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Edition 28

Contents
Reportage

Tears of the sun

Selected for Best Australian Essays 2010

AS YOU FLY out of Perth, heading east, the wheat and sheep country cushioning the world's most isolated capital city quickly recedes. The already sparse signs of settlement diminish, and soft yellows and greens give way to the harsh rust-reds of the continent's interior. But this is not the mostly flat, mostly featureless landscape characteristic of much of central Australia – not nowadays, anyway. This is a landscape pockmarked with man-made hills, and gigantic holes gouged out of the earth. This is gold country.

Of all those holes, none other compares with the Super Pit, one of the biggest craters ever dug by man – so vast that it can be seen from space, and is even reputed to influence the weather in Kalgoorlie, the hard-bitten town crouched on its rim. One of the richest goldmines on the planet, the open-cut pit will be 3.6 kilometres long, 1.6 kilometres wide and 650 metres deep when a current expansion program is completed. The creation of Alan Bond, it is the thrusting symbol of the Australian mining industry, an industry that has shaped multiple aspects of the modern nation, while underpinning the economy and, recently, enabling the country to weather the global financial upheaval with little more than a scratch.

It was in this remote and desperately arid corner of Western Australia that Paddy Hannan and two fellow Irish prospectors made camp in 1893, after one of their packhorses threw a shoe. Ever alert to the potential of virgin ground, they kept their eyes firmly down and spotted several nuggets in a gully. Before long they had collected a hundred ounces of gold, and within three days hordes of men were pegging out claims on what became known as the Golden Mile. It was the beginning of Australia's last and greatest gold rush – ‘the rush that never ended', as they call it in Western Australia, after the title of Geoffrey Blainey's classic history of the mining industry.

More than a century on, the goldfield that Hannan discovered – and the hundreds of ore bodies in and around Kalgoorlie – is still being worked with the same intensity: by thousands of lone prospectors, hoping for their own lucky strike, and by companies large and small. At the Super Pit, where hundred-metre-high slag heaps loom up against the horizon, the blasting, shovelling and crushing go on twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. As I watched the oversized dump trucks, laden with rock, toil up the pit face, then descend, empty, to be loaded again, it struck me that this hole, evocative of unbridled ambition and perhaps even hubris, also represents something quite primal: man's millennia-old mania for digging up the treasures in the earth's crust, and the gamble upon which the mining business has always been predicated.

When Blainey's book was first published, in 1963, gold was in long-term decline, and by the mid-1970s headframe lights were dimming across the Golden Mile. However, new technology and the emancipation of the gold price resurrected a dying industry, and in the early 1980s another boom began. In recent times the price of gold has risen spectacularly, and all over Australia drill holes are being sunk, mothballed mines are being reopened and existing ones are being enlarged. Meanwhile, after a blip lasting barely a year, other mineral and energy resources are being shipped overseas as fast as they can be scooped out of the ground.

In Perth, the cafés are bursting and the traffic is beyond belief: a sure indication that the good times have returned. With China barrelling ahead in its industrial revolution and India not far behind, demand for Australia's raw materials is expected to climb even higher. Yet amid the euphoria – felt most keenly in Western Australia, the nation's resources powerhouse, but also beyond – there is an undercurrent of disquiet. How wise is Australia to stake its future on an industry reliant on finite reserves and fickle commodity prices? How sustainable is mining, with its colossal environmental footprint? And just who is reaping the rewards?

 

SOON AFTER 2010 dawned, I stood calf-deep in a tranquil creek, swishing gravel and sand around a dish while carefully watching for ‘colour'. At this same spot in April 1851, John Lister and William Tom noticed gold glistening in a rock crevice, then, a little way downstream, came across a two-ounce nugget. Three years after the start of the California gold rush, they had found Australia's first payable goldfield, thirty kilometres north-east of Orange, in the undulating countryside beyond the Blue Mountains. The site was christened Ophir, after the biblical city of gold, by the man who had identified the area's promise: Edward Hammond Hargraves.

