Kalgoorlie Gold

Kalgoorlie, WA. 26th January 2016.


No fence and no emus.

I don’t know about you but when I ride up a track whose name is Emu Fence Road, I expect to see a fence but no emus, or some emus but no fence. I didn’t see either. Perhaps the fence had done its job and been moved elsewhere.
What I did find was an arrow straight, nicely graded, dirt road which took me north to the main Perth/Kalgoorlie highway. The recent heavy rain had caused a couple of the floodways to actually have water in them, but nothing too challenging. In celebration of Australia Day, the rain stayed away and the sun came out.


Rare sight. A floodway with water in it. Nothing very challenging though.

Rod had got up early and set off on his long ride back to Perth. I had a final chat with Andrew and Jo, the couple with the very smart VW camper. It had been challenging Andrew’s mechanical skills with a mysterious case of cutting out, at random intervals and for no apparent reason. They had a few days before they had to head back home and were considering going to Kalgoorlie as well. I hoped to see them there.
I joined the main road at Southern Cross, desperate for fuel, then headed east to Kalgoorlie, via Coolgardie. It didn’t take me long to find Kalgoorlie Backpackers, where I was welcomed by Lizzie and found I was on my own in a dorm. The quiet season has its advantages.


One of Kalgoorlie’s fine old hotels, The York.

The first thing to do here is give you an idea of the history of the two main goldfield towns and how things stand now. Coolgardie describes itself as ‘The Mother of the Goldfields’. The first major find was made nearby in September 1892, Arthur Bayley being the lucky man. The nearest mining warden was almost 200 kms west of Fly Flat, where he struck lucky, and within hours of the news breaking out began the greatest movement of people in Australia’s history. And in this way, a town was born. The last gold was mined in 1963 and Coolgardie now looks like a ghost town, especially in the summer heat and dust. Its wide main street is deserted, although many of its finer buildings remain. It seemed to me that if it wasn’t for the tourists and the fact that the main West to East road, from Perth to Adelaide, runs through it, the town would have died long ago.


Not anymore I’m afraid.

Forty kilometres to the east lies Kalgoorlie-Boulder, two gold rush towns now combined into one, and home to the Golden Mile reef. It was in 1893 that Paddy Hannan and two friends found alluvial gold but there was more here than at Coolgardie. Therefore Kalgoorlie became the most important town in this part of WA and is the main town of the goldfields area. And, unlike Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie-Boulder is still producing gold. Over the decades more gold was found to the north, giving birth to yet more towns, although none as big. The whole goldfields area is dry, arid scrubland but with pockets of activity to be found down along the dirt roads. Prospecting still goes on, both by big companies and small groups of individuals. I often saw signs saying ‘Metal Detectors are not allowed in this area,’ or similar. You have to have a licence to prospect. I learned that some groups of people go out with bulldozers, although that’s less common than individuals with metal detectors. The next big find is out there somewhere, it seems. My aim, over the next few days, was to explore the history and take a look at what currently goes on.


The goldfields of WA and the extent of those around Kalgoorlie.

My first visit was to the museum. Run by WA Museums, it details the history of the town, how it grew from a collection of tents into a bustling place of 30,000 people, and the difficult life of the miners. One of their biggest problems was the severe lack of water. Local supplies tended to be brackish and had to be desalinated to make the water drinkable. This was done by condensing it, a costly process, and it’s reckoned that water was worth more than the gold itself. The lack of water meant new methods had to be devised for separating the gold from the ore. Traditionally it had been washed out but here the waste rock was blown off the gold by a machine using bellows and trays with different sized holes in. The Dryblower blew the dust off the crushed rock as it fell through the sieves, leaving the heavier, gold bearing ore behind.


The Dry Blower. Necessity was the mother of this invention.


Hand made in Kalgoorlie. It might catch on!

The museum contained a variety of buildings which included an example of a family home from the early 20th C, with its tin covered wooden framework, tin chimney and basic equipment. This demonstrated that mining evolved from individuals working their twenty acre claim and living in tents, to partnerships and companies employing men to dig and tunnel. Individual claims were bought up to form bigger mine leases and shares were sold to provide funds for equipment and exploration.
Another building was the British Pub, claimed to be the southern hemisphere’s narrowest pub at only six metres wide. It housed a display of old trade union banners and a dentist surgery.


Colorful trade union banner. I suppose it ought to be good, given the profession represented.

A rather special display was entitled The Last Diggers of Vignacourt. In the late 1990’s a historian discovered a collection of photographic plates in the loft of a barn in Vignacourt, France. This town was used as an R&R centre, particularly for ANZACs on the Western Front during WW1. A local photographer used his barn as a studio and took hundreds of photos of resting soldiers. Postcards were made from them for the men to send home. Many of the soldiers never made it back to Australia and this collection has become a poignant memento for their families. It was both interesting and moving.


Some Diggers pose. Did any of them survive?

And while I was looking around that display I bumped into Andrew and Jo, who said they’d followed my wheeltracks up Emu Fence Road. Andrew was pleased to report he’d discovered the reason why their VW sometimes cut out. It seemed there was a loose connection behind the dashboard and he was confident he’d got it fixed. Good news.
That evening I took a ride up to Mount Charlotte lookout, recommended for its sunset views. Here I learned more about a fascinating and essential engineering project from the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, one which enabled Kalgoorlie and the goldfields to survive. On the top of this hill is a reservoir which supplies the town. It gets its water from Perth. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Perth is 570 kms away but the water supply problem in the Kalgoorlie goldfields was so bad that something had to be done. The decision was taken to build a 560km pipeline to deliver fresh water from the hills behind the capital city. If there was ever any doubt as to the importance of gold to the state of WA, this project answered them. The pipeline and its seven pumping stations are still in use today and can be seen running alongside the main highway. Fascinating. And the sunset was pretty good too.


A small section of the Perth to Kalgoorlie pipeline.

