Friday, 17 December 1971
The day before, during the torrid drive northwards, I had wondered why someone hadn’t built a detour; a giant hypotenuse to slice a triangle off the journey. I did some back-seat mental calculations. Norseman to Kalgoorlie, 191 kilometres. Okay, build a road north-west to strike the Great Western Highway the same distance west of Kal. That’s a saving of 112 kilometres, I figured, thanks to third-form mathematics.
I turned my head. What do you think, cousin? Cousin, bored - even with the music now, at this stage of the journey - was drily not sure the Kalgoorlie chamber of commerce would like passing traffic diverted 179 kilometres (mid-point of the hypotenuse) away. To hell with the chamber of commerce, I said, and we kept driving up the first leg to the right-angle vertex. After a few hours of this nonsense, we had arrived.
Like far too many places in this story, mining town Kalgoorlie was surrounded by desert. Its gold rush occurred during the 1890s depression, so everyone was twice as desperate to get at the gold. There was no water, which was at one time more expensive than gold, or was that a myth? Imagine if you had crossed the globe for gold only to be overcome by Kalgoorlie’s heat and lack of water, and had then heard about a new strike in a faraway place that was cool and had water; and you had set off for the seaport of Esperance the very next day, to sail for the Klondike. Death by thirst or freezing. Take your pick (and literally, of course).
We stopped in the main street, got out of the car and walked to bring our legs to life. The streets were wide beyond belief. You had to be able to turn a bullock train in them. The haggard architecture was all faded Victoriana and slamming screen doors. Red dust crept up to the very doorsteps, reminding you that you were still in a desert. It was like a movie set town, except you opened doors off the street and there was a real room – dark and swathed in that fifty-years-out-of-date manner – behind it.
The faded Victorians were the ghosts of a hundred hotels that had once swanked along Kalgoorlie’s main streets like trinkets in a gaudy crown; the back streets had secreted a similar number of attractions of a different kind, because when there is the sniff of gold, everything is for sale. Gold – what does that bring you? Trouble and death. The aborigines roamed here for eons, gold undisturbed beneath their nomadic feet. 120 years of Kalgoorlie history is nothing. That’s almost living memory. Some natives can recall their great-grandparents talking about the time before European settlement, before the distant echo of the Dreaming came crashing to a halt.
We walked on. Some aborigines, dressed in brightly coloured and ill-fitting hand-me-down western clothes like so many dress-up dolls, were sitting around on street corners in the shade of massive Victorian verandahs, or under sprawling eucalypts, too full of stunned lassitude even to wave the flies away from their diseased red-black faces. Too broken to beg. Too lost to know what to do. We walked past them and drove out of town. But I remembered them.