Gold. No other element on the periodic table – not platinum, nor carbon, the source of diamonds – has seized the imagination in the same way, nor ignited such passions. The Incas called it ‘the tears of the sun'; the Egyptian pharaohs were buried with it; for thousands of years it has occupied a unique place at the heart of civilisations. Deposited in quartz veins hundreds of millions of years ago by fluids surging up from the earth's molten core, gold has driven people ‘to travel the globe...to lie and cheat, to suffer and speculate, to risk their lives, to move mountains and reshape the landscape', according to Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia (edited by Iain McCalman, Alexander Cook and Andrew Reeves; Cambridge University Press, 2001). Symbolic of wealth, power, beauty and immortality, gold has tantalised and tormented men, fuelled and funded wars, propped up currencies, permeated languages, and spawned innumerable myths and legends.

Like most people, I'm familiar with the glamorous metal. But the first time I held a chunk of raw gold in my hand, fresh from the ground, I felt a little dizzy. It was so shiny, so yellow, so solid, and as I turned it over I caught a faint glimpse of what sends folk crazy. The shy, lanky man who showed it to me had sold his home and business in Perth in order to move to the Eastern Goldfields, around Kalgoorlie, and prospect full-time. I met Brad Parslow outside a shop in Boulder, Kalgoorlie's faded twin town; he was heading back out bush, and when I asked him if he'd had any luck, he reached into his canvas shoulder bag and took out a Tupperware box containing a three-ounce nugget – which, on that day in early December 2009, was worth US$3,624: not bad for an afternoon's work. (One troy ounce is 31.1 grams.)

In central New South Wales shepherds tending their flocks had been picking up gold long before Lister and Tom, but the metal's existence was apparently hushed up; according to one tale, Governor Sir George Gipps, on being presented with specks of gold by a geologist and Anglican clergyman, the Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, spluttered: ‘Put it away, Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.' His fears proved unfounded; however, when news did get out, ‘a great excitement unhinged the minds of all classes of the community', writes Manning Clark in A History of Australia (abridged version, Pimlico, 1995).

There's not much gold left at Ophir; in fact, there's nothing much at all – just a commemorative obelisk; a few crumbling headstones in the overgrown cemetery; a landscape pitted with old shafts, mullock heaps and wide tunnels carved out of the hillsides; and the once richly endowed creek, still blithely babbling in the shade of gracefully inclined casuarinas. In 1851 there was a chaotic township, complete with school, post office, police station, apothecary, hotels and sly-grog sellers, while the diggings, according to a letter to the Bathurst Free Press in June that year, were so crowded that ‘in some spots the miners stand so close together that their picks have to be very carefully used to prevent them from striking each other.'

An estimated three thousand people worked Ophir's stony ground at its peak; the frenzy was short-lived, though, and many miners decamped to the more promising Turon River, to the north-east. In August 1851 the bountiful goldfields of Ballarat were discovered, followed by those of Bendigo and Beechworth. Australia's first real gold rush was on, with fortune-seekers from around the globe converging on Victoria's so-called Golden Triangle. At home, police and soldiers deserted their posts to dig for alluvial gold; ships docking in Melbourne were abandoned by their crews. Geoffrey Blainey writes in The Rush that Never Ended: ‘Shopkeepers and employers found the relationships of society reversed. Calling at the blacksmith to shoe their horse they found his door locked...Their children returned from school to report the master had gone...Preachers looked down from pulpits and denounced avarice to congregations empty of men' (fifth edition, MUP, 2003).

Although the rush was mostly over within twenty years, Victoria – and its capital city, which metamorphosed into ‘Marvellous Melbourne' – would never be the same. For the other colonies, too, it was a turning point: the country's population nearly tripled during the 1850s, to more than a million, as migrants arrived not only from Britain and Ireland but China, the United States and all over Europe. At last Australia had the massive influx of free settlers it coveted; breakneck economic growth boosted the living standards of a society until then largely dependent on agriculture, and as major gold seams were located, in turn, in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, each received an injection of wealth and people. Far-flung regions were opened up, with inland towns established and linked by railway to the coast. And Australia's international image was transformed: rather than a dreary outpost of Britain or a convict dumping-ground, it became a promised land.

Today it is the world's second-largest gold producer, behind China, and gold is its third-biggest export, after coal and iron ore, worth $17.5 billion in 2008-09. Yet gold, notwithstanding its allure, has relatively few practical applications, unlike, for instance, that most basic of industrial raw materials, iron ore. In the Pilbara region of Western Australia, iron ore is mined in prodigious quantities – and it is in the Pilbara that the reality of Australia being a quarry for Asia really hits home.

