Gold fever was big in Western Australia in the 1890’s and it’s still big now. We set off on our 600km journey into the outback in our air conditioned car in very different conditions to Paddy Hannan, the first man to strike gold in Kalgoorlie along with his friends Flanagan and Shea (not to be confused with Irish singing duo Flanagan and Allen) The lads were a bit down on their luck when, with the use of a handy Tomahawk they stumbled across 100 ounces of gold nuggets when they stopped to replace a shoe for their horse. The journey from Perth is the equivalent of driving from Newcastle in the UK (my home town) to Land’s End which is a pretty long way anyway and would seem a very long way indeed on horse back in 40 degree heat.
The Superpit -Where there’s muck there’s gold
If you are serious about trying to find your own gold (known as fossicking) – and people do still discover it on a regular basis – you might want to pop into the aptly names ‘Finders Keepers’ shop. Their motto is ‘Finding more – more often’ and you can hire a mine-lab metal detector and head out into the unforgiving sun and hope that lady luck is with you. Or you can pop along for a look at the gigantic Superpit and then go to Hannan’s mining museum where you can try panning for gold in a little man made creek. The Superpit is the biggest goldmine in the world. 3.6km long, 1.5km wide and is 550m deep – that’s about 10 times the height of Nelson’s column.
The mine extracts gold by digging out the seams with giant machinery, crushing huge quantities of rubble, roasting it and finally melting out the gold fragments from the stone. It is massively labour intensive, and you have to kiss a lot of rubble frogs to find that golden prince. At the mining museum you can climb aboard the gigantic 994 loader which weighs 195 tonnes. According to the information leaflet that is the equivalent of 95 million adult house mice! I never seen the weight of anything expressed in house mice terms before.. I sat in its wheel arch which gives a pretty good indication of its size. Some of the mining machines can cost up to 22 million dollars and they are shipped in pieces from abroad and assembled here.
A wheely big truck
Next you can have a go at doing it the old fashioned way by panning for gold in the river. This was the easiest way back in the day, to find nuggets and flakes which had been washed away from the main lode. I enjoyed messing about in the muddy water and I think some gold had been planted there for visitors to find, but the yellow stuff eluded even my best swirling technique.
The first settlers had it tough here as water was scarce and disease rife. A miner’s life expectancy was much shorter than the average 65 years of the time. What made the biggest difference to life in Kalgoorlie was the vision of Victorian civil engineer C.Y. O Connor, who proposed that the best way to get water up to the goldfields was to build 400 miles of pipe (the longest pipe in the world) and pump water from the Mundaring reservoir out to the goldfields. It was an ambitious project by anyone’s standards and its completion makes it one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. The water supply revolutionised life in the outback and supported the great gold rush to Kalgoorlie and its swelling population. The pipe still runs all that way today and we kept it’s company for our entire journey as it runs alongside the road. Unfortunately O Connor had many detractors who said his pipe would never be finished and was a waste of public money and basically performed a character assassination on him. He was devastated by these attacks and after a few years he couldn’t take any more, and tragically rode his horse into the sea and shot himself. The pipe was opened ten months later. The media sometimes had a lot to answer for, even then.
I loved the gold fields and Kalgoorlie and the uncomplicated Ozzy friendliness and optimism that we encountered there. I loved the names of the towns we passed. Kalgoorlie apparently means ‘land of the silky pears’ but there was Bullabulling, Boorabin, Woolgangie, Widgiemooltha (Emu’s beak) and especially Koolyanobbing! The goldfields of Western Australia were enormous fun and make sure you stop at Coolgardie on the way back for the best collection of old advertising signs I have ever seen (in the middle of nowhere!) You just never know what you’re going to find next..