Whichever way you approach KALGOORLIE – the bustling gold capital of Australia: officially twinned, municipally merged but still fervently distinct from Boulder – it comes as a surprise after hundreds of kilometres of desolation. The conurbation possesses the idiosyncratic quality of places like Coober Pedy or Las Vegas. All three blithely disregard their isolation and bleak surroundings, so devoted is their attention to the pursuit of earthly riches – which, in Kalgoorlie’s case, is gold.
In 1893 Paddy Hannan and his mates, Tom Flannigan and Dan O’Shea, brought renewed meaning to the expression “the luck of the Irish” when a lame horse forced them to camp by the tree which still stands at the top of Egan Street in Kalgoorlie. With their instincts highly attuned after eight months of prospecting around Coolgardie, they soon found gold all around them, and as the first on the scene enjoyed the unusually easy pickings of surface gold. Ten years later, when the desperately needed water pipeline finally gushed into the Mount Charlotte Reservoir, Kalgoorlie was already the established heart of WA’s rapidly growing mineral-based prosperity. As sole survivor of the original rush, and revitalized by the 1960s nickel boom, Kalgoorlie has benefited from new technology that has largely dispensed with slow and dangerous underground mining. Instead, the fabulously rich “Golden Mile” reef east of town, near Boulder, is being excavated around the clock, creating a colossal hole, the open-cast “Super Pit”, which is still going strong and being expanded every day.
Start your tour of the town by taking a walk to the top of Hannan Street to the red 33m-high Ivanhoe Headframe (with a viewing platform boasting 360-degree views of the city and mines) at the Western Australian Museum, right next to the spot where Paddy and his crew found their first, auspicious nuggets. Hannan Street itself is one of Kalgoorlie’s finest sights, with its superbly restored Federation-era architecture, imposing public buildings and numerous flamboyant hotel facades.
BOULDER, 5km south of Kalgoorlie, is quieter and smaller than its twin – a place to visit rather than stay in. It was originally set up as a separate settlement to serve the Golden Mile, but Boulder’s heyday passed as Kalgoorlie’s suburbs slowly absorbed the quaint little town. Boulder has a similar collection of grand old buildings and pubs that – like Kal’s – have received a face-lift. Most people do a lap of the main street on their way up the hill to the astonishing Super Pit Lookout, an absolute must. Phone or drop into the Super Pit Shop at 2 Burt St when you get to town to find out when a blast is scheduled – an experience you won’t forget easily.
Proud of its history and continued prosperity, Kalgoorlie is one of the most parochial towns in Australia, but first and foremost “Kal” is a “Working Man’s Town” of twelve-hour, seven-day shifts. Prostitution has long been legal in WA and due to Kalgoorlie’s perceived “special needs” (a large male population and significant lack of females) the high rates paid here saw willing women flock to the town. Until ten years ago, a “containment” policy meant that prostitutes were not allowed to live in the community nor visit public places, effectively confining them to the sniggeringly louche red-light district of Hay Street. Now, with containment lifted, the street’s appeal has diminished, prices have dropped and many brothels have closed. However, those remaining have refocused their business on brothel tours, and these have become one of Kalgoorlie’s most popular activities, offering fascinating anecdotes about the history of prostitution in WA, and answering all the questions you dare to ask.