 

THE SKYLINE IN Port Hedland, 1,630 kilometres north of Perth, is dominated by towering red stockpiles: iron ore, awaiting shipment to China's steel mills. Red dust coats pavements and lawns in the small, somewhat unprepossessing town, where every other building seems to be a gleaming mine company headquarters. Port Hedland is often referred to as the engine room of the Australian economy; visiting for the first time, I found it hard not to think that the iron ore companies, particularly Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, own the Pilbara. Need a motel in Tom Price, the spick-and-span mining community rising from a baked landscape 430 kilometres south of Port Hedland? You'll have to call Rio Tinto's reservations service. (All rooms are booked up months in advance.) Want to drive from Tom Price to the port of Dampier? Sorry, that road is owned by Rio Tinto, although they might let you use it if you ask nicely. Fancy a walk in the fresh air? Try the BHP Billiton Marapikurrinya Park in Port Hedland, where you can also ogle the enormous bulk carriers. Or, you could go hiking in Rio Tinto Gorge.

The rust-coloured gorges of the Pilbara's Hamersley Ranges caught the eye of the late mining magnate Lang Hancock in 1952, when stormy weather forced his plane to fly low over the area. One of the most significant deposits was unearthed at Mount Tom Price, where, three or four times a day, a 2.5-kilometre-long train departs for Dampier, carrying more than 16,000 tonnes of iron ore. (The railway is privately owned, naturally.) If that sounds like a lot of ore, consider this: Tom Price is only one of eleven Rio Tinto mines in the Pilbara, producing 220 million tonnes a year. Then there are BHP's seven mines – another hundred million tonnes – as well as the lesser players, chief among them Andrew ‘Twiggy' Forrest's Fortescue Metals, which exported twenty-seven million tonnes in its first year.

Tony Dekuyer gave up his job as a maths teacher at a private Catholic boys' school in Perth in 2006 to drive trucks at Rio Tinto's West Angelas mine. Set against a billowing backdrop of saltbush, spindly trees and red sandhills, West Angelas consists simply of the mine, an airstrip and an accommodation camp. The nearest town, Newman, is 110 kilometres away. Dekuyer's wife, Janette, also worked at the site; for two years, the couple occupied adjacent huts at the camp, returning to Perth one week in three to watch their adult sons play sport, catch up on the gardening and enjoy the café lifestyle. Dekuyer, fifty-one, has now gravitated to a position in the operations centre in Perth, where he earns ‘just over double' his teacher's salary.

Everyone at West Angelas has signed up for the ‘fly in, fly out' (FIFO) regime that is increasingly the norm in the Australian resources industry, as new mines, many with short lifespans, open up in isolated spots. For the workers, FIFO means long periods away from home and life in a camp which, despite being well equipped – canteen, wet mess, gym, tennis courts, internet access – has no frills. The wages help to compensate (truck drivers earn about $150,000, including allowances; train drivers up to $210,000) – so much so that some miners commute from Brisbane and Sydney. Tony Dekuyer, who has bought himself a Ducati motorbike (Janette has a convertible sports car), reflects: ‘Teaching was very rewarding in many ways, but mentally it was quite exhausting. Here, when the day finishes, it finishes, and you don't have to think about the job at all.'

At Rio Tinto's mines, nearly a third of truck drivers are women. Kylie Piggott spends her waking hours perched eight metres off the ground, driving back and forth to the West Angelas pits. Each trip she collects 240 tonnes of drilled and blasted rock, then, following instructions on a computer screen, transports it to the crusher, stockpile or dump. Piggott, twenty-five, has to climb three metal staircases to reach her cab; the vehicle's tyres alone are twice her height. She says: ‘The cabs are air-conditioned and you can play your own music. It's like a little world of your own up there. It's pretty relaxing, although it can be lonely too.'

Young women like Piggott are the new face of the industry, according to mining executives. But you don't have to look far for a more familiar face. On a Sunday afternoon in Tom Price – 340 kilometres from the hottest town in Australia, Marble Bar – I meet Ross, Digger and Pirate in the crowded beer garden of the Tom Price Hotel Motel. Ross is a boilermaker from Queensland with a long, shaggy beard, grey ponytail, beer belly and eye-catching array of tattoos. He spends nine days of each month in Perth with his partner. ‘Do I miss home? Hell, yeah,' he says. ‘But it's very good money: that's the trade-off. I'm prepared to do the hard yards in the short term in order to pay off the mortgage and create a bit of wealth. But it can be really hard on your relationship, and the evidence is all around you.'

