Kalgoorlie

Just before we were to catch the train back to Perth, I happened upon a crime scene a block from the Wild West Saloon.  It looked like an episode of CSI-Kalgoorlie or whatever – uniformed cops with POLICE FORENSICS lettered on their backs in discussion with a couple of “suits,” a blue tent covering the body, small numbered yellow flags indicating places where something possibly significant had been discovered, crime scene tape cordoning off the block, two TV crews filming away.   A hundred years ago a body in an alley probably wouldn’t have occasioned nearly as much attention; this really was the Wild West.   Maybe it still is.

We’d come out to Kalgoorlie on The Prospector, Western Australia’s crack train serving communities like this deep in the desert where the gold rush happened in the last decade of the 19th century.  Gold mining is still the main game in town.  It’s what attracts the tourists, but more importantly tons of ore are still being extracted 24/7 at an enormous surface mining pit right outside of town.  The times of the daily dynamite blasts are widely broadcasted and posted all over town.

We’d been told the seven-hour train ride would be boring, but we didn’t find it so.  The seats were comfortable and spaced so that we had plenty of legroom.  There was a bar and café on board serving decent, reasonably priced meals – in fact, a hostess would bring our food and drinks to us if we wished and wouldn’t even accept a tip.  There was a first-rate audio and video system on board and they supplied headphones, just like an airliner.   The country we crossed through was interesting too.  It changed from farms to bush to salt lakes and scrubby desert.  Paralleling the tracks was an above ground pipeline taking water from the coast hundreds of kilometers to the high and totally dry world inland, an engineering marvel conceived and built at the turn of the last century by a legendary entrepreneur named C. Y. O’Connor.   It was the subject of a book I’d read a couple of months ago by Aussie author Robert Drewe, called “The Drowner.”  When the Gold Rush happened, many miners died of typhoid in town from using polluted bore water and many prospectors died of thirst – not usually going out to the gold fields (they’d carry enough water for that) but coming back.  Sad stories.  The pipeline changed all that, but the poor man who fought to get it done never lived to see it work.  When the first test failed, he rode his horse into the surf in Freemantle and blew his brains out.   The Irish are so dramatic.

Last week our hotel in Margaret River, chosen more or less blindly, had turned out to be perfect.  Not so this one.   We came off the train in mid-afternoon and carrying minimal luggage (thank goodness) walked the three blocks to Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie’s main drag.  That’s the street our hotel was on, so we looked around for it.  Unfortunately, it was 1.5 kilometers out of town – a long walk and pretty far out of the action.   Bad choice.  Lesson learned – don’t just look at the street name, check the actual location.   It was an ordinary Best Western, standard motel room.   Nothing charming about it.   The receptionist was a bright, enthusiastic, positive person though, so there was one saving grace.   She recommended a tour for tomorrow from the bewildering selection available and booked it for us.   Meanwhile, she suggested we take a city bus into town center from the bus stop across the street and have a look around for what remained of the afternoon.   We did.

There isn’t much to Kalgoorlie, although because they’ve kept most of the old buildings it looked cute.   I’d not brought much in the way of clothes, figuring it’s the desert and it’s going to be hot.   Ummm…not today.   I bought a pair of closed shoes at least (I’d only brought sandals) at a Rivers outlet store for a pretty good price.  There was a lot of stuff there that was very reasonable, but we have to think about carrying it and shipping it home.

The streets of Kalgoorlie are remarkably wide, like Parisian boulevards.  You wouldn’t expect that in a remote desert town, but the reason is that they had to be wide enough so that a 12-camel train could turn around!   That’s how most supplies came in here in the old days, on camel trains driven by Afghans.  (You can still see mosque-shaped domes and Islamic symbols here and there.)  Apparently camels, awkward animals that they are, don’t turn very well.   We were told that if a driver attempted to turn a train too tightly he could break the camels’ legs.

