Kalgoorlie & Coolgardie, Western Australia
Nullarbor Plain • Walkabout to Bonnie Vale
July 1987


I spent 1987 attending the Australian National University in Canberra as part of an "Education Abroad" Program that the University of California offered. The semester break at the ANU was in mid-July (their winter), so I figured I better go somewhere. I didn't have any plans, so I went to the train station in Canberra and starting asking the ticket agent the cost to travel to various points in Australia. I just named cities, and once he mentioned a price that was reasonable, I bought a ticket.

Well, this is partly true. I had an interest to visit the Nullarbor Plain, a broad limestone plateau in the southwest part of the continent. The train ride that crosses over it is supposed to be a classic train journey. Perth was too far away and too expensive. The city of Kalgoorlie, about 300 miles east of Perth and along the train route, was a cheaper ticket. That's how I did it. I named cities back until I had that right combination of maximal distance for minimal price. So really, Kalgoorlie was just a place to get off and from there, get back to Canberra.

The train left that night and made the overnight journey to Adelaide in South Australia, arriving in the early morning. I barely slept. The train didn't get moving again until that night so I had a full day in Adelaide. I had some friends there so I sought them out at the youth hostel, and we palled around the city for about 10 hours, among our wanderings we watched an Australian Rules "footy" match. Soon, it was getting close to dark and I headed back to the train, and began the 24-hour journey westward. The train just rumbles along at about 60 mph. I slept most of that night in my wooden seat, but I didn't miss much. When I awoke the next morning we were still way the heck away from Kalgoorlie in the middle of South Australia.

The train made a stop for a couple hours in the town of Cook, South Australia. The rail-line is supported by small pre-fab towns that line the route about every 60 miles. Most are tiny settlements and just serve as a mail-stop or supply-stop. Cook, at the time, had about 100 people, and was a real town, in the barest sense of the word. The remoteness was profound. You just "sense" you are a day's drive from anywhere else. The only roads in and out are minimally-maintained sand tracks.

After our Cook stop, we moved westward, stopping every couple hours at tinier sidings. We stopped in Rawlinna, which consisted of about two buildings and a platform. One guy got off, then we got moving again. It's cool a whole train stops for one guy to debark. Then I wondered, where the heck does he live? Finally, we rolled into Kalgoorlie in the early evening.

I expected more people would be debarking here, but not so. Me and perhaps two others. Kalgoorlie was a fairly "major" city, a mining town with about 10,000 people. I grabbed my rucksack and walked the mile to my hotel. Along the way some drunk guy kept tailing me, asking questions, being cagey. I was bracing for a fight, but he eventually got distracted and I scampered off.

I spent two nights and one day in Kalgoorlie. I walked around town most of the day, no real idea what to do or see. There wasn't much to see anyway. The "downtown" is pretty basic but clean and easy to get around. The fringes get pretty rough-looking pretty fast. I had a few beers at the hotel bar that night.

I needed to get to Coolgardie, a small town of about 500 people about an hour south of Kalgoorlie. Coolgardie had a youth hostel where I could stay for cheap, plus it was along the main highway where I could catch the bus back to Canberra. But there is no shuttle service from Kal to Cool, so I did something I had bever done before: drew up a "Coolgardie" sign, walked to the edge of town, and stuck out my thumb. A trucker pulled aside and gave me a lift. His name was Ted and he seemed pretty cool. I get the impression that hitching out here is commonly done, so I didn't feel too scared. In Coolgardie I walked to the hostel and set myself up there.

I stayed in Coolgardie almost a week. Unlike most youth hostels where there are dozens of people from all around the world and a constant change of faces, the people staying here tended to stay for a few days at least, and most seemed to be from Australia, so I got to know a few people in my short stay here. Also, the total number of people here was maybe 10, including the host. We all pitched in and helped around the grounds, which was basically an old big house. Amenities were basic but functional. It was in Coolgardie that I made a couple of "walkabouts", a slang term for bush hiking. One day I simply walked into the bush, heading south, for a solid hour, then walked back out north, eventually coming out to the main highway about 500 feet away from where I had entered. If was fun to test my nascent navigational skills.

On another day I got it into my head to walk along the road to the Bonnie Vale Railroad Siding, an 8-mile journey north of town. No reason, just wanted to walk. One of the guys at the hostel seemed interested so we set out for the journey one morning (the 14th of July. How do I know? I noted the date on the back of one photograph). The walk was up and down over paved and gravel road amid man-high West Ozzie brush. Periodically we'd surmount a rise and get a sort-of panoramic view of the countryside: continuous brush, as far as the eye could see, and no hills to speak of. After a couple hours we came to the siding where we had a lunch and rested. Then we started back. We got about half-way back when some locals out cutting wood saw us and gave us a lift into town. We had to sit on cut logs in the back of their ute (utility vehicle, what we call a small truck). Nevertheless it was a good walk and a lot of fun.

Finally, it was time to get back to Canberra. Classes started the following monday and here it was Sunday night. I got on the bus, which wasn't filled much, maybe just half-full. I had two seats to myself. The drive was very long and often tedious but interesting too. We eventually got onto the Eyre Highway, which runs along the south boundary of the Nullarbor. We'd stop every two or three hours at a small "town", or roadhouse. We'd change drivers, grab a bite, walk around or do whatever. One guy got tossed off the bus for drunkenness, so he was required to dry out at one of these little roadhouses for 24 hours; he could catch the next bus the next day. Bummer for him. Finally, 30 hours after boarding the bus in Coolgardie, I got off in Canberra and walked back the two miles to my dorm room at ANU, arriving tuesday afternoon. A great trip!

The road sign pointing back to Coolgardie.

There's me in 1987, about 50 pounds lighter, short OP shorts, and socks hiked up high. Stylin'!

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