copperfield Dam

Accessed from the road to Umbrawarra, Copperfield Dam is now a picnic and recreation area. The area down near the dam is well set out with grass and picnic tables and solar powered flood lighting at night. The dam is suitable for swimming. Up on the hill there are toilets and an area which at the time of our visit permitted camping for up to eight rigs. This has subsequently been closed to camping due to misuse by some visitors.

Enterprise Pit, Pine Creek Goldfields

Gold was discovered near Pine Creek in 1871. A Government sponsored drilling project began in 1906 but was abandoned in 1915 because of the War. In the 1960s the Enterprise shaft was reopened and worked intermittently for twenty years. In 1985 the Enterprise Pit open cut commenced at the site of the Enterprise shaft and was mined until 1995.

The pit now forms a lake 135 metres deep and 250 metres wide at the widest point. It was filled with 6,800 megalitres of water over fourteen months by diverting Pine Creek into the pit.

A lookout point not far from the town overlooks Enterprise Pit. Old mining shafts are still evident on this hill.

The North South Transcontinental Railway

The railway was commenced in 1878 with a line from Port Augusta northwards, reaching Farina in South Australia in 1882. Palmerston (Darwin) was linked to Pine Creek in 1889. By 1929 the line from the south reached Alice Springs and the northern line had reached Birdum when further construction was halted.

During the War years of 1942 to 1945, up to 147 trains per week passed through Pine Creek as Servicemen and equipment was transported between Darwin and the military posts along this track.

In 1949 the Federal Government committed to converting the existing railways to standard gauge and to link the northern and southern lines. However this never eventuated and the line to Birdum through Pine Creek was closed in 1976 as the line was no longer considered viable. This was a big blow to the people of Pine Creek.

The new Ghan railway linking Adelaide and Darwin was completed in 2004.Pine Creek was bypassed by the new railway and the town was soon to be bypassed by the Stuart Highway also, although it is only a very short diversion into this neat town.

There is a railway museum in the old Post Office, an outdoor locomotive display, and where the line ran though a cutting a park featuring water gardens has been created. The locomotive on display is one of the locomotives which used to work on the line, an 1877 Beyer Peacock engine made in Manchester which hauled trains on this line from 1915 to 1945. It was restored in Pine Creek in 2001 and still operates on special occasions. An outdoor Mining History museum is adjacent.

Pine Creek and the South Alligator Region mining history

1871 saw the discovery of gold around Pine Creek by the workers on the Overland Telegraph Line. With the lure of gold, further discoveries were made and mining commenced in the Alligator Rivers region in the 1890s.

Further discoveries of gold reefs continued through the 1920s with intermittent mining at Mundogie Hill and Yemelba. Mining on theses leases ceased in the late 1930s when severe flooding washed away a network of bridges. This area is now principally within the Kakadu National Park although a Conservation Zone was declared in 1987 to allow mining exploration in this area.

In the 1940s, pastoralist Joe Callanan and prospectors the Roberts Brothers work a series of silver, copper, lead and zinc deposits. The Bureau of Mineral Resources had already noted similarities in the geology of the South Alligator Valley and Rum Jungle. Joe’s local knowledge lead to the discovery of Uranium at Coronation Hill, named due to Callanan showing geologist Bruce Walpole a copper bearing outcrop on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953. Walpole discovered radiation and minerals associated with uranium at that time, which lead to the discovery of uranium.

Twelve deposits in the South Alligator valley were worked with the richest being El Sherana where a treatment plant for the region was opened in 1956. Gold was produced as a bi-product of the ore. Mining to fill US and UK uranium contracts continued until 1964. El Sherana was named after prospector Bluey Kay’s daughters Elvira, Sheryl and Lana.

In 1972, named after Uranium Development and Prospecting, UDP Falls was gazetted as a Recreation Reserve. This is now known as Gunlom Falls and is within Kakadu National Park. More about Gunlom and Kakadu National Park to follow.

Uranium mining commenced in 1980 at the Jabiluka deposit and is currently being mined at the Ranger Mine, with the lease being totally surrounded by the Kakadu National Park.

In 1984 a mining resurgence saw gold, and more recently platinum and palladium discovered and mined at Coronation Hill.

There are still active gold mines in the Pine Creek area, and a compound of dongas houses mining workers, although the small town now thrives principally on tourism.

Read more detail about this trip and see all the photos in our 2009 Travelogues

Touring Kakadu National Park coming soon.

Red desert dreaming

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