The Goldfields has always been a favourite destination of mine. The seed was sown as a young boy, exploring the region in search of rocks and minerals with my father, who was born in Boulder in 1916, visiting the School of Mines and checking out Dad's family home in Boulder. The lasting memories of red earth, blue skies, poppet heads and massive tailing dumps have kept drawing me back ever since.
Planning my photographic trip to the Goldfields, I order the Golden Quest Discovery Trail Guide Book through Goldfields Tourism (good value at $39.95), which arrives in a package filled with useful pamphlets and maps. There are so many interesting ghost towns, natural formations (Victoria Rock, Cave Hill, Rowles Lagoon . . .) and conservation reserves to choose from, so I'm now faced with the task of selecting points of interest with the most potential to satisfy my photographic thirst. After hours of deliberation, I choose Lake Ballard as the centrepiece of my journey, which means it will be paramount to be there for sunset and sunrise.
With an expedition of this distance - about 2000km - it's important to make sure the vehicle is ready. Check the spare for air, that there's water in the radiator and the battery in good condition; a minor tune-up would also be helpful. I have a minimalist approach to camping gear, with a swag, skillet for cooking, billy for a cuppa and a camp stool for around the fire, plus plenty of water - at least 20L - and 20L of fuel.
With the planning complete, it's time to hit the road. Pulling out of Perth at 2.30pm, I'm hoping to make Coolgardie around 8pm, a distance of 553km. The traffic is minimal and before long I've slipped past Northam and am approaching Merredin.
After filling the tank, it's 109km to Southern Cross, where I stop for dinner and a stretch of the legs, then on to Coolgardie. Right on schedule, I pull up at the Denver City Hotel - a doozy of a name for an Australian hotel - to get directions to Coolgardie Gorge, once a significant local water source before completion of the Perth-Kalgoorlie Golden Pipeline in the early 1900s, and my camping spot for tonight.
The next morning, it's an early rise with the sun for a quick scout around for photographic opportunities but there is not enough cloud to create the blanket for the sun to produce layers of rich colours. I head off to Kalgoorlie, only 39km away, for breakfast. There's nothing like getting into a town early and watching it wake up - joggers, deliveries and those still trying to make it home from a huge night. Soft light allows me to get some street images of the famous Hannan Street. This morning is the start of the Kalgoorlie to Menzies cycle race, with its origins in 1928, and as the riders head off for the gruelling 131km ride, I snap some action shots.
Over breakfast I study the maps and plan my route for the day, with the aim of arriving at Lake Ballard in time to set camp and catch the sunset. Coolgardie is the first destination, calling in at the Restoration Club's premises on Bayley Street. Here I meet Morris Costello who has the best collection of original metal signs I have ever seen, along with petrol bowsers, matchboxes, early prospector barrows and bikes. I feel like a kid in a lolly shop - so many artefacts, old trucks and memories of a past era to photograph. The workshop next door is also interesting, housing a renovated truck with the original wheels and tyres.
Heading north to Rowles Lagoon, I pass the abandoned Kunanalling town site. The lagoon and surrounding lakes are a bird-watcher's paradise and an important cultural site for local Aboriginals. You can also swim, catch yabbies and go boating when the water is more than 2m deep. After exploring the lagoon, it is time to head to Ora Banda, an historic gold-mining town, to experience the famed Ora Banda Inn, where I have a bite to eat.
The rest of the afternoon is a leisurely 130km drive to Lake Ballard, past the abandoned town sites of Siberia, Davyhurst and Muline.
It is around 4.30pm when I arrive at Lake Ballard. My first impression is wow - this is going to be great for photography; the conical hill is fabulous and the large saltpan spreads as far as the eye can see. It only takes about half an hour to set up and get a nice fire going before I can grab my cameras and head out on to the lake. But the gods are against me and I won't be taking any photographs today, with no sunset to speak of.
After tea I check my camera gear, clean lenses and make sure there is plenty of room on the memory cards. With the sky clear and the stars out in their trillions, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else as I crawl into my swag to watch the star show.
Morning comes around quickly and I grab my gear to head out on to the lake. The sunrise looks good, with plenty of colours and nice cloud formations. With the sunrise, the conical hill and the Antony Gormley sculptures appear as silhouettes, striking against the beautiful colours in the sky. To make the sculptures stand out against the sky, I shoot up from the saltpan with a 24mm wide- angle lens. It helps to incorporate other features in the image to capture the vastness of Lake Ballard. I spend two hours photographing the sculptures, weathered fence posts and conical hills before heading back to camp for poached eggs on toast.
Today's itinerary is simple: make my way to Kalgoorlie, about 200km, and check out all points of interest on the way. Menzies is a leisurely 45-minute drive, through pastoral country and slowing for some rather large bulls. Menzies is a true Goldfields town, having sprung up after a gold find in 1894, and has some well-preserved stone buildings.
About 40km south of Menzies on the road to Kalgoorlie, I stop at the old Goongarrie Station, now a conservation reserve. This region is a convergence of semi-arid and arid country, so there is a mixture of eucalypt and mulga trees, creating a rich and diverse plant and animal life system. Pulling up among the original character houses, I hear the prolific bird life and my eyes are drawn to some fabulous old machinery and cars. I can't grab my cameras and get out of the car fast enough.
Two hours later, it is time for a bite to eat before heading to the Broad Arrow Tavern, a bit of a must-visit in the Goldfields. As I pull up, there is a line of trail bikes and Harley Davidsons - just what I was hoping for, as the characters who ride these machines always make for good photography. I'm not let down and, after asking permission - I don't want to put anyone's nose out of joint, especially mine - I photograph the bikes. After talking bikes for a while, the guys also agree to let me take some pictures of them.
Continuing, I stop at the famed Bush Two Up School Ring, just north of Kalgoorlie. I take a bit of time to absorb all the characters and get a feel for the game. One $20 throw of the pennies and my money is gone - I had better stick to taking photographs. My Nikon 1 AW1 comes into its own here, using panorama mode to capture 180-degree images of the action.
It's now time to start thinking about where I will spend my last night in the Goldfields. Checking the map, Lake Douglas, about 12km out of Kalgoorlie, seems worthwhile. Water and a sunrise are a good recipe for photographs.
I'm up before the sun and set up on the water. I experiment with composition to get some foreground interest in the shot, and then it's time to wait for Mother Nature to do her thing. The sunrise is spot on, with nice cloud formations and, best of all, the reflections are outstanding.
Today I have the long drive, some 600km, back to Perth. But not before I check out Victoria Rock, 43km south of Coolgardie and one of the Goldfields' most spectacular natural granite outcrops. You could spend a couple of days here climbing the rock and spotting the wildlife and birds. I'm in my element; the weathered granite boulders look unreal and so textured by the action of the wind, rain and extreme heat. There has been heavy rain some weeks before so there are lots of rock pools, making for some creative reflective images.
I don't want to leave but there's a long drive ahead - plenty of time to reflect on the hidden gems of the Goldfields.
Stan Davies is available for private photographic tuition and workshops. Phone 0403 304 361 or see standavies.com.au/photography.
His work is on display this week at Camera Electronic, 230 Stirling Street, Perth.