Digger, a short, voluble man who disappears to buy a round of drinks and returns with a blowsy girl on his arm, has three broken marriages behind him. A miner since the 1970s, he believes the industry is far more civilised nowadays. ‘It was rough back then. It was all single men, and the wet mess was open twenty-four hours, and there were fights breaking out the whole time.'

What about the lifestyle now? Ross sighs. ‘It's a small town in the middle of nowhere. It's stinking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. If I could make the same money at home, I wouldn't be flying away.'

AT THE TURNOFF from the Albany Highway to Bannister Marridong Road, 115 kilometres south-east of Perth, a sign states: ‘Boddington – A Golden Opportunity'. Another fifteen kilometres on is a country town that is holding its breath.

Boddington is a farming community sitting on Australia's biggest goldmine. The mine, owned by the American giant Newmont, opened in 1987 and was decommissioned in 2001; after the gold price rose, Newmont decided to restart operations, mining and processing lower-grade ore. The first bar was poured last October at the site, which was upgraded at a cost of US$3.2 billion and has a projected life of at least twenty-four years; the plan is to produce a million ounces of gold annually for the first five – even more than the Super Pit. The inhabitants of Boddington are, mostly, thrilled: investment is flowing into the once dozy town of 1,600, new businesses have been set up, and new health and recreation services are in the works. The jobless rate has dropped to almost zero (the mine will employ nearly nine hundred people), and the property market is boiling. In 2009 Newmont ploughed more than $70 million into the local economy.

Over the next four years the population of the town, situated in the Darling Ranges, on the banks of the Hotham River, is forecast to double: a trend that most rural communities can only dream of. However, residents are wary. They recall the high hopes of Ravensthorpe, six hours' drive south, when BHP opened its US$2.2 billion nickel mine in 2008. Eight months later, after the nickel price fell to below $11,000 a tonne – it was above $50,000 in mid-2007 – BHP walked away and 1,800 people lost their jobs. In Boddington, many miners have chosen to rent houses, or to live at the camp just outside town, leaving their families behind in Perth. And it is not only they who are hesitant. ‘The problem we're having now is to convince the state government, the businesses and, particularly, the financiers that we're not Ravensthorpe,' says Paul Carrots, president of the shire council.

Yet mining has traditionally been a precarious business: for prospectors and companies, for mine workers and their communities, for investors and speculators. Booms are inexorably followed by busts; bubbles always burst. Of the hundreds of new Western Australian companies floated on the London Stock Exchange after Kalgoorlie's riches came to light, only a fraction survived. In 1969 the excitement whipped up by the discovery of nickel at Windarra, north of Kalgoorlie, spurred thousands of Australians to invest in a company called Poisedon; shares soared from eighty cents to $280, but the field did not live up to its hype, and Poseidon's stock, along with other mining shares, crashed. Despite such debacles, a gambling mentality has infused Australian mining since the early days. Geoffrey Blainey calls the gold rushes ‘a gigantic lottery in which all had a chance...the magic formula in an age without football pools or state lotteries'; he also relates how, after their board meetings, the directors of Broken Hill Proprietary would play two-up with gold sovereigns.

For today's companies, the gamble is twofold: will the immense capital staked in the quest for new deposits pay off in the shape of a viable mine, and if so, will the commodity price be sustained long enough – and production costs remain low enough – to guarantee profits? Although the odds can be shortened through drilling, geophysics, aerial photography and the study of geological maps, they are still daunting. ‘You back yourself to find stuff,' agrees Chris Banasik, exploration director of a small, recently formed goldmining company, Silverlake Resources. ‘As a punter, you read the form; as a geologist, you look at rocks and data and make an interpretation about where the gold is.' Campbell Baird, chief executive of Focus Minerals, which owns land at Coolgardie, forty kilometres south of Kalgoorlie, says: ‘The high value of gold makes it a high-risk, high-reward business: that's the attraction. But only one in five hundred deposits makes it into production. It's reasonably easy to find gold mineralisation, but to prove up an economic deposit – that's the challenge. There are hundreds of companies out there, still looking after ten or fifteen years, and the faith and belief they have in themselves and the land is quite extraordinary.'

