Almanac Poetry: Beyond Goyder’s Line, South Australia



Goyder’s Line, South Australia. [Source: Wikipedia]


Beyond Goyder’s Line, South Australia


Two nineteenth century graves
in the red, sandy earth
of Johnburgh cemetery
— no headstones.
An old council plan
shows where they are buried:
who died aged three years nine months
“after four hours’ illness”,
and Ethel,
who passed away at nine months
of “teething and convulsions”.
Their parents, my great-great-grandfather, Henry,
and great-great-grandmother, Mary Jane,
farmed, and ran the pub nearby,
in the middle of nowhere.
Recently, when I phoned a local
and asked if any visible sign remained
of William and Ethel’s graves
(being unable to travel there in person),
he answered,
“There is nothing but shifting sand.”



(Notes: the quotes relating to William and Ethel’s deaths come from contemporary South Australian newspaper Death Notices. Goyder’s Line concerns a line on a map drawn by South Australian Surveyor-General, George Goyder, in 1865, to separate, in his judgement, the arable area of the colony from the land unsuitable for crop growing and, therefore, any kind of intensive settlement. History has proved Goyder’s Line highly accurate – north of the line, further into the outback, there are many ghost towns, and all kinds of architectural ruins, where people tried and failed to make a living in the harsh environment.)




The Johnburgh Hotel, forty kilometres north of Goyder’s Line, these days. My great-great grandfather, Henry Reynolds, was publican here from 1883-1891. (Thanks to Nic of the South Australian history website for permission to use the photo.)


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Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. Poignant stuff. Thanks Kevin. My maternal grandfather was “given” a Soldier Settlement farm “by a grateful nation” at Wudinna on Eyre Peninsula after WW1. North of Goyder’s Line and he eventually walked off after 20 years in the late 40’s to become a mechanic in Tumby Bay. Mum’s stories of the hardships growing up during WW2 are “the kids of today woooon’t believe you” stuff.
    Goyder drew his line by travelling through the country on horseback and observing vegetation changes. Once there were sufficient rainfall records it was seen to precisely map the 10 inches of rain a year isohyet.
    Have driven through that country in the mid north, Flinders Ranges and on the road up to Broken Hill through Burra and Peterborough. Not fit for man or beast most of the time. You come from tough stock.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for your comments, Peter – interesting as always.

    A great-grandmother of mine, Lucy, was born in Johnburgh in 1884. I knew her as a kid – she died in 1976 when I was twelve. One of Lucy’s children was named Ethel after her sister (mentioned in the poem) who died in Johnburgh in 1883, aged nine months. The later Ethel lived until the age of 96.

    And yes, I’ve heard that many Soldier Settlement farms were along the lines you describe.

    My great-great grandfather and his family left Johnburgh in 1891 and ended up quite well-off, though he had lived what I imagine was a very tough life until at least that stage, when he was thirty-six or seven..

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Correction: actually I was fourteen in 1976. Occasionally, I forget my own age!

  4. I like this Kevin. ‘The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

  5. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, DB.

    I love your reference to Shelley, too – it’s very apt, and “Ozymandias” is one of my favourite poems.

  6. Hi Kevin,
    I have a place at Pekina, just south of Orroroo and not too far from Johnburgh. Pekina still has a functioning pub and a volunteer fire brigade, and still manages to field cricket and tennis teams. (The Pekina football club expired several decades ago but I have seen the odd vintage jumper – grey with a pink V. The team was known as the Galahs!)
    That country around Goyder’s Line has always been marginal, as you observe, and European settlers have been abandoning that country right from the moment they first arrived. These days many of us worry that Goyder’s Line might be effectively be shifting south, as the climate becomes hotter and rainfall less reliable. It’s a worry…

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks so much, Malcolm, for your comments. It’s great to hear from a person who lives in the general area I’ve written about.

    Many Almanackers, including me, will be particularly pleased, I’m certain, to read your information about Pekina’s sporting teams, present and past.

    I know that Johnburgh had some sporting teams in its history, too, such as tennis teams and from memory, cricket sides. Also, I know that horseracing (an annual race meeting?) was held in the vicinity of Johnburgh, up until the 1940s.

    And yes, I’ve also heard that Goyder’s Line seems to be, in effect, slipping further south, alas.

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