BIGNESS IS THE THEME, a theme with endless variations. Bigness in area: a million square miles awakening under the sun. Bigness in ideas and risks, in money lost and won. Western Australia is a third of a continent, an immensity of beauty and dreariness, richness and worthlessness in which a million people are creating a region to be reckoned with. Someone coined the phrase “A State of Excitement.” Forgive the pun and accept the premise. The excitement is contagious.
Gold was the catalyst that created the late-blooming phenomenon of Western Australia. People by the tens of thousands came into the Eastern Goldfields at the end of the 1800’s. Mining centered on Kalgoorlie, near which a “decent, bearded little man” named Paddy Hannan found gold in 1893. Here was surface gold, easy to get hold of once you’d found it. In 1894 Leslie Robert Menzies jumped off his camel into a heap of nuggets and gathered £750,000 worth in two hours. He “shouted” champagne for all comers in local pubs, then took six tons of gold to a bank by wheelbarrow.
Surface gold soon ran out. But Kalgoorlie and its contiguous town of Boulder lie along the famed “Golden Mile,” bands of rich ore now worked down to 4,000 feet. Population of the two towns still tops 20,000. The main streets, wide enough to turn long teams of donkeys or camels, are lined with red-andwhite Victoriana and small modern stores.
The deep gold lasted, and lasts still. The remaining big companies have amalgamated in an effort to make gold mining a paying proposition in a time of tough taxes, severe labor shortages, and galloping inflation.
Said Dick Hooker, operations manager of the newly merged Gold Mines of Kalgoorlie and Lake View and Star properties, “Gold mining is marginal right now. These companies were ready to go under. Then the price of gold rose. We’re holding on.”
But some “backblock battlers”—individual prospectors—are still hopeful. Jack Green is one. “A lot of blokes reckon the labor that goes into prospecting isn’t worth what comes out. One bloke says to me, ‘Show me a reef where I can cut gold off with a tommy hawk and I’ll take it. Otherwise not.’ But there’s still money to be made.”