Isolation, Hardship and Gold – The Golden Quest Discovery Trail

So you’ve explored Kalgoorlie-Boulder and now you’re looking for a bit of adventure. Well, call into the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Visitor Centre and pick up a guidebook to the Golden Quest Discovery Trail.

The Discovery Trail leads you on an almost 1,000km loop north, into the goldfields. The guidebook that you’ll purchase is exceptional, worth every cent. You download an audio file and the guidebook prompts you to play audio at many points along your journey. These audio files are often interviews of locals talking about the history of the area or stories from the past.

These are excellent. They bring the localities to life and give you a real sense of the country you’re in. Marketing gurus talk about immersive experiences… well this is certainly one of them!

You can also download a free phone app which contains a wealth of information. Just remember to download the audio files while you still have phone reception!

My Generator Black Friday sale now on.
Black Friday Sales specials at My Generator.
A goanna waiting to hitch a ride into town. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
On the Golden Quest Discovery Trail. This goanna was waiting to hitch a ride into town.

And the roads? Well on this leg of the Golden Quest Discovery Trail, they’re a mixture of tar and well maintained dirt roads. You’ll have no trouble in a normal car if you take your time. Of course, dirt road conditions are ever-changing. It might pay to ask about the dirt roads at the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Visitor Centre.

Warning: Gold Fever Can Be Fatal

Gold fever is a strange affliction. There is no drinkable water within about a 300km radius of Kalgoorlie, not on top nor underground.  However, this did not stop hopefuls from setting out in search of the “next big one”.

Many men perished from thirst, as they would set out with a small amount of water and hope for a thunderstorm to refill their water supplies. A very risky strategy in such dry country.

During one particular gold rush to the ironically named Siberia in 1893, many men died of thirst. Hundreds of men deserted Coolgardie overnight, after a miner discovered gold. Later that day another wave of men passed through Coolgardie from Kalgoorlie, heading into the unknown. None of these men had any knowledge of the terrain and no clear idea exactly where the gold was actually discovered. They set off regardless.

The thriving metropolis of Siberia. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
The thriving metropolis of Siberia. Many men died trying to reach this point.

It was only through the extraordinary efforts of a few brave policemen and an Afghan cameleer that more men didn’t die. When news came through of the unfolding tragedy, the cameleer loaded his camel team with water and started out. He encountered many who were mad from thirst.

The number of men who perished is unknown. There is a detailed account of this tragedy here.

Vanishing Towns

With our trusty Golden Quest Discovery Trail guidebook in hand, we started our journey.

First stop was Coolgardie, once the third largest town after Perth and Fremantle. Gold was first discovered here in 1892, the first gold discovered in Western Australia. So the next Australian gold rush was on! Kalgoorlie eventually overtook Coolgardie as the main centre in the goldfields.

A road train near Coolgardie, Golden Quest Discovery Trail
A road train near Coolgardie. I wonder what the gold miners of the 1890’s would have thought if they saw this!

Kunanalling is north of Coolgardie. All that remains are a few stone ruins and signs of diggings. Like many other goldfields towns, Kunanalling’s light shone brightly for a short while then quickly died out. With no fresh water and a shortage of timber for fuel, mining costs became prohibitive. Kunanalling faded away.

Kunanalling is an example of how towns were built during the gold rush. Homes were built to be transportable, so when the next great rush happened they were dismantled and moved. Few buildings were built from stone, so most of these towns simply disappeared after the gold ran out.

Ruins at Kunanalling. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Site No. 2 on the Golden Quest Discovery Trail – Kunanalling.
Ruins at Kunanalling. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Many sites have excellent interpretive signage. WA Tourism certainly know how to cater for tourists!

Murder In The Goldfields

Not far north of Kananalling is Ora Banda. The Ora Banda Historical Inn is still operating, one of just a few buildings left in the settlement.

Ora Banda Historical Inn rose to prominence in 2000 for all the wrong reasons. Don Hancock was an ex-Criminal Investigation Bureau chief from Perth and owner of the Inn. A group of Gypsy Jokers (motorcycle gang) turned up and were kicked out of the Inn. Later that night while camping, one of them disappeared into the bush to relieve himself and was shot dead… supposedly by Don Hancock, but he was never charged.

Ora Banda Historical Inn. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
The Ora Banda Historical Inn.

Hancock’s business and home were subsequently destroyed by firebombs, then Hancock and a friend were killed by a car bomb in Perth. A Gypsy Joker member later admitted to planting the car bomb as a revenge attack.

Let’s Go To Siberia

Moving north again, you’ll encounter Siberia. Regarding the name, there are two distinct possibilities. It might have been because it was the exact opposite of Siberia… typical Australian humour. Or maybe because it was a desolate wasteland, just like its namesake. Who knows…

We're off to Siberia! Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
We’re off to Siberia!

Siberia cemetery is certainly a desolate place. Someone has painstakingly outlined each grave with white quartz rocks. These rocky borders highlight the unforgiving landscape in which this cemetery lies.

While visiting the cemetery, Ben randomly picked up a quartz stone off the ground. On one edge, a tiny gold nugget was embedded in the quartz!

Our gold discovery at Siberia Cemetery. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Our gold discovery at Siberia Cemetery. Hmmm, my fingernails need a manicure…

It’s funny the effect this had on the four of us. Seeing raw gold embedded in the quartz awoke something in our brains. From then on our eyes were glued to the ground, occasionally picking up a piece of quartz and turning it over. It gave us a small insight into how powerful the gold bug can be.

