Kalgoorlie

In the early 60’s, travelling across the Nullarbor Plain on an unmade road was a hazardous journey. There was gibber rock and large sand-filled holes to contend with. I decided that the safest route for my little Morris 850 Mini was to head for Kalgoorlie and put the car on the train as far as Port Augusta. Travelling to Kalgoorlie gave me an insight into the vastness of Australia. The road was dead straight for hundreds of kilometres, with hardly another vehicle in view for hours on end.

On arrival at Kalgoorlie, I headed straight for the railway station to organize a ticket for myself and the car.

“I’m sorry mate. I can get you on the train but not the car for another three weeks.” announced the clerk in the ticket office.

Well, it looks like I’ve got to find somewhere to sleep for the next few weeks, I thought – and maybe find a job. Having little money in reserve, I found a cheap cabin behind one of the many hotels in town. I was pretty wary of some of the men in the rooms close by and slept with my few valuables firmly tucked under my pillow.

I chatted to an old guy in the next room. He was a gold prospector who had returned to town to earn a few more pounds before he headed off again into the desert. When I told him I was looking for a job, he said that the goods yard was the place to start.

Boulder Block Hotel, Boulder WA – October 1963

“You just show up and if you are lucky you may be picked for the day.”

The next day I set off bright and early for the rail yard. About twenty men milled around until the foreman arrived. He stood on a wooden crate and surveyed the group.

“I need eight men,” he said, scanning from left to right. “You, you, those two over there and the four I had yesterday.”

The remainder slowly dispersed. Oh well! I’ll try again tomorrow.

The next day I was surprised when the foreman looked me in the eye and nodded. I was in!

“Do a good day’s work and he’ll pick you every day,” commented my new friend. I quizzed him about his prospecting and he offered to take me out at the weekend in his battered four-wheel drive.

The job at the goods yard was hard work. Each man was given a heavy ungainly trolley with two small cast iron wheels. The job was to load goods wagons that were destined for various remote communities. One of the first tasks was to load cartons of beer earmarked for some distant pub. The heavy boxes were stacked five high on my trolley so a pretty good run up was required to make it up the steep ramp of the wagon.

Being a bit too enthusiastic on my first attempt, I couldn’t stop when I reached top of the ramp. The trolley careered to the back of the wagon and crashed into the back wall. Many of the bottles broke and Swan Lager cascaded to the floor. Luckily, the floor had many gaps and the beer ran through. I quickly stacked more cartons in front and the incident went un-noticed.

I soon learned to handle the trolley and the ramps and managed to get picked for the remainder of my time in Kalgoorlie. In the second week I was even promoted to work as a jockey on the railway delivery truck. This was a much easier job and I got to see parts of the countryside that visitors don’t normally see. Deliveries were made to outlying communities and industries including the Great Boulder Gold Mine, where I was even given a personal tour of the workings.

Old gold mine, Boulder

At the weekend, I was taken out into the desert by the prospector for the day as promised, in his ancient 4-wheel drive. The old man visited his ‘secret’ spots and showed me how he determined where to look by inspecting the quartz on the surface. After work each afternoon, armed with my sketch book, I headed off into the desert myself and discovered quite a few old gold mines.

Looking for something to do one night, I discovered the open-air picture theatre. It was a simple affair behind a fence with rows of deck chairs. The little aboriginal kids squatted in the sand at the front. Halfway through the film a dust storm hit the town. The audience could hardly see the screen and the show was abandoned – a far cry from the comfortable seats of the Elite or The Odeon cinemas in Middlesbrough.

Kalgoorlie was (and still is) a pretty rough town. One night I was out for the evening and the main street was full of rough drunken men. In the middle of all the chaos, the Salvation Army band played away oblivious to the activity around them. I was so impressed that I shoved a fiver (that I could ill-afford) into their collection tin.

The day finally arrived to board the train. The car had to be driven a few kilometres out of town to Parkston to the vehicle loading area. I was instructed to drive onto the last flatbed wagon and continue until I reached the end of the line of cars already on the train. The train was extremely long and the car had to be manoeuvred from wagon to wagon across narrow steel plates.

Transport was then provided back to the station. I shared the compartment with a friendly Italian guy who related that he was travelling to Melbourne for the Melbourne Cup. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“It’s the biggest horse race in Australia!” he exclaimed excitedly. “It’s always held on the first Tuesday in November. Where are you heading?”

“Adelaide first, to see friends and then east,” I replied. “I’m getting off at Port Augusta.”

We adjourned to the buffet car for drinks before dinner. Later a few bottles were emptied before retiring to the cabin.

Lounge car, interstate train – October 1963

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