Kalgoorlie is one of those places you’ll either love or hate. It’s not a lie by the beach and read a book kind of town, but rather a place that begs to be explored.
“It’s like the Wild West,” my friend exclaimed and I did initially get the feeling we’d stepped onto a movie set!
It’s like the old photograph you can’t quite get out of your mind, the one with the shadow that could be a ghost … you know, it’s intriguing.
In many respects Kalgoorlie is an enigma because it’s different, full of character and not specifically a holiday town. It’s called the Gold Capital of Australia and over the last 100 years it’s never really veered from its purpose.
Kalgoorlie Past and Present
My first brush with Kalgoorlie was back in 1983 when my boyfriend left Sydney to go and work as a young geologist on a prospecting site.
Via poste restante mail I heard distant tales of rough-tough work on a stretch of earth called the Golden Mile, before the Super Pit was even born, where he spent his days laboring for 12 hour shifts on a drill rig prospecting for gold. Home for him was initially a camp site, followed by a couch in someone’s house.
A trip down memory lane
It sounded a harsh life, and one which I had little desire to encounter as I swanned around Sydney with a pack of bohemian backpackers, living the good life when funds permitted.
So returning to Kalgoorlie recently was a trip down a memory lane largely forgotten by Dave after 30 years’ absence, and a completely new experience for me, but one which got me thinking very much about past and present.
We stayed close to the centre of town at the ibis Styles Hotel, a perfectly positioned and comfortable hotel with a restaurant and swimming pool – you can read more about the hotel later in this post – it was an ideal jumping off point for a little exploration.
It’s fascinating to think that the city of Kalgoorlie Boulder owes its origin to one of the biggest gold rushes ever which really began in 1893 when three down on their luck Irishmen discovered gold.
Paddy Hannan, Dan Shea and Tom Flanagan were itinerant prospectors in search of their fortunes, and at a spot now marked humbly with a plaque and a tree, not far from the main street in Kalgoorlie, they found gold.
I try to imagine their excitement as I visit the spot, swatting a fly from my eyes and pulling my hat down over my ears against the heat, and think that it was probably a bleak stretch of land back then, but the promise of riches must have made up the scenery.
Gold changed the face of Western Australia
Paddy was an experienced prospector who had worked on mines in New Zealand, Tasmania and other parts of Australia, and he was almost 50 years old when he made an application for a reward claim which was known as Hannan’s Find, a find which started a gold rush.
I knew that gold was an inherent part of the Western Australian economy, but didn’t realise that prior to the gold rushes the small European population had struggled to survive.
It’s amazing to think that within 3 days of Paddy Hannan’s find hundreds of miners began prospecting in the area, because those men would have walked for weeks in all kinds of weather to get to the goldfields with bicycles, wheelbarrows or whatever they had to carry their meager belongings.
Today, and maybe not surprisingly, the town still retains an Irish charm because we encountered what seemed to be a large population of young Irish people not only manning the bars but also enjoying the nightlife after hours, and although Kalgoorlie’s residents number around 30,000 and include many other nationalities from around the globe, it was the Irish contingent that captured my attention.
Boom and Bust in Western Australia
Modern day Kalgoorlie remains a mining town steeped in history, a history through which it’s breathed in and out to the beat of mining for over a hundred years. On a visit to Kalgoorlie you’ll be aware of the busts and booms, the living history, and the reasons for its existence so far from anywhere and you’ll feel as if you’re on an an island, surrounded not by water but by what appears to be a sea of barren earth.
“Before 1893 the goldfields of Australia were the 5th largest semi arid forest in the world,” our tour guide Norm tells us, “But those forests were destroyed within 75 years as the trees were used for buildings and fencing as well as tramways and shafts in the mines.”
Kalgoorlie’s genesis was as a mining town, but it’s now merged with nearby Boulder to become a major centre in the Nullarbor Plain.
Boulder, below, was looking seasonally pretty with jacarandas and kangaroo paws blooming.
It’s importance as a business centre is fairly obvious because on the plane flying across from Perth (1 hour ) on a weekday morning there were no children and only two women passengers, and it’s safe to assume that the majority of men were all on business, or work associated with mining, classically a male dominated profession.
On our way back to the airport on Sunday morning we are there in a jiffy and hardly saw another car. Kalgoorlie certainly doesn’t suffer from gridlock, and its streets are wide and straight as if waiting for an influx or traffic, but we are told they were constructed to accommodate large camel trains because many camels were brought across from South Australia to haul mining goods.
While Paddy Hannan is credited with discovering gold, Charles Yelverton O’Connor is the man who brought water to Kalgoorlie, not only for residential purposes but also for use in the mines.
I read at the WA Museum that as thousands of people headed to the gold fields water became a priority. In 1894 typhoid was rampant and water was scarce, the main source being a Government bore sunk to just 52 metres where men queued for hours to have their water bags filled with a brackish liquid costing one shilling a gallon, quite a sum at the time.