On a visit to Boulder station museum I gained more information about the infrastructure required to support such a large mining operation. The railway grew so as to supply people and equipment from Perth, as you would expect. Local lines also sprang up, linking Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, Boulder and a few other nearby towns. They were popular and well used, so much so that an electric tram system was built to rival them. But I think the most unusual rail lines were those built to supply wood. Even though fuel was no longer needed for the water condensing plants, wood was very much in demand for timber props and fuel for the steam plant, cooking and warmth. Dubbed ‘The Woodlines,’ they spread out from the towns into the surrounding woodland. As the felling operations moved to new areas so tracks were laid to extract the logs. By 1920 one company was bringing in 2,000 tonnes of wood per day. Life for the timber workers was very tough although small, mobile towns were formed were wives and children lived too. They even had a mobile wooden school house, which moved on with the cutting operation. The companies’ fortunes rose and fell with the gold prices because demand for wood depended on mining activity. Better roads, trucks and diesel powered plant gradually removed the need for wood although it surprised me to learn that the last woodline didn’t close until 1965. The map of the lines looks like the veins and capillaries on an old persons hand, as they spread out across the landscape.


Map of the Woodlines. Find some trees, lay another section of rail.

One more historical mining place to tell you about. Hannan’s North Tourist Mine lies just outside town and has a variety of displays detailing mining life both ancient and modern. There are examples of headframes, winding gear, ore crushers, miner’s shacks and tents, prospectors’ equipment, assay office equipment and so on. There was an explanation of the popular Aussie gambling game of Two Up. The game involves two identical coins, a ‘kip’ for throwing them into the air and a cleared space for playing the game. Each member of the group takes turns at being the ‘spinner’ and participants bet on how the coins will fall. It was always an illegal game, but very popular in mining camps and with ANZAC troops, until recent times when it was allowed to be played on ANZAC day as part of the memorial celebrations. On a more modern theme there was an example of one of the huge diggers which pick up the rock after blasting and of one of the huge dumper trucks which take it to the processing plant. I’d struggle to fit one of those into my house, I reckon, and there can’t be too many vehicles which come fitted with a staircase for driver access.


About as big as my house!


A family home, out in the goldfields.

Kalgoorlie is home to the Super Pit. ‘Super’ is barely adequate to describe this place. ‘Humungous’ or Ginormous’ might be closer to the truth. The Super Pit is an open-cut gold mine approximately 3.6 kilometres long, 1.6 kilometres wide and 512 metres deep. It was created in the 1980s by Alan Bond, who bought up a number of old mine leases in order to get the land area needed for it. Many of those underground pits were pretty much worked out, in economic terms at least, but he realised how cheaper methods of extraction, along with economies of scale, could keep the gold flowing. He turned out to be a dodgy character and went to prison for fraud, but he had the right idea and others carried through his scheme. Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM) now extracts the gold on behalf of American and Canadian owners. Every now and again the digging reveals an old shaft containing abandoned equipment and vehicles from the earlier mines. The pit is very close to the town but lies behind huge banks created by mine spoil, which helps shield it from noise and dust. The company runs tours around the site so, naturally, I went on one.


Sim-ply enor-mous.

We were picked up from the tour office in the main street and taken the short distance to the mine by minibus. Health and safety naturally prevailed and we all had to wear long sleeves, trousers, proper shoes and hi-vis waistcoats. At one point we were allowed out of the vehicle and had to wear hard hats. The company takes its responsibilities to the town just as seriously. These days all the processing is carried out on-site and due consideration is given to wind direction when operations might create dust. The huge hills of spoil are being replanted, firstly to keep them stable and secondly to replace lost vegetation. The company is proud of these efforts although the cynic in me wonders how much of it is voluntary and how much enforced by regulation. Either way, it’s the right thing to do although the result will never look natural.
As we drove around the mine our guide showed us the ore processing plant, an area where bits of timber and metal from the old workings were stored, and encouraged us to wave at the drivers of the huge dump trucks as they drove past. These vehicles work 24/7 and drivers simply leave it at the end of their shift and another takes their place. They earn about $80,000 per annum but the work is seriously boring. They all have an LED readout on the side and one passed us showing 249 tonnes load. That rock will give up a few ounces of gold. Many of the drivers and equipment operators are female, mechanisation meaning that muscle power isn’t a factor in selecting good staff. The trucks are automatic, with air conditioning, and their operations are directed by computer.


250 tonnes of rock on its way to be processed. Give the driver a wave!

We were shown an area where blasting was to take place later in the day. They drill a pattern of holes into the rock, fill them with an explosive mix of ammonium nitrate and diesel oil, then plug the hole with rock so as to force the blast into the ground. Blasting normally takes place around lunchtime every day but was being delayed because the wind was blowing towards the town. Our guide also pointed out some square plates attached to the sides of the pit. These monitor movement in the rock and provide an early warning of possible rock falls. All work in that area will be suspended until either the movement stops or the rock does indeed move. Sensible safety precautions and we could see a couple of places where this had happened.


Drilling rigs prepare the ground.

Despite the pit being open cast, there is still an underground section being worked, although that will expire soon. The main pit will probably be worked out sometime in the late 2020s, at which point in will be left to backfill with water – likely to take about fifty years!
Later on I went up to the public lookout to watch the blasting, high up on the edge of the pit. From that height it was just a large puff of smoke, followed by a loud rumbling sound and more piles of rock to be scooped up and transported away. Watching all the vehicles leaving the area, followed by the blasting, had been a bit eerie but soon enough the earth movers and dump trucks were back doing the same as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow. The show must go on.


A large cloud of smoke and dust as the charges go off, then the work continues.

Looking down into the pit changes the perspective of it all. Everything takes place on a large scale but doesn’t seem to from above. The sides are dotted with holes where the downward digging has cut across old mine tunnels. Bearing in mind they’re big enough for heavy vehicles to drive along, from the lookout they reminded me of the water jets you see on the sides of a spa bath. Quite strange.


It’s rather odd to see the old pit workings exposed in this way.

