Travel Story Goldfields gems: History & colourful characters in Coolgardie

Photo of Andy Tyndall

With the weather cooling down, now’s the time to plan a midyear trip into the Goldfields. 

There are three reasons to stop at the Coolgardie Visitor Centre: first, the centre is a prime source of up-to-date information on the condition of the roads on the Golden Quest Discovery Trail. 

I am setting off on the trail the next day because Coolgardie is a perfect starting point.

The second reason: there is an intriguing pharmacy museum, the beautiful, internationally renowned Waghorn bottle collection plus an interesting display about the rescue of trapped miner Modesto Varischetti as well as artefacts and photographs from the town’s heyday.

The third reason to stop: you may, if you are lucky, meet Vic Dale. He was there in the foyer of the magnificent building when I walked in and, it turned out, knows everything there is to know about Coolgardie in the most intricate detail. 

I spent the afternoon with him.

Had I not I would never have discovered the school — still teaching Coolgardie kids — built by the Bunning brothers in 1894. And yes: there’s a certain popular WA-founded hardware chain named after them.

Vic told me tales of characters of the day, going into considerable detail about the politics of Coolgardie’s heyday, when the clamour from the Goldfields, heavily populated by native Eastern Staters, was a driving force behind the move to a Federation. The Goldfields voted more than 20-to-one in favour and WA joined the rest of the States to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

I learnt about Coolgardie’s reign as capital of the would-be colony, Auralia, and its decline once Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Golden Mile proved to be so rich and enduring. Many of Coolgardie’s buildings succumbed to a fine Goldfields’ tradition, they were recycled and moved: Merredin’s majestic Cummins Theatre and the Tavern at Westonia were both originally located in Coolgardie in its glory days.

The school, railway station, old hospital, morgue and a few teetering shacks from that time are dotted around the town. They are all worth a visit, if only to admire the style of the solid buildings and fortitude of those early residents. 

The sights and sites are best located with help from the Golden Quest Discovery Trail Guidebook, app or visitor centre, itself located in one of the magnificent buildings peppering the main street.

Vic guided me to the still waters of the incongruous Coola Cardi gnamma hole — from which Coolgardie took its name —and recounted how it was enlarged, courtesy of explosives, to retain more water for the burgeoning township, named at that spot by the first warden Finnerty.

Warden Finnerty — one of WA’s richer characters — was ordered from Southern Cross where he was warden of the Yilgarn Goldfield, to live in Coolgardie. His Bunning-built house, originally the administrative seat of the Goldfields, commands a sweeping view from the hill above the gnamma hole. It is now a National Trust property, open to the public for a nominal admission charge. 

Do consider a guided tour in order to hear details about the redoubtable Finnerty: as magistrate and administrator of the region he was a big figure, highly regarded for his determination and practical approach to the complications of leases, gold and not averse to administering swift justice to those found behaving badly. 

A small distance out of town towards Perth is the graveyard, the last resting place of hundreds who died of illnesses and infections which rushed through the community. It was said, at one point that half the town was burying the other half.  

We all but stumbled upon the grave of redoubtable explorer Ernest Giles who, in numerous major expeditions, crossed to the Swan River Colony from the then Darwin-Adelaide Telegraph line, discovered The Olgas, Victoria and Gibson deserts, and mapped out large areas of the inhospitable interior. 

Pneumonia also took him, his exploring days over, working as a clerk, living with his nephew in Coolgardie.

I returned to Finnerty’s house in the dawn to witness, to the east, where the Super Pit’s spoil heap hunkers down on the horizon, a golden mist weaving among the eucalypts.

In the first few kilometres out of Coolgardie we passed a small lake. An enterprising humorist had placed imaginative art of a Loch Ness monster, a fisherman in a dinghy, a shark and a flamingo. A little later we passed the ruins of Kunanalling. 

The humour, the ruined dreams, the resilience: I was realising the pulsing themes which have kept the Goldfields alive for so long in such adversity.

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