The Kanyaka Run was first established in 1851 by a young Hugh Proby who had come to Australia with the ambition of establishing a vast cattle ranch in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Kanyaka was indeed a huge holding with two of the leases alone comprising an area of more than a hundred square miles. Proby set about stocking the run with some twelve hundred head of cattle but the season was dry and Proby was forced to agist most of his cattle on the neighbouring Mt. Arden run to the west of Kanyaka. The drought broke on August 30th 1852 amidst violent thunderstorms and heavy downpour in the Flinders Range. Proby and a companion rode out to rescue a stampeding frightened herd but the young European’s lack of knowledge of this ancient landscape would bring his demise.
The storm front was widespread and water raced down the previously dry river beds. Cut off by the now swollen Willochra Creek, Proby in a desperate attempt to ford the raging torrent was swept from his horse and drowned. His body was later found and recovered a distance downstream. He lies buried near the site. Following Hugh Proby’s untimely death his leases were disposed of by his executors and taken up by an Alexander Grant and one John Randall Phillips.
John Phillips had his own vision for the holding and began an ambitious building programme. Kanyaka was soon to resemble a small village with an overseer’s cottage, workmen’s cottages, men’s kitchen, blacksmith workshop, cart and harness sheds, stockyards and animal enclosures. However, the main feature of the new settlement was the grand homestead built of stone and mortar. The walls were 18 inches thick and the floors polished red gum from the nearby Kanyaka Creek. It contained sixteen rooms, a large dining room and a cellar. It also boasted a galvanised iron roof. The flooring and roofing are long gone and unfortunately very little remains today of this once lavish building and its surrounds but the woolsheds buttress construction has better withstood the test of time and the elements.
The woolshed stands to the south of the homestead with adjacent shearers’ quarters. As with all of Kanyaka’s buildings it’s also constructed of stone and mortar but it is impressive. Massive stone pillars stand at the entrances to the shearing floor. In 1864 more than 40,000 sheep were hand-sheared here. The wool bales were strapped together by thin iron hoops and transported by bullock wagon to the Spencer Gulf port of Port Augusta. Kanyaka had now firmly been given over to sheep and wool production.
The good seasons were not to last. In fact the region had already begun to enter into a new prolonged drought that would see the starvation and death of thousands of sheep and the ultimate abandonment of the settlement. In 1866 after several years of severe drought, the last surviving flocks were walked south to the Coorong and Kanyaka abandoned. Ironically, the drought broke once again in the latter part of 1866 but Kanyaka was never to recover its former glory and remained deserted. When giving evidence of losses to the Northern Runs Commission in 1867, John Phillips estimated that between 1864 and 1866, 20,000 sheep on the run had died of starvation. Further tragedies were still to come.
A new chapter began for Kanyaka in the mid 1870s when the run’s leases were resumed. The land was sub-divided, cleared of its natural vegetation and turned over to mixed agriculture with disastrous consequences for both the land and its pioneering families. As previously, there were a few good seasons, more land was cleared, more wheat and crops sown but then the climate returned to the norm – drought. No amount of toil and effort could save the farms or the land. The scorching summer winds howled across the parched Willochra Plain stripping the topsoil and the last surviving feed. A new generation of young Australian pioneers were once again condemned to a wasted life of heartbreak, poverty and despair.
Today the Kanyaka settlement remains abandoned, its ruins and great woolshed both a curiosity and source of wonder to the many international tourists that now visit the Flinders Ranges. But to most Australians it is a proud accomplishment, a testament to the pioneering spirit and the courage of a young emerging nation.
Paddy Rowen (C)