Significant journeys – Bethesda Mission, Lake Killalpaninna

Bethesda Mission
Have you ever made a journey to see a place of significance in the history of your family? Where did you go, and how was it? Did you feel a sense of connection there? Stephen Reuther, a Rechner descendent, makes a journey to the place where his great-grandfather lived and worked as a missionary from 1888-1906.  Bethesda Mission at one stage consisted of 25 buildings, plus stockyards. However, it closed in 1915, so what will Stephen find there now? Read on….

Stephen writes:”The idea of travelling to Lake Killalpaninna came upon the passing of my late father, Pastor Martin David Reuther in May, 1997. During his life, he had mentioned his missionary grandfather, Rev. Johann Georg Reuther, over the years and would have liked to have seen Killalpaninna himself but never made the journey. It was this ‘unfinished business,’ that inspired me to do the trip.

My friend, Ted Reinke and myself set out from Toowoomba in late August, 1999. We travelled westward, staying at Charleville, camped on the banks of Cooper Creek near Windorah, before arriving and staying in Birdsville. It was a week before the famous Birdsville Races and the town was preparing for the event.

The following day we set off early on our southward journey along the Birdsville Track, hoping to make Lake Killalpaninna by the afternoon. We were making good progress before coming upon the gibber rock of Sturt’s Stoney Desert. We slowed down considerably, only going 50km an hour as it was too rough otherwise.

We stopped at the Mungerannie Roadhouse for lunch before continuing on our journey. We crossed the broad and dry Cooper Creek once more. The only identifiable difference were the few trees, sparse vegetation and a slight depression of the land. Further along, the Natterannie Sandhills were small and ran north south, posing no problem for us.

Eventually, we came to the gates of the Etadunna Station on the eastern side of the track. We paid our $5 deposit for the gate access key to the mission ruins. As we left, we saw a tall metal cross located at the junction of the Etadunna Homestead and the Birdsville Track. It had commemoration details in relation to the Bethesda Mission Station.

The road into the mission ruins was quite sandy and winded through low scrubby trees and spinifex. From my knowledge, the Cooper Creek works its way down from Queensland and empties into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre when it is in flow. The southern end of Lake Killalpaninna is an offshoot of this system. We found the lake quite narrow near the site of the mission before it broadens into a salt-pan at its northern end.

We made our campsite between the higher ridge of where the mission church once stood, and the bank of the lake. Also up on the higher ground were a few graves, one of whom is of my Great Uncle who died as an infant, Georg Edwin Reuther. As it was late, we organised our meal and rolled out our swags and slept under the stars. The night sky was impressive and knowing that we had arrived at the mission gave us a feeling of contentment.

We were up early, keen to explore the site before the midday heat came. We walked northerly along the lake to the broad saltpan. Before long, our feet were crunching through the salty, surface crust of the lake and thought it best to keep to the edge. A large number of emus soon appeared and being curious, came closer and closer. A lot of them were the best part of 6 foot tall and were encroaching upon us, so we turned back.

In amongst the spinifex, isolated, and almost obscure, was a tilted headstone of ‘Phebe Milner’. An English born lady who died in this remote spot around 1850, predating the mission by some years.

Heading back to the mission site, I noticed an old straggly tree sitting at the highest point of the mission. It was near here, according to historical maps, that a house once stood where my Great Grandparents, Johann and Pauline (Stolz widower, nee Rechner) once lived. It wasn’t conclusive but I thought I could make out an almost ground level corner of the house.

We re-examined the commemorative cairn to the mission church, and the four graves. The largest of whom was of Missionary Vogelsang. From this point and being on higher ground, I noticed that it had a good view of Lake Killalpaninna in its entirety.

Walking around to the east, we found the remnants of the blacksmithing shed. It was of a long, rectangular shape with several crooked, wooden posts still standing. Each post had a fork at the very top where cross beams would have once rested.

I also noticed a square area that was fenced off directly south of the church. I did not know the significance of this. It may have been a burial ground.

In the southern part of the mission site, we found rusted pieces of metal, some old ground level wooden posts that seemed to shape the perimeter of a hut or house. One unexplained small, square clearing that was devoid of vegetation, with and ground being a darker brown. A single shoe plough was found, the metal circular rings of former wagon wheels, a little chicken wire, a piece of rusted corrugated iron, the odd bottle, and general bits and pieces.

Satisfied with our several hours of exploring, and content with our experience, we departed. Following the winding road once more, we came across a dozen, feral camels making their way through the scrub.

Heading south on the Birdsville track again, I reflected on our forebear’s ambition and determination to establish the Bethesda Mission. Although it did not endure, the time there produced a lasting legacy and that is of extensive, written records. The Dieri’s laws, social customs, and culture were noted by my Grand Grandfather, among others, and are now kept at the South Australian Museum.

It was a trip to remember.”      – Stephen Reuther, Toowoomba Qld.

missionaries translating the bible into the local language

Pastor and Mrs Reuther translated the New Testament into the Dieri language. (photo from website)


Editor’s note: Bethesda mission was established by German missionaries in the remote area of Central Australia in 1865. It faced many challenges during it’s time, although when Stephen’s great-grandfather was there it thrived under his energetic leadership. However, by 1915 extended droughts and accumulated debts forced the mission to close and be sold. As Stephen mentioned, Pastor Reuther was passionate about preserving the Dieri culture and language and, with his wife, translated the New Testament into the Dieri language.

You can read an interesting and brief history of the mission at killalpaninna_panel_mission_story4_final.pdf (

Read also an account written 100 years ago, of a similar trip made by JJ Stolz to the missions of Central Australia. JJ was a step-brother to Stephen’s great-grandfather. He has many interesting observations of the land and people at the time.

Read it here.