Many places (galleries, the museum, even some stores) were closed on Wednesday – I have no idea why – so we pretty soon had exhausted the possibilities.   Nobody was serving dinner ’til 6PM, but we were tired and hungry and we didn’t want to wait around another hour so we caught a cab back and ate in the hotel.   Our meals were undistinguished at best (frozen food, inexpertly prepared) but the wine selection was excellent and we drowned our sorrows.   Not an auspicious start to the trip, but we slept well!

Breakfast the next morning was better (it’s hard to screw up basic breakfast food) and the small tour bus picked us up right outside our hotel.   It was a beautiful blue-sky day – cool dry air, hot sun, just the way we like it.  Things were looking up.

The friendly and funny driver toured us around town a bit while we were picking up other passengers.  He showed us some of the development that’s happening.  Kal just had its first million-dollar house.  (It looked like it should be worth a quarter of that in my book.)  In town, he noted regretfully, a lot of the historic cottages are being knocked down and replaced by houses that would look appropriate in a Del Webb retirement community.   Outside of town it’s the bush that’s being sacrificed.   I suppose it would be cool to have emus wandering around across the street from your house, though maybe not for the emus.

He also took us through Kalgoorlie’s famous red light district, where not only are the bordellos actively operating, they run tours of the places in the off hours!   One of the houses proudly displays a cricket bat signed by every member of the legendary Don Bradman’s “Invincibles” team.  There’s a chalkboard outside each house listing which girls are working that night.   The guide says they are mostly single moms and college students working to pay off their student loans.  They stay two or three years ’til they get out of debt or put together a down payment on a house and then “retire.”   So he says.   I’ll have to ask my students at Edith Cowan about that!

Our first official stop is at the airfield where the Royal Flying Doctors Service is based.  What a great idea.  Founded in 1928, they bring medical care to isolated communities throughout Australia.  As a result, even in this vast empty country, no one is more than two hours from some sort of medical help.  Besides operating a fleet of aircraft to bring doctors out and patients needing hospital care in (they’ve just acquired their first jet, thanks to a donation from one of the mining companies), they maintain “medical chests” full of drugs and emergency medical supplies in strategic locations (secure and staffed by nurse practitioners) and do health education in the remote areas.   They gave us some great stats.   For example, when they get a call for help, a plane will be off the ground with whatever medical personnel and equipment might be needed in no more than 40 minutes.   Essentially, the planes are flying ICU’s.  Imagine all the lives they’ve saved.

Next we visited the exact spot where in 1893 a little Irishman named Paddy Hannan found a nugget of gold on the ground and started the great Gold Rush.  We looked around a bit, but we didn’t see any more lying about.

There’s an arboretum on the edge of town where scientists are trying to save some of the 1700-plus endangered species of trees in Western Australia.  This area used to be bush, but all the smelting furnaces burned wood as did the residents’ stoves and fireplaces and the land was stripped bare for a hundred kilometers around.  Now when a rare tree is found anywhere in the state, it’s tagged and protected until it produces seeds, which are then brought here to be planted and nurtured.

Dingoes and feral cats are a major problem in the region; they killed something like 5000 sheep in the past three years.   Elsewhere in Australia, farmers mix alpacas into their herds – they get along well with the sheep and they’re apparently so fierce when attacked that they keep the predators away – but that won’t work here because it’s too hot for the alpacas.  So the locals hire shooters to thin the population.  Nine shooters killed 2000 of the creatures in one day last year.

There have been terrible race riots in Kalgoorlie, as “native” Australians (descendants of the British convicts who were transported here) resented the importation of Italian laborers brought here because they worked harder and were happy with lower wages.  (No Chinese came.  They went to California.)   The most serious rampage occurred in 1934 when union organizers and Communist party leaders used the death of a popular local worker in a fight at an Italian-owned hotel to stir up the rabble.  When the looting, pillaging and burning was over, every Italian-owned enterprise in town had been sacked.  Mysteriously, records of the newspapers and magazines of the day covering that incident have vanished, making it very difficult for scholars to piece together what actually happened.

Australia still has highly divisive immigration issues, but the subjects now come primarily from Indonesia.   Seemingly every day a boatful of refugees is intercepted on its way here by the Australian Navy and the people are off-loaded to holding camps on Christmas Island for “processing.”   Nobody seems to know what to do with them.  Opinions and suggestions extend to both extremes of political opinion, as you might expect.

