As I am busy exploring my own state of South Australia I am coming to towns I have not visited before. Burra is one of those places, and I almost can’t believe this is my first visit. Burra is a popular town for weekend getaways from Adelaide, particularly camping weekends with friends and family. If you are a first timer like me, here is a great list of all the things to do in Burra while you are there.
Why Visit Burra
Burra was originally settled in the 1840s as a mining community when copper was found in the area. It was boomtime, with a huge deposit making up almost 90% of all the copper being mined in South Australia at the time and 5% of the copper worldwide. Burra is said to be one of the main reasons the struggling colony South Australia survived. Unfortunately, by 1877, the copper was running out and the mines closed down. They have been opened again twice since, but never got back to those early boom years.
During those boom years Burra (often called “The Burra” back then) was the seventh largest town in Australia and had a population larger than either Perth or Brisbane, so that indicates how significant this settlement was. Now we have all of that Burra history preserved for visitors to the town to learn about this bygone era.
While we spent only one full day exploring the town, there were a few sites that were closed and some more we missed. I would recommend a weekend here to allow a slower pace with some time to enjoy the shops and eateries in town too.
Where is Burra, South Australia?
Burra is a comfortable two hours drive north of Adelaide. It is located on the edge of the Clare Valley in the Bald Hill Ranges, one of the Northern most parts of the Mount Lofty Ranges.
Driving is the most common way to get to the Burra from Adelaide. There is little public transport in the region so having your own car to get around is a definite advantage. Of course this may not be practical if your visit is going to include a lot of wine tasting.
Another option is to get a public bus. The service to Burra though is very limited, running only once a week. For more information, including timetables and fares, look at the Mid North service on YP Coaches website here.
Things to do in Burra, South Australia
As soon as you arrive in Burra make your way to the Burra & Goyder Visitor Information Centre. There you can pick up your Burra map, ask all your questions, and importantly, get your Burra Heritage Passport. With the passport you are provided with a key that gives you entry to eleven of the local attractions all for the one price. There isa great book that also comes with the passport called “Discovering Historic Burra” and it has all sorts of information about Burra, it’s history, suggested walking and driving trails and maps. There is also an audio guide that can be accessed with your phone to provide information on some of the sites as you get to them.
Monster Mine Site
This is the largest mine site in Burra. It’s a huge open air museum with the ruins of some of the old buildings and pieces of machinery. There are also views over the open cut area of the mine and the glittering blue-green lake below. A lookout provides views over the town of Burra where it is easy to see the different villages the town started as. The site can be accessed on foot for free, but with the Burra Heritage Passport, car access is possible making getting around inside a little easier.
Morphett Enginehouse Museum
The Morphett Enginehouse Museum is part of the Monster Mine site. It is a large fenced area containing the Morphett Enginehouse itself as well as other buildings and relics. While anyone can see the buildings from afar, to go inside them and to explore the surrounds, the key from the Burra Heritage Passport is required.
Inside the Morphett Enginehouse are displays on the history of the enginehouse and exactly how it worked. There is also information on other similar mining sites in South Australia and the mine’s safety.
The Powder Magazine is another part of the Monster Mine Site that requires the Burra Heritage Passport key to enter. This is the oldest surviving mining building in all of Australia, being completed in 1847. The walls of the inner building are 60cm thick and it’s built in such a way that if all the gunpowder stored inside exploded, the force would push it upwards through the roof instead of through the walls to minimise the damage.
While that really is all there is to see here – the key gives entry into the inner yard but not into the building itself – it is worth a few minutes to have a look.
Police Lock-up and Stables
The Police Lockup and Stables were where all the criminals were housed before the badly needed Redruth Gaol was built to cope with the expanding population. This is another site that requires the key to enter. There is not a whole lot to see here, but there is some audio telling the stories of two particular crimes that were dealt with by the local police which where quite fun to listen to.
Bon Accord Mine Complex Museum
The Bon Accord site was hopefully going to be the second location of great riches but that proved to not be the case. Somehow though this site open and closed a few more times throughout the years still scraping by until the early 1900’s when it became a pumping station and supplied Burra with water until it was eventually included in the main Morgan to Whyalla pipeline.
Since then the whole site has been turned into a museum with multiple buildings as well as outdoor areas showing it’s history. Unfortunately the museum was closed during our visit so we could not go inside, but I did manage to look inside the gate to get the above photo.
Redruth Gaol was the first built in South Australia outside of Adelaide and opened in 1856. It served as the gaol for the whole midnorth area until 1894 when a larger gaol was built in nearby Gladstone. It was then renovated, and became a girls reform school until it was closed for good in 1927. The Redruth Gaol was next used as a filming location for the classic Australian movie “Breaker Morant”.
Now the gaol contains information about it’s time as a gaol and about it’s time as a reformatory. Again, they key is needed to enter the gaol.
