Shantytowns of Western Australia

Australia's shantytowns began to spring up along the uninhabited western coastline over 50 years ago.
  • Australia's shantytowns began to spring up along the uninhabited western coastline over 50 years ago.

Story and photos by Alison Lapshinoff

The sturdy wooden outhouse was of sound construction in comparison to its unruly neighbours. Elevated slightly, its lofty platform faced westward and took in the sweeping panorama that was the moody Indian Ocean.

Unlike its developed and commercialized eastern counterpart, the central coast of Western Australia remains wild and rugged; sparsely populated and largely unchanged by the few tourists who venture to cross the nation's scorched interior. Our campsite was not of the conventional sort. Behind the dunes separating us from the wind swept beach, our tent seemed comically out of place. Surrounding us on all sides were dozens of dilapidated corrugated iron shacks erected haphazardly along the coastline. Accessible only by 4WD or small vessel, these shantytowns are a common feature of Australia's west, and their removal remains a contentious issue between the squatters and the state government.

There is no road connecting the town of Cervantes to Lancelin, separated by almost 100 kilometres of officially undeveloped coast, about two hours north of Perth. The conventional traveler can be found a few kilometres inland, traveling south on the Brand Highway.

It was late September, the end of the Australian winter, and the swirling grey clouds promised rain. After passing through Nambung National Park and the Pinnacles Desert we directed our diesel powered Landcruiser toward the labyrinth of sand tracks that head south along the coast. The landscape was remote, desolate and forgotten, and the weather slightly disconcerting after the perpetual heat of the country's north. As we uneasily negotiated the narrow tracks of deep sand cutting through the thick bush, a light drizzle fell. We hadn't any idea what lay along this little visited stretch of coast.

Australia's shantytowns began to spring up along the uninhabited western coastline over 50 years ago when farmers started to push tracks to the beach and set up camps for holidaying and fishing. Commercial rock lobstermen soon followed suit, drawn by the ease of setting up informal operations right on the coast, and the settlements became more permanent. More recently, city dwellers seeking an alternative lifestyle or just a casual, commercial free holiday began erecting shelters. Thus, the settlements grew into sprawling labyrinths of shacks, constructed mostly of corrugated iron and scrap metal, leaning precariously in the ocean breeze.

It was with some surprise that we came upon the Wedge Point Settlement about halfway between Cervantes and Lancelin, one of the largest, built on a sand promontory. Our Landcruiser climbed easily up a massive dune affording a view of the surrounding area, and to our astonishment, spread out below was an enormous settlement of randomly placed shacks dominating a large part of the coast. Although Wedge was deserted at the time, it is thought to house up to 6,000 people!

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