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Australia's Gold Miners Rush to Outback

March 13, 1988|PAUL LASLEY and ELIZABETH HARRYMAN | Lasley and Harryman are Beverly Hills free-lance writers

KALGOORLIE, Australia — Charlie's face looked creviced from countless days under the Western Australia sun. A three-day growth of stubble covered his chin. But his keen blue eyes shone with the passion of discovery.

"Once you find your first 10-ounce nugget, you're hooked," he said with a toothless grin. "The one- and two-ouncers don't mean much, but once you find your first 10-ouncer, that's it."

Charlie--the only name he ever used--is one of a new generation of prospectors plumbing the rich, red soil of the Australian outback in a 20th-Century gold rush.

We were chatting over ale and ginger beer at the Broad Arrow Tavern about 10 miles outside of Kalgoorlie, the gold-mining capital of Australia.

Made of weathered corrugated iron and stained with streaks of rust, the tavern is set in the bleak gold fields, relieved by only occasional eucalyptus and cottonwood trees. A fine red dust hangs over everything.

Break From Work

Inside the tavern, 50-year-old photographs line the grimy walls and a couple of cheery bartenders serve pints of beer to a roomful of miners and swagmen (itinerant workers). The red dust covers them, too. Kim (last names seem superfluous out here) has come from Sri Lanka to work for one of the big mining companies.

"The pay is good," he said. "I work here to save up money and then I'll return to Sri Lanka."

Kalgoorlie's gold rush is a boon to travelers as well as to miners.

A one-hour flight on Ansett Airlines or a four-hour train ride on the India/Pacific Railroad will take visitors from the modern seacoast city of Perth to the rugged charm of Western Australia's gold fields. Day trips in the surrounding countryside give visitors a glimpse of life in a present-day frontier town.

Kalgoorlie's first boom came in the 1890s and the original turn-of-the-century buildings still line the main street.

By the end of the 1960s all the mines except one had closed, but more sophisticated techniques have made once-abandoned mines profitable again. Now the area supports 10 large mining companies.

About 2,000 miners work the fields, and the number increases almost daily. "Australia is becoming one the largest gold-producing countries in the world," Ted Cockram, manager of tourism for the gold fields, said.

Our tour of the gold country began with a drive down Hannan Street, a broad road named for Patrick Hannan, the young Irishman who in 1893 made the find that started Kalgoorlie's first gold rush.

Victorian Era hotels, housewares stores and shops selling prospecting equipment line the street. Off the main road, the roofs on nearly all the homes are of corrugated iron.

"It's the only thing that will keep the red dust out," our guide Jill, a pretty, 40ish woman with lively brown eyes, said. "Sometimes in the summertime the dust storms are so bad you can hardly see."

Hoover's 'White House'

Jill took us by the "White House," a little white home where former President Herbert Hoover lived when he worked in Kalgoorlie as a young mining engineer in the early 1900s. A must on the tour is Hay Street, the red-light district just a block off Hannan.

"Prostitution is not really legal in Australia, but here in Kalgoorlie it's accepted," Jill said as we drove by what are called the "starting stalls," a collection of low-rise buildings that look more like stables than houses of ill repute. She pointed out the house of the legendary Mona Maxwell, who at age 90 finally retired from the profession and is considered a town matriarch.

"I have had some of the ladies in my home for dinner," said Jill, who has the decorum of a college librarian, "and I'm proud to call them my friends."

After scanning the high points of Kalgoorlie the dusty, non-air-conditioned bus headed outside of town past several working mines and into the outback. The red plain stretches to the horizon and is marked by groves of fire trees and tall, white-barked eucalyptus.

Purple Flannel Blooms

Occasionally we see a flock of emus running through the bush, or a herd of sheep, mottled red by the ever-present dust. Jill points out the wildflowers that line the road--wild hop, "pig face" and purple flannel.

We pull over to the side of the dirt road and get out to see an aboriginal water hole--a tiny pool of water half-hidden by a rock outcropping. "It's a natural spring," Jill said. "The aborigines can find these water holes in the most remote parts of the outback. They care for them, keep them clean. To keep insects out, they'll make a lattice of reeds and place it over the water so the bugs can climb out."

The water hole is slightly muddy, so Jill thinks the aborigines have left it for some reason and moved on. "It's still clean enough to drink from, though," she says, cupping some water in her hand and taking a sip.

Ghost Town Sites

We climbed back into the bus, and as we continued the drive, Jill pointed out several ghost towns that thrived when the earlier rush was on and then collapsed when the mines were depleted. Only there's nothing there.

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