Burra Regional Art Gallery
Located in the main street of Burra, the Burra Regional Art Gallery showcases the work of many local artists. It’s a small gallery, but has some lovely works, especially some of the smaller pieces made for sale such as silk scarves, small sculptures or statuettes, even some photographs and books.
Unicorn Brewery Cellars
The Unicorn Brewery supplied beer to all nine of the pubs in town back in the late 1800s. Everything was going along well until the liquor licensing laws were changed in 1902. It was deemed too expensive to make the huge changes needed to comply with the new laws and the brewery closed down. Most of the main buildings have been demolished, but the cellars remain in tact and using the Burra Heritage Passport key you can go down and have a look. I was surprised to see how big the cellars were.
The Unicorn Brewery cellars have also been used in a film. Portions of the Australian horror film “Wolf Creek” were filmed down here.
Hampton Township Ruins
Slightly out of Burra a whole little township grew, designed on a typical English village. Everything flourish here until a dwindling population meant that houses were being left vacant. A law at the time said that if the roof was left on then the council rates still had to be paid, so mostly the roof was removed. This has hastened the decay of the township and now there is little to see apart from low stone walls. The last residents of the town left it in the 1960s when it was deemed too far away from the main part of Burra.
Burra Smelting Works Paddock
This site is where all the smelting happened while the mines were running. Unfortunately there is little left standing on the site, but along the walking trail are signs explaining the smelting process and showing photos of what used to stand in each place. There’s plenty of the byproduct “slag” around the site too, in the form of bricks used to build later buildings and flooring for certain areas too.
There is little shade here and the walk is about 1.2km long, so be aware of the heat if you travel in summer like we did. You will also need the key to get through the entrance gate.
When the town was growing quicker than it could build houses, the poorest workers started to dig shelters in the riverbank of the Burra Creek. While these were not much more then a dirt cave, many people were crowded down here, with around 1800 people living in about 600 dugouts. It became an unsanitary and disease-ridden community, not at all a nice place to live. It didn’t last long though, because in 1851 there was a huge storm in the area, water surged down the creekbed and washed out most of the dugouts, forcing residents to find alternative housing.
Today there are three dugouts remaining in a side tributary of the main creek which can be visited with the Burra Heritage Passport key.
Malowen Lowarth, meaning Holyhock Garden, is one of the homes making up the Paxton Square Cottages. These were homes built by the mining companies to encourage miners to move their families out of the dugouts. The cottages were some of the first company-owned housing in Australia. There are 33 cottages, each with three rooms and a small backyard, but they often housed large families. In 1876 161 people lived here.
Today, Malowen Lowarth is set up how a typical cottage would have been in the 1850s. The back yard has been planted with flowers and herbs that were also popular at the same time. This is another site that the key is needed for entry.
Burra Market Square Museum
Right in the centre of Burra is the small Market Square Museum. The building the museum is in was originally that of a tailor named Andrew Wade. It’s only a small museum, showing rooms decorated in the style of around the end of the 1800s/beginning of the 1900s. There are also some interesting audio stories here to help with understanding the history of Burra.
You will only need a small amount of time to visit this museum, and again, you will need the key to gain entry.
Burra Railway Station
The Burra Railway Station has recently been renovated and now operates as a very comfortable B&B. It has kept it’s original personality though, and is usually available to visit between 11am and 1pm each day even if you are not staying there – except of course the day we are in town! Still, it was good to make a quick stop and look around the outside. It looks as though the rail carriage in the background is currently being restored too, so perhaps that will be a future attraction or maybe an addition unique room for the B&B.
See the Midnight Oil House
Fans of the Australian rock band Midnight Oil may remember the cover of their 1987 album “Diesel and Dust” featured an old, abandoned house. This house is located just three kilometres north of Burra on the Barrier Highway and is possibly the most photographed ruin in Australia. I recommend visiting in the afternoon as in the morning the sun is behind the house and the front is in the shadows. Be aware that the house is on private property and you should admire it from outside of the fence.
Red Banks Conservation Park
Unfortunately we did not have time to visit Red Banks Conservation Park, but this is a rich source of megafauna fossils, perhaps the best in Australia. Inside the park is the “Landscapes of Change” interpretive walking trail, where visitors can follow the path of the diprotodons that lived here 65 000 years ago.
There is also plenty of living flora and fauna to be found in the park, including echidnas and wombats. Red Banks Conservation Park is located 15km east of Burra.
When you are looking at where to stay in Burra you will find that most accommodation is comfortable but by no means luxurious. Think B&Bs, motels and holiday homes. Here are just a few suggestions to get you started on your search
- The Pig and Whistle
- Royal Exchange Hotel
- Burra Motor Inn
- Kit Kat Cottage
- Burra Railway Station Bed and Breakfast
Looking for more South Australian content? Try these
Things to do in Clare Valley, South Australia
Things to do in Port Augusta, South Australia
Things to do in the Barossa Valley that Aren’t Wine Tasting
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.