Kalgoorlie, WA. 26th January 2016.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.