The allure of gold has been drawing people to the area since 1893 when a trio of lucky Irishmen fell upon some nuggets, and the city of more than 30,000 owes its very existence to the riches gouged from the earth. For Kal has reaped the rewards of nearly 120 years of mining with Hannan Street and its majestic Federation buildings a grand centrepiece.
About 15 years ago, I made a short stop with my friend and his dad and uncle as we made the long trip back to Perth from Menzies but we only got as far at the Super Pit lookout where we spent half an hour staring down at the dump trucks that appeared tiny in the distance below.
Ever since, the Irishman in me has often daydreamt about heading east to wander around, pan for gold and kick the dust in old Menzies where the occupants of the graveyards outnumber the residents in "town".
I never made it back. So I was delighted when the call came from energetic Kalgoorlie visitor centre general manager, Amy Johnston, inviting me to the Goldfields town.
And so it is that I find myself at a lookout staring back into the depths of the Super Pit. But this time I'm on site and directly above the chasm, as close to the edge as is safe to be and there's a whole lot more hole than 15 years ago.
The Super Pit, opened back in 1989, has just produced its 15 millionth ounce of gold. That's more than a quarter of all the precious yellow metal mined on the Golden Mile since 1893. And it's certainly been efficient for it's believed gold worth more than $26 billion has been extracted in those 23 years. It's impossible to say how much deeper the oblong pit is since my last visit. Tour guide Graham Gibson puffs out his cheeks when I ask him what he reckons.
"Oh, gee it's so hard to guess," he says, "but maybe about where those men are working now."
He's pointing across the pit to a flat section of grey dolomite maybe a fifth of the way down to where front-end loaders are repairing a section of collapsed wall. I'm not likely to get a better guess, for Graham, who guides for Kalgoorlie Tours and Charters - the only outside group allowed to conduct site excursions - has worked in mining since arriving in Kalgoorlie as a youth from Scotland 36 years ago.
And he knows all the vital statistics of this massive operation owned by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines where blasts have rung out two or three times daily, virtually every day, for more than two decades. It is only Mother Nature that halts the process - blasting is prohibited if there is lightning around.
An incredible 220,000 tonnes of rock is shattered and then lifted out of the pit each day and ore and rubble alike are transported to the surface by 31 CAT 793 haul trucks.
A flat-as-a-pancake ute pinned to a sign at the entry to the minesite is a warning of what can happen if you get in the way. And when we're in the tour bus, Graham navigates carefully and considerately, requesting access by radio and giving way to the leviathans of the haul road. I'm transfixed by the procession that moves slowly along the terraced pit road; it's a 15-minute crawl down but fully laden with as much as 225 tonne of rock, the climb takes up to 25 minutes.
The drivers work shifts of 12 hours and will average 14-16 trips. While most carry rock to the surface, one in every six transports the equivalent of a golf ball in gold. It may not seem much, but an average of $4 million worth is extracted each day. And these high-maintenance trucks soak up a fair bit of that.
Worth up to $14 million, each uses $8 million worth of fuel each year, needs $3 million worth of tyres and costs $2.5 million to service.
Salt water from deep underground is sprayed on the haul tracks to keep the dust down. As a result, within about seven years, each truck has succumbed to rust. We watch the trucks dump rock at a stockpile while others transport the rubble to a crusher from where it starts a labyrinthine journey along conveyor belts and through steel ball mills, driers, carbon tanks and roasters as it's refined.
Extracted gold is taken to Perth Mint under armed guard where it is separated from silver and copper that make up a small proportion of its mass. The end result is 24-carat gold used in jewellery, machine parts, and surgical and dental procedures.
But it is on the edge of the pit that my mind truly boggles as I stare more than a kilometre across the chasm and trace the ore trucks starting their long, winding trundle down into the abyss, passing rusty iron oxide rocks, then rolling down through the gloomy, grey dolomite.
Deeper again, the pit narrows and tightens, coiled like a low pressure cell on a weather map until the 5m-high dump trucks are as small as ants, the chorus of their engine noise drifting as a low rumble 360m back up the pit to where I stand.
About two-thirds of the way down, the roughly hewn miners' tunnels, some dating back to the 1890s, have been blasted open as the pit has deepened.
Workers are still pulling rails, picks, chairs and buckets out of tunnels and I marvel at the effort it must have taken to burrow to a depth of 1600m in the days before modern machinery. There are said to be 3500km of tunnels, many leading back to Boulder, where one even connects with a shaft at the old Metropole Hotel. I picture the miners surfacing, hot, dusty, thirsty and relieved. With dismay, I notice the long, white finger of quartz spearing up from the pit floor. It is not far to the right of the tunnels. It was just what they were searching for. And it is certain to contain gold.
- fact file *
·Skywest Airlines and Qantas fly between Perth and Kalgoorlie. The flight time is roughly one hour. skywest.com.au and qantas.com.au.
·For information, maps, tours, souvenirs and advice on how to get the best out of trip to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, head to the Kalgoorlie Boulder Pure Gold Visitor Centre in the Town Hall at 316 Hannan Street. Pick up an audio headset and Heritage Walk map for $10. kalgoorlietourism.com and 1800 004 653.
·The 91-room Rydges Kalgoorlie Resort & Spa is a few streets away from the town centre but offers a comfortable stay. All rooms are air-conditioned and have a spa and a flat screen television. Until February, book a room and receive a full buffet breakfast for two, a 30-minute massage for one, two drinks at Rydges Primewest Bar, bottled water, parking and a late 1pm checkout. Rydges will donate $10 per night to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. rydgeskalgoorlieresortandspa.com.
·Kalgoorlie Tours and Charters 2 1/2 -hour Super Pit Tour operates from Monday- Saturday at 9.30am and 1.30pm. It costs $70 for adults, $65 for seniors and $45 for children. Participants must wear a long sleeved shirt, trousers and enclosed shoes. A one hour tour is also available.
·kalgoorlietours.com.au and 9021 2211.
Niall McIlroy visited the Goldfields as a guest of the Kalgoorlie Boulder Pure Gold Visitor Centre.