Ghosts, Gold, and Forgetting


The first thing you need is a new appreciation of vastness.  

Think of every synonym for the words "wide" and "big" you have available to you.

Then, consider that every spot in the vastness has a history.

Perth, Western Australia, is sometimes referred to as the most isolated capital city in the world. Kalgoorlie is a seven hours' drive east from Perth. Our destination, Gwalia, is three hours north of Kalgoorlie. At a certain point there's no traffic lights and then no speed-limits. I lose Vodafone service before lunch on the second day.

Of course, in times past they traveled on horseback, or foot, with only what they could carry. During the gold rush, they were thinking about money: gold and striking it rich. Paddy Hannan first discovered gold near Kalgoorlie in June 1893. There were people here before that time, of course, for eons, but there are no signs to mark them. This is part of what our society chooses to remember and to forget.  

Memory is on our minds as we drive. We want to see abandoned places. Forgotten places. The places that were given up on. And we're looking for the ghosts that still live there.

We start in Southern Cross, about three hours from Perth down the Great Eastern Highway. The Palace Hotel in Southern Cross is for sale, we note, but we only stay for fish and chips.

Outside Southern Cross is a tiny mining community called Marvel Loch. As the sun sinks, we leave the asphalt to discover the pioneer cemetery there, possibly the loneliest place I've ever visited. Just a circle of trees standing in a forgotten corner of a silent paddock. Most of the gravestones are long gone. The one that remains is broken and fire damaged. This is what abandonment feels like. Cold and quiet and steadfast.

I get a strong feeling that we shouldn't touch anything in this place.

There is a sign remembering those interred, but the tourist information – including the ominous note that most of these people did not die of natural causes—feels implausible. Are these things forgotten, misremembered, or embellished? We're careful not to step on anything as we make our way back to the car in silence.

These townships were put together cheaply, and often deconstructed and moved when the mines they serviced closed. So, over two days we drive from sign to sign marking where a town once stood, now the lone landmark in a vast country. This human urge to mark things, to name things. The colonizers' drive to say, even after all the buildings fall down, "we lived here." Occasionally there is the remains of a stone building. In a handful of places, a graveyard. There is no identification of Aboriginal deaths on this tourist trail, though the land bears the memory of bloodshed on an immense scale. The soil is red. This too is part of a great, and willful, forgetting.

The sky looks fake as the landscape flattens out. We can see the curvature of the Earth. We exist in a blue dome. I can't tell if what I feel is euphoria or fear. We stop the car in a billow of red dirt to admire an eagle that soars effortlessly. We are hypnotized by the unraveling of the ribbon of gravel in front of us. I feel like I could forget myself.

We arrive to a silent Hoover House in the dark, though the house is lit up like a festival. Hoover House is a bed and breakfast operating in a museum precinct in the Gwalia ghost town. We let ourselves in feeling every creak of the floor boards under our feet. If any ghosts live here they are mostly friendly. In front of the house is a huge black expanse and it is only in daylight the next morning that we realize we're at the edge of a working open-cut mine. We can see every vein in the Earth.

I once read of geologists described as astronomers who looked down instead of up. And that is who we are while we're here, divining fortunes in the ground like prospectors. We collect stones that interest us, we can't help it. Gwalia was established in 1897 and closed in late 1963, after running at a loss for years—the population of the town dropped from about 1,200 to 40 in three weeks. A mass exodus. The town is a series of little huts and shacks, staged as though still in the town's hey-day. And scattered between them, there are houses with living occupants, carefully tended gardens, new cars and, inexplicably, a boat.

The next stop is Kookynie. While Gwalia has been historically preserved, and maintains its active mine, Kookynie is a ghost town where the residents have just staunchly refused to leave. There is a handful of old buildings, some private homes, and plenty of signs depicting what once stood. We feel watched. The silent Grand Hotel in Kookynie is for sale but we only have cash for two diet Cokes. This place is fairly famous and one expects it would be great outback fun if there were a few more guests.

It is in Kookynie, while the hotel proprietor smokes a cigarette and waits for us to leave, that we use the term "Wolf Creek" as a verb for the first time.

As we leave Kookynie we rejoin the road and we're on the way back to civilization. But we have more graves to visit while we do so. In Menzies Cemetery there are graves that remain unmarked, or that have been marked in wood long since disintegrated. The rain pelts down but we're both reluctant to leave. On many graves are shells, brought from the coast, for someone who traveled to this dry place to pay their respects to an ancestor. Not everyone is forgotten. But eventually, nothing remains.

As it turns out the pub in Menzies is for sale but we just buy counter meals.

We take a quick detour on the road back to Kalgoorlie, leaving the tourist trail in search of two special graves. According to an ABC News report, the graves of two Japanese lovers, 49-year-old Ji Yano and 26-year-old Sono Samamoto lie near the old Kanowna townsite. The pair were shot and killed by Samamoto's ex-husband Chomatsu Yabu when he discovered their affair. According to the ABC story the introduction of the White Australia Policy meant there were fewer Asian workers in the Western Australian gold rush, but still a small, close-knit Japanese community had formed in Kanowna. We are looking for two graves in an ocean of lives and loves long since lost.

The WA Tourism Commission says that in 1905 there were 12,000 people living in the town. There were 16 hotels, two breweries, and an hourly train service to Kalgoorlie. Now nothing stands there but signs marking where buildings once were. We drive past the non-existent town site twice before we notice the cemetery. Here, some patient local historians had carefully pieced together broken headstones, laying them back to rest with their owners. Eroded wooden grave markers form stunningly architectural reminders. And right at the back of the graveyard, in pieces but legible, there they are: Yano and Samamoto. Side by side since they died in 1902.

Remarkably, not forgotten even now. If you know where to look.




Rachel Watts

Rachel Watts is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. She has been published in Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her climate change novella, Survival, was released in March 2018. She reviews books and writes commentary on her website, Watts Writes.