Tiny quantities of most minerals are found almost everywhere (even seawater contains minute amounts of gold); the difficulty is to identify abnormal concentrations. The line between success and failure can be fine – particularly with gold, where ‘you're mining ounces in a vast landscape', as Chris Fraser, executive director of the Mineral Council of Australia's Victorian division, puts it. Chris Banasik observes: ‘The hardest thing in mining is to stop, because there's always the chance you might have missed it. It's always, "Jeez, can we give it one more shot? Because look at the rocks – it's got to be here somewhere."' Jim Beyer, Boddington's general manager, says: ‘You're putting drill holes down, and you could be centimetres away and you wouldn't know. The difference between a dry hole and a bonanza hole can be tiny. Then someone else comes along and finds it. It's heartbreaking, but that's the way the game goes.'

 

‘OUR SKIMPIES THIS week: Holly, Sarah, Jamie, Danni’, announces a blackboard sign outside the Exchange Hotel, one of the imposing gold-rush-era buildings that line Hannan Street, in central Kalgoorlie. Across the road, outside the equally historic Palace Hotel, with its stone facade and wraparound balconies, an electronic board flashes up the latest gold price. It is December 2009, and gold is about to hit US$1,217.40 – its all-time peak.

‘The price is absolutely unbelievable,' exults Ashok Parekh, whose sprawling accountancy firm occupies almost an entire city block. He boots up his computer to check it yet again. He beams. ‘Everyone in Kalgoorlie is happy; you can feel it in the air. I drink in the Tattersalls Club every Friday night with my friends – builders, taxi drivers, businessmen, pensioners – and we all talk about the same thing: the gold price and gold shares; which companies are doing well.' He rummages in a cabinet and brings out a 22-ounce nugget. ‘That's worth US$26,000 today,' he confides. I suppress an urge to shrug; after a few days in Kalgoorlie, I've seen so much gold that, like everyone else, I've become blasé. In one pub, the barman produces a nugget as we chat; no one else looks up from their drink.

The gold price smashed record after record last year, as nervous investors sought a safe haven. The Perth Mint could not turn out coins fast enough, and even its souvenir shop was packed with people ‘desperate to give us their money and buy gold', recalls Edward Harbuz, the Mint's chief executive. Six hundred kilometres inland, the global recession barely registered in this community of 30,000, or 32,000, or 35,000 – no one seems quite sure what the Kalgoorlie population is. A new $10 million retail development opened, Harvey Norman moved to more spacious premises and work proceeded on a $20 million golf course. ‘The global financial crisis?' remarks Russell Cole, the Super Pit's general manager. ‘We watched it on our new plasma-screen TVs and heard about it as we drove to work in our big new cars.' Across Western Australia, in fact, apart from the closure of Ravensthorpe and a clutch of other nickel mines, it was almost business as usual. ‘The boom hit a speed bump. There was a hiccup, that's all,' says Tim Treadgold, a Perth-based mining journalist. Now, once again, all the talk is of skills shortages, and Perth airport is congested with men and women in steel-capped boots and orange shirts, waiting to catch charter flights to far-flung mines.

An effervescent character with thick grey hair and chunky gold jewellery, Ashok Parekh owns the Palace Hotel, as well as extensive mining interests. Keen to distance Kalgoorlie from its hard-drinking, hard-fighting, Wild West image, he declares: ‘I've operated hotels and nightclubs here for twenty-two years, and the whole scene has become a lot more family-oriented. There are thirty-two hotels in Kalgoorlie, and only seven would have skimpies [scantily clad barmaids].' Parekh whisks me across to the Palace, to show me its restaurant (‘The pepper steak is superb') and the newly renovated Gold Bar, a nightclub. ‘Yes, we do have adult entertainment a couple of nights a week,' he says. ‘But you're catering for different crowds, like anywhere.'

