First published by the West Australian newspaper.
When my wife and I lived in Kalgoorlie more than 10 years ago, we were good friends with a local television journalist. We all used to laugh at how often she could continue to get away with introducing her stories with “Out here in the Goldfields, things are done differently.”
Things are still done differently in the Goldfields and, heading back to Perth on the train, I felt sure my kids would one day reflect similarly on how differently things can be 600km east of Perth.
Our holiday began with the early morning departure of the Prospector from East Perth. The darkness, cold and bright lights of the train platform had the kids wide-eyed and questioning everything they could make out through their foggy breath.
As we cut a swathe through the suburbs, it was clear the Prospector is just as comfortable as flying, and with more to see. If you turn away from the view of fields and regional towns flicking past the huge windows, you can plug into a good range of programs provided on the entertainment system. There is even a “traincam” so you can watch the track ahead.
Arriving in Kalgoorlie, we collected our car from the only hire-car business I could find that would meet us at the train station rather than require us to get a taxi out to the airport to collect a car.
Geoff from Racey Rentals had a booster seat fitted for Tom which, unlike a recent hire car experience in Broome where we were left to fit the seat ourselves, was welcome. Out here in the Goldfields, things are done differently.
Our first stop was dear old Paddy Hannan who looks down at the pavement in front of the Kalgoorlie Town Hall and waits for thirsty passers-by to take a fill from his water fountain drinking bag. He became a reference point for the kids over the next couple of days, as everywhere we travelled had to be via Paddy.
That night we made our way to dinner, which I had built up with the embellishments that only a father can get away with.
We had booked months in advance to have dinner on the veranda of the Kalgoorlie Hotel overlooking Hannan Street, with the Kalgoorlie Town Hall on the other side of the road. I had told Matilda and Tom that I had organised for the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder to light up the town hall just for us.
I am so blessed to have two children who love me enough to hang on to, and believe, every word I say.
Arriving on the veranda, I was stunned. The restaurant was empty. What had become of this once-straining veranda? I stepped inside and knocked on the office door and found the hotel owners Jenny and Craig Alderdice.
It was with Jenny that I had made my booking for dinner a couple of months earlier, anticipating Friday night would be busy. Jenny and Craig asked us to follow them onto the veranda and there, on the spot I had described on the phone when I made my booking, was a fully set table with four chairs.
They had decided not to open the restaurant on this particular evening but had kept my booking (something about my enthusiasm for wanting to revisit my past and share it with my kids). The veranda was ours for the night. The staff for the kitchen and restaurant downstairs catered to our every need. Out here in the Goldfields, things are done differently.
We headed east out of town the next morning for the short drive to the old Kanowna townsite and cemetery. It’s not a ghost town, it’s a townsite.
The layout of where things were is clear to see and its starkness teaches you about the reality of life in the Goldfields: you struck gold, built a town, heard there was gold somewhere else, packed up the town and moved there.
Kanowna was gazetted in 1894 with a population of over 12,500 by 1899. By 1953, the alluvial gold had gone and the town was abandoned. Walking through the cemetery was the best way to get a sense that people once lived there.
Returning to Kalgoorlie, it was time to get to the kids’ number-one on the hit parade: the Superpit. On previous travels I have sometimes been guilty of playing up the sights to the kids, which has led to some astounding pronouncements of anguish: “That’s not a pink dolphin!”; “That’s not a pink lake!”
I should have learnt my lesson but I was excited as well and the Superpit didn’t disappoint. In preparing my kids for the big hole, I had researched it well enough not to rely on the information boards.
Nearly 2km long, 600m deep, 50 years to fill up with groundwater. Only one in seven of the haul trucks has high-grade ore containing gold, and that one lucky truck may just have enough gold in it to fill a golf ball. And they don’t stop, ever. They just keep filling up those trucks 24 hours a day. Out here in the Goldfields, things are done differently.
Leaving the Superpit behind, I make our next stop the Metropole Hotel in Boulder. Disappointed it is no longer painted the blue that I remember (I had promised the kids a blue pub, so as we pulled up there were cries, “That’s not a blue pub!”). Explaining that the real reason we’re here is for what’s inside, I stride into this wonderful hotel and triumphantly point down to the floor next to the bar.
Covered over with a very solid piece of glass is a shaft that used to allow miners to come up and trade a piece of gold with the publican for food and a beer. These days, you can drop a coin into the shaft, where it enters an old bucket and is hauled to the top by the publican who hands it over to local charities.
Next it’s the Palace Hotel, built in 1897, on the corner of Maritana and Hannan streets. While the exterior of the Exchange Hotel across the road is probably more photographed than the Palace, the interior of the Palace is, just as likely, more photographed than the Exchange.
As you step into the foyer you are met by a plush, ornate carpet and a beautiful curved wooden staircase that leads up to the accommodation and restaurant. Near the staircase is the enormous and elaborate Hoover Mirror, a gift to the hotel from Herbert Hoover, later the president of the United States. Hoover spent time in the Goldfields and fell in love with a Palace Hotel barmaid.
It’s yet another example of how everything in the Goldfields seems and usually is, bigger. The holes in the ground, the trucks, the road width and the mirrors. Out here in the Goldfields, things are done differently.
At the WA Museum Kalgoorlie- Boulder we take in the history as best you can with kids. The wooden bike, gold vault and viewing platform from the red mining headframe leave the lasting impression you hope for as a parent doing whistlestop tours.
The Hannans North Tourist Mine offers the kids the opportunity to pan for real gold in muddy water, and see gold emerge from the dust and dirt of a dry blower, the way most gold was found with water being such an expensive commodity back then.
The kids scramble over haul trucks, sit in big tyres and then participate in a round of two-up with local two-up historian Danny Sheehan. As a boy, Danny attended illegal bush two-up gatherings organised by his father.
Danny explains how important the game was in the Goldfields, as the very nature of so many of the people who travelled to the area was to gamble with everything they had to try to secure a fortune.
With Danny’s own two-up currency, we negotiate our bets with others around the ring. Very quickly, the crowd turns from shy tourists to loud and absorbed faux-gamblers intent on watching Danny’s deft flip of the coins.
With not a lot of time left, we make a stop under blue skies at Hammond Park, a wonderful playground surrounded by kangaroos, emus and cockatoos, one of which delights in calling out to departing visitors, imploring them to spend more time watching him dance on his branch.
Within the park is a structure that stands out as a well-known local feature.
The Hammond Park Rotunda, built in 1903, was originally named the Victoria Park Rotunda, where it was located. Crowds would gather around to listen to brass bands and orchestras.
The rotunda, one of the biggest in WA, has an onion dome, spire and crescent moon, inspired by Muslim architecture and perhaps a tip of the hat to the Afghan camel drivers who travelled through the Goldfields delivering much-appreciated supplies.
An Islamic-inspired rotunda: out here in the Goldfields, things are done differently.