In a state full of such beautiful extremes, from tropical climates in the north to snow-capped peaks in the south, many a WA bolthole can claim to be unique. But, with apologies to grammar obsessives, there is one spot that can claim to be the most unique of them all – and that’s Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Here’s a city that, unlike so many of its Aussie counterparts, is a long, long way from the nearest ocean — some 340km to be precise, meaning it’s surrounded by the kind of dry, red, unforgiving bush that only the hardiest of souls would brave. So why is it there then? The answer’s glitteringly simple. Gold.
The story goes that, back in 1893, a pair of gung-ho prospectors by the name of Paddy Hannan and Tom Flanagan were trudging through the land of the Wangkatja people when one of their horses threw a shoe. The curses and despair of the forced halt, however, quickly turned to whoops of delight as they spotted signs of gold where that fortuitous horseshoe landed and realised that they were going to be very, very rich men.
News of their luck spread quickly and pretty soon hundreds of fortune hunters descended on the area and the town of Hannan’s Find was born. The early settlement grew and grew — by 1901 it was 4,800-strong and had been rechristened Kalgoorlie, a corruption of karlkurla, the native Aboriginal word for silky pear and a bush tucker staple abundant in the area. Now, though, there was a new natural treasure taking centre stage — the gold buried in what was to become known as the Golden Mile, a piece of real estate many consider to be the world’s richest square mile of earth.
With the gold rush came development. Railway lines linked Kal with Perth and the rest of the country — the Prospector still whips through the bush from the state capital every day. When nickel was found in large quantities, the expansion continued apace and soon this young town was quite the Australian powerhouse.
It was, however, quickly becoming the black sheep of the family, as its reputation for being a southern hemisphere wild west blossomed. Bandits were rife and prostitution flourished. These were puritanical days, of course, and pretty soon Kal found itself as something of a pariah. The perceived government neglect led to calls for the area to secede from the rest of country and become Auralia — a name taken from the Latin for golden. In the end the plan came to nought, but it was a shot across the bows to the rest of the country — you may not like our way of life, but if you want to share our gold, then you’re stuck with it.
From there, then, Kalgoorlie flourished, making itself both famous and infamous across the world. C.Y. O’Connor’s ambitious pipeline, for instance, bringing fresh water from Perth to the desertbound golden oasis, remains a triumph in engineering — and the Super Pit was, for many years, Australia’s largest opencut gold mine.
But still, this was Kalgoorlie, and the hard-living excess had no plans to go away. Brothels abounded — one now serves as a museum and is a major tourism draw — and the iconic game of two-up left many a miner destitute when the pennies came down the wrong way up.
Skimpies, barmaids who serve drinks and tucker in every state of undress, were a proud institution, never hidden away — for many a year The Kalgoorlie Miner, a bastion daily newspaper that still trades today after launching in 1895, published ‘Skimpie of the week’, and getting featured was a honour. And as if all this weren’t enough, throw in the odd earthquake — the last big one hit in 2010 — and you can see just how unique this place is.
City status arrived in 1989, when Kal and the Shire of Boulder merged to become Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and much has been done to tone down the wild west feel as the world grows up. The annual Diggers and Dealers festival, for instance, the biggest and most influential mining meet-up in Australia, has worked hard to throw off some of the more unsavoury aspects of early settler culture. But the spirit of the wild west, the adventure, the derring-do, the ever-driving dream of a golden future, truly lives on in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Originally featured in Australia’s Golden Outback Holiday Planner 2023, published by Premium Publishers.