Our Western Australian Goldfields guide to exploring Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Coolgardie covers everything from how to get to the Goldfields region from Perth, Esperance and the Nullarbor to things to do in the engaging Goldfields towns, from indigenous walks to mine tours.
The Western Australian Goldfields, also known as ‘the Eastern Goldfields’ – which only makes sense if you live to the west of the region, say, in the state capital Perth – covers a vast area of around 320,000 square kilometres of stark arid beauty.
The adjoining gold mining twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder are the hub of the region, home to one of the world’s richest gold deposits, located within an ancient belt of volcanic and sedimentary rock that’s between 2.6 and 2.9 billion years old.
While the gold rush stories may have dominated the narrative of the Western Australian Goldfields region, this ancient country is home to the Wongutha peoples of the Goldfields and Western Desert who have inhabited the region for tens of thousands of years and have their own Dreaming stories to share on enriching tours of the town and region.
Driving to the Western Australian Goldfields from Perth or Esperance is easy driving on good sealed roads, however, there’s no denying that it’s an investment in time. But it’s worth it, no matter which route you take, for the fascinating history, handsome heritage architecture, and quirky experiences to be had.
Now is the time to take a road trip to the Western Australian Goldfields. Winter is the best time to visit, along with spring and autumn, when temperatures are comfortable and wildflowers are blooming. (Western Australia is home to the greatest number of wildflower spices on the planet.) Summer in the WA goldfields can be scorching and should be avoided.
Western Australian Goldfields Guide – Exploring Kalgoorlie Boulder and Coolgardie
Driving to the Western Australian Goldfields
There are three main routes to the Western Australian Goldfields, depending upon whether you’re driving from Perth to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, from Esperance to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, or from the Nullarbor via Norseman to Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Driving to the Goldfields from Perth
If you’re driving from Perth to the Western Australian Goldfields and Kalgoorlie-Boulder then you’re in for a 593km road trip, which will take you around 6.5 hours or a full day if you spend time in some of the towns on the way. Driving from Perth to Kalgoorlie you could stop at Coolgardie for a look if you’re driving on to Esperance or the Nullarbor and South Australia after Kalgoorlie. But if you’re returning to Perth, then make a beeline for Kalgoorlie and see Coolgardie on the drive back to the capital. You’ll probably want to break up the journey with a few stops along the way, such as Northam in the Avon Valley and a couple of the Wheatbelt towns, such as Meckering, Cunderdin, Kellerberrin, Merredin, and Southern Cross. From Southern Cross it’s 2 hours to Coolgardie. We’ll cover all of those stops in more detail in a separate Perth to Kalgoorlie road trip post, which will include detours to New Norcia, the Avon Valley towns, and Wave Rock.
Driving to the Goldfields from Esperance
If you’ve followed our southwest road trip itineraries and have done the drive from Perth to the Margaret River region (and explored the Margaret River area and followed our weekend in Margaret itinerary), and then driven from Margaret River to Denmark, then Denmark to Albany, and Albany to Ravensthorpe, and spent time in Esperance, you’ve got a 385km or 4-hour drive from Esperance to the Western Australian Goldfields ahead of you. We recommend making a beeline for Kalgoorlie, basing yourself there, then you can explore Boulder from Kalgoorlie and stop at Coolgardie on your way to Perth. From Esperance, you’ll take the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway north and you can stop mid-way at Norseman to stretch your legs. Just make sure you continue driving north and don’t take a right turn for the Nullarbor and South Australia. NOTE: at the time of publishing this guide, the border was closed as a protection measure against the pandemic.
Driving to the Western Australian Goldfields from the Nullarbor
If you’re doing a Nullarbor road trip from Adelaide and South Australia – not possible at the time of publication of this post due to the Western Australia-South Australia border being closed – then, depending on your last overnight stop on the Nullarbor, you may wish to stay overnight in Norseman. Or, you can hang a right and from Norseman continue north to the Western Australian Goldfields towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Coolgardie. After exploring the Goldfields, you can then drive through the Wheatbelt and Avon Valley to Perth, detouring to Wave Rock along the way. Or, you can backtrack to Norseman and continue south to Esperance, and then travel along Western Australia’s southern coast and up to Perth, essentially doing our series of Southwest road trips in reverse.
Western Australian Goldfields – Exploring Kalgoorlie Boulder and Coolgardie
The towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and nearby Coolgardie are famous for the discovery of ‘the Golden Mile’ that sparked Australia’s greatest gold rush and made the Western Australian Goldfields one of the world’s wealthiest gold-producing areas almost 130 years after gold was discovered here.