Kalgoorlie-Boulder benefits hugely from the pit, as you’d expect. About 25% of it’s population work in the mines and the greatest proportion of its incomes is from the same source. Unusually, the mine does not operate a fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) system but insists people live in the town. The advantage of this is that it’s a proper community, with wives (or husbands) and children living there too. Many of the mine support services are there too. Even so, there is still a large proportion of single men and I was fascinated to discover, in the same street as my hostel, one of the services required by some of them.
Hay Street is the traditional home of the town’s brothels and one of them, Questa Casa, runs daily tours at 3pm. You have to be out by 5pm otherwise you risk becoming a customer! ‘Titillating but Tasteless’ would probably be the best heading for such an event but it provided an interesting insight into how necessity can live alongside public squeamishness. I think it might be called ‘moral relativism’ these days. However, it seems these places have fallen through a crack in the law. The activity is illegal in WA but a blind eye is turned, including by the occupants of the police station just down the road.


Questa Casa. Pretty in pink.

In its early days the town had brothels all over the area but as more permanence took hold, and families moved in, brothels came under the heading of ‘something must be done!’ So in the early 20th C all brothels were forced to move into Brookman Street, near the town centre and its pubs. In the 1920s pressure was brought onto politicians to close them down completely. A representative from Perth came over and had the good sense to listen to those who pointed out that closure of the brothels would simply cause the huge numbers of single men to focus their attentions on the wives and daughters of the families in the town. His answer was to declare that no brothels now existed in Brookman Street. Meanwhile, the name of the lower section of this street had been changed to Hay Street. Even so, it was ruled that all working girls must be strangers to the town, although I don’t know whether that’s still the case, had to be over 21 and unmarried. Only buildings previously used as brothels are allowed to operate as such now and provided there’s no trouble, they’re left pretty much alone.


Choose your torture, pay the price.

It was interesting to see that the eight other people on my tour consisted of four couples and Lizzie, over at my hostel, had said they’re very popular. Questa Casa is owned by an American woman who bought it purely as a business investment. Our guide was her daughter and she told us all they do is rent rooms to the girls. Every other transaction is between them and their clients. After the introductory talk she showed us a couple of the rooms. One of these was the domain of a BDSM mistress, filled with instruments and devices designed to give pleasure through pain. The pleasure went to the purse of the mistress and the pain to the wallet of the client. Every single means of torture and humiliation costs extra money. I won’t describe some of the things our guide explained to us as this is a family show, after all. Along the front of the building, facing the street, are about ten doors behind which sit the girls, dressed in various attractive outfits, designed to tempt customers. And in case you’re ever in town and are tempted, it will cost you nearly $300 dollars an hour. I can assure you I wasn’t, not even a little bit.


‘Am I to your taste sir? Please do come in.’

Before I left Kalgoorlie I was pleased to be able to meet up with my friend Paul, who was on his way out to some of the more northerly mines with supplies of hydrochloric acid. The town’s wide streets meant he could easily park his road train while we went for a coffee. I also met up with a former AA colleague, Alan and his wife, Margaret. They take regular holidays in Australia, usually buying a camper van to tour round in. They have friends and relatives here and find it a good way to escape the British winter. We met up in town for coffee and had a good chat about the old days, always an enjoyable way to pass time. They’re slowly following me eastwards across the bottom of the country, taking their time and enjoying the sunshine and scenery.


Alan and Margaret.

Time to leave Kalgoorlie-Boulder. A fascinating town and still central to a major gold producing area. That enabled me to learn more about current extraction methods, to add to all the history I’d already learned. Now, I was going back to Coolgardie, with plans to ride some of the Golden Quest Trail. Partly on dirt roads, this route went through many of the old mining areas so I thought it would be worth the ride. I arrived at the town’s only campsite, set up and walked across the road to the servo where I met Paul once more. We’d managed to link up again and he had time to break his journey for more coffee and chatting. Afterwards I took a walk around the town and just had time for a quick look around the small museum at the visitor centre. The main display related to the Varischetti Mine rescue. In 1907 Modesto Varischetti became trapped underground at the Bonnievale mine, following heavy rain and flooding, and managed to survive a nine day ordeal before being rescued by two divers. He was trapped in an air pocket and the divers, having had special equipment delivered by a government funded ‘Rescue Special’ train from Perth, manage to reach him with food and supplies. They went down to him several times and on day nine sufficient water had been pumped out that they were able to lead him out to the surface. A real tale of heroics and of a caring mine owner.


Fine civic building but part of Coolgardie’s fading glory.

A walk around the town afterwards did little to remove my earlier impression that it is slowly dying. The information sheet led me to many sites where important buildings had stood, the majority of them just empty spaces. Those that remained were often empty and in poor condition. But the wide streets and impressive public buildings showed this was once a rich and important town.
At the campsite I was pitched next to an Aussie named Alan. He had recently retired, at 72, and was ‘doing the loop’ as the Aussies call their round the coast tour. He spent a fair bit of his time on his laptop and he told me he was writing his life story for his grandchildren, as a warning. ‘Don’t do some of the things I’ve done’ will be his message. That included being a delivery driver for a marijuana grower up in the hills of New South Wales, many years ago. He’d spent most of his career as a chef although he chose not to tell me what he used to put in his ‘special’ cakes.


Alan, looking chilled.

Setting off on the Golden Quest Trail next day, I’d worked out it would take three days to cover the complete 965kms and had already decided to cut that short. I felt the need to move on. But there were a couple of places I did want to visit. One of these was Lake Ballard, a huge salt pan to the north. Its claim to fame is as the site of a series of fifty one sculptures by Anthony Gormley, a famous British artist called Inside Australia. He came to the nearby town of Menzies, persuaded its inhabitants to be laser scanned – naked – and then used them to create these very strange sculptures. He calls them Insiders, the idea being that by slicing through the whole body scans he is capturing what’s inside. He says, ‘The insider reveals an attitude in a taut, abstract shape formed by the passage of a person’s life. Out on the salt lake they become antennae in space in relationship with each other but also with the land and the limit of our perception: the horizon.’ I walked out across the salty surface, made slippery by the recent rain, to look at the nearest two, and came back none the wiser. Interesting but puzzling. Perhaps some would say that’s how art should be.