No doubt the miners of yesteryear would find it difficult to credit that book clubs, wine clubs and repertory theatre are now part of Kalgoorlie's social scene, or that the West Australian Ballet can fill the 750-seat Goldfield Arts Centre – or that the commercial sex business has become so sanitised that the few surviving brothels earn more from showing tourists around than from prostitution. Yet this is still a community with a preponderance of transient, cashed-up single men, and it retains a hard edge: alcohol-fuelled violence persists, and those who transgress Kalgoorlie's unwritten codes are quietly run out of town. Hannan Street on a Saturday night is not a place for the faint-hearted.

Families such as the Mahoneys avoid the pubs. ‘The town's got everything for the kids, all the sports facilities you can think of,' says Lecky, who manages a gold dealership with her husband, Ted. Ashok Parekh, who is of Irish and Indian descent, feels ‘the people are very welcoming of outsiders...They don't care who you are, or what you have or don't have.' Perhaps because of its remoteness – seven hours from Perth, four hours from the port of Esperance – Kalgoorlie has acquired the reputation of a resourceful, can-do place. In the early 1990s, frustrated at government delays in building a bypass road to divert heavy vehicles and equipment, residents got together and built it themselves over a long weekend.

Isolation, a common mission and the challenges of living in a semi-desert environment have forged a strong communal spirit. ‘It's harsh conditions, and it attracts a certain type: a person who doesn't mind a bit of adversity,' says Ted Mahoney. But there are chasms within this society: between black and white; between ‘old Kalgoorlie' and newcomers; between the beneficiaries of mining and those left behind. Propping up the bar of Boulder's decrepit Grand Hotel, a refuge from the forty-degree heat scorching the deserted wide main street, one old-timer, Malcolm Olden, laments: ‘In the past everyone was born here, and we worked shoulder to shoulder at the mines. We were a harmonious community. Nowadays we've got a lot more itinerant workers, and they've brought their own morals and code of ethics.'

And while Kalgoorlie flaunts its multiculturalism, the legacy of migration from Italy and the Balkans, relations have not always been peaceful. In 1934 a miner died after a fight with an Italian barman; locals burnt down the pub, along with houses and shops belonging to southern Europeans; two people were killed as two days of riots climaxed in an onslaught on Dingbat Flat, an immigrant neighbourhood. It was one of Australia's worst outbreaks of racial violence, excluding the frontier wars between whites and Aborigines, and it is still remembered as Kalgoorlie's ‘day of shame', according to Bill Bunbury in Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia.

Elsewhere, Chinese miners bore the brunt of the xenophobia. The Chinese, who landed in Victoria in the early 1850s and pursued the gold rushes anti-clockwise around Australia, were resented for their industriousness, the thoroughness of their mining methods, and their adherence to their own language and culture. The Ballarat Star warned in 1866: ‘If these heathens who came here to pollute our blood and debauch our young children are not put under severe regulations we may reckon an epidemic sooner or later that may be as deadly as leprosy.' Colonial governments took steps to limit immigration, and the Chinese were banned from new goldfields. However, anti-Chinese protests escalated, and attacks by white miners culminated in a series of riots in 1861 at Lambing Flat (now Young), in central New South Wales.

The hostility unleashed by the presence of the Chinese miners, in particular, reached a high-water mark with the passage half a century later of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which formed the basis of the White Australia policy. That policy was not formally jettisoned until 1975, and the issues surrounding it – immigration, multiculturalism, racism, Australia's desired ethnic composition – continue to generate profound ambivalence. It seems ironic that China, as the biggest market for Australian minerals, and as a major investor, has become the backbone of the country's mining industry.

ROD WILSON IS driving back and forth across a patch of red dirt, shovelling up earth with his front-end loader. After stripping off a good layer, he jumps out and walks over the plot, slowly waving his metal detector. When his headphones squeal, he investigates with pick and shovel, but today the only spoils are scraps of lead and a rusty nail. ‘That's the way it goes,' says Wilson, a former fox shooter from Deniliquin, in New South Wales. ‘You find nothing for a week, then all of a sudden it's payday. I'll never be a multimillionaire, but as long as I can feed the animals and pay the bills, I'm happy.'

