Tales from the Goldfields: Kalgoorlie’s legends glitter with more than gold

About 700km northeast of Perth in Kookynie, the delightful owner of the Grand Hotel regales us with colourful tales of yesteryear. In this dusty living ghost town, Margaret Pusey reluctantly took over the historic pub at her husband’s insistence more than 30 years ago. Despite no sign of him today, she continues pulling beers and entertaining the locals, prospectors, curious tourists and a stray horse, who was out roaming on the day we visited.

She proudly shows me her book titled Niagara, Kookynie: How It Was. It’s the only copy she has, and I’m instructed to only look at it after I’ve finished my meat pie. The book is a collection of memories shared by local families showcasing a time when gold fever had taken hold. She’s working on another book about the pub. A wander around the town’s ruins with a bit of imagination gives some insight into its heyday. The Grand Hotel seems to be the only business operating in town, it takes resilience to be one of the few remaining residents.

Kookynie, a living ghost town

We are about two hours north of Kalgoorlie, so you might wonder how anyone, including us, ends up in Kookynie. It is worth the journey if only to chat with Margaret and stop in Menzies to admire the steel statues depicting life over a century ago. The main reason many venture this far north of Kalgoorlie, however, is to walk among the art installations on Lake Ballard, about an hour away. Deemed the world’s largest outdoor gallery, British artist Antony Gormley crafted 51 steel human-like statues and placed them across 10 square kilometres among the seven islands on the salt lake. They shimmer in the distance, appearing to walk towards you, except it is you who is drawn towards them. Titled Inside Australia, regardless of the time of the day or year you visit, it’s a mesmerising experience, especially if you’re camping overnight, where you’ll have the opportunity to wander among the statues beneath star-studded skies.

One of 51 statues on Lake Ballard

Australia’s Golden Outback is a place of extremes immediately apparent from the cracked ground, blazing sun, gregarious flies (hot tip: bring a fly net) and sheer size of this rugged region. It might seem inhospitable on first impression, but the local characters have hooked many into Kalgoorlie’s charms, even if gold was the initial drawcard.

Laying claim to one of the largest open-cut mines on earth, visiting the Super Pit is a must and can be viewed from its lookout or on a tour. Hannans North Tourist Mine and the Museum of the Goldfields give historic insight into the industry, as does the Goldfields Exhibition Museum in Coolgardie, where Paddy Hannan first discovered gold. 

Kalgoorlie’s salacious reputation is mainly in the past, apart from Questa Casa, the longest-running brothel in Australia and possibly the world. Her official title has been “Madame” for more than 30 years, but Carmel Galvin is all class on her riveting tours. Located on Hay Street, the pink corrugated tin building is discreetly removed from the main drag on Hannans Street. Due to the containment policy, the girls were forbidden to frequent crowded areas, and the preserved starting stalls were used to strike up conversations with cruising clients. There used to be 17 operating brothels servicing the needs of lonely miners at a time when water was more precious than gold. 

Questa Casa

Water still is a priceless commodity and the pipeline transporting water from Mundaring Wier to Kalgoorlie was an engineering feat that was so controversial and challenging that CY O’Connor, who was instrumental in its design and construction, died by suicide before its completion in 1903. His legacy lives on, and you can see the end of the pipeline from the Mount Charlotte lookout at the top end of Hannan Street, which also offers vistas of Kalgoorlie and the world’s tallest bin; good luck to anyone who can fling their trash eight metres high into its narrow opening. 

Nullarbor Links, the world’s longest golf course, spans 1,365 kilometres from Ceduna (SA) to the Kalgoorlie Golf Course. The site of this epic golf course will soon include a new Hilton Hotel, a welcome addition to the town’s busy accommodation, ranging from the Hospitality Kalgoorlie motel to the luxurious Rydges Kalgoorlie. In keeping with tradition, many of the town’s pubs offer accommodation, like the Palace Hotel and York Hotel, adorned with elaborate Victorian and Edwardian architecture, serving hearty fare on their ornate balconies to hungry miners. De Bernales Bar & Bistro takes the cuisine up a notch thanks to chef Tudy’s Malaysian roots and owner Luciano Vecchio’s vision. 

Kalgoorlie doesn’t pretend to be anything but a mining town, refreshingly so. It’s unlikely you’ll find any influencers posing against the street art or the ever-present red dust. Instead, you’ll hear remarkable tales, like the one about Herbert Hoover, who would go on to become the president of the United States. While stationed at the Sons of Gwalia Mine, he was a regular guest at the Palace Hotel, where he became besotted with a barmaid. A poem he penned to her is displayed next to the ornate Hoover Mirror in the hotel’s lobby, which he also crafted.

Some might say the mirror reflects Kalgoorlie’s prosperous past, but you don’t need to dig deep to discover its gems aren’t only in the ground waiting to be discovered.