There are also issues with the Aborigines (Abos, as they’re called).  Kalgoorlie’s next-door town Boulder is more down market; it’s where the working class people live.  As houses come empty, the Department of Housing buys them up and allocates them to people who “exhibit anti-social behavior” as the guide puts it – read Abos, who do have terrible problems with alcohol, crime, incest and spousal abuse, although it’s not PC to talk about them.   (The government is even trying to ban the phrase “go walkabout” because they perceive it as pejorative.)  Anyhow, when that happens, whites flee.  Land values have dropped 70% in a year.

Kalgoorlie is still volatile at times too.  Just last year a melee took place at the aforementioned Wild West Saloon involving 143 participants, all under 30 years of age.  As probably were their predecessors 75 years ago.

Residents’ priorities can be assessed by examining the order in which institutions appeared in the fledgling community at its founding.  First came the gold camps, then the brothels, then the racecourse and the hotels and finally, ten years later, the first church!  By the time St. Mary’s was built, there were 108 hotels in Kalgoorlie.  The church took longer than it should have to build though, because every time a load of bricks was delivered, it disappeared overnight.  The bricks came from another gold mining area and there were rumors that bits of gold had been baked into them!

Water is still an issue here.   Targets have been set for sustainable consumption and every day the newspapers report how usage compares with those targets.   They can’t drill for water – “bore water” as well water is called here has six times the salinity of seawater.  The only thing it’s good for, the guide says, is keeping down weeds.

Gold field workers are paid comparatively well, we learned.   They put in 12-hour shifts 24/7, 365 days a year.   They even work on Christmas Day.   When someone on the bus expressed surprise at that, the guide said they compete for the opportunity – they get paid triple time, $2400 for doing a shift on Christmas Day!

We looked down from an observation deck into the Big Pit as it’s called – four miles long and so deep the huge earth-moving machines looked like Tonka toys.  There was supposed to be a blast when we were there, but it didn’t happen.  Some sort of electrical problem caused them to reschedule.

Gold around here is mostly found in seams of quartz – we got to handle an actual piece of ore.  People have nicked lumps of quartz, imagining they can get at the gold by bashing the lump with a hammer.  The quartz splinters like glass.  Some unlucky chiselers lost an eye.

How it’s extracted is by melting it in a 2000º furnace, a process we got to watch.  The gold separates and is poured into a mold.  We have a picture of Sylv holding a still-warm gold bar.  If it were pure (it wasn’t) it’d have been worth $100,000 at today’s gold prices – which incidentally are projected on the wall, live to the minute.

Finally we were taken down into a played-out underground shaft from the old days before they did open pit mining here.   Old news for Sylv, the original coalminer’s daughter!   But claustrophobics’ need not apply.  An old guy who’d spent his life from age 14 working in mines like this told us how they worked – legally and otherwise!   (He called the colorful hardhats we’d been issued “pigeon poo hats,” that being the only thing they’d protect us from!) Another old guy told us what it was like being a kid growing up around the mines, including a hair-raising tale about trying to light a strip of cordite tape he’d stuffed into a bottle.  It went out, he thought, but as he approached it to check, it went off.  He was lucky he didn’t lose a finger or a whole hand – or an eye.

As we waited for the bus to take us back, we stumbled across a collegiate mining skills competition.   Teams from mining schools in Australia, Canada and the U.S. do stuff like lay rail tracks, push drams loaded with ore, et cetera against the clock.   Later we stopped for a beer in Paddy’s Ale House and met the team from the South Dakota School of Mines!   What a great opportunity for them to come here, win or lose.

As it was our last evening, we decided to splurge and dine on the balcony of the Palace Hotel overlooking “downtown” Kalgoorlie.   It was a beautiful mild evening and our meals were wonderful.  Sylv had an excellent barramundi (our favorite Australian fish) and I had the best pepper steak I’ve ever had in my life, anywhere in the world.    Nice way to end our visit.

(Until the next morning’s murder scene.)

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