Six hundred kilometres east of Perth, at the end of the Great Eastern Highway, are the Eastern Goldfields. In the late nineteenth century, gold was found in what still remains one of the world’s richest gold-producing regions. Lack of fresh water made life very hard for the early prospectors, driven by a national economic depression into miserable living conditions, disease and, in most cases, premature graves. Nevertheless, boom towns of thousands, boasting grand public buildings, several hotels and a vast periphery of hovels, would spring up and collapse in the time it took to extract any ore.
In 1894 the railway from Perth reached the town of Southern Cross, just as big finds turned the rush into a national stampede. This huge influx of people accentuated the water shortage, until the visionary engineer C.Y. O’Connor oversaw the construction of a 556km pipeline from Mundaring Weir, in the hills above Perth, to Kalgoorlie in 1903. Around this time many of the smaller gold towns were already in decline, but the Goldfields’ wealth and boost in population finally gave WA the economic autonomy it sought in its claim for statehood in 1901.
In the years preceding the goldrush, the area was briefly one of the world’s richest sources of sandalwood, an aromatic wood greatly prized throughout Asia for joss sticks, and still a staple in modern perfumery. Supplies in the Pacific had become exhausted, so by 1880 the fragrant wood was WA’s second-largest exportable commodity after wool. Exacerbating the inevitable over-cutting was the goldrush’s demand for timber to prop up shafts, or to fire the pre-pipeline water desalinators. Today the region is a pit-scarred and prematurely desertified landscape, dotted with the scavenged vestiges of past settlements, while at its core the Super Pit gold mine in Kalgoorlie gets wider and deeper year by year.
Moribund Coolgardie may have been the original goldrush settlement, but the Goldfields are now centred around the twinned towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. A thriving, energetic hub, Kalgoorlie is one of Australia’s richest towns, and even if you’re not planning to pass through the Goldfields, there’s enough to see here to merit a couple of days’ excursion from Perth – not least the novelty of riding on the new “high-speed” Prospector, the daily six-hour rail link between Perth and Kalgoorlie.