Kalgoorlie: Skimpies and Gold in the Aussie Outback
Kalgoorlie is a city with a reputation for two things in Australia, Kalgoorlie skimpies and Kalgoorlie gold. It’s the largest city in the Australian Outback, built during the madness of the gold rush era of the late 19th century and sustained to this day- unlike many other Gold rush era settlements which fell by the wayside- on gold and mining.
The city’s reputation however does not always have the most favourable outlook, with an illustrious history of debauchery, prostitution and all other vices known to man following the gold rush into the Outback. To this day, just as gold is still mined from the ground at The Golden Mile so too is Kalgoorlie still famous- or perhaps infamous- for the wild west bars that feature Skimpies- scantily clad ladies- serving drinks and providing entertainment.
On the trail of the Kalgoorlie gold and the Kalgoorlie skimpies- all in the name of journalism, I assure you- I found that the city has a much more of intriguing past and reputable present than I ever would have thought possible. It may have been founded on Gold and it may be famous- in Australia at least- for its Skimpie bars, but there is much more to Kalgoorlie than first appearances would suggest. I delved into the strange world of Kalgoorlie, and came out with a different story to the one I’d envisaged would be there.
Kalgoorlie is in the middle of nowhere. If you look at a map of Western Australia, there is nothing around it. Perth is a few hundred miles west, the coast and the small city of Esperance are a few hundred miles south. It’s in what Australian’s call the Outback, it’s remote, and it’s a semi arid desert. It’s the sort of place which- in a country where the large percentage of cities are found on the coast- doesn’t usually sustain much life.
But Kalgoorlie defies the odds. It’s one of the largest cities in Western Australia. A city of 40,000 people. And how did such a huge place come to be in such an inhospitable environment?
The simple answer: Gold.
Kalgoorlie came into being by complete chance, when in 1893 a group of prospectors stumbled across a huge nugget of gold when their horse lost a shoe. These three men- Patrick Hannan, Tom Flanagan and Dan Shea– and of course their horse have gone down in Kalgoorlie legend as the founders of the city, and streets and buildings are named after them across the region.
Their find sparked a huge, mad gold rush. Gold had already been found in nearby Coolgardie, just 40 miles away, but this was soon drying up, as were other sites across the Outback region of Western Australia now known as the Goldfields. This find at Kalgoorlie was altogether different to any of these, and the reason that Kalgoorlie is still such a large city when other gold rush settlements have declined or been lost to the red dust is that the find was so large, it is still being mined today.
The Golden Mile
The gold kept coming, and the narrow strip of land that was most lucrative quickly became known as The Golden Mile, and still forms the backbone of Kalgoorlie to this day.
Miners, prospectors, fortune seekers, the unemployed- anyone who could swarmed into the Golden Mile from all over Australia, looking for their riches. This was the start of Kalgoorlie, and with the gold and the money came a whole economy which began to grow around the miners, providing booze, lodgings, entertainment, food… everything that was needed in this remote, Outback land.
And inevitably, with the booze and money came the gambling, debauchery, prostitutes and the start of Kalgoorlie’s darker reputation and history, but also, the start of its history as a city, and the beginning of many overlooked innovations that I was about to discover.
My first stop in Kalgoorlie though, had to be where it all began, at The Golden Mile, where gold is still being mined today at the massive Kalgoorlie Super Pit.
The Kalgoorlie Super Pit
The Kalgoorlie Super Pit is a huge, open cut gold mine, formed from the many individual mines that once operated here. It’s the same land where gold was first discovered in 1893.
It’s 500 metres deep, 3.7 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide. It’s massive, and a viewing area at the top allows visitors to see right into the vast operation below. Most days, huge blasts are carried out, clearing rocks and ever deepening the pit, and I wanted to catch one of these explosions. When I arrived in Kalgoorlie, there was one scheduled just half an hour later, so I sped over to the Super Pit to see it.
It was a surreal mining themed entertainment show. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. The Super Pit is a huge, ugly cut in the surface of the earth that I somehow couldn’t take my eyes away from, unnatural and beastly, but at the same time strangely beautiful in its own way too, with latticed roads winding down to the bottom, and the tiny shape of trucks- these trucks are actually incredibly huge up close- moving slowly along in uniformed lines, bringing out the rubble and gold.
It’s estimated that every year almost 20,000 kilograms of gold is mined, not too mention the monstrous quantities of rock and debris. All of this is carried out by trucks in a mammoth operation that works around the clock, 24 hours a day.
An ice cream vendor waited on the edge of the Super Pit, providing refreshment and snacks to the small crowd in the viewing area, while everyone waited tensely for the explosion.
I didn’t quite know what to expect; perhaps a huge explosion that rocked the earth and shook the timbers or maybe just a faint blast from far below. I might have even missed it already. The blast was somewhat in between of these estimations when it came. Not exactly rocking the foundations but certainly causing a loud bang and lot of crumbling rocks that filled the pit with a haze of dust.
Kalgoorlie Skimpies and Kalgoorlie Gold
The city grew around The Golden Mile, where the Super Pit now is and after the blasts it wasn’t far to get into Kalgoorlie itself. The city today is really two areas, Kalgoorlie and Boulder, both merge into each other and the official name is Kalgoorlie-Boulder. I was heading to the Kalgoorlie side, and made my way to Hannan Street, the main drag named after one of the prospectors who found that fateful nugget of gold.
This street encompasses old hotels and new shopping centres, the town hall and plenty of bars. Kalgoorlie always had a Wild West reputation and in many ways, walking down Hannan Street still felt like I was stepping back into the frontier days.
The old hotels still retain a rustic run down look, and the bars advertise cheap beers, food and even the names of the Skimpie girls who will be on hand that evening serving drinks and entertaining. Many of the bars had a Skimpie hour which bizarrely was usually rather early in the day, from 3-4pm or 4-5pm. This I suppose is when all the miners get off work.
While women have been entertaining the men in Kalgoorlie since gold was first found, the tradition of ‘Skimpies’ in Western Australia really kicked off during the mining boom, when workers began flying in and flying out of remote locations, and in an industry dominated by men, it was almost inevitable that Outback Australia would soon begin fly in fly out entertainers too, in the form of Skimpies.
While this ‘tradition’ may have fallen by the wayside in other Western Australian cities, in Kalgoorlie it is still very much alive, and seems to be an enduring legacy of the gold rush and now mining days- for good or bad.
The real legacy of these gold rush days though, that is not so well advertised, is perhaps a monumental feat of engineering that allowed Kalgoorlie to flourish, and to thrive in a remote land parched of water.
My next stop, as exciting as it sounds, was the Kalgoorlie Water Pipe Line.
The Goldfields Water Supply Scheme
Kalgoorlie soon boomed into a shanty town of 200,000 inhabitants within just a few years of the gold discovery. More and more people arrived daily in search of gold. Kalgoorlie though, is in the middle of nowhere. It’s real Outback country, with red rocks and little water. While small populations of Aboriginals had flourished in this land for thousands of years, the invasion of these white prospectors- hundreds of thousand of them- was too much for this land to handle.
Water was soon more precious than the gold the miners were digging for and a solution had to be found.
600 kilometres away on the coast around Perth, there was plenty of water, but it was no use to the people in the Outback there. Engineers though came up with the incredible plan of delivering this water to Kalgoorlie, and to the greater Goldfields Region, before everyone there either left or died of thirst.
In just a few years, between 1896 and 1903, a huge pipeline was engineered that crossed the distance from Perth to Kalgoorlie, including a rather unfortunately placed mountain range, to pump fresh water to Kalgoorlie.
Outside the city, I saw the massive tanks that hold the huge reserves of water that are pumped across each day, and that still operates today. Every day enough water is pumped through to supply 100,000 people in the Goldfields region.
It was a huge project, and a huge success for the people of the region, but a legacy that isn’t that well known. Without the gold, there would be no Kalgoorlie. But one day, the gold will all be mined, and without the water, there would be no future for Kalgoorlie.
Questa Casa – The Pink House
As the sun set over Kalgoorlie I left the water reservoirs outside of town, and headed back into the centre. I had one more stop that day.
This though, was no ordinary brothel. This was The Questa Casa– The Pink House- and a tour of by the Madame was one of the top things to do in Kalgoorlie as recommended by the Visitor’s Centre.
Only in Kalgoorlie…
The Pink House is one of Australia’s oldest brothels, and while the legality of it is unclear, it is now- although still in fact a working brothel- also a a tourist attraction. I was taking part in one of the tours run by Madame Carmel, an older lady in her eighties who has been the Madame here for decades. Before she opens for business at night, she lets the tourists in and guides them through the history, not just of the brothel, but of Kalgoorlie itself. And it was more informative than any museum I’d visit in the city.
The Pink House’s history stretches back to the earliest days of the gold rush. As the diggers flocked in so too did the brothels spring up. Madame Carmel related the story of gold and Kalgoorlie, and the policy of ‘containment’ that led to the local police putting up with the brothels, in exchange for the workers being ‘contained’ within the brothels themselves. They wanted Kalgoorlie to be family friendly, they didn’t wanted prostitutes walking the streets and mingling, but at the same time, they realised it was safer for everyone to keep the brothels working, even if it was all technically illegal.
Out here in Kalgoorlie, the rules had to bent.
Madame Carmel was a fascinating person, and her stories as she showed round the large tour group relayed he struggle I’d witnessed in Kalgoorlie since I’d arrived. Kalgoorlie relies in many ways- especially the bars and even this brothel- on the Wild West legacy of the gold rush era, but at the same time for the local people and families that call the city home, it doesn’t necessarily still want, or even need, this peculiar factor. It’s a normal city to live and work in. In fact, the city tried to actively root this legacy out through policies such as ‘Containment’, and now even Madame Carmel makes her money through tourism, not prostitution.
Kalgoorlie was possibly the most intriguing and contrasting city I visited in my travels across Western Australia, and my last stop at Questa Casa showed me that there is much more to Kalgoorlie than meets the eye. It’s not the wild frontier town I’d expected. Yes, there were the famous Kalgoorlie Skimpies and brothels but this was more of a sideshow to the real city, projects like the huge engineering works that supply water and the fact that a city of 40,000 people can even be sustained in the middle of the Outback.
Those are the real, lasting legacies of the gold mine years, and when the day comes that the gold does run out- and it will- I think Kalgoorlie will stick around just a little bit longer.
All Photos And Words By Richard Collett