We nearly didn't come to Esperance, and certainly the trip in from the west was canned some time ago, more likely to be reached as a side trip from Norseman, if at all. However we are so glad we did come; it has been worth any inconvenience we might have thought of, although I can think of none right here.
Our only regret is that we came in the middle of the foreshore upgrade, and were, as a result, unable to walk along the James Street Jetty with the chance of meeting the New Zealand fur seal who frequents the precinct. We can see that when this work is completed and the revamp of the rail corridor to the port which is also currently disrupting the town’s traffic flow, Esperance will be an even more charming spot than we found on our brief visit.
There is one other regret, one that includes travelling in the entire south west of the state; we are too early for the wildflower season.
We were away from Esperance by 9 am, calling into the newsagent for the newspaper, which miraculously arrives in this remote town by opening time. Soon we were on the Norseman Road, just over 200 kilometres north of Esperance, most of that passing through sheep and grain growing country, and then north of Salmon Gums, about halfway to Norseman, past numerous salt lakes.
Just north of the tiny settlement of Salmon Gums, we saw about half a dozen upturned rail wagons. Subsequent research revealed that these were the remains of a derailment back in late May this year, of about thirty wagons carrying iron ore.
Norseman is the gateway to Western Australia to those crossing the Nullarbor from South Australia, today with a population of about 1,000. The streets are wide, made so for the large camel trains that brought through supplies for gold mining.
Gold was discovered by a horse named “Norseman” in 1894, two years after the first discovery about ten kilometres south of the town. That first discovery and subsequent settlement, Dundas, was established in 1893, and created some competition for Norseman as it too struggled to develop. However with Cobb & Co starting mail delivery in 1899, and later in 1935 when the company, Western Mining, set up operations, monies were pumped into infrastructure; bitumen roads, electricity and an extension of the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, that with its genesis at the Mundaring Reservoir in the Perth Hills that we explored in our first few days there.
Norseman was once the second richest goldfield in Western Australia, next to the Golden Mile in Kalgoorlie. It is claimed that since 1892, over one hundred tonnes of gold has been extracted from the area. Today mining continues under the banner of the Norseman Gold Mines, making it Australia’s longest continuously running gold mining operation.
We noted the small old mining cottages as we came in from the south, and did wonder where all the wealthy modern miners lived. Perhaps they are all “fly in, fly out” types?
Today the “caravans” turning in the wide streets were not those of the camel variety, but the same as ours. I have not seen so many caravan rigs and motorhomes travelling through one town, parked up outside the Visitor Centre, for so long. The woman in the Centre was worked off her feet, helpfully advising all-comers, handing out pamphlets about fuel across the Nullarbor, holes on the longest golf course and any other question that arose.
We lunched while in this great cavalcade of caravans, and then headed north, while some headed south to Esperance, others east to South Australia and some like us, north toward Coolgardie.
The road, a further 166 kilometres, passes on up past several large salt lakes, the major ones being Lake Cowan, 160,000 hectares when full, and Lake Lefroy, 510,000 hectares. This latter is widely used for land sailing, considered to be one of the best in the world for such activity, and has been used in the past for Australian land speed record attempts. We had been keen to find out more about this, in fact, to try it out for ourselves. Today that excellent woman in Norseman said she thought the land yachting was on hold over the winter because the lake was now too boggy. We had heard that the yachting was only done on a club basis and had been prepared to sit about and wait for their club days. It would seem that we will have to give it all a miss. I rather fancied whipping about in a Blokart or similar craft. We will pursue our enquiries when we get to Kalgoorlie however are preparing ourselves for disappointment.
The salmon gums were far more plentiful and beautiful north of Norseman than the road to the south. A fellow traveller had recently told me that the “apricot gums” were particularly beautiful on the road from Norseman to Esperance, offering a reason why we should go out of our way to travel to Esperance. She was wrong; it is this road further to the north.
We saw numerous entrances to mine sites, all tucked far off the main road through screens of bush. I later checked their names and found that these had included the Higginsville operation which mines gold and processes the ore from the Trident and Chalice underground mines. At the Miitel Mine it seems that nickel is extracted, so all in all it is a very rich area.
Finally we pulled into Coolgardie, a historic town today with just about one thousand inhabitants. It was once the third largest town in Western Australia, after Perth and Freemantle, when mining of alluvial gold was a major industry.
The town was founded in 1892, when gold was discovered. At its peak, seven hundred mining companies were based in Coolgardie and registered on the London Stock Exchange.
However by the early 1900s, the gold began to decrease and ever since then, the population and industry has slipped and slid away. Today it is a bit of a ghost town, still with beautifully wide streets and some very handsome buildings, catering for the tourists who bother to pause and reflect on its past.
We called into the Visitors Information centre manned by a woman who came from Wales many long years ago, who has retained her accent to such an extent that she is almost impossible to understand. We nodded and smiled in response to her warmth, and left with a town map showing all the historic spots about, all with comprehensive interpretative panels.
We had considered the possibility of staying two nights here, however changed our mind, found our way to this caravan park which is very secondary to the other one more centrally located in the town, however well satisfied with the tariff of $25. We were greeted by a most bogan-like chap at the gate, who directed us to a very convenient drive-through site and then came over and took our money. The amenities are immaculate despite the fact they are situated in old and shoddy looking buildings, including a rather un-level donga style re-locatable structure. But you get what you pay for and in that context, we are well satisfied. The park advertises in the Camps 6 Bible and fits with the standard generally of those who do the same.
We will park back up in the town in the morning and immerse ourselves in its history armed with our little map, before heading north west to Kalgoorlie, only thirty eight kilometres away.
Speaking of distance, it reminds me of an encounter I had with a woman a week or so ago. In Albany, we called into the RAC office to obtain a new map, the old having become rather dilapidated, and I told the young woman behind the counter how we had travelled nearly seventy thousand kilometres over the past two and a half years. To be honest, I was quite boastful. She countered that she had just travelled three thousand kilometres in the past week, popping upstate to visit family. This reminded me that Australians travel huge distances in their daily business and ordinary lives, thinking nothing of it. We have nothing to boast about at all, although I might just mention that we have been indulgently travelling for an extended time, might I not?