In fact back then a glass full of water was costing more than a glass of whisky, and O’Connor, a brilliant engineer, masterminded a solution – a tunnel that would eventually run over 500kms from Mundaring near Perth to the Goldfields. So stressful was this project for O’Connor that he felt he was losing his mind, and just 10 months before water began pumping he went out on his horse for a ride and shot himself.
There are other blood curdling tales in Kalgoorlie’s eventful history from stories of cold blooded murder in the bar of the Australia Hotel, to policemen being killed and dismembered when on the hunt for gold robbers, to the race riots of 1934, to Hay Street’s notorious and titillating reputation.
Kalgoorlie Bordellos and Brothels
Yes, Hay Street was once stacked pillar to post with brothels – two of which still operate today, while another, Langtrees, is now run as an up-market guest house.
You can tour Casa Questa Bordello at 3pm each day, but you’ll need to book because this tour sells out quickly!
Then there’s President Hoover’s poem
Herbert Hoover had lodgings in the upmarket Palace Hotel and apparently fell in love with a barmaid. When he left a poem was found by a chamber maid, tucked behind the mirror in his room and it’s assumed it was written for, but not given to, his sweetheart. Hoover went on to become 31st President of the United States and donated the huge mirror in the hallway to the hotel.
The Super Pit
Just outside Kalgoorlie is an awe inspiring and massive hole in the ground, big enough to house a town and I was quite unprepared for its enormity.
Known as the Super Pit it’s one of the biggest open cut mines in the world and forms the ‘Golden Mile’, which is touted as the richest square mile of gold bearing earth in the world.
Dwarfed by the size of it
Peering down into the Super Pit from a look out made me feel like a dwarf, and quite insignificant in the general scheme of things. Massive trucks are worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year way, wending their way filled with expensive dirt along a gravel stretch of road that is 8kms from top to the base of the pit. Looking down on them they looked like toy town miniatures, although I knew that up close they are monsters.
It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago this stretch of land was just flat ground, and for Dave who had once worked there it must have felt unreal.
Currently the Super Pit is around 600metres deep, 3.5 km long, 2km wide and this giant of a man made hole in the ground is all the more peculiar because you can see little pock marks along the walls, which are in fact the old mine shafts and tunnels some dating back over 100 years – many still with their old timber frames and structures which have to be hauled out and disposed of.
Old shafts still being discovered
“Over 3,500kms of shafts have been found so far around Kalgoorlie,” our tour guide tells us, “And the old mine shafts are full of timber.”
“In the olden days the miners followed the rich seams but now they have to mine much lower grades in a more efficient ways, moving huge amounts of earth, digging much deeper into the ground,” our guide says. “Today about 800,000 ounces of gold are produced from the Super Pit each year.”
The pit operates 24 hours a day, and you can book a 1.5 or 2.5 hour tour with Kalgoorlie Tours and Charters, or head to the lookout platform which you’ll find just off the Goldfields Highway.
What does the future hold for the Super Pit?
Looking down at this massive scar in the earth’s crust makes me wonder what will become of it when the Super Pit closes in 2021.
Our guide suggests that it might become Australia’s Las Vegas, or a giant inland lake, or a race track.
But what will happen to all those folks employed on the mine – where will they find work? What impact will the mine’s closure in 2021 have on the town itself seeing as we are told by our guide that millions of dollars flow through the town each year with the mine locally sourcing as many items as possible
He also tells us that, “There’s no fly in fly out arrangement at KCGM, you must live here to work here – this means that families stay together and money stays in the town.”
It will be interesting to see how Kalgoorlie reinvents itself in the future. Perhaps it will become primarily a tourist town because there’s certainly a lot of history to discover.
In the next post on ZigaZag I’ll be bringing you a what to do, and where to go guide, so be sure to check back for more intrigue about Kalgoorlie, won’t you?
Where to stay in Kalgoorlie
The ibis Styles Kalgoorlie is a comfortable and convenient hotel located near the centre of town on Egan Street, and only 5kms from the airport. It has a bright and light restaurant, a bar and an outdoor swimming pool – you can dine al fresco in good weather.
Our air conditioned room had a balcony overlooking jacaranda trees and with views of the Ivanhoe headgear at the WA museum, whilst the restaurants, historic buildings and shops of Hannan Street were only a couple of minutes walk away.
Bedrooms are spacious and contain all that you need for a short stay, including three things that are important on my check list; a well lit writing desk (bliss), doors that open to a balcony, and welcome complimentary bottles of water.
Whilst I stayed at the ibis Styles Kalgoorlie renovations were taking place and by the end of November, the hotel rooms will have a bright new look – which I’d love to go back and discover one day. Below you can see pictures of how the rooms will look when they are refurbished.
Internet access is available at a cost. The hotel reception is open 24 hours and is manned by friendly and helpful staff. Parking is free. An extensive breakfast buffet consists of a complimentary continental breakfast, with a paid cooked breakfast option and the restaurant is open for dinner too.
What I really loved was the proximity to everything, and despite not having a car it meant that I could walk to all the major sights, restaurants and to the information centre to book tours.
Disclaimer : I was hosted by the ibis Styles Kalgoorlie.
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Anyone been to Kalgoorlie for either work or play – or would you like to visit this historic town?
Until next time,