The Western Australian Goldfields also has a rich indigenous culture that you should explore. Kalgoorlie or Kulgooluh for the Wongutha people means ‘place of the silky pears’ and it’s a location of great cultural significance for the ‘Wongi’, as they call themselves, who have many Dreaming stories connected to the place.
Once considered the richest square mile on the planet, the term ‘the Golden Mile’ came into use in 1899 to describe the mines on the Ivanhoe, Great Boulder, Golden Horseshoe, Chaffers, Hannan’s Star, and Boulder Main Reef leases – a group of leases that today comprise ‘the Super Pit’.
The first gold prospectors were Paddy Hannan, Dan Shea and Thomas Flanagan, who kicked off the gold rush with their discovery at Mount Charlotte. A few months later prospectors William Brookman and Samuel Pearce registered the Great Boulder lease, which would eventually be swallowed up by the Super Pit, Australia’s largest open cut gold mine.
While a lack of water, disease and long distances made life difficult for the first miners, those early discoveries drew thousands more prospectors to the Kalgoorlie gold rush within a few months. It was the wealth of the Goldfields and growth in population that enabled Western Australia to become autonomous and led to its statehood in 1901.
Mining remains the area’s main industry. The Kalgoorlie-Boulder Super Pit produces some 800,000 ounces of gold annually amounting to around 20% of the state’s mining wealth, while nickel is the next most important resource and Kalgoorlie’s BHP Billiton Smelter, the world’s third largest.
A huge chunk of the towns’ residents work in mining and the services that support it, while tourists come to gape at the colossal hole in the ground, learn about the ‘colourful’ gold rush history, and try their luck panning for gold.
The original gold rush settlement, Coolgardie was responsible for singlehandedly increasing Western Australia’s population fourfold by the end of the 18th century when around ten thousand prospectors rushed here in 1892 – Australia’s largest mass migration – after Arthur Bayley discovered sixteen kilos of gold.
While the handsome town once had some two dozen pubs, several breweries, seven newspapers, and a population ten times its current size, Coolgardie remains one of Australia’s best-preserved gold mining towns. It’s still something of an open-air museum with more grand Federation-era heritage buildings along its main street than people when we last visited, and its wide main street is definitely worth a stroll.
Call into the Coolgardie Visitors Centre and Coolgardie Goldfields Exhibition Museum (62 Bayley Street) in the majestic Mining Warden’s Court Building, for a fantastic introduction to the early social history of the Western Australia Goldfields and a couple of quirky collections.
In the Old Courtroom you can browse Australia’s largest bottle collection and in the adjoining Pharmacy Museum you can take in an extensive collection of 18th and 19th century medicines, antique tools of the trade and pharmaceutical posters.
Nearby, you can see Warden Finnerty’s Residence (2 McKenzie Street), the beautifully restored, former sandstone home of Irishman John Michael Finnerty, Coolgardie’s first resident magistrate and mining warden. Built in 1895, it has French doors with louvered shutters and a ventilated roof lantern.
Not far from town, you can swim, boat and canoe on the Rowles Lagoon wetlands or go bush walking, bird watching or picnicking in the surrounding bushland. Cave Hill Nature Reserve is popular with rock climbers.
If you’re driving from Perth to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, you can call in to Coolgardie on the way, then continue to drive northeast along the Great Eastern Highway for 38kms to reach Kalgoorlie. The highway becomes Hannan Street, the main street, where you should easily be able to find a place to park your car. If you’re driving from Norseman, then see Coolgardie after you’re done in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, before returning to Perth.
Kalgoorlie and Boulder
Before the gold rush, Kalgoorlie was one of the world’s main sources of aromatic sandalwood, used as incense and in perfume. So much so that by 1880 it was the state’s most important export after wool – until gold was discovered and the fragrant wood was in demand to hold up mine shafts.
As a result, the landscape of the Western Australian Goldfields became prematurely desertified and pit-scarred – the largest hole in the ground being the monumental Super Pit, which grows even more colossal each year – while the twin towns of Kalgoorlie–Boulder became two of Australia’s richest and wildest towns.
Kalgoorlie still remains a fascinating place with a frontier spirit and has enough things to do to fill a couple of days, while Boulder has become little more than a sleepy suburb of Kalgoorlie yet still warrants an amble to admire its handsome historic buildings.
Start your discovery of Kalgoorlie with a stroll along Hannan Street, the main road, to take in the splendid heritage architecture, particularly the flamboyant façades of the restored Federation-era buildings and the grand old pubs with their wide verandas and intricate wrought iron decoration.
While most visitors are in Kalgoorlie-Boulder to learn about the gold rush and get a taste of frontier town life, past and present, we recommend that you start by taking a step back even further in time to the Dreaming and learn about the Aboriginal Australian history and culture of the Western Australian Goldfields.
