Locals in this remote South Australian mining town are determined to forge a new economic future based on tourism and determination.

Story Mark Chipperfield   Photo Peter Bellingham

There is nothing ordinary about Leigh Creek, a modern, well-planned town of neat suburban houses, nature strips and tree-lined parks on the edge of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. This compact township, 554 kilometres north of Adelaide, sprung into existence 35 years ago, complete with a shopping mall, post office, police station, school, sports oval, golf course, tavern, fitness centre and Olympic-size swimming pool.

Those lucky enough to occupy one of the smart new family homes regarded Leigh Creek – built to house workers from the nearby coal mine – as an oasis in the desert.

“The company did everything,” says Tammy Roach, long-term resident and chair of the Leigh Creek Progress Association. “We had facilities that were better than anything in the city and the place was always immaculate, with neatly swept paths and watered gardens.”

But Leigh Creek’s fortunes took a turn when Alinta Energy ceased production at the mine in November 2016, following an earlier decision to close its coal-fed power station at Port Augusta. Since then, the town’s population has fallen from 700 to less than 80. Most of the houses are empty and the once-thriving shopping mall is eerily quiet. 

The State Government’s Outback Communities Authority (OCA), which took over the day-to-day running of Leigh Creek from Alinta in January 2017, has assured residents that the town’s essential services will be maintained for at least 12 months. OCA governance manager Byron Gough says the authority has been working with both the community and state agencies to increase economic opportunities for the town. 

“The OCA is now running waste management for the town, looking after the swimming pool, and caring for parks and gardens,” Byron says. “To ensure that all town services are run smoothly, and in a well coordinated fashion, the OCA has also employed a town manager, who is based at Leigh Creek.”

Tammy’s partner Ken spent 30 years at the coalmine. Rather than abandon their home, they took over the roadhouse at Lyndhurst, 40 kilometres away, and are typical of the rusted-on Leigh Creekers who refuse to let their town die.

Indeed, despite the outward signs of neglect – the desert has already reclaimed the golf course – locals are surprisingly upbeat. “I find it very relaxing living here,” says Justin Saegenschnitter, 27, acting principal at Leigh Creek Area School. “I live in a nice, big three-bedroom house. I visit friends in Hawker and play footy in Port Augusta. I love my life out here.”

Down at the swimming pool, there are just three kids cooling off in the sparkling water. It seems idyllic. “This place is phenomenal,” lifeguard Katie Faulkner says. “Just look at the facilities we have here – the school, sports oval, library. It’s a strong community.” 

This story excerpt is from Issue #113

Outback Magazine: June/July 2017