We arrived in Kookynie on a still, cool evening disturbed only by the wheeling of a wedge-tailed eagle and the last flittings of the day of numerous little birds in the mulga scrub. Our late arrival, due solely to a mesmerising linger on the red, rocky shores of the still waters of Niagara Dam ten minutes down the road, coincided with that of a train. No - it’s not what you think. Only ore and supply trains break their long rumbling roll at Kookynie and then only to change drivers. Trains bringing passengers to Kookynie finished a long time ago, when gold extraction and processing costs rose along with subterranean water tables in a classic case of Sod’s Law: in a region forever dogged by scarcity of water, Kookynie’s mines were eventually overwhelmed by it.
Kookynie is on the Golden Quest Trail, which is now also the back road to Laverton. It was not always so. A little over 100 years ago, Kookynie sprang from prospectors’ camp to a 400-building town in record time. At its peak, the town sported a racecourse, swimming pool, numerous hotels, two newspapers and a brewery. There were several churches, general stores, banks, a hospital, school and a few ‘red light houses.’ Of course, it was gold which had drawn the population of nearly 2500 population to the place. And it was the lack of gold which emptied it in a scenario so often repeated in the goldfields.
A swift dusk tour of the townsite revealed ruins of classic cars and buildings speckled over the flat, tussocky ground. Faintly illogical in the scene of abandonment is a row of well preserved shop fronts - empty and closed, but ready for … well, something to happen.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel, the last hotel standing in the town. Eighteen foot ceilings, long passageways, an intimate bar and dining room, a beautifully relaxed, outback welcome from owners Kevin and Margaret and one of the best steaks ever; the evening there was delightful. But it was in the early morning light the next day when Kookynie really revealed its quirkiness to me.
The clatter and drub of a cantering horse swept out of the silence of the dawn. As I stood in the road by the pit and bricks of the National Hotel, once deemed the finest building north of Kalgoorlie, I could see nothing against the glare of the rising sun from where the hoof beats were approaching. I had met Willie the Horse the previous night when we spied him being given a bedtime cuddle and a blanket outside the hotel shortly before we were forced to negotiate with ( that is, move) his large bottom blocking the doorway to the hotel so we could get in. I was in little doubt that I was now about to meet the other end of Willie, a former trotter although obviously quite capable of cantering.
I did meet Willie but it was, of course, on his terms. I could almost detect a cartoon brake-squeal as the cantering stopped as suddenly as it started - Willie had realised I was not Kevin. His interest and enthusiasm vanished as did my anticipation of a Lawrence of Arabia moment: witnessing a horse emerge from the impenetrable brightness. Instead it was up to me to go to Willie, who allowed me, briefly, to scratch his forehead before he nonchalantly surveyed his domain and got back to doing what horses do best, eating.
It was intriguing wandering around the area. I did not have to look far to see the signs of big industry long gone: enormous tanks and spoil mounds hiding dilapidated cottages. Significant ruins marked by plaques tell modest tales of the buildings, long dismantled and dispersed for use elsewhere, in true goldfields tradition.
By the pit and bricks of the National Hotel, opposite the shop fronts, a plaque, complete with photograph of the Hotel in its vast grandeur (think a one storey version of the Esplanade Hotel, Fremantle) quotes Queenie Fogerty (née Lynch) recollecting a “dray and horses bringing loads of beer barrels and unloading” and how her “trusty three-wheel trike carried me as far afield as I ever went, on my own anyway.”
We climb aboard our four wheels and swing out of town toward the breakaways to the north and Malcolm and Laverton beyond. Willie is still eating, looking up as we pass him, not to look at us, of course, but to survey his estate. It’s a wonderful, unusual outcome for a once great town, really: a horse now rules it, visits its pub, treats its visitors with barely concealed disdain. And why not? After all, the gold rush is well and truly over in Kookynie.