Resurrecting Cossack: Australian ghost town set for major transformation

(CNN) – With its eerie empty streets, dark history, colonial architecture, and breathtaking seaside location, the secluded Cossack is an unusual but rewarding tourist attraction.

And now this entire ghost town in Western Australia could be in the market soon.

Cossack is 1,300 kilometers north of Perth and was abandoned 70 years ago. Nevertheless, it remains lined with well-kept, historic buildings.

As the birthplace of the Australian pearl industry, it was disbanded in 1910 when a new port opened in the north and vacated in 1950.

Today it is only inhabited by a caretaker, who is responsible for keeping the city clean and tidy – and occasionally waving to tourists.

However, the Cossack could be brought out of hibernation soon as plans are reportedly underway to develop it into a major tourist attraction with eco-tourism accommodation, cafes, galleries and camping facilities.

Despite its remote location in northwestern Western Australia (WA), Cossack is in a prime location in the tourist triangle of the Pilbara, Coral Bay, Karratha and Karijini National Park region.

The development of Cossacks has been discussed for decades, but it wasn’t until late October 2020 that progress was finally made.

Any investor planning to develop Cossacks would have to adhere to agreements on heritage and indigenous land use.

A bleak time in Australian history

Cossacks are closely associated with the Native Australians, who have inhabited this region for more than 40,000 years and who faced atrocities in the early days of WA’s pearl industry in the mid to late 19th century.

“The next time you are amazed at the beauty of a Western Australian pearl, spare yourself a thought for the Aborigines who suffered so horribly in the darkest days of the industry,” read a plaque at Cossack.

This refers to the slavery of indigenous men, women and children who were forced to dive for pearls. They did this to make fortunes for westerners who began to pearl 20,000 years after the first harvest and trading of these gemstones in Australia.

While this is a grim time in WA history, this plaque is part of the inspiring Warlu Way, a 2,480 kilometer trail through the north of the state that brings tourists closer to important indigenous sites, beliefs and cultures.

According to Natasha Mahar, CEO of WA’s North West Tourism Board, Cossack would be the perfect place for a new indigenous tourism business focused on pearl history.

Exterior view of the Cossack Court, which was built in 1895.

Robert Garvey / Western Australia Tourism

She says the city had great success with its annual Cossack Art Awards, which for the past 28 years have exhibited artwork from across the Pilbara area, including many incredible indigenous works.

“Outside of the three weeks of the awards festival, Cossack is as good as deserted. It would be great if the city developed in a sustainable way so it can be lively all year round,” Mahar told CNN Travel.

“Telling the story of the Cossack pearl from an Aboriginal perspective would be a great tourism initiative here.”

The city’s unusual ghost-town setting also offers a unique experience.

“When you walk around this empty place and see all of its beautiful old buildings, you are drawn to understanding its history, why it was abandoned,” she says.

Cossack is one of more than a dozen ghost towns in all of WA, a vast state almost four times the size of Texas.

With around 80% of the state’s 2.7 million people living in the state capital, Perth, that leaves an extraordinary amount of space. Hidden in some of these remote corners are formerly thriving cities that were evacuated when the industries that powered them dried up.

The most notorious of these ghost towns is 200 kilometers southeast of Cossacks. Often referred to as the deadliest place in Australia, Wittenoom was convicted by the Washington government in 2008 for being littered with deadly asbestos.

The mineral has been mined in Wittenoom for decades and is believed to have resulted in cancer-related deaths of more than 2,000 residents in that city.

Although the Washington government strongly encourages travelers to avoid Wittenoom, it has become a dark tourism hotspot due to the danger of asbestos fibers in the air. Aside from being known as a dangerous ghost town, Wittenoom has little to offer tourists.

Cossacks, in comparison, have a generous pull. Unlike some of WA’s other ghost towns, it hasn’t been left to decay. Cossacks have the status of a listed building, which means that the stately bluestone buildings from the 19th century have been impressively preserved.

Beaches, water sports and historic buildings

Cossack stately bluestone buildings from the 19th century are well preserved.

Cossack stately bluestone buildings from the 19th century are well preserved.

West Australian Department of Planning, Land and Heritage

Visitors to Cossack, who usually reside in the nearby town of Karratha, can follow a marked hiking trail that passes by the most notable structures. These include the original post office, the registry office, the customs house, the police barracks and prison, the Galbraith store and the courthouse, which now functions as a free museum.

Panoramic views of the city and coastline can be enjoyed from the Cossack Tien Tsin Lookout, which is adjacent to a 110-year-old leprosy quarantine center.

A similarly beautiful lookout, Reader Head Lookout, is located north of the city and allows visitors to enjoy the majesty of the Cossack beaches. Settlers Beach is a long, pristine and almost deserted strip of sand and is wonderfully quiet.

In addition to swimming and sunbathing, the coast near Cossack is known for its water sports such as fishing, kayaking, and snorkeling.

Mahar says this serene setting makes Cossack an attractive place to be an eco-resort, and she hopes any development in the city will blend in with its pristine setting.

A spokesman for the Washington state government confirmed to CNN Travel that investors may be interested in obtaining a retention of title for Cossack that corresponds to the property.

However, they stressed that the Washington government at the time was only seeking interest from investors and that Cossack was not yet available to lease or buy. Registration closes on November 20, 2020.

“The goal of the ROI (Registration of Interest) is to activate and revitalize the urban area instead of generating a monetary value,” says the spokesman. “If a successful advocate is found, arrangements will be made to ensure long-term management of the asset, subject to all relevant approvals, including indigenous title and heritage conservation considerations.”

In any case, Cossack doesn’t seem like a ghost town much longer.

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