The roads may be paved burnt-orange, but this region is known to shine with a different kind of hue. Deep inside Western Australia’s famed Golden Outback lies the bearer of the region’s namesake — gold.
Sitting some 500km away from the state’s capital Perth, Golden Outback has had a case of gold fever since its first discovery in Coolgardie more than 120 years ago.
“It makes the people go crazy,” a cheerful attendant told me at a local tourist attraction, Hannans North Tourist Mine. “People only see one colour here!”
It is easy to understand the locals’ great enthusiasm for the mineral that makes this part of WA shine. The lasting legacy of the discovery of gold has not only helped transform this region to weave thriving, heritage-listed towns with picturesque landscapes but also significantly contribute to Australia’s good fortune.
One way to fully grasp the enduring evolution of WA’s historic goldfields is to embark on the region’s famous Golden Quest Discovery Trail, stretching nearly 1000km in length.
Western Australia’s treasure trove, Kalgoorlie Boulder, sits in the heart of the Eastern Goldfields, just shy of 600km inland of Perth. Most commonly referred to Kalgoorlie, the name stems from the Wangai word, Karkurla, meaning ‘place of the silky pears’.
The other enriching fruit of Australia’s biggest outback city lies within the city’s most popular tourist drawcard, the monstrous Fimiston Open Pit, or most often commonly known as the Super Pit.
“Oh, my gold!” was my initial thought as I grasped onto the cage fence barrier looking out to Kalgoorlie’s biggest (literally speaking also) star attraction.
“I feel like a miniature toy just being up here,” my travelling partner Chris told me in stark astonishment.
It was hard not to feel that way; standing atop of the Super Pit Lookout and taking in the enormity of Australia’s largest open pit gold mine. The monster trucks that dot the snaking roads are gigantic; with each standing 5m tall and stretching 8m wide. However, the yellow trucks are child’s play in comparison with the Super Pit itself, which extends more than 3.5km long, 1.5km wide and 400m deep.
The Super Pit’s rich history dates back to 1893 when Irishman Paddy Hannan first struck gold in Kalgoorlie. Since his epic discovery, Hannan helped the metamorphosis of the once insignificant country town into the home of one of the world's richest gold deposits.
It’s hard not to see the Hannan effect all over the region, especially in Kalgoorlie, with many bars, streets, statues and tourist attractions a tribute to his significant legacy.
HANNANS NORTH TOURIST MINE
One of the best ways to interact with Kalgoorlie’s rich history is at the Hannans North Tourist Mine. This former mine site is now an interactive step back in time, with historic buildings (including a legendary Two-Up shed), old mining equipment mixed in with the newly retired, gold panning and a Prospectors Campsite to shed light on the conditions faced by miners of the 1890s.
Wearing my novelty hard hat, I played miner for a day. This adult playground allows you to get up close and personal with modern day mining practices (as seen in the Super Pit) by climbing on board a stationed 763C haul truck and in the shovel of a 994F loader. Out of all unique tourist photo opportunities to have along the trail, this was by far most extraordinary.
To my surprise, a small Chinese Garden is located in complete contrast to the Tourist Mine and surrounds. Immediately upon visiting, it brought a welcomed sense of tranquillity among the brutal harshness of the desert, imposing structures and heavyweight equipment.
KALGOORLIE’S CULTURE CLASH
Kalgoorlie represents a mixed bag of cultures. On the one hand, you can be dining on the federation balcony of the historic Palace Hotel, feasting on flavour-abundant, juicy dukkah-crusted lamb racks and the next, learning the ropes of traditional outback living.
I was led through the streets of Kalgoorlie by Linden, tour guide and owner of the locally-run Bush Ghoodhu Wongutha Tours. After receiving a lesson on Indigenous history, it was time to be acquainted with a favourite pastime — tucking into homemade damper and freshly brewed bush tea.
The afternoon tea was followed by lesson of mastering the art of throwing an Indigenous nyinji (spear).
“You need to do this with skill, and precision, and have a keen eye,” Linden jovially yet matter-of-factly said as he demonstrated how to throw a traditional hunting spear and catch prey, this time an imaginary kangaroo. My attempt to throw this ingenious weapon of the outback was marred with poor aim. Let’s just say I will not be entrusted to hunt for any bush tucker dinner any time soon!
Another way to ‘land a catch’ was by visiting one of the world’s oldest working brothels — it’s more than 100 years old and counting. Located on Kalgoorlie’s notorious Hay Street, the pastel pink shed-looking Questa Casa is known to be the only brothel that has ‘Starting Stalls’, where the various services are negotiated.
The brothel leads daily tours to offer travellers a peep at how this illegal yet tolerated adult business operates. On the tour, tourists are seduced by stories that lay bare the colourful and intriguing history of the infamous brothel — and all within metres of a police station.
TOWARDS ORA BANDA
Along the Goldfields Highway, 7km outside of Kalgoorlie and towards Ora Banda is Western Australia’s only outback (and legal) Two Up Shed. Two Up has been a traditional yet simple gambling game in Australia since the gold rush era during the second half of the 1800s.
Remarkably, the game still plays on in this weather-beaten original corrugated iron ring, one of two legal venues in Australia where the legendary coin toss game can be tossed all year around. It has become a local tradition with locals trying to win their pot of luck (or gold) every Sunday — one authentic bush gambling experience yet to be outlawed!
The pot of luck doesn’t stop with gold itself but also with the pub grub found en route. Heading towards Menzies, I stopped off at Broad Arrow Tavern, famous in the region for its legendary outback burger.
As soon as I entered, both owner Judy and resident dog Bella greeted me with welcome arms (and paws). You could tell the 1896-built pub was much-loved with travellers leaving their marker pen inscriptions on its walls.
I ordered their famous original burger, a hearty serving of a beef patty, egg, bacon and leafy salad. Besides the burgers being top notch, the backyard oasis proved to be a hit too, with the sprinkler fans injecting that extra coolness to a favourite outback beer garden.
It was hard to imagine Menzies being the poster child for a prosperous, mining town. Just more than 100 years ago, Menzies was booming with more than 10,000 people living on its handful of streets. It had not only experienced one but two resurgences of gold mining in the region.
Nowadays, it stands as a stark reminder of the boom and bust of the golden era with historical buildings standing without a soul; and it’s not the only ghostly reminder.
LEONORA and GWALIA
Heading north of Menzies lies the main regional hub of the Northern Goldfields, Leonora, located 233km from Kalgoorlie. Once a bustling town, all that remains is the heirloom of its former glory days with 30 historic buildings dating back to 1896 along the town’s Heritage Trail.
It’s an eerie journey into the past visiting the ghost town of Gwalia, 4km south of Leonora. Translating to Wales in Welsh, Gwalia is one of the Golden Outback’s most fascinating ghost towns and a dark tourism drawcard. The old saying goes, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ sums up how Gwalia met its untimely fate with the sudden closure of the Sons of Gwalia mine in 1963.
It was an unnerving affair to encounter the ghosts of Gwalia’s past at sunset. As I walked in the shadows of the outback skyscraper — a windmill — I slowly probed the remains of Gwalia; abandoned cottages left to wither and decades-old furniture filling its soulless space.
Soon enough, my travel partner and I were joined with company as two local dogs brought some desperately needed animation into the area.
In contrast, the town lays in the almost shadows of the quaint federation house, Hoover House, named after US president Herbert Hoover who called Australia’s outback home for a brief period before taking up presidential duties.
Upon calling Australia home, he had once conceded that mining in WA’s wilderness had its difficulties: “…No other lode country in the world presents such an array of severe conditions which must be struggled against to do cheap mining.”
Despite the namesake, Hoover never once occupied the house, but his legacy continues despite the town being left behind.
The red roads from Menzies lead to a mystical experience along the pure plains of Lake Ballard.
Located 51km west of Menzies, the salt lake gained international attention for Inside Australia, a cultural display by acclaimed British artist Sir Antony Gormley. Far out into the horizon, 51 incredible metal sculptures of Menzies’ inhabitants stand shimmering under the sun scattered across 10km of the lake. Slowly crisscrossing the lake bestows the feeling of motionlessness; that time stands still and that you are the only one embracing this surreal experience landscape.
Amongst the red dirt, verdant shrubbery and blue skies, there was another hue to be found on the land. The flow of the Niagara Dam serves another purpose as a cool outback refuge. It's a popular spot to pull up for the night as it offers barbecues adjacent to its seasonal swimming hole.
Niagara Dam failed to live up to the name the day I arrived. Usually, the place to cool off when the water levels are high, the outback oasis was all but reduced to a puddle. Despite the dam being left high and dry, its surrounds are bountiful with photogenic wilderness and were very much worth the 13km drive from ghost town Kookynie.
En route to another ghostly town, Ora Banda, we allowed ourselves to rest up at the charming Grand Hotel Kookynie. It wasn't an ordinary roadhouse as I stood baffled by the sight of the resident horse, Willie, both guarding the pub door and standing stationed against a petrol pump. My travel partner and I chuckled at the odd sighting when it dawned on us that Willie gave horsepower a new meaning. Soon enough, we reached Ora Branda Historical Inn and greeted by its friendly owner Kiri.
“If you leave hungry, I have not done a good enough job!,” she lightheartedly confessed to us.
As I tucked into my slab of chicken parmigiana, Kiri showed me a folder of Ora Banda’s controversial headlining past with links to bikie crimes.
Both the Inn's food and stories of old were a lot to digest; and it is safe to say the number of tales told far exceeded the length of this great, golden trail making this expedition worth its weight in gold.