Pilbara ‘ghost town’ Cossack closes as traditional operators blame Department of Lands

Jake DietschThe West Australian
Cossack, in the Pilbara. From Tien Tsin Lookout.
Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Camera IconCossack, in the Pilbara. From Tien Tsin Lookout. Stephen Scourfield The West Australian Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

A once proud Pilbara pearling town that attracts thousands of visitors each year has been closed thanks to what traditional owners say is a bureaucratic “failure”.

In what is another blow to the tourism industry in WA’s North West, the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation announced on Tuesday that Cossack, or Bajinhurrba, 15km north of Roebourne, would be shuttered for the foreseeable future.

Described as a “living ghost town” and the “birthplace” of WA’s pearling industry, the former town, which has been abandoned since 1950, is a popular tourist attraction.

It is also a significant cultural site for traditional owners and a popular hunting and fishing spot.

The organisation said facilities including accommodation, a cafe, art gallery, shop, and the museum would all now be closed to the public, and heritage buildings “will be locked”.

In a statement, the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation — which was tasked with activating and managing the site by then-Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt in 2020 — announced it was no longer “sustainable or safe” to continue.

“Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic delays and mismanagement by the State, it is no longer sustainable or safe for the not-for-profit Traditional Owner organisation to continue its management,” a Facebook post said.

The Courthouse. Cossack, in the Pilbara.
Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Camera IconThe Courthouse. Cossack, in the Pilbara. Stephen Scourfield The West Australian Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

“We are incredibly disappointed and devastated at the impact this will have on our community, staff, and the heritage assets.”

Mr Wyatt — a senior McGowan Government minister who retired from politics at the 2021 election — also promised to work with NYFL and the City of Karratha to lockdown the most suitable long-term tenure arrangement for the town and develop it as an eco-tourism experience.

“With such a strong cultural connection to the land, existing built heritage assets, and a pristine coastal landscape, Cossack will provide a mix of offerings to suit all tourists and interests,” Mr Wyatt said at the time.

But NYFL chief executive Sean-Paul Stephens said the Department of Lands had delayed contracts and licenses over nearly four years of negotiations, and still not given the organisation legal permissions and a contract to permanently operate the site.

Former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt.
Camera IconFormer Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

Mr Stephens said NYFL had invested significantly into Cossack to keep it operational, but could no longer afford to operate it, even in a caretaker role.

“We are disappointed and frustrated to be leaving Cossack but our dealings with the State Government have reached breaking point,” he said.

“Failure by the Department of Lands now means tourists visiting the site will no longer have access to camping, historic buildings, the museum, or the gallery. Cossack will be closed for the foreseeable future.”

The organisation said exciting plans that have now been scuppered were in the works, such as establishing a Camping with Custodians experience in partnership with Tourism WA next year.

Ruins at Cossack.
Camera IconRuins at Cossack. Credit: Danella Bevis/The West Australian, at the historic townsite of Cossack in WA's Pilbara region.

Mr Stephens said in November 2023 the State advised a “major proposal” would be presented to NYFL that would secure its long-term activation of the site, but — after waiting for months — the proposal was never received.

He said, in a last bid to get things moving, NYFL wrote to Lands Minister John Carey to request a meeting in March but did not yet hear back.

NYFL director Janelle Mowarin said traditional owners were “excited and proud” to be chosen to operate Cossack and the closure meant a “loss of economic and cultural opportunity” that was “devastating”.

“Much of our community is vulnerable. We cannot continue to be misled by the State while our Elders and community need our support,” Ms Mowarin, a Ngarluma woman, said.

Cossack’s Heritage Trail, fishing wharf and boat ramp are still open to the public.

A State Government spokesman said the original EOI released by the Department was “very specific about low-impact tourism offerings, activation of the existing heritage precinct, and maintaining the existing caravan park in the Cossack precinct”.

“While the proposed project by NYFL at the Cossack site is outside of the existing EOI, there are a number of existing government processes, including market led proposals for proponents seeking to build, finance or operate infrastructure that demonstrates a strong alignment to the Government priorities, which NYFL is encouraged to explore,” they said.

“The Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage continues to meet regularly and work with NYFL and will continue to work collaboratively regarding land tenure and the heritage precinct.”

The spokesman said Mr Carey’s office “only recently” received NYFL’s request to meet and that the organisation would be contacted in due course to arrange a meeting.

The town’s closure comes weeks after Environment Minister Reece Whitby announced the permanent end to boat tours through Horizontal Falls from March 2028.

Passage through the Falls — once described by Sir David Attenborough as one of the greatest natural wonders of the world — are the most popular tour in the Kimberley, with operators warning it would have a devastating impact on local tourism.

The closure was welcomed by the Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation who said boat passage through the turbulent waters were dangerous and could damage the site.

Shadow lands spokesman Steve Martin said the Government seemed determined to shut down tourism in the North of WA.

“First we had the debacle over the Horizontal Falls and now we have the closure of Cossack because of bureaucratic failures,” the Liberal MLC said.

“Minister Carey needs to get on the first plane out of Perth right away, apologise for the failure face to face, and get this sorted.”

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