Siberia had signs of recent activity. Amongst the numerous old mine diggings were placards warning prospectors to keep out. Obviously someone has taken up the mining leases and are probably going over the old diggings, in the hope of finding gold the original miners missed.

You’d need to have your wits about you, prospecting here. There are plenty of old mine shafts around, sometimes disguised in the undergrowth.

A desolate graveyard, Siberia. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
A desolate graveyard, Siberia. Somehow, the metal sign with the names welded on is appropriate in this country.

Menzies Cemetery, Full Of Lonely Ghosts

Pushing north, we passed through Goongarrie. This was another deserted ex-gold mining town, although this was a little different. The Kalgoorlie to Menzies railway line passed through Goongarrie, so it became a service village for the line. Like most of these settlements though, it eventually was abandoned. Goongarrie now lies within Goongarrie National Park, a former pastoral lease.

Not far north of Goongarrie on the Goldfields Highway is Menzies. This is one of just a handful of towns to have survived post-gold rush. Menzies was a service town for the goldfields further north, so perhaps this is why it was able to adapt. Menzies is a quiet place now, with some ornate buildings hinting of its prosperous past.

Menzies Town Hall. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Menzies Town Hall, a symbol of past prosperity.
The mining never stops in Western Australia. Menzies, Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
And a symbol of how gold mining is now conducted on an industrial scale.

Menzies Cemetery is sobering. Every headstone tells a story. And the number of infants buried here is a sad reminder of past hardships.

The headstones act as a chronology of Menzies’ past. Typhoid victims from an epidemic, people killed in mining accidents and those who perished searching for their fortune in this harsh landscape… a reminder of how this was once frontier country.

A sad story on a cross, Menzies Cemetery. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
The cross reads, “J.D. Leathart. Perished in the bush on or about 14/2/1899”.
A lonely unmarked grave, Menzies Cemetery. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Even after 100+ years, the vegetation still hasn’t grown back over this grave site.
A row of unmarked graves, Menzies Cemetery. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
A row of unmarked graves.

With these sobering thoughts in mind, we pushed on ever northwards in our comfortable, air-conditioned 4WD. Turning off the Goldfields Highway onto a well maintained dirt road, you’ll find a great spot to camp at Niagara Dam.

An (Almost) Empty Dam In The Middle Of Nowhere

The ambitiously named Niagara Dam is a small dam in the middle of nowhere. It was built in 1897 to supply steam trains at nearby Kookynie with water, but was never used. Underground water was discovered at Kookynie before the dam even had a chance to fill.

Dam construction was overseen by the Railways Department. In typical government fashion, its initial cost blew out by 50% and the dam was a white elephant. However, they did inadvertently manage to build an excellent camping spot…

Our shady campsite at Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Our shady campsite at Niagara Dam. Tucked in under the dam wall to avoid the hot sun in the morning.
Our campsite in amongst the trees, Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Looking down on our campsite from the dam wall.

We were one of just a few campers and managed to snag a spot right under the dam wall. That night, we were treated to a full moon shimmering over the vast plains. Even better, the night was completely still… one of those nights where your ears ring because it’s so quiet. Perfect!

On top of the dam wall, Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
On top of the dam wall. The dam wasn’t exactly full…
A desolate Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
This poor sapling is struggling to survive after sprouting in solid rock. This dam would be completely different on the rare occasions it’s full.
Magnificent salmon gum at Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
The salmon gums transform in the late afternoon sun.
Kangaroos having a late afternoon drink at Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
Some of the locals. The roos share this water with thousands of birds. Late afternoon is a busy time for wildlife at the dam.
Sunset at Niagara Dam. Golden Quest Discovery Trail.
A fantastic sunset, followed by an awesome full moon. Ahhh, I love camping!

Niagara Dam is one of those totally unexpected campsites. You know the ones… you know nothing about it beforehand, then discover it’s just brilliant!

Parting Thoughts

Our campsite at Niagara dam was the perfect end to a long day travelling the Golden Quest Discovery Trail. In just one day, we had already learnt so much about the history of the goldfields and the people who chased the elusive pot of gold.

The hardships suffered by the gold miners are difficult to imagine. No water, incredible heat and no services to speak of. Many hoping to earn their fortune, instead perished in agonising circumstances.

A lucky few did indeed strike it rich. However the old saying that “it’s better to be selling shovels than to be digging for gold” certainly rings true.

Next time we continue our journey on the Golden Quest Discovery Trail.

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2 thoughts on “Golden Quest Discovery Trail, Part 1 | Northern Goldfields, WA”

  1. The opportunities for exploration in the Goldfields are almost inexhaustible. The dirt roads are generally in good condition even in very remote areas because they are used by gold mining companies so kept maintained. I have explored this area for years in my old Ford Falcon with a swag and gas stove. Never found any gold though!

    • Hi Tim,

      Yes, I imagine there’d be thousands of km of roads and tracks to explore. I’m guessing you’d have to be careful not to wander into someone else’s claim, otherwise you might get chased out of there with a shotgun! 🙂

      Travelling light with just a swag is brilliant! Nothing beats sleeping on the ground and staring up at the stars.

      Cheers, Andrew


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