Strange figure in a strange place. One of the Anthony Gormley sculptures.

Equally interesting was that this lake gets covered in water every few decades, whenever the northern cyclones stretch far enough south. Just below the surface lie millions of shrimp eggs and the water brings these to life. The result is that tens of thousands of Banded Stilts arrive and breed, using the shrimps for food. They nest on the multitude of small islands which dot the surface. How do these birds know that conditions are right for them? The event can surely only occur once or twice in their lifetime. It seems incredible to me.


A vast salt pan, with odd looking islands all over it.

I was on dirt roads by now and kept passing signs saying ‘Here was ……… Town,’ just in front of an empty area of ground. There was sometimes the ruin of an old building, usually nothing at all. These places had risen with the gold and disappeared with it too. A roadhouse called Ora Banda had managed to survive, through tourism really, but that was the only functioning building I saw.
I quick stop at Menzies, then on to Leonora to stay at their campsite. Here I learned that there are still prospectors out there, small operations literally scraping a living off the ground with bulldozers and small dry-blowing machines. They get a licence and off they go, using a bit of geological knowledge and luck to guide them. Apart from the machinery, it seems that searching for gold still uses one hundred year old methods and still has the same attraction.


A clever man in many ways, it seems.

After a wet night I headed back to Kalgoorlie via the Sons of Gwalia (another name for Wales) mine. This was one of the longest lasting pits in the northern goldfields, running from 1896 to 1963. It too has re-opened as a super pit although much smaller than that at Kalgoorlie. Gwalia is particularly famous for having Herbert Hoover as its chief engineer. He was a clever and innovative man and in particular he developed the idea of forty five degree mine shafts because they followed the line of the reef more closely. He designed his own house there and it is used as a B&B today, which helps to fund the museum. I enjoyed looking at the old machinery, particularly the huge, steam powered windlass, with its counter rotating drums which had clutches in them. A very new idea at the time and it was built in Erith, Kent. A reminder of home.


Herbert Hoover’s self designes house at Sons of Gwalia mine.

It was time to leave the goldfields and head back south. Eventually I was going to turn east, towards Adelaide, but first it was time for some sea air. The winds and waves of Esperance beckoned. This area had been fascinating, on many levels. Its history isn’t just about the shiny metals below the surface. It’s also about goodness and greed, theft and murder, rags to riches and back again. There’s plenty to discover about luck and losing and it’s a microcosm of how Australia grew from a colony into a country. Many of the miners became involved in politics. There was racism in some areas, towards southern Europeans as well as to Aboriginals. The ‘diggers’ from the mines became ANZACS and showed themselves to be tough heroes when the time came. What a fascinating area in which to spend time.

Woods, Waves, Wars and Whales

Perth, WA. 8th January 2016
An easy flight back to Perth, a quick taxi ride back to David’s house. Into bed for a few hours sleep. Then, some jobs to do.
I rode across town to a bike shop that sold Forma boots, an Italian company whose Adventure Rider model had received good reviews. I’d been interested in them for a while and had tried on Paul’s pair. They seem well made, have a waterproof ‘sock’ inside and aren’t too clunky for walking in. I was tempted because my Altberg boots, which had served me well over the previous 70,000kms, had worn out soles. But you know how it is with boots. They have to be just right and these weren’t, so no deal. I’ll just have to get my old ones repaired when I get to a city where I’ll be staying long enough to manage without them for a week or so.




…. and after.

I wasn’t able to get myself a Christmas present but I got some for Doris. I mentioned buying the new screen, before I left for Bali. That got fitted. Sad to see the other one go in many ways, we’d shared some tough times together. But it definitely wasn’t going to survive another tumble on the gravel so it had to go. The other present, courtesy of my friend Paul, from Australind, was a new set of petrol tank pannier bags. He has a friend at work whose wife is clever with canvas and cotton and she made up some replacements for the originals, which had survived many a scrape. And I have to say she did a fantastic job. A Christmas present for me and Doris from Paul. Thanks mate, and just in time as the others were falling apart. Lastly, I replaced the number plate, broken when I came off on the Gibb River Road. Is Australia slowly eating my bike??


Old and every so slightly worn out.

Bright and shiny new. Thanks Paul!

Bright and shiny new. Thanks Paul!

Before I left Perth I sorted out some wiring on David’s Yamaha SR400 and tried to diagnose why it wouldn’t start. There was no spark and some investigation with the multi meter suggests it’s a faulty CDI unit. $200 for a new one, from a supplier in Europe. Ouch! I suggested he get a second opinion before spending that kind of money. Before I left he put me in touch with one of his friends in Malaysia, a potentially useful contact in a country where labour rates are low and a top end rebuild might be on the cards.
But, as always, the time comes to leave behind new friends and move on.
I was heading back to Australind, to stay at Paul’s place for a few days. The problem was going to be getting there. I’d come back to find severe bush fires raging across the countryside south of Perth. As I rode down the freeway I came to a closure and was diverted off. I couldn’t see any diversion signs at the top of the slip road so I went west, towards the coast, as I’d heard the fires were more inland. Thirty kilometres later I came to another closure and had no choice but to turn back. I had a coffee first and chatted to the locals, who told me of a clear route. Once I was on it, I saw diversion signs!


Yarloop blaze

This gets to be serious!

Yarloop fire

An aerial view of Yarloop, once the fire was out.

The route took me through an area I’d ridden before and turned out to be a nice ride, although a long one. It was eerie to see drifting smoke laying in the hollows, just above the ground. Eventually I made it to Paul’s house, several hours and 250kms later than expected. But I was lucky. I’d merely been inconvenienced. Over 120 families had lost their homes and possessions in the town of Yarloop, with over two hundred buildings destroyed in total – the whole town, in effect. These fires stop for nothing, once they get a hold.


The police had closed the road and while I was drinking coffee these guys headed out.

