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Kalgoorlie a city of many riches
A haul truck wows the crowd at the St Barbara's Day parade / Picture: Niall McIlroy

One can arrive at a destination with plenty of preconceived ideas about what there is to see and do but my first stop on a recent trip to Kalgoorlie was at a place I least expected. For there's an oasis of green in the sunburnt land in the form of Kalgoorlie's very own championship-standard golf course. Perhaps my hosts had mistaken me for my namesake and fellow Belfast boy Rory McIlroy but golf is as alien to me as losing has become to Northern Ireland's favourite son.

Opened two years ago, the Graham Marsh-designed 18-hole course was laid out on an old rubbish tip, which gives some of the holes an interesting topography. It's also the teeing off point, or the final place to search for lost balls, on the 1365km Nullarbor Links.

The locals are rightly proud of the council-owned course and a restaurant, community centre and 120-room resort are due for completion by 2014. In November, it hosted the WA Goldfields PGA Championship, where golfers including Peter O'Malley competed for a hole-in-one prize of a gold nugget.

Be it Breckenridge in the Colorado Rockies, Halls Creek, San Francisco, or Dunedin, old gold-mining towns have always fascinated me. I enjoy the ornate turn-of-the-century buildings that line the streets and the rough and readiness that lies just under the surface. And I love the pivotal role the Irish played in cities such as Kalgoorlie, where two men in particular - Clare-born Paddy Hannan and Meath engineer C.Y. O'Connor - are still revered.

It was Hannan who first filed a claim on the area after misfortune was turned on its head. Rather appropriately, his party had stopped to replace a horseshoe and instead found gold. Within five years the population had surged to more than 2000 as the world's biggest gold rush took hold. Today the Golden Mile, of which Kalgoorlie is part, is thought to be the richest area of gold deposits on the planet.

O'Connor's story is well-known. He was charged with piping water 530km into the desert from Mundaring Weir to Mt Charlotte Reservoir. But castigated by the press, who accused him of wastefulness, he shot himself while riding his horse into the ocean south of Fremantle. Ten months later, water from the Perth Hills flowed into Mt Charlotte.

The rust-coloured 40m-high Ivanhoe headframe looms over the town and is a beacon for the curiosities found below at the Kalgoorlie branch of the WA Museum. The gold vault in the basement glisters with donated nuggets, irregular but beautiful in all their nodular yellowness.

A sliver of gold leaf lies in three thin pieces broken in 1993 when a blast shook the warren of tunnels under Kalgoorlie's streets and knocked the delicate sheet from its perch. A jewellery collection includes the Norse Man brooch made from the nugget kicked up by the horse of that name in 1894. It seems prospectors in these parts owed a debt to their equine partners. Also displayed is the first gold bar poured in Kalgoorlie in 1991. I shudder to think what it's worth.

There are four temporary exhibitions a year - museum manager Zoe Scott says they keep the locals coming back - but it is the permanent displays that give the most telling picture of early Kalgoorlie. The 1930s cottage, complete with period furniture, is a vestige of the hardy townsfolk who made ends meet as they strove for their fortune. There's a chest of drawers made out of explosives boxes and an old hessian-fronted Coolgardie safe in the kitchen.

But the quirkiest sight is that of the mobile police office, a rail compartment that would slide along the tracks as the authorities kept an eye on the sandalwooders who scoured the country for timber for mine heads and to power the steam engines that transported equipment and ore between the pits.

The British Arms pub stands as it did when drinks were served through its half window back in 1899. Its fortunes took a tumble after the publican's wife did the same down the stairs in 1913.

Nearby is Zoe Scott's pride and joy, the jarrah boardroom and office of turn-of-the-century tycoon Claude de Bernales. Both are the real McCoy and the rich wood, ornate French clock and chandeliers show the extravagance of a man who arrived in the Goldfields with £5, made then lost and remade a fortune from selling mining equipment in the early 1900s.

Intoxicated by tales of struggle and of rags to riches for the fortunate few, I head down the hill and into town as the sun dips, throwing soft pink light on the beautiful Federation buildings of Hannan Street. Locals say that since 1908 only four buildings have been constructed on Hannan between Wilson and Porter Streets. The rest are majestic centurions, adornments to the gold rush years.

I pick up an audio headset from the Kalgoorlie Visitor Centre and follow my Heritage Walk map, absorbing the commentary. From the majestic pink and cream Town Hall which is fronted by a Paddy Hannan water fountain, I spend the early evening walking Hannan and Wilson Streets, still the heartbeat of this community, photographing the blue wrought iron frontage of the Grand Hotel, Kalgoorlie's oldest pub.

