Written by Matt Emmett
Silver-blue saltbush and bedraggled scrub border the road, ushering the traveller down the highway. They dot the plains further out, cast against a background of rugged red hills devoid of dense vegetation—the diminutive saltbush standing tall, the scrub stooped. The scenery, sprawling and vast, welcomes the traveller with arms wide open, beckoning forth those looking to explore.
Whyalla lies in wait, seated further down the road and armed with refreshments both comforting and practical for the weary traveller. To the east of the city sits the sea, west is the flat open plains and rising hills. Caught between the two stunning backdrops are the stark, straight lines of a steelworks, a strong and formidable structure within an already tough, unforgiving environment.
Emblazoned on signs and billboards is an increasingly familiar moniker: The Steel City. Thrumming like a heartbeat, the city chants the phrase over and over, its identity rooted in industrial endeavour. The Steel City Raceway with its Steel City Drag Club, Steel City Tyres, and the Whyalla Steel City Sportfishing Club. Men and women wear the moniker as they go about their day-to-day, logos from such organisations stamped on their clothes. Accompanying the steelworks is a history of mining and shipbuilding, the city’s civic pride awash with back-breaking labour.
Flat, red dirt passes for a front yard here. Houses are single-storey affairs—their walls stained a faded red. Cars are either tall and mud-splattered or patchwork creatures, multi-coloured and much-repaired. Every so often, the traveller passes a garden with a lush, green lawn and a lemon tree bursting with fruit. For some, clearly, the climate is nothing to yield to. Pragmatism and resilience are displayed in equal measure here—some have adapted to the harsh environs while others have forged their own path, bending what they can to their will, much like the products of their labour.
The traveller coasts through the town, nursing tyres worn bald from a road trip spanning states and all manner of highways. Small holes pepper the rubber, but the fishtailing on the highway is of no concern within urban speed limits. Plagued by thirst and frayed nerves, he pulls into a restaurant asking for the nearest mechanic, pausing for lunch before resuming his crawl through the desert-dusted streets.
The shadows of decades past loom large in this small city by the Spencer Gulf. Faded signwriting and eroding infrastructure speckle the traveller’s perspective, piquing his curiosity. A quick delve into history reveals the oft mentioned shipbuilding yards are long closed. What put Whyalla on the map, linking it to the sprawling freight routes of the world, is now slowly decaying. Rusted through and abandoned, the yards left 1800 without work when their doors were closed. What lingers now is a well-advertised museum and a glaring statistic: a population of 33 000 is now 22 000, government plans for something larger abandoned years prior. The steelworks still remain, but its future is uncertain, its workforce reduced from 6000 to 1600 over the years.
In spite of this, nestled within a stunning, semi-arid landscape, a population strives to survive. Provided for and then abandoned by a large multinational, those who remain have been left to pick up the pieces of a crumbling industry. Against a bleak future they fight, carving out an existence against all odds. For them, the traveller is grateful. For without them, he would have no respite from his foolish cross-country dash, no rescue from his lack of mechanical foresight, and no base from which to continue his exploration of the outback and ocean beyond.