Bush Ghoodhu Wongutha Tours
The outstanding Bush Ghoodhu Wongutha Tours provide immersive experiences hosted by Wongutha guides that give a great insight into both the ancient and modern history of Kalgoorlie, as well as the seasons and environment, on a range of tours in and around Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
On their family-friendly Kalgoorlie walking tour you’ll get to experience a traditional Wongutha welcome before exploring Kalgoorlie’s history and culture, visiting significant indigenous sites and learning about the traditional Wongutha way of life and traditional customs.
You’ll get to hear ancient Dreaming stories and Gold Rush tales, learn where and how to find bush tucker in the hot, harsh desert environment, as well as get hands-on and learn how to use traditional Wongutha tools, implements and weapons for hunting. You’ll learn how to throw a spear (nyinji), how to make a boomerang (karlee) come back, and how a traditional knife (gundee) is made.
They also offer a full day tour, which includes a drive into the outback, where you’ll learn how to identify the tracks of local animal life, forage for bush tucker, learn the Wongutha names and the uses for local plants and animals, and tuck into some traditional bush damper and Billie tea.
Their overnight tour ‘on country’ is even more immersive, giving you the chance to visit sites of spiritual and cultural significance, learn to track animals and use traditional implements, camp out under the stars, listen to ancient Dreamtime stories around a campfire, and enjoy traditional Wongutha food cooked in an earth oven.
Museum of the Goldfields – Western Australian Museum
The towering red 33m-high head-frame you see at the top of Hannan Street belongs to the Museum of the Goldfields (08 9021 8533; open daily 10am–3pm; entry by donation), an excellent outpost of the Western Australian Museum, which marks the place where Paddy Hannan found his first gold nuggets.
The museum has a comprehensive exhibition on the history of the goldfields, as well as the sandalwood industry and Aboriginal culture. The red head-frame also serves as a lookout with views of the city and mines.
When you’re done, drive to the intersection of Hannan Street and the Goldfields Highway and turn left. You will see the sign-posted turn-off to the Australian Prospectors and Mining Hall of Fame ahead on your right.
Hannans North Tourist Mine
One of the first registered mines in Kalgoorlie, Hannans North Tourist Mine (daily 9am-4pm) was formerly known as the Australian Prospectors and Mining Hall of Fame. After it closed in 2011, Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM) assisted the local community to develop the engaging mining museum into the current Hannans North Tourist Mine.
It’s a must-visit for its outstanding exhibitions, which provides fascinating insights into the gold rush history. There’s everything from displays of rocks and minerals to the contemporary art that has been supported by the mines. There’s enough to do to fill a couple of hours on a self-guided surface tour and guided underground mining tour.
On the self-guided tour, you’ll get to listen to Paddy Hannan’s tale of discovering gold, you can try your hand at panning for gold and making your own fortune, or have a go at the legendary game of Two-Up. You can wander into original buildings relocated from other mine sites along the Golden Mile and stroll about the Prospectors Campsite for an insight into how miners lived and worked in the 1890s.
There’s a kiosk on site selling cold drinks, tea and coffee, and ice cream, but you can also take a picnic to enjoy in the tranquil Chinese Garden or use the free barbecue facilities – both a delight in the winter months, but not recommended in the searing heat of summer.
The Scarlet Mile
Kalgoorlie’s Gold Rush attracted all sorts seeking their fortune, including prostitutes from Perth. In 1902, the authorities gazetted Hay Street as Kalgoorlie’s red light district, in an effort to contain health and social problems. Some 16 brothels operated along the street, giving the stretch the nickname, The Scarlet Mile.
Today only one brothel still operates and you can visit during the day on a tour. Seeing the city’s diminutive red light district to do a brothel tour was once one of the most popular things to do in Kalgoorlie, but now only Questa Casa (133 Hay Street) offers guided tours, taking you through the various rooms while the guides share colourful stories.
The tour covers the history of prostitution in the Goldfields. While prostitution has long been legal in the state and brothels such as Questa Casa, Kalgoorlie’s oldest, had been running for over 120 years, living off the earnings of prostitutes wasn’t allowed until 2008 when brothels were legalised in Western Australia, giving the women basic rights such as superannuation and worker’s compensation.
Super Pit Lookout
You can’t leave Kalgoorlie-Boulder without gaping at the gigantic hole in the ground that is the Super Pit mine. While it’s fascinating simply to look from the viewing point (open from 7am-7pm daily), watching a blast is quite an experience.
You can check each day’s blasting time on the Super Pit website or when you get to town phone the Super Pit Shop (2 Burt St, Boulder; 089093 3488) to find out when a blast is scheduled and time your visit accordingly.