A Dome cafe and a length of silver tinsel only slightly tarnishes the wedding-cake-white Exchange Building, constructed in 1898. Even Miller's Fashion Club is housed in a building that dates back to that year. And then I reach the intersection at Hannan and Maritana/Boulder where two hotels with very different claims to fame have faced each other for 115 years. The Exchange Hotel with its finials and long verandas has long been the bastion of the skimpy barmaid. A blow-up clown at the front advertising The Great Moscow Circus seemed incongruous. Or did it? The elegant Palace Hotel, built in 1897, was once former US president Herbert Hoover's favourite drinking hole. But the most ostentatious display of the wealth wrought from precious metal is the gilded gold dome that shines in the sun high above the old Government Offices and I stand watching it flash against the deep blue sky.

Below it is St Barbara's Square, and a fountain and statue of the teenage martyr who is venerated as the patron saint of miners and all who work with explosives.

At her feet are wreaths, left in memory of those who have lost their lives in mining accidents, placed during the service of remembrance that marks the beginning of the annual St Barbara's Festival. But the festival is also one of the biggest celebrations in the whole of the Goldfields and it is at its climax, the St Barbara's Parade, that I end a great weekend in Kalgoorlie.

In the late afternoon, thousands of people bustle around me as the parade sweeps down Hannan Street. The pumping artery of the old town is swollen.

A giant yellow Super Pit dump truck has been released from duty for just a few hours. Painted with the colourful handprints of school children, it's draped in tinsel and the driver tilts back its tray to the cheers of the crowd. A gleaming 1924 fire engine and a cobbled- together 1927 sandalwood truck chug down the street.

Under the gilt dome, workmen in high-vis shirts watch the sea of balloons, adults with ice-cream, children in facepaint and glitter disguise. A marching band all tootle and tricks, Labor, Liberals and the Mormons. The balconies of the Exchange and the Palace packed, like in bygone days. Santa throws candy canes, army cadets in fatigues, pipers in tartan, a mob of mini Ned Kellys fire water pistols at lamingtons with legs. Thomas the Tank Engine drags a Coolgardie dunny. There's an AstroTurf Christmas tree then a sizzling barbecue issues a pleasant pollution of fried onion.

And I think of why this old town is here and of what it has become. Of the chance find of hearty gold nuggets, tragic Irish engineers, miners' cottages and haunted pubs, a championship course in the desert and grand Federation facades. Wide-old Hannan Street is again packed with people revelling not in the latest find but to give thanks for the riches on which this town is built.

Rail link to be revived

Although Boulder and Kalgoorlie formed as very separate towns, their boundaries are now almost indistinguishable and they became Kalgoorlie-Boulder in 1989. But Boulder residents are fiercely proud of their town and there are sporadic mutterings of secession, ironic given that information panels at the front of the Town Hall tell of the overwhelming vote for Federation cast there in 1900. The Telegraph Office and the Metropole Hotel are but two of Boulder’s Federation-style beauties — many are in various states of repair, still being fixed after the earthquake that shook the town in 2010.

A few streets away, there’s more building going on behind the derelict Boulder Train Station. It’s hard to believe the station was once the busiest in Australia. but For a period in the early 1900s more than 100 trains passed through each day as the Golden Mile Loop Line served every mine on the world’s richest gold reef and linked Boulder with Kalgoorlie.

Passenger numbers had dropped off by the 1960s and the station fell into complete disuse about 11 years ago. Plans to resurrect the line as a tourist railway gained momentum after the appointment of project manager Mike Lucas who has been overseeing the repair of old railcars and steam engines and the maintenance of track. It is hoped that within a few years visitors will be able to ride the trains between Boulder and Kalgoorlie and up to a Super Pit lookout.

FACT FILE

Both 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 half-hour 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' two-and-a-half-hour Super Pit Tour operates from Monday to 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.

The WA Museum - Kalgoorlie-Boulder is at museum.wa.gov.au/museums/kalgoorlie-boulder.

The annual St Barbara's Festival is held at the beginning of December. It begins with the commemoration of lost miners and culminates in the fantastic parade down Hannan Street. For more, see stbarbs.com.au.

For information on the Golden Mile Loop Line, go to boulder.com.au/loopline/index.html

Niall McIlroy visited the Goldfields as a guest of the Kalgoorlie Boulder Pure Gold Visitor Centre.