The Goldfields have always been an intriguing place to me, and one that I wanted to visit. Towns that rise and fall as these have done in such spectacular fashion, and all on the promise of great riches, to me say a lot about our society. I am heartbroken at looking at pictures of what used to be – some fantastically amazing buildings erected in a great hurry and at often at huge expense, only to be taken down and building materials shipped to the next great gold rush town. Fortunately there is still some wonderful architecture yet surviving, and I’ve been able to visit it.
One of the highlights for me was Pump Station No.8 along the Golden Pipeline trail – which brings to life CY O’Connor’s audacious plan to bring water to the goldfields just after the turn of the 20th century. A National Trust property about 60kms west of Coolgardie, this pump station is an absolute treasure. It was operational right up til the 70’s when automatic pumps replaced the old steam driven pumps, and all the machinery and buildings still remain remarkably intact. The on-site caretaker (Roy?) who gave me an excellent guided tour that brought the incredible mastery of O’Connor’s engineering design to life, along with the stories of life at the Station for the 12+ families who kept it running at any one time. I remember learning about CY O’Connor at primary school and the sad irony of him not living to see the success of his crowning achievement. I also as an adult read and really enjoyed The Drowner, by Robert Drewe – which taps into this historical story. To see first hand how incredible O’Connor’s design was, and to fully understand the significance of the scheme (which is still used to this day to supply water to Kalgoorlie and the goldfields) is really fulfilling.
In Coolgardie, I stayed a couple of days so I could catch up with myself(!) and explore the past of the town dubbed the “Queen of the Goldfields”. The National Trust property on the edge of town – Warden Finnerty’s Residence – is an impressive building and nicely presented. Unfortunately the caretaker who gave me a guided tour was dreadful. He was clearly incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the property and Coolgardie. But he was not a good speaker and tried to tell me everything about the property – meaning a 45minute tour that felt like 1hr30(!) – instead of being selective and leaving me to discover other stuff for myself by letting me wander through alone. A real shame.
I enjoyed visiting the Goldfields Exhibition Museum – as much for the fantastic building that houses it as the displays themselves. I had been told I would enjoy the glass bottle display, and I thought “yeah yeah, I’ve seen bottle collections before”. But I was impressed! The way they are displayed is incredible effective. And I’ve never seen purple bottles before, or the range of different shapes and sizes. Quite something else.
I passed through Kalgoorlie with only a brief provisions stop, determined to head for Lake Ballard and the Inside Australia sculpture installation by Antony Gormley. Again, this is something I have been aware of for many years, and have wanted to visit for ages. Even 51kms of dirt road each way from Menzies, and the prospect of having to camp without power for the first time to see the installation at the recommended dusk or dawn, wouldn’t deter me! So, I got there. And it was kind of like I expected. But I admit I was pretty disappointed as I really was hoping the lake bed would be covered with white salt crystals as I have seen in so many photos, making the sculptures really stand out. But instead the lake bed was the same brown as the sculptures so to be honest it was a bit underwhelming. However, after getting out there and walking out to a fair few of them, playing with different angles and photo compositions, I was happy that I have captured a few creditable pics I think, despite only having my iPhone.
The great thing about camping in the outback is that the lack of things to do once it gets dark means you can get a great night’s sleep (so long as you can get comfortable of course!) After having dinner, getting changed into lots of warm layers (no fan heater tonight!) and getting my bed ready I figured I may as well get in it. I didn’t even fancy reading. So it was lights out at 8:15pm! Fortunately I managed to work out a way to stop my fridge from rattling when running on battery power (seems there’s something lose in the back, which when pushed down into place fixes it!) and apart from that quiet hum every now and then there was nothing. No sound at all – not even birds in the dead of night, and I couldn’t hear anything from my fellow campers at adjacent campsites either. It truly was deafening silence, almost eery. My head compensated by invoking tinnitus. 😦 oh well.
I had planned to continue my quest for another one or two nights in the Northern Goldfields, so the next morning headed back into Menzies where the visitor centre was supposed to be open from 10-2 so I could check on opening hours etc of a few different attractions. It wasn’t open. That really annoys me. So I wondered around the town for a short while reading some of the interpretation panels. The town hall is pretty impressive especially the two main phases being evident.
While I was standing reading a panel on the corner opposite the Menzies Hotel, I heard a shout – “Flat-arse!” Looking around – and thinking “did I really just hear that?” – I saw a car turning the corner with an overweight young-ish Aboriginal girl hanging out the passenger window. Yep, I heard that. I was perplexed for a brief moment, then thought – well I can’t argue with that observation! Hollings’s are known for a distinct lack of a rear end. And eventually found myself thinking “Is that it – the best you can come up with?” As the car slowly continued on it’s way she continue to shout out unintelligible taunts (I guess) but already I was thinking how fortunate I am, and how much an experience like that saddens me for her sake. To have nothing better to do than yell at passing travellers…
Anyway, so I left Menzies behind – bound for Niagra Dam and Kookynie the “living ghost town” where I intended staying for a night. At the dam I had a coffee and followed a 1.6km interpreted walk trail, which I enjoyed. I especially noted that this area was the transition from the goldfields eucalypt woodlands dominated terrain to the south, and the mulga scrub to the north. Hmmm…
The dam is quite some feat – it cost £42,000 (£26,000 over budget!) and was built at the turn of the 20th century to create a water supply for the nearby goldmining town and the ever-increasing railway that passed nearby. Soon after it was complete, a huge reliable underground water source was discovered at nearby Kookynie – so it wasn’t even necessary in the end! But it still is quite remarkable.
On driving into Kookynie, I realised they really weren’t joking about it being a ghost town! After a brief drive around, and checking out the “caravan park” beside the hotel, I decided I wouldn’t be staying. But as the Grand Hotel is one of the few outback pubs still standing, and dates back to Kookynie’s heyday more than a century ago, I figured it would be rude not to call in. And it was lunchtime after all. The building is extraordinary – incredibly cool and a pleasure to spend an hour or so in when outside I was overheated (so much for winter!). I had the hugest burger I’ve ever seen! Washed down with a beer and watching the Eagles destroy Port Adelaide on an impressively big flat screen TV dominating the tiny old bar, I felt pretty Australian!
I had an interesting chat with the Hotel Manager Margaret – an interesting lady who’s spent most of her life in the outback. She and her husband bought and renovated an old row of shops in Kookynie to live in, prior to buying and managing the hotel. And as a young woman, she spent some time on a station in the Pilbara where she would join the jackeroos rounding up bulls before donning an apron to cook their meals (which was her official job!).
So – it was 2:30. If I wasn’t staying there, I needed to get to Leonora or Laverton to stop overnight, or return to Kalgoorlie. There are a couple of attractions in or near the two northern towns that I was keen to see, and I had been told the Laverton caravan park has a decent campers kitchen – but could I justify travelling an extra 350kms for these few things? Remembering I was in the transition area, and that it was all mulga from here north; and then looking around and seeing how hot and red and dusty everything was, I decided to head south again back to the relative civility of Kalgoorlie. Never have I made a happier decision! The two-hour drive flew by, I didn’t even stop.
My original decision to head south rather than north from Geraldton has been vindicated then. I don’t like the heat. And even more so, I don’t like dust. I am not made for inland / outback Australia, or the north of the country – unlike the remarkable Margaret from the Grand Hotel. I’m a coastal girl, enjoying moderate – cool climates. So that’s settled then, onwards towards South Australia where I can be reunited with the coast. 🙂