The most impressive thing about driving halfway across Western Australia is that you can drive for five hours without seeing anything. That is, unless you count some bushes, a great deal of dust and kangaroo road kill as “anything.”
Every now and then I spotted a lone house on the horizon in a seemingly uninhabitable place and wondered if it was abandoned. Because who in their right mind would choose to live out here? Or we’d pass a vintage gas station in the middle of nowhere and be delighted to find we’d been transported to the American Midwest in the 1940s or ‘50s.
Creaky metal windmills, antique gas pumps, billboard signs with cut-out plastic letters advertising “_old beer” and endless stretches of parched land interrupted only by a single road cutting through it — this was all we’d seen by the time we reached the tiny ghost town of Coolgardie, once famous for the Australian “gold rush” of the late 1800s.
The truth is, if there was only one thing to see in Coolgardie and it was a taxidermy collection of kangaroo feet, we still would have stopped. Our butts were sore, our faces were covered in dust and we were tired of listening to the strange drone of local Australian politics on the radio. So we parked our camper on Coolgardie’s impressively wide and empty main street and hopped out of the car with the enthusiasm of two overly eager tourists at Disney World.
Mind you, the second most impressive thing about driving across Western Australia is how little there is to do once you finally get somewhere. As far as I could see, there were only two notable attractions in Coolgardie, one being the Pharmacy Museum, which was closed (Oh, darn it), and the other being Goldfields Exhibition Museum, which boasted an “internationally famous Waghorn bottle collection.” (Really? Internationally famous?)
We just had to find out more after an endorsement like that, so we ambled into the museum, which also served as the Visitor’s Center, and handed our $4 entrance fee to an elderly woman who seemed thrilled to have us there.
At first, I walked around the four-room museum trying to suppress a giggle as I took in random collections, like the display of barbed wire from the early 1900s, and the darkened glass case that held a plastic version of a miner trapped in a rock wall. The idea was that you could stick your head in the authentic metal diver’s helmet and then flick the light switch, revealing the trapped miner. (Gasp! Look, honey! I found a trapped miner over here!) Only a tourist must have gotten his head stuck because now there was just a light switch and a sign telling you not to put your head in the helmet. (Thanks for ruining it for all of us, dude.)
But then, as I walked from musty room to musty room, I began to see a story emerge behind this town that was nonexistent before 1892.
It was a town that exploded onto the map in less than a decade, teeming with thousands of grimy work men, saloons rolling in beer by the barrel, gold speculators in fancy suits spilling out of hotels and train tracks being laid for poor, optimistic men to come to Coolgardie to make their fortune.
And then, as quickly as it all flourished, the gold ran out and the population shrunk back to a mere 200 residents by 1920, all of whom I imagined standing in the middle of Coolgardie’s deserted main street with one hand on their hips and the other fanning the dust from their faces as they watched the Afghani men ride off into the sunset on the camels they arrived on, the sound of a steam whistle blowing in the distance as the last train retreated back to the east where fortunes could still being found.
I could just see those townsfolk shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders and kicking up stones dejectedly as they turned and walked back home along the empty streets. Except for one guy, who said to himself, “One day, I’m going to build a museum and tell the story of the miners who made Coolgardie what it was. And it’s going to have a helmet. And a light switch…”
Coolgardie may not be the most riveting tourist town on the map, but if you’re crazy enough to drive across Western Australia, it is a place with an interesting history. Not to mention, it serves as a fine rest area for you to pull off the dull and dusty road and entertain yourself for a few hours with the question of who in the international community, exactly, is impressed by the size of Coolgardie’s bottle collection.
Now, isn’t that worth its weight in gold? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)