We're in a parched terrain dotted with stunted white gums, just outside Coolgardie, and the earthmoving machinery – not to mention the metal detector – seems about as far removed from the romance of gold as you could get. Wilson, though, is the contemporary embodiment of a tradition dating back to ancient Egypt, and probably before. So long as men have valued gold they have prospected, and the yellow metal has influenced exploration and settlement on every continent – indeed, mining of all kinds has been so important that the prehistoric ages of man are named after the principal toolmaking materials. In Australia, there would be no mining industry without the individuals who discovered the great ore bodies subsequently exploited by companies: Kapunda, Mount Bischoff, Mount Lyell, Broken Hill, Mount Isa and, of course, Kalgoorlie. But Wilson's predecessors not only located the first copper, gold, lead, silver, tin, iron, coal, diamonds and so on; they also, some historians believe, helped to mould the national character. Enterprise, optimism, rugged individualism, ‘mateship', lack of deference to authority, belief in a fair go – such qualities, sometimes defined as quintessentially Australian, crystallised, so it is said, on the nineteenth-century goldfields.

And the love of a flutter – which, along with the hope of winning a fortune, drove people to forsake home and family for the hardships of life on the diggings. The early goldminers gambled with each swing of their pick, and for the diggers of today the motivations are not much different. Rod Wilson, who lives in a simple house shaded by peppertrees with his wife, Donelle, and one dog, three cats, two rabbits and a lorikeet, explains: ‘We do gold prospecting during the week and Lotto at weekends, so we've got to have a win somewhere along the line.' One of Australia's most successful prospectors, Mark Creasy, spent two decades in the wilds of the Western Australian interior (on one occasion nearly dying of thirst) before uncovering an immensely rich lode which he sold in 1991, for $115 million. He says: ‘It's the game that counts, not the actual pot that you get at the end of it. You just chuck the pot straight back on the table.' Creasy, who is still exploring, although nowadays he employs teams of geologists, adds: ‘It's the ambition to succeed at what you've set yourself. It's an intellectual pursuit – you wonder if there's something out there. It's like doing a crossword puzzle or a quiz and getting all the answers right.'

The ground where Wilson forages is only metres from the site of the lucky strike that unleashed one of the world's final gold stampedes. In September 1892 Arthur Bayley rode into Southern Cross, 190 kilometres west of Coolgardie, with 540 ounces of gold, which he and a mate, William Ford, had collected in an afternoon. Prospectors who followed the pair's tracks ‘picked up gold as easily as mushrooms', according to Geoffrey Blainey, and despite Coolgardie soon being eclipsed by Kalgoorlie, the Eastern Goldfields had burst into being. The population of the Golden West, as the colony called itself, nearly quadrupled within a decade, and in 1900 migrants from the east swung an otherwise reluctant Western Australia into voting for Federation – a decision that many in the state, with its disproportionate share of the country's mineral wealth, still rue today.

Such was the lure of the new gold that men disembarking from ships walked cross-country from the coast, pushing a wheelbarrow of possessions through thick scrub for hundreds of kilometres. Many were seasoned prospectors, but here, in one of Australia's most distant and inhospitable regions, they encountered the harshest conditions yet. Unlike elsewhere, these goldfields had, for the most part, not been settled by pastoralists; they were thinly populated by white men, and quite apart from the dust, flies and punishing heat, water was so scarce that it was almost as precious as gold. Malcolm Olden, the long-time Boulder resident, says dryly: ‘If you asked for a Scotch and water in those days, the publican would pass you the Scotch and keep his hand on the jug of water.' There were recurrent typhoid epidemics, and a visitor in the 1890s reported that ‘one half of Coolgardie is kept busy burying the other half.'

The goldminers – whose lives were transformed by the construction of a water pipeline between Perth and Kalgoorlie, recently recognised by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the world's great engineering feats – had much in common with the early pioneers; indeed, one of the nation's most noted explorers, Ernest Giles, took to prospecting later in life and is buried in the Coolgardie cemetery. While the new generation of prospectors might be better equipped, the desert environment is just as tough, and the work is still backbreaking. ‘But I'm a lot more fortunate than the old-timers: imagine digging a hole in this heat,' remarks Rod Wilson, who wears dirty jeans, a ripped checked shirt and no hat. Occasionally he finds old bully-beef cans. ‘You can see where they [the first miners] had their little camps.'

Unlike iron ore, say, which involves huge capital investment, gold can still be mined by individuals. At its most basic, prospecting requires little more than a pick, shovel, panning dish and dolly pot (mