Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Goldfields

From the Wheatbelt and Esperance, we drove north into a region known as the Goldfields.  It’s known as the Goldfields… well, because there’s a shit ton of gold there.  And there’s no better placed that this is exhibited than at the Super Pit.

The Super Pit is the world’s largest open cut gold mine.  It literally is a giant pit in the ground, large enough to be visible from space.  Giant trucks – some bigger than your house – look like matchbox cars or even smaller when viewing them from above.  Check out the stairs on the truck:

And can you spot the trucks in this view?

No?  Allow me to zoom in:

The entire region is reliant on the gold industry.  Most of the towns in the region were founded during the gold rush, and many of these little towns boomed during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  But, what goes up must come down.  As the gold ran out – or, at least, as the easily accessible gold ran out – thriving towns with thousands of residents seemingly vanished overnight.  Broad Arrow is one of those towns.  Once a thriving city with 15,000 residents, Broad Arrow is now reduced to one tavern:

The tavern is all that remains, and it is primarily a tourist stop.  Most of the buildings in Broad Arrow have been torn down or have rotted away, but there’s a map and some markers you can follow to see where things once were.  In its hey-day, Broad Arrow had eight hotels, two banks, two breweries, a major hospital, and its very own stock exchange.  And now all it has is a low class pub.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Norseman is another mining town.  Lucky for it, it sits at the end of the Eyre Highway – the road connecting to Adelaide, which is nearly 2,000 kilometers away.  It’s this strategic position which has kept the town alive, though with a population of around 850, it may be barely hanging on.  The town might as well have been a ghost town when we stopped for some snacks.  With the exception of the little grocery store and one sketchy looking café, everything seemed to be closed down, including the major department store (ha!)

And this lovely store which I’m sure was once-upon-a-time really cool… for Norseman…

New technologies are reinvigorating mining in some areas where gold extraction was previously economically infeasible, and it is thought that the opening of new mines may revive some of the depressed or even abandoned towns once again.  Until then, Kalgoorlie will remain the major city in the Goldfields.

With over 30,000 residents, it’s also the major city for… well, most of Western Australia beyond Perth.  In Kalgoorlie, we visited the Western Australian Museum at Kalgoorlie-Boulder, where they had a fantastic gold exhibit.

We learned that early settlers often confused real gold with pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.  The settlers discarded the rocks with the alleged fool’s gold in them and they were used to pave roads and walkways in the city.  A metallurgist later confirmed that the mineral that the settlers thought was fool’s gold actually was real gold.  So, for a short time, Kalgoorlie actually did have streets paved with gold.  Take that, El Dorado!  The roads were later torn up and the gold was removed from the rocks, but that doesn’t mean that Kalgoorlie doesn’t sneak gold into some other places, like their electrical sockets.

Kalgoorlie and its neighbour city, Boulder, sit right next to the massive Super Pit.  Before it was a large open pit mine though, it used to be a conglomeration of much smaller traditional underground mines.  One of these mines actually had a tunnel right into the closest pub in nearby Boulder, and we of course had to pop into see it.

It’s closed off now due to safety regulations, but it’s pretty cool to think that back in the day, you could just climb right out of the mine you were working in, sit down at the bar, and order up a cold beer.  It makes going downstairs to the pub after work for a quick drink seem less cool all of a sudden…

The Super Pit is set to close down in 2021 – when they anticipate the cost to extract the gold will become more than the worth of the gold itself.  As it employs several thousand people, it is the lifeline of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and its closure will have devastating effects on the local population and economy.  The government is trying to figure out what to do with the mine – maybe turn it into a lake or some other sort of tourist attraction to draw in outside revenue – but they need to think fast because the deadline is now less than 9 years away.  Otherwise, Kalgoorlie may very well be the next big ghost town.

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