Leonora and Gwalia - Ghost Town

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Oceania » Australia » Western Australia » Leonora
December 14th 2018
Published: February 4th 2019
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We took a risk on leaving Sandstone, and decided against topping up with fuel using their very small, unmanned, self-serve pump that only accepted limited cards. Our Sandstone host, Chris, worked in Leinster and said there was a proper petrol station there but, as always in the Outback, there was never any guarantee that there would be petrol! We were back on to the one and only road out of Sandstone, so the conditions were the same but with many more grids, and we saw a dead camel and lots more dead cows. It is impossible for farmers to fully fence their properties given the scale involved and, while the road trains could probably hit a cow without too much damage, a much smaller vehicle would suffer dire consequences. I’d read that the animals often bedded down on the tarmac as the road surface retained the heat during the cold desert nights, making them a warmer option. We tooted from afar at the eagles feeding on the carcasses, as I’d also read that it took them a while to become airborne so they needed as much notice as possible to avoid becoming casualties themselves. We stopped to swap drivers in a layby with a puddle (yes, really) but didn’t hang about when we saw that, as well as cloven hooved animals visiting for a drink, something with HUGE paws had also very recently been there! I’ve no idea what that could have been but imagined it eyeing us up for lunch from a nearby bush.

We were really in the middle of nowhere now and I loved the fact that we were the only vehicle for miles around. Passing cars were such a rarity that the drivers we did pass mainly acknowledged us with a finger wave in recognition of the fact that there were at least two of us out there in this vast wilderness. Steve didn’t join in with the finger wagging thing, but when I was driving I made sure to make some sort of acknowledgement that, yes, we see you and you see us so all’s well and the world hasn’t ended. Sometimes I did the barely-there Yorkshire finger-twitch and other times I did a full-blown hand/arm wave, just for a bit of variety.

After an uneventful journey we eventually reached Leinster. This is a small nickel mining town in the middle of the Goldfields but it is unusual in that it is a ‘closed’ town and in order to live there you must be an employee of BHP, the mining company. It has a population of about 600, including some families of the miners, and BHP provide all the facilities to support the community including essential medical, power and water services as well as a gym and swimming pool. It is popular as a result of the free housing and has virtually no crime. A zero tolerance policy is adopted with any renegades running the risk of being thrown out, losing their job and their home, so big deterrents there then, unless you’re really stupid. Unfortunately, not only was it closed to outsiders, it was also closed to travelling Brits who needed petrol, as we found the fuel station shut! Thankfully, this was only a temporary closure due to electrical work, and the petrol station would re-open at 1 pm according to two helpful miners who also needed fuel for their work vehicles. These still sported the ubiquitous orange flag but this had now moved to the front of the trucks and looked more like a plume than a tail feather. Visitors were welcome to access the fuel when the facility opened. Good-o.

There was a small shopping centre but the shops were also all closed until 1 pm due to the power situation so we drove around the small town, which was leafy and tree-lined even though we were in the middle of the desert! It was clean, neat and very orderly but felt a bit quiet and strange – almost like a zombie town where the occupants would knock on your door in the middle of the night to integrate you into their gang! We stuck out like sore thumbs amongst the miners in their hi-vis workwear as we waited until the supermarket reopened to stock up our supplies before returning to the fuel station which was all lit up but was unstaffed. So, we had to do the ‘self-serve’ thing that we could have done in Sandstone and saved ourselves time, but we wouldn’t have come across a closed town in the middle of nowhere if we’d done that, so we got a new experience! Unnecessarily complicated instructions told us how to operate the fuel dispenser and make payment but we weren’t sure we absolutely knew what a ‘bowser’ was so there was an element of guesswork. We got it right eventually and set off on our journey again.

Our destination today was Leonora, about 175 miles from Sandstone. We turned onto the Goldfields Highway at Leinster, once again driving down a section of road designated for the Flying Doctor service, and arrived at the Leonora Motor Inn after a pleasant journey. We were checked in to Room 3, our King Executive Suite, by an extremely welcoming, heavily tattooed and pierced young lady who offered us two free drinks as a gesture of thanks for choosing to stay there. How nice! She was the only person we encountered in the Outback who displayed anything other than ‘normal’ dress and personal presentation and it was refreshing to see that the 21st century had reached this far. Once more, we were told that internet was hit and miss, but mainly miss, and wifi was non-existent, which was a bit of a problem as we had not made a note of the address of our next accommodation.

Leonora had been described to us as ‘a black man’s town’ (I’m just repeating what someone said to us here; unfortunately, it was a comment indicative of many Australians’ attitude to local Aborigine presence) and we encountered a thriving community as we walked down to the White House Hotel, the nearest pub, where we were served by a young girl from Derry, Ireland, who could talk for, er ... Ireland! She had come to Australia with her boyfriend 7 months previously but had found Perth too expensive so had moved here for free board and lodgings in the pub to save some money. She had only been there 10 days but loved it so far. We called in to the local Visitor Centre where I had a super chat with a very friendly and helpful woman there.

