Pipe dream made real

A 'river of steel' crosses wheatfields and deserts alike. Without it, Kalgoorlie would be sunk, writes Kerry van der Jagt.

THEY say the average person tells four lies a day; I've just filled my quota with one nervous shake of my head.

"You're not claustrophobic are you," asked the guide. "Or afraid of heights or scared of the dark?" Or a big sooky la-la? She didn't actually ask that one but I'll bet that's what she was thinking.

Unfortunately, danger is not my middle name and I am scared of the dark. Not a fan of heights, either. But I'd driven 650 kilometres from Perth to see this particular mine shaft, Hannan's North, the first shaft sunk at Kalgoorlie and the site of one of Australia's greatest gold discoveries.

Before I have time to check if my overalls are on fire, I'm directed to a set of spiral stairs that lead 30 metres down to level one. So far, so safe. It's the vertical ladder descent to level two that almost causes me to vomit into my overalls. Straddling the narrow mouth of the shaft, I eventually prise my sweaty palms off the support beams and transfer my hands and feet to the metal rungs. "It's only six metres to the bottom," my guide, Claire, says. "Keep three points of contact at all times and shout 'clear' when you get to the landing."

Dank, cold air engulfs me as

I descend into the pitch black, my headlamp wobbling in time with my knees. The tunnel is so narrow that occasionally my hips get stuck and I need to twist sideways to jiggle free of the jagged rock walls.

"You did really well," Claire says when I finally reach the landing. Now she's the one fibbing and I love her for it.

Then she drops the clanger. "Just another six ladders to go." It's true, liars do go to hell. All 80 metres of it.

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Gold was first discovered in Kalgoorlie in 1893 by three Irish prospectors: Paddy Hannan, Dan Shea and Tom Flanagan. Within days of their discovery, 700 gold diggers had turned up for the party; over the next 10 years the crowd grew to 30,000. But there was another guest in town - typhoid. Without a reliable water supply, many died of thirst and disease.

Enter C. Y. O'Connor, an Irish engineer who designed and built the world's longest freshwater pipeline designed to carry water from Perth to Kalgoorlie. It was finished in 1903. Today, this 560-kilometre "scheme of madness", as it was once called, is still flowing strong and remains the lifeblood of Kalgoorlie.

On a previous trip to Perth, I'd developed a fascination for this madcap Irishman and his scheme to push water uphill. Twelve months later, I've returned with a scheme of my own - to drive the 650-kilometre Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail from source to final destination. The water itself, travelling about 4km/h, takes about five days. I've decided to go with the flow and allow the same.

My road trip begins at Mundaring, just outside Perth, where I start with a tour of the weir and No.1 pump station.

"Poor O'Connor never saw one drop of water," my guide says. "He was vilified in the press and unjustly accused of wasting money and taking kickbacks." Just months before the epic project was completed, the pressure finally got to him and he took his own life.

With Mundaring behind me, I settle into the rhythm of the road. As my passenger seat fills with maps and chocolate wrappers, my head empties of deadlines and other daily dramas. The landscape changes - gum trees are replaced by waving wheat fields as the pipeline marches beside me like a conga line of caterpillars. In the early-morning light, the river of steel is smooth and hard and glows with metallic hues.

I visit the Meckering Earthquake Centre, a monument to the 1968 earthquake that all but destroyed the town, stop to photograph the Big Camera and pull in at the Cunderdin Museum housed in the original No.3 pump station.

These small wheat-field towns are suffering through yet another drought and residents have come up with interesting ways to attract visitors to their towns. But they're not getting rich out of it. For a donation of $3, volunteer Peter Godfrey shows me through the museum (and the mock earthquake house) and tells me everything

I need to know, and plenty that

I don't, about steam engines.

Back on the trail, the surprises are endless: a beautiful water feature at Tammin, a contemporary art gallery in the IASKA (International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia) at Kellerberrin, a Paris-style showroom of crystal and couture fashion jewellery by artist Christine Chandler at Doodlakine.

Just out of Doodlakine, the pipe crosses the dried-up Baandee Lakes, remnants of an ancient river system. With a storm overhead, the pipeline absorbs the pinks and bruised yellows of the oily sky and looks like a ribbon floating across the plains.

After a night at the cheap and cheerful Merredin Tourist Park, I follow the heritage trail to Westonia. From a shady spot on the verandah of the Westonia Tavern, I take in the bright-red doors and gabled roof of the fire station and the beautifully restored facades of the town's original bank, cafe and greengrocer. Surrounded by salmon gums and granite outcrops, this must be the prettiest town in the wheat fields. Over lunch, some locals tell me about the Kulin Bush Races and suggest I take the 140-kilometre detour to check it out. "Camping is free at the racetrack," one shouts.

My lack of tent or any horse-racing knowledge is no handicap in Kulin. Within minutes of arriving at the bush track, I am offered a swag for the night by a bunch of visiting Vietnam vets, while some horsy types set me up with race tips for the next day. Kool'n'Fool in the first, Ajax in the second, Bullseye in the third and Money Talks in the sheep race earn me enough money to buy a souvenir stubby holder but not enough to put a beer in it. I don't mind, though; this three-day event, in which Kulin's population expands from 400 to 4000, raises money for much-needed community projects.

After a night in Southern Cross, a one-motel town with more shooting stars than I believe possible, I'm on the road early for the long drive to Kalgoorlie. I take a detour to No.8 pump station, the last of the original steam-powered stations. In 1970, when the original pump station was replaced by a diesel one, the workers simply downed tools and walked out. Today, the pump station remains as it was that day.

I ring a buzzer on the rusty gate and caretaker Roy appears, offering me a guided tour for $5. He also throws in a dozen farm-fresh eggs.

My journey ends down a mine in Kalgoorlie, where the story of the Golden Pipeline began. Crawling around on my hands and knees in the bowels of the Earth, I can't wait for this part of the trip to be over. I'd be lying if I said otherwise.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Tourism WA.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Perth, with prices starting from $214. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.

Getting around

A four-wheel-drive isn't necessary as the road is sealed all the way (except to No.8 pump station). Budget has mid-size cars available from $65 a day. 1300 362 848, budget.com.au.

Staying there

The towns along the pipeline trail offer a decent range of motels, hotels, caravan parks and B&Bs. In Kalgoorlie, I stayed at the Palace Hotel for $130 a night. 137 Hannan Street, palacehotel.com.au, (08) 9021 2788.

More information

goldenpipeline.com.au, westernaustralia.com.

Three things to do

Super Pit Tour Take a tour of Australia's largest open-pit mine. This dirty-big hole at Kalgoorlie produces 30 tonnes of gold a year. (08) 9021 2211, finderskeepersgold.com.

Australian Prospectors and Miners Hall of Fame, Kalgoorlie The place to go for gold panning and gold pouring. Also home to the Pitch Black Underground Adventure Tour. (08) 9026 2700, mininghall.com.

Totadgin Rock Just outside Merredin is a 2.5 billion-year-old granite rock outcrop with interesting meadows of moss and a small wave formation.

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