Paul was away on holiday but I was able to stay at his house for a few days while I caught up on some writing, bike maintenance and equipment repairs. Paul is a terrific guy and has been a really good friend to me. How many other people would give you the run of their house while they’re not there? Fortunately I had plans to meet him down on the coast so would be able to thank him then.
On the way south I met up with Gilda, my favourite radiologist, in Manjimup. There’s lots of towns around this area whose names end in ‘up’ and I discovered it’s a local Aboriginal word for ‘place’. Manjin is the name of a reed that was important to them, hence the name. I wonder if the good citizens of Yallingup know it means ‘place of love’?


Doris and Gilda. One dumped me and the other mended me.

Gilda and I wandered around the local timber museum then went for a delicious woodfired pizza meal at a local pub. These are something that Australia does really well and this one was both cooked and served by Italians, probably accounting for the unusual choice in toppings. Gilda is stuck there for a few weeks as she’s on an assignment there but she’ll be in Adelaide after that and I hope to see her there.
Paul and I had already ridden some of this area, and visited some of the very tall trees there. But I was planning to go to the Tree Top Walk and the Ancient Empire Trail. Both were at the same location, deep in the Karri and Tingle forests near the small town of Walpole. But first, taking the advice of the pleasant guy at the visitor centre, I took a roundabout route, through some beautiful forest, to the small town of Northcliffe. Here I learned more about something I’d first heard of in the WA museum in Perth, the Group Settlement Scheme.


Just to give an idea of the size of these trees. Clearing these from the land must have been a job and a half.

A joint enterprise between the Western Australian, Federal and British governments, the scheme encouraged migrants to the area for the purpose of establishing dairy farms. The idea was heavily promoted in Britain by press magnate Viscount Northcliffe’s newspapers, hence the name of the town. Begun in 1921, it was seen as an answer to three problems: high post war unemployment in both Britain and Australia; a way of opening up land in south WA and establishing a dairy industry in the area; reducing reliance on produce imported from other parts of Australia. It was open to Australian and British applicants and was heavily subsidised by the WA state government.
Groups of about twenty men, and their families if they had them, had their passage paid and after a few days of acclimatisation in Perth, were taken out to the area. The ‘Groupies’ from the UK often came out together on the same boat. But far from the cleared land and house they were promised, what they got was around one hundred and fifty acres of virgin forest and tents. They were paid to clear the land, given a grant to buy household equipment and loaned money which, when paid off, would leave them as owners of the land. The idea of setting up groups was to provide the labour needed to clear the land and set up the farms. Over the years the state paid for roads and railways, and provided one teacher schools for the children. But the scheme was considered to be a huge failure and had been abandoned by 1930. The land was poor, extremely difficult to clear and dairy prices were too low to enable the farmers to pay back the loans. Many walked off the land, giving up their entitlement, although those who had nowhere else to go stuck it out. Conditions were harsh, especially before roads and railways were built, and many families suffered deprivation. But the scheme did lay the foundations for the successful dairy industry the region currently has, as well as establishing many towns in the area, although the cost to the state was huge, around £6,500,000.


Eventually, the Groupies had reasonable homes. But it was a long, hard slog to get to this stage.

There were some winners though. The small museum in Northcliffe told the story of a local man who won the contract to supply the timber for the settlers’ houses. There’s a fascinating story about the transportation of a huge steam engine and whim (windlass), needed to power the saw mill. It took up to twenty eight bullocks fourteen days to haul the engine out to the mill from the nearest railhead, and this included building a temporary bridge across one of the rivers. Stirring stuff, and a perfect example of the ingenuity and determination needed to open up new territory.


The thirteen tonne Robey steam engine. Modern technology of its time but hauled in by old style bulls and bullock teams.

On the way to Walpole I stopped at a lookout and bumped into Wayne and Denise, a fifty-something couple who had rented out their house and were touring around Aus with their caravan and two dogs. Wayne is a mechanic and driver and they’d pick up work where they could to fund their travels. They both ride bikes and one of Wayne’s is a Moto Guzzi, so we were happy to talk about Italian V Twins for a while. When I stopped for a coffee in Walpole, I saw them again.
At the Valley of the Giants I was looking forward to walking among some ancient trees and tangling with a Tingle. These trees are found in Red or Yellow varieties and are very tall. They are part of ancient forests which date back to before Gondwanaland separated from Pangaea, around fifty million years ago. Because the climate in this area hasn’t changed as much as in other parts of Australia, many species of flora and fauna have an evolutionary history directly from those times.


They meant it when they said they are big.

As tourism grew it became clear these forests were under threat of damage because the roots of tingle trees do not go very deep. Disturbance of the topsoil has a greater effect than with others so in 1995 construction of a tree top walkway began. A design competition was held, with entries from across Australia and the winning design was fittingly inspired by two of the local plants. It was installed without use of cranes or helicopters so as to minimise its environmental impact. The see through steel decking reinforces the sensation of height – forty metres above the forest floor. Access to this relatively small (6,000 hectare) and unique forest is limited and controlled as part of the preservation plan.
When I bought my entry ticket the woman asked where I was from. I told her London. ‘How long will you be in Australia for?’ she asked. ‘Until I get fed up with you lot’ I replied. She thought that was really funny, as I’d sensed she would. I then added, ‘Which is likely to take a very long time.’ Which is very true. Aussies are great people.


Treetop walkway. A fantastic way to view these giants of the forest.

The walk among the tree tops was interesting, of course. It’s a unique way of looking at trees. It was odd to see how some had trunks that suddenly stopped, but with new trunks and crowns growing alongside. Fire is the reason, the one element that probably shapes Australia’s landscape more than any other. When a tingle tree suffers fire damage to its crown it grows a new one. It has to, otherwise it would die. They live for up to four hundred years and can reach a height of eighty metres in the case of the Red Tingle, the Yellow Tingle a little less.
The Ancient Empire boardwalk takes you through the forest at ground level. There’s plenty of info boards about the trees and other plants, as well as the animals that live among them. The older tingles often have holes at the base of the trunk, started out by insect activity and accelerated by fire. The base can be twenty metres in circumference, because of the buttressed root system. The V shaped holes in some trees were easily big enough to walk through and, in some cases, to drive through. Despite this seemingly life threatening damage, the tree will still be growing.
Back at the ticket office I bumped into Wayne and Denise again and, having already chatted to one of the wardens who owned several Moto Guzzis, we enjoyed an impromptu owners club meeting. On many different levels, this is a most excellent place.