Leonora seemed to act as a dormitory town for miners working in the nearby surroundings and was quite lively as a result. The motel served basic meals on trays to the workmen staying there, delivered to the door, and it was quite noisy from 5 pm to 9 pm when it suddenly went eerily quiet apart from someone having a big, noisy argument in the late evening. For some reason I couldn’t explain I felt a little uncomfortable as the only female staying here, though no-one was ever anything other than pleasant. In fact, I was studiously ignored most of the time, not even a nod of acknowledgement, which may have been the strange thing I found unsettling. It was like Korea all over again and at one point I insisted Steve sit outside with me just so I had someone to talk to, though he was still busy trying to find the address of the next place we were due to stay. Different priorities ... The following morning the place came alive about 5 am, with laughter, music, talking and revving engines but was deserted by 6.15 am after everyone had left for work. I guess early starts mean early nights in the Outback!

We explored Leonora town that morning, following the historic trail route provided by the Visitor Centre. The town originally ‘grew on gold’ and many of the original buildings remain, though some have been repurposed. The Willey Brothers’ Bakery, Fire Station, Mt Leonora Miner Newspaper offices still bore their original signs and we saw the National Bank building (now the Tourist Info centre), the Central Hotel, a butcher’s shop, the Andresons' general store (the booklet we had showed a photo of a camel train making a delivery there in days gone by), the Shire Office, Police precinct, Sacred Heart church, Warden’s Court and Mining Registrar’s office, State school and the Presbyterian church, all still standing proud and giving a flavour of the town in its heyday. The Barnes' Federal Theatre had been renowned as ‘the best outside Perth’ and the Post Office residence was still occupied by the Postmaster, according to the information we were given. It was a picturesque town, with pretty buildings, and had won prizes for being the best kept town in the recent past.

The Outback is littered with lots of ghost towns which had sprung up and grown on the back of initial prosperity, usually the discovery of some metal or other (gold, iron, nickel, etc) though occasionally based on pastoral activity such as sheep farming, but which had then failed for some reason or other. Just 4 kms beyond Leonora lay Gwalia and this had been recommended to us as a place to visit partly because of its connection to Herbert Hoover, the 31st POTUS, who had lived there and where his former house still operated as a B & B. I understand Gwalia is the Welsh name for Wales and was named by someone with Welsh heritage though this dusty, dry landscape looked nothing like the verdant valleys of Wales to me!

I had a fabulous time exploring this almost abandoned area. Hoover was a geologist when he was sent in 1897 to see if the recent gold find could be developed into a viable mining concern. For a relatively brief period he became manager of the subsequent mine, which has had its ups and downs and closed in 1963 resulting in the town being virtually abandoned. The mine was subsequently reopened and still operates today, producing riches of gold, but the town itself was never re-established. The shanty town was almost flattened at one point until its historical significance was recognised and conservation efforts were put in place.

The museum was lovely, well presented, and free! The whole site overlooks the huge mine, and Hoover’s house, which he designed himself, sits at the very top of the complex offering prime views. A small cafe operates from there, as well as the B & B, and coffee and cake can be taken on the veranda, or in the garden area, after exploring the rooms which are presented in the style of when Hoover lived there. The Mine Precinct displayed many artefacts including Ken the railway engine, an old hearse, an electric tram and the winding equipment which was manufactured in England, transported by ship to Perth and from there to Gwalia by donkey. The old Assay Office housed the souvenir and bookshop and the old Mine Office had displays from the early days and a memorial to fallen soldiers. Some fascinating living histories were presented and our time there just flew by!

Hoover used cheap, immigrant labour, including many Italians and Yugoslavs, and they built themselves a shanty town near the mine with buildings made of tin and hessian cloth, many of them with dirt floors. These buildings now make up the ghost town and a historical society works hard to preserve the remaining structures, with many of the properties being ‘adopted’ and restored by local people with connections to the area. I found this a fascinating area and kept hopping from one building to the next to see how these people lived and imagined the stories trapped within the walls. The structures were close enough to each other to walk between and were surprisingly spacious. Some still had old furniture, bits of kitchen equipment, crockery, bottles, tiles, etc, abandoned there when the mine closed in 1963 and the residents left, literally overnight and taking only what they could carry, to catch a train to grab jobs in Kalgoorlie. The little township was supported by Mazza’s Store (still bearing lots of old signage), Patroni’s Guest House (for the single miners) and the State Hotel (which wasn’t accessible to us but looked impressive). I was surprised to see that some houses on the fringe were still inhabited and it was odd to see these maintained buildings with modern cars outside them and satellite dishes on the rooves.

Before we left the area I thought it best to pay a visit to the toilet facilities. It seemed to me that the ‘building’ had been deliberately styled to fit in with its surroundings, and couldn’t possibly be as old as it looked. I didn’t stay long enough to put that first impression to the test though, as the first cubicle was clearly home to a huge lizard curled up around the base of the toilet and the second (and last) cubicle had something swimming around in the bowl! I think I’ll just wait ....

PS – A notice on the blog forum indicates:

31st January 2019 - notifications via email have been restored, emails for messaging and password resets will now work as expected.

So, with a bit of luck you should have received an alert that this blog (and future ones?) has been posted!!

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