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 gold rush era had had on the economy and politics of Western Australia: the gold fields’ “join” vote outnumbered the Perth “no” vote in the 1900 referendum on Federation - in fact the gold fields was taking steps to pronounce a separate colony, Aurelia, in protest at the lack of referendum on Federation in WA. And then there are let the tales of individuals, their loves and losses, the heroes and villains.
I do now - because there’s an app for it.
Three wonderful days on the Golden Quest Discovery Trail have just 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 gold mining history, but also about the environment of the region and its wildlife. I saw camels, dingoes, zebra finches, eagles and kites as well as the ruins and remains of once busy mining towns, now left to be subsumed by the desert.
Starting with half a day’s 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 (goldenquesttrail.com).
Download the 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 figure of eight (sort of) 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 which made the sites significant, 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, in the general Goldfields area.
Calling in at the visitors’ centres along the route is recommended, too. The centres are kept up to date with the trail’s conditions and can tell you of any upsets and 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 on 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 4WD. Having said that, I saw no reason why a reliable 2WD wouldn’t complete the journey. Most of the trail is on dirt roads and some is quite remote, away from mobile phone coverage, so common sense and the usual rules for outback driving apply: bring spares, water, food, warm clothing; look ahead and travel steadily.
Time to allow? I travelled it easily in three days (an average of an easily-achievable 320kms 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 that 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 want to - 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 Discovery Trail in THREE days
Day 1: Coolgardie to Kookynie – Overnight stay in Kookynie
Day 2: Kookynie to Leonora – Overnight stay at Leonora-Gwalia
Day 3: Leonora to Kalgoorlie-Boulder
Golden Quest Discovery Trail in FOUR days
Day 1: Coolgardie to Kookynie – Overnight stay in Kookynie
Day 2: Kookynie to Laverton – Overnight stay in Laverton
Day 3: Laverton to Leonora – Overnight stay at Leonora-Gwalia
Day 4: Leonora to Kalgoorlie-Boulder
Golden Quest Discovery Trail in FIVE days
Day 1: Coolgardie to Menzies – Overnight stay in Menzies
Day 2 Menzies – Kookynie – Overnight stay in Kookynie
Day 3: Kookynie to Laverton – Overnight stay in Laverton
Day 4: Laverton to Leonora – Overnight stay at Leonora-Gwalia
Day 5: Leonora to Kalgoorlie-Boulder
More on the Golden Quest Discovery Trail at goldenquesttrail.com
More travel in the Goldfields at goldfieldstourism.com.au
Picking a top five from this particular journey is hard: I love the size and relentless bustle of the Superpit, the haunting echoes of times long past at Gwalia and the silent space around the Lake Ballard Gormley installation. This trip for me, however, was about surprise encounters and new, unexpected experiences of scene and ambience.
In order of occurrence:
- Coolgardie. Once the unofficial capital of the gold fields, Coolgardie packs a massive amount of fascinating history into its gorgeous historic 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 hole where the first successful prospectors camped and the town was named; Warden Finnerty’s house (also Bunning-built), run by the National Trust, lies 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 explorer Ernest Giles’s grave (he ended his days working as a clerk in Coolgardie) and that of 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 gold fields dawn, too: with mists swirling in the flats, the rising sun burnished the haze and surrounds with a rich yellow appropriate to the gold fields.
- Menzies. 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 in Menzies for a coffee and a wander- you won’t regret it.
- 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 Canadian falls: but admiration for the unexpected reservoir bounded by the rough, red rocks which draw the line of contradiction between the arid landscape for miles around and the expanse of still water held in check by the dam wall.
- 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 which crossed the road in front of us, the lonely graves and attendant stories lying in secluded spots in the bush, the string of abandoned mining towns. To the enormous feats of engineering which built the railway to Mt Morgans - and the sleeper-strewn embankment and bridges which are all that remain. To Laverton itself with its Police precinct, and jail - complete with prisoner graffiti - the Outback Gallery and The Great Beyond Visitor Centre with its good, proper coffee and stunning audio visual display and eclectic range of goods for sale. And the camels which appeared in the bush as we left the town for Leonora.
- 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 the Gwalia Museum before it opens to the public. And perfectly preserved Gwalia ghost town lies just down the road at the foot of the hill. An unforgettable experience.