"Rubber goods and skimpies ..." Top 5 Page for this destination Kalgoorlie by CatherineReichardt
Kalgoorlie Travel Guide: 176 reviews and 470 photos
I have a sneaking fondness for the twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, universally known as 'Kal' due to that deeply irritating (and annoyingly contagious) Aussie habit which cannot resist abbreviating each and every name. It is the administrative and commercial capital of Western Australia's Eastern Goldfields, and is a town that is so deeply rooted in its mining traditions and heritage that you can be forgiven for suspecting that you've been transported back several decades.
I worked in Western Australia for a number of years, and used to have to travel to Kal regularly on business: in fact I was in Kal the day that I was granted my Australian citizenship. I remember the occasion vividly, if only for the bizarre twist of fate that I was accompanied by a teetotal colleague, and thus had to drink a solo celebratory beer in one of Kal's many hostelries whilst he toasted my entry to the cultural fold with fruit juice!
As you might expect from a die hard mining town, pubs loom large in Kal's consciousness and folk lore. These days, it has about 25 pubs, which is pretty good going for a town with a population of only 30,000. However, this is decidedly modest compared to Kal's heyday at the turn of the 20th century when there were 93 hotels - at the time, Australian pubs needed to provide accommodation in order to qualify for a liquor licence - ably serviced by eight local breweries!
Another much heralded feature of Kal's pub scene are its 'skimpy' barmaids. For those of you who have not yet been exposed to Australia's unique take on staff uniforms in pubs, a 'skimpy' is a young lady who mans the bar in nothing but her underwear. This is a wildly popular practice in the remote rural towns of inland Western Australia, and is particularly a feature of mining towns with heavily skewed gender ratios such as Kalgoorlie (where men hugely outnumber women).
In fact, the regional newspaper (unsurprisingly called the 'Kalgoorlie Miner') has a standard feature called 'Skimpy of the Week', and on one bizarre occasion when I was staying in town, I happened across an issue when 'Skimpy of the Week' was juxtaposed with an advert for 'Rubber Goods'. This all seemed to be getting a trifle seedy for a mainstream newspaper ... until I read the advert in greater detail and realised that it was a mining goods supplier advertising rubber conveyor belting! Only in Kal!!!
The fact that Kal was established in the first place - and has endured for over a century - is really a triumph of human determination and engineering ingenuity over hostile environment, since Kal lacks the single commodity most fundamental to human life - water.
To put it quite simply, there is - and has not in recent history, ever been - any potable water within a bull's roar of Kal. Because the region has experienced very low rainfall and high evaporation rate for a very long time, there is no surface water to speak of, except for brief periods after rare torrential rainstorms that usually result from the tail end of a cyclone moving in from the tropical north. This results in negligible rainwater recharge to groundwater, and the little water that is found in fossil channel aquifers is geologically ancient and has become highly saline over the aeons, resulting in it being several times more salty than sea water.
However, for every technical challenge there is a solution, provided that the rewards are great enough. When the Eastern Goldfields deposits were discovered in the late nineteeth century, it became evident that their development was going to be stymied by the absence of water, and that an engineering solution had to be found, regardless of cost. Enter Charles Yelverton (CY) O'Connor, a man whose engineering genius arguably did more to shape the development of Western Australia than any other.
O'Connor was an Irishman who emigrated to New Zealand in his early 20s to find his fortune. After honing his skills, he accepted a post Engineer-in-Chief for Western Australia, and his first great achievement was to construct Fremantle Harbour (the deepwater port for Perth).
O'Connor next turned his attention to the pressing problem of water supply to the Eastern Goldfields and proposed a daring solution that involved linking a reservoir at Mundaring Weir (now Lake O'Connor) in the Darling escarpment just east of Perth to Kal, from where it would be reticulated to other population centres. The 760mm (30") pipeline from Mundaring Weir to the Mount Charlotte reservoir in Kal was 530km (330 mile) long pipeline and was designed to carry 23,000 m³ of fresh water a day. The sheer scale of the scheme meant that it was eyewateringly expensive - the Western Australian government raised a loan of £2.5 million to construct the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, which was a colossal amount of money at the time.