Wayne and Denise. Like many others, touring and enjoying their country.

The final part of my day had me riding down to the seaside town of Denmark, and to the Ocean Beach caravan park to join Paul and his family. He had talked to reception about my arrival and they were happy for me to pay the extra person fee and camp on Paul’s site, which saved me the full camping fee. Their friends Stuart, Jenny and daughters were camped alongside them and I was welcomed by all.
It’s sometimes tempting to do things the easy way, get lazy and bask in other people’s hospitality. But I was concious of how easy it is to overdo that. So although I spent evenings with my friends I made sure I left them to enjoy their family time during the day, while I went off and explored the area. This part of WA’s south coast has some beautiful bays and natural features, as well as the usual touristic venues, so it wasn’t difficult to plan a day out. The weather was a bit mixed but I wasn’t planning to sunbathe anyway, so it suited me. My first port of call was Greens Pool and next to that, Elephant Rocks.


Green’s Pool. Great for seaside holiday fun.

Greens Pool is a nice circular bay, with low level rocks scattered in the shallows, just right for the kids to swim out to and play on. There were plenty of families having fun on the busy beach. A short walk over a low cliff brought me to Elephant Cove, a much smaller bay also with plenty of rocks to clamber over. The main feature here was the collection of large rocks which looked, not surprisingly, a bit like a herd of elephants! Plenty of people here too and I sometimes wonder what they make of me as I wander around, obviously alone.


You can see how they got their name of Elephant Rocks.

Next I went inland a bit, to the Alpaca Farm, a great place for kids, and goats too. The farm is slowly building up enough of a herd to consider selling the alpaca wool commercially, although they’re not there yet. But a comparison between a newly shorn alpaca and its friends suggests they deliver a fair bit. There are ponies, donkeys and a camel too, along with various small animals. I met Eleanor, a biology graduate from Devon, who has been working and volunteering enough to have earned her residency permit. She’s not sure what she’ll do next. When I’d arrived I’d been given a bag of food and was able to go into the alpaca and goat pens to have fun feeding them, as well as the child inside.


Eleanor and her babies.


Paul, Jo, Connor and Jordan. Lovely people and so very kind to me.

A nice ride down a gravel trail through a forest got me back to the coast where I admired a couple more places of note, Conspicuous Point and Parry Bay. The last visit before heading back to camp was to the fish and chip shop in Denmark. The fresh Red Snapper was delicious and the chips plentiful. Then a nice evening chatting with my friends. Stuart and family were leaving the next morning.
Once Stuart had packed up and left Paul, Jo and their boys went off for some surfing while I planned out the next few days and wrote a bit. We went out later to the Boston Brewery where I ate probably the best meal I’ve had since arriving in Australia. It was a Beer Cured Ham Steak and was as big as it was delicious. Tender, tasty and big enough for two people. I managed it though, of course.


Paul, Jo, Connor and Jordan. Lovely people and so very kind to me.

Paul, Jo and the boys were leaving next day so our last evening was good although tinged with sadness. We’ve become very good friends and I’ll miss them. Just to emphasise the point the rain started hammering down in the early hours and was still going strong while hey were packing their gear away in the morning. Everyone got wet, although needless to say the rain stopped once everything was stowed. Paul has a camping trailer with a large, fold-out tent and I was impressed by how everything went back neatly into it, although it will all have to come back out to be dried off when the sun returns. They had a five hour drive back to Australind and set off as soon as they could, leaving me behind to get myself packed and organised. I was very sorry to see them go and although I hope to meet up with Paul again, It’s unlikely I’ll ever see Jo, Connor or Jordan any more. It’s great to make friends when you travel, but always sad to say goodbye, and a little bit of my heart went north with them.
A couple of hours riding got me to Albany, the next town eastwards along the coast, and quite a big one. I arrived at the same time as the next batch of rain. Albany has several claims to fame in Australia and WA’s history. It was the first town settled in the state and was, until Fremantle took over, the busiest port. It was the departure point for the ANZAC fleet that sailed to Egypt and then Gallipoli, delivering thousands of Diggers and Kiwis to those fields of slaughter. This relationship between the town and the departing ANZACs led to the National ANZAC Centre being sited there. More on that later.
So, plenty to see in Albany. Enough to keep me there five days though? Let’s see.


The Brig Amity.

On a cloudy morning I walked down towards the seafront to take a look at the full sized replica of the brig Amity. This ship brought the first Western Australian settlers to King George Sound from Sydney, a mixture of soldiers, convicts and support staff. Up to this point the only visitors had been sealers and whalers. Several explorers had mapped the coast but it was the arrival of the French explorer, Dumont D’Urville, which made the authorities in Sydney appreciate the risk of France claiming the south west coast. When Perth was established in 1829 it was a non-convict settlement and the city objected to Albany having convicts and also to having a town within the new state being run as a military establishment by New South Wales. Relations between states often involved a degree of rivalry. The governor of NSW was happy to hand it over as it was a costly exercise anyway, so Albany officially became part of the Swan River Colony (later WA).
The town slowly grew and benefited from being WA’s only deep water harbour. Settlers from other parts of Australia, and from abroad, landed there and in the late 19th C gold rush the port became very busy. The harbour was important enough to warrant the building of the Princess Royal Fort in the 1890s, with funding from all Australian states, and guns supplied by the British military. Australia’s first example of federated action even though the federation was yet to be set up.


Albany’s famous Dog Rock.

Albany never really became a big commercial centre, more of a stepping off point to the inland regions and a supply point for pastoralists. The one exception to that is the whaling industry, with a factory being established in 1952 but closing in 1978. Today it is more about tourism and good living although the port is still busy. The population is over 30,000 now.
After looking over the Amity I visited the local museum, very much enjoying the photographic exhibition in the upstairs gallery. There were some stunning wildlife pictures there. While in an arty mood I went to the Vancouver Art Centre and enjoyed their display, particularly the paintings with an indigenous theme. Gilda had recommended the nearby Vancouver Street café, so I checked them out too.


I love these Aboriginal inspired paintings, often based on Dreamtime stories.

I’d been to the visitor centre the day before but called by again, only to find it closed. But set up next to it was a van offering hearing tests. I know I’m suffering from age related hearing loss so I thought I’d get checked out. I wasn’t surprised to find my hearing has deteriorated but was surprised by how much worse my right ear is than my left. The tester told me that the psychological effect of it can become chronic if left too long, even if a hearing aid is fitted. Maybe it’s time to do something about it. The only thing that worries me is that I wear ear plugs when I’m riding so how would that work?
The next day it rained, too much to go out in, apart from a walk to the shops. It didn’t matter as I had domestic problems to solve. These things aren’t always easy when you’re a long way from home and with an eight hour time difference. Firstly, the boiler in my house was playing up. Fortunately my very good neighbour, Keith, was able to check it for me, then get an engineer in to assess it and finally organise a replacement. Yes, £2,000, just like that! Happy tenants though, and it is tax deductible, which is some compensation.
Secondly, the clutch on the bike is giving early warning signs of imminent problems. Nothing too drastic yet. I have some spare plates back at base camp but they couldn’t be found, at first. Eventually they revealed themselves and are now in the post, to be collected at Esperance, one of the towns I’m slowly heading to.
Thirdly, I now have a credit card problem. I was trying to top up my international SIM card and between the website and my bank, payment was refused. I suppose I shouldn’t have kept trying it, six times in all, because Visa thought there was something funny going on and decided there was a security risk, and cancelled it. Once they do that there’s no way back and the new one will have to be sent out to me – somewhere! If anyone reading this is planning to go travelling, make sure you have a second credit card and, if you can manage it, a second debit card too. I’m very glad that I do.


Statue of Kemal Attaturk, peacemaker and father of modern Turkey.

Albany is surrounded by national parks and good beaches so, the rain having blown away, I went for a walk along the coastal trail to Middleton Beach, via Ellen Cove, once a popular destination for tourist laden boats. As the cloud slowly cleared I could get good views of King George’s Sound and the Princess Royal Harbour. It was easy to see why ships found it a safe haven. The harbour especially is surrounded on all sides by land, apart from the narrow entry point. There were several look out points placed on the higher part of the path, very useful for whale watching at the right time of year. I read that migrating whales like to linger close to this coast to play around, much to the delight of tourists and the boat skippers who take them out to watch them.
One quite moving exhibit along the track was a statue of Kemnal Attaturk, Turkish Prime Minister from 1923 to 1938. With more relevance though, he was the leader of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli. He is famous for this quote, from 1934, dedicated to the ANZACS: “Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” The channel his statue overlooks is named after him. I wonder what he would think of those ruling his country now?


Gunner’s eye view of St Georges Sound, from the Princess Royal fort.

On the way back I diverted up the hill to visit the the National ANZAC Centre at the Princess Royal Fortress. Newly built in time for the 1914 centenary, the centre is very interactive and focusses on the personal stories of thirty participants in the battles at Gallipoli, as well as covering activities of the mounted desert forces who later fought in Sinai and Egypt. You get provided with an audio guide and given a card with a soldier’s name on it. At various points around the display you can place this card on a reader and the screen next to it will give you information on ‘your’ soldier and what had happened to him at that point in time. Mine started the war as a corporal, survived, fought in WW2 and was a captain by the end of that. He died of cancer in the 1960s. I guess that most others weren’t so lucky.
ANZAC was a name used by the British army to identify the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). It stuck, and is a badge of honour for both countries. It’s no longer used now that NZ has stopped sending troops abroad to fight foreign wars.
The displays are excellent and there’s a huge amount to read through, and exhibits to examine, all laid out in time order. The centre deliberately overlooks King Georges Sound, which was the gathering place for the Australian and New Zealand fleets prior to their departure in late 1914.


At the lookout above Princess Royal fort. It’s not difficult to visualise those ships lined up, ready to sail to Egypt, then Gallipoli. Only about a third of the ANZACS on board returned uninjured.

Outside is the fortress, with guns still in place, and a collection of weaponry from ships and submarines. Albany was also a WW2 American submarine base and there’s plenty of information relating to that too. On the hill top is a viewpoint which has info boards showing all the ships that gathered in the sound below and their names. The whole set up must be quite a moving place for Aussies and Kiwis who had relatives involved in the war. Full of history and moving stories, a fantastic place.
My last day in Albany saw me riding out to Frenchman Bay to visit a more recent part of the town’s history and also one of its technical triumphs. The first place was the wind farm, high on the cliff that overlooks the bay. There are eighteen turbines spread out along the cliff top turning fresh air into useful power. There’s lots of info about their history, cost, how they work etc. I think they look wonderful, as they spin around providing up to eighty percent of the town’s power needs. Well done Albany for having the foresight to install them.


Coastal breezes powering toasters and freezers. Elegant and essential.

I called in to see the blow holes, which give a spectacular display of foaming sea power, provided there’s enough swell in the incoming tide. Fortunately I asked someone coming back up the path whether they were blowing and he said no. That question usefully saved me a 1.6km walk and 78 steps, down then back up,. I got back on the bike and rode round to the Discovery Centre, at Frenchman Bay.
There are several attractions here but I was only interested in the old Whaling Station. It’s one of those places that’s horribly fascinating. It all looks very innocent now, with one of the old whale chasing ships in dry dock, so people can clamber over it. Flensing is the Norwegian word used to describe the removal of the blubber from the whale.The wooden flensing deck and associated saws, winches and equipment are on view, all tidy and clean. The large sheds where blubber was boiled down for oil and fertiliser, along with the giant stoves and drying machines, can be walked around. But the reality, as shown in photos and exhibits, was a bloody, stinking, horrendous horror story, which was played out day after day at this site for twenty six years. It was a severe shortage of lubricating oil, post WW2, which made whale hunting commercially viable once more and these whale filled waters made rich hunting grounds. The company bought whale chasers, powerful boats with harpoon guns and sonar. They were aided by spotter planes and developed very effective methods of hunting and killing. The harpoons had grenades mounted on the end and, if well aimed, would kill the whale instantly.


The whale chaser Cheyne IV, with whale oil storage tanks behind it.

Our guide took us round the station, explaining all the activities and processes. The photos were very gory and the whole process seems repugnant. But, to be fair, a need was being met and the oil was in much demand. We humans will use animals to enable us to live our comfortable lives. I’m a meat eater and I don’t suppose a slaughterhouse is a very nice place to be either. All the same, I’m very pleased we don’t do it any more. The end came for the station as various species were banned from being hunted, due to the threat of extinction, and demand dropped as alternatives were found to the whale products. Conservationist pressure helped things along too. These days there is no need to hunt whales at all. Are you listening, Japan?? Norway???


Large, powered saw.


And this is what it does. Yes, that is a whale’s head.

Inside one of the sheds were some whale skeletons. They are HUGE animals, and it’s strange to see how their flippers contain an arm with exactly the same bone structure as humans. No surprise really, they’re mammals after all, but it kind of brings it home.


A big beast.

One piece of very useful information given to me by the VC was a list of films showing at the town cinema. The Revenant, Star Wars in 3D and the Hateful Eight. I’d been starved of film going since I left home and decided this was too good an opportunity to miss. In the end I didn’t see Star Wars but thoroughly enjoyed the Hateful Eight, well worth seeing if you like Tarrantino’s work. I didn’t like the Revenant quite so much. A good film, great acting, stunning locations and a good story, but somehow it just didn’t grab me.
Time to leave Albany and head north to the Kalgoorlie goldfields. But I had one last place to call into. Near the small town of Hyden is a geological feature called Wave Rock. What is it? A very strange looking rock, shaped like a wave. To be more accurate, it’s a large rocky outcrop and one side of it is shaped like a wave.
It was a pleasant ride up there, past several large salt pans. The ground water in southern WA is very salty, a big concern to wheat growers in the area. The removal of the native bush and trees has allowed the water table to gradually rise, which in turn is affecting the ability to grow wheat. The natural balance of the land is very fine and upsetting it isn’t difficult. Many areas have been replanted with a fast growing variety of gum tree in an attempt to redress it. I rode through the wheat belt and seeing the size of the fields made the problem clear.


Rod and BMW, sheltering from the rain on the patio of the camp kitchen.

At the reception of the camp site next to wave rock I bumped into Rod, who was enjoying an Australia Day weekend break on his BMW800GS. The reception staff suggested we share a pitch, to save a bit of money, an excellent idea. We soon hit it off and rode back into town for a meal, kindly bought by Rod. So I bought the beer!
Rod owns his own plumbing business and has only been riding about six years, and wonders why he took so long to learn. He went on an orginsed tour in Africa, led by Charlie Boorman, no less, and unfortunately had a bad accident when a car pulled across him. So what did he do? He went back the following year for another go. Well done Rod, I’d like to think I’d have done the same. He wants to go off touring, when commitments allow, and says that I’m inspiring him to make it happen. I’m not too sure how I feel about inspiring anyone, I feel it’s a big responsibility. But I’m very happy if someone dreams about a long trip and is encouraged enough by what I’m doing to have a go themselves. That’s good enough for me.


‘Bailing out’ was almost literal .

About 4am the heavens opened up. Rob was sleeping in a swag, small enough to pack on his bike but not big enough for torrential rain. So he moved himself, his gear and his bike over to the camp kitchen where there was a verandah big enough to put everything under. At about 7am I bailed out too, although I left my tent and bike where they were. The rain persisted most of the day but eventually I moved everything under shelter. Neither of us felt like leaving and we booked another night. The campsite owner very kindly let us sleep on the verandahs of a couple of unoccupied self contained units. It was lucky the campsite was fairly empty. My riding gear got wet, despite being in one of the tent porches, and the weather was so damp it took until the second day, and some sunshine, to dry out.


Here’s why.


No suggestion of the downpour to come in that sunset.

The rain did pause enough to allow us a chance to look at Wave Rock, which is one of those geographical oddities that I like so much. The wave shape was formed millions of years ago when all but the top of the rock was underground. Rainwater containing salts and other minerals attacked the underground section of it, slowly softening the rock. As erosion exposed more of the rock the softened parts broke off, leaving the overhang that can be seen today. Wind and rain smoothed it out and it really does look like a giant wave. The staining on it is from moss and lichen. It’s fifteen metres high and over one hundred metres long, and looks amazing.


Wave Rock. The dark staining is moss and lichen.

But that isn’t the rock’s only trick. When the town of Hyden was settled they needed a water supply so had the bright idea of creating a dam at one end. The run-off water from the rock is diverted by a wall into it. A clever idea, although no longer relied on since piped water arrived. At the other end is a strange collection of tumbled and eroded rocks named the Hippo’s Yawn. The picture makes clear the reason why.

Hippo's Yawn

Hippo’s Yawn

A little further along is Mulka’s Cave. There is an Aboriginal legend attached to this place. The cave is full of hand prints, stencilled onto the walls. Some of them are much higher than others, as if belonging to a giant. He is Mulka, a huge man who was the progeny of a forbidden marriage and was cross eyed, so couldn’t hunt. Rather than starve, he took to eating children. A tale of caution to keep little ones in line. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of these delightful places throughout Australia. I keep reading about them and visit as many as I can.


Hand print covered cave walls.

But the time had come to say goodbye and good luck to Rod, and to head up Emu Fence Road – what a great name – towards Kalgoorlie and the northern goldfields. And maybe, just maybe, to trip over a nugget or two.


Jo and Andrew, with their very smart VW camper.