There's rich history and natural beauty aplenty on a three-day drive through the Goldfields.
I first heard of the Goldfields of WA as a young boy fidgeting through Nigel Chapman’s geography lesson in an unremarkable classroom at school in Oxfordshire, England. The names of the towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie were bandied about as the centres of the 1890s gold rush — and the lesson moved on.
What was never clear to me as a boy nor since (despite many, many photographic assignments to Kalgoorlie) was the extent of the gold rush — not just the volume of people involved but the size of the area explored, settled, grown and then abandoned.
Until a few days ago I had no idea exactly what effect the region and the era had had on the economy and politics of WA: the Goldfields’ “join” vote outnumbered the Perth “no” vote in the 1900 referendum on Federation — in fact, the Goldfields was taking steps to pronounce a separate colony, Aurelia, in protest at the lack of referendum on Federation in WA.
I do now — because there’s an app for that.
Three wonderful days on the Golden Quest Discovery Trail have provided me with the most eye-opening experiences and insights into the Goldfields region that I could hope for — and not just about the rich goldmining history but also the environment and the wildlife. I saw camels, dingoes, zebra finches, eagles and kites, as well as the ruins and remains of once-busy mining towns, left to be subsumed by the desert.
Starting with a 600km drive or train ride from Perth (or an hour on a plane) to Kalgoorlie, the Golden Quest Discovery Trail is easily travelled and navigated, especially with the new app and trail guidebook.
Download the free Golden Quest Discovery Trail app, which sits well in conjunction with the guide, and you have all you need to find your way around the 965km trail, which takes you from Coolgardie in the south up to Laverton in the north-east and back down to Kalgoorlie. It contains information on the individual sites you will pass, brief histories and stories about events and characters that made the sites significant, and details of services available (with phone numbers) at the larger towns you visit.
In addition to helping you plan your journey, the app can track your journey in real time thanks to GPS technology, so you can see exactly where you are in relation to your next stop, last stop or even the general Goldfields area.
Calling in at the visitors’ centres along the route is recommended, too. The centres can tell you of any updates relevant to your journey.
I called in at Coolgardie Visitor Centre and picked up the trail guidebook. Again, I recommend the purchase to anyone setting off on the trail, as it contains much more detailed information on the sites and events along the way, as well as all the info in the app. It is a little under $40, and the historical and environmental information is well researched and written, providing fabulous reading long after the trail is completed.
The trail itself is best travelled in a four-wheel-drive. Having said that, I saw no reason why a reliable two-wheel-drive wouldn’t complete the journey. Most of the trail is on dirt roads and some of it quite remote, away from mobile phone coverage, so common sense and the usual rules for outback driving apply: bring spares, water, food and warm clothing; look ahead and travel steadily.
Time to allow? I travelled it easily in three days (an average of an easily achievable 320km a day) but suggest allowing at least four days, not because the going is slow but because there are so many unexpected, beautiful spots to stop, pause, camp and enjoy. It really was a shame I had to keep moving.
I stayed in accommodation throughout the trip but the Goldfields area is “RV friendly”, meaning self-contained campers and caravans are welcome in any of the towns. Free camping is available at multiple sites. You can camp by water every night of your journey if you wish — and every town has at least one campground.
So with the Golden Quest Discover Trail app, the guidebook, a reliable vehicle, supplies, camping gear and, say, a week to spare, you’re set to learn more about WA’s Goldfields while experiencing one of the most enlightening, surprising and enjoyable journeys of a lifetime.
Golden Quest Trail Top Five
Picking a top five from this particular journey is hard. I love the size and relentless bustle of the Super Pit, the haunting echoes of times past at Gwalia and the silent space around the Lake Ballard installation by British sculptor Antony Gormley.
For me, however, this trip was about surprise encounters and new, unexpected experiences of scene and ambience.
In order of occurrence:
Once the unofficial capital of the Goldfields, Coolgardie packs a massive amount of fascinating history into its gorgeous heritage buildings, most of which lie hidden away from its wide main street: displays of a world-renowned bottle collection and the story of an incredible mine rescue; the school (still teaching local kids) built by the Bunning brothers, who went on to found a certain hardware chain; the gnamma, where the first successful prospectors camped and the town was named.
Warden Finnerty’s house (also Bunning built and run by the National Trust) is on a hill with stunning views over the town and east to Kalgoorlie, and offers guided and ghost tours.
The graveyard, final home to hundreds who died of disease in the fledgling community, also holds the graves of explorer Ernest Giles (he ended his days as a clerk in Coolgardie) and an Italian competition cyclist, who died in a race in 1900.
An early start and return to Finnerty’s house rewarded me with a spectacular Goldfields dawn: with mists swirling in the flats, the rising sun burnished the haze and surrounds with a rich yellow appropriate to the region.
Apart from finding the best coffee on the whole trip in Menzies, I loved the buildings, their murals and the iron “statues” with the gloriously humorous quotes attached to them.
Stop for a coffee and a wander — you won’t regret it.
3. Niagara Dam
Rowles Lagoon, with its tall trees, nesting kites and gentle rushes is only just pipped by the peace at Niagara Dam in my highlight list.
Respect to the wag who named a trickle of water on a small decline after the North American falls but admiration for the unexpected reservoir bounded by the rough, red rocks which draw the line of contradiction between arid landscape for miles and the expanse of still water held in check by the dam wall.
4. Kookynie to Laverton
All of it. The. Whole. Journey. From Willie the horse reigning (get it) supreme over the ruins at Kookynie and its quirky, comfortable tavern to the dingoes that crossed the road in front of us, the lonely graves and attendant stories lying in secluded spots, the string of abandoned mining towns. The enormous feats of engineering that built the railway to Mt Morgans and the sleeper-strewn embankment and bridges which are all that remain.
Laverton, with its police precinct and jail, complete with prisoner graffiti, the Outback Gallery and Great Beyond Visitor Centre with its good, proper coffee, stunning audiovisual display and eclectic range of goods for sale. And the camels that appeared in the bush as we left for Leonora.
5. Hoover House and Gwalia Museum
Treat yourself to this: bed and breakfast in the elegance of Hoover House, once residence of the WA mine manager who became a US president. The peacefulness and views to the north are probably little changed from when Hoover was there. To the south, a working mine still rumbles on.
Spacious rooms, period furniture and the right to roam Gwalia Museum before it opens to the public. And the perfectly preserved Gwalia ghost town, just down the road at the foot of the hill. Unforgettable.