Construction of the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme commenced in 1896, and was completed in 1903. It is a testament to the vision of the scheme and the quality of its engineering that over a century later, it still supplies 100,000 people in the Eastern Goldfields with water. However, the man who conceived the scheme was not around to see it enter operation: after years of sustained criticism in the West Australian Parliament and the media and allegations of financial misconduct (which were later proved to be untrue), CY O'Connor committed suicide by shooting himself on the beach at Fremantle in 1902.
One of the reasons that Kal has a slightly impermanent atmosphere (despite having been around for over a century) is that there is such a turnover of population. This is a particular quirk of mining, and reflects the dynamic - some would argue, unreliable and untrustworthy - nature of the industry.
Reverting to my geological roots for a moment, the gold deposits of Western Australia are usually associated with features such as faults or shear zones along which the hydrothermal fluid which deposited the gold has been able to move. Thus, unlike long-lived orebodies such as the Witwatersrand formation of South Africa, which are laterally continuous and relatively predictable, the gold deposits of the Eastern Goldfields are much more limited and discontinuous. As a result, the average life span of a gold mine in the Eastern Goldfields is probably only about ten years, with worked out mines continually closing, and new ones opening up all the time. This makes for a very fluid employment situation, and it's not unusual for a miner to have worked for a dozen or more mines during the course of his career.
Secondly, Kal isn't exactly most people's idea of a dream location to live, although, to be fair, it's positively cosmopolitan compared to the other towns in the region such as Leonora, Leinster, Meekatharra and Norseman! With the best will in the world, there is only a certain range of services and amenities that can be supported by a population of 30,000, and as a result, many of the people who work on the mines in the area operate on a 'fly in, fly out' (FIFO) basis from Perth. This is a very common employment model for mineworkers throughout Australia, which allows their families to live in a city that offers better education, healthcare and general quality of life, and also provides more varied employment prospects for spouses/partners who wish to work.
The mine employees work on site for an established roster (for example, 9 days consecutive work on site) and then their employer flies them back to join their families for their break (for example, 5 days). It sounds like an expensive arrangement, but in fact, covering the airfares and then providing the employee with single status accommodation actually works out to be cheaper than providing a family home in a town like Kal, which has very limited - and as a result, very expensive - housing. Hell, even some of the skimpies are on a FIFO roster!
As you might expect, Kal's tourist attractions reflect its mining history. In addition to the Superpit (a stonking great hole in the ground on the edge of town), there is the hugely enjoyable Mining Hall of Fame, which showcases not only the technical side of mining, but also the larger-than-life cast of visionaries, entrepreneurs, robber barons and rogues that it has spawned. Because Kal has always been a town that has had a disproportionate amount of wealth sloshing around, there is also some lovely late Victorian and Edwardian architecture, most notably represented in the pubs (surprise!) and the Western Australian School of Mines (a campus of Curtin University).
Lastly, a word of warning. The highlight of Kal's calender is the legendary 'Diggers & Dealers' conference, which takes place in August each year and is the largest gold mining convention in the Southern Hemisphere. For a week, over 2,000 delegates, comprising miners, equipment suppliers, consultants and the media descend on the town for a frenzy of deal making, industry gossip and epic drinking (often all at once!) in an atmosphere reminiscent of its turn of the century heyday. Over this period, there isn't a spare bed or plane seat to be had for love nor money, so try and time your visit to avoid this if at all possible - unless of course, this is the reason for your visit in the first place!
For more things to do and see in the Eastern Goldfields, follow these links:
My Agnew page
My Lake Lefroy page
- Pros:A town that continues to live its colourful history
- Cons:Expensive to live in, a long way from anywhere and hellish hot in summer
- In a nutshell:Probably Australia's most genuine (and unapologetic) mining town!
Welcome to the hugely enjoyable Mining Hall of Fame, which showcases not only the technical side of mining, but also the... more travel advice
A much heralded feature of Kal's pub scene are its 'skimpy' barmaids. For those of you who have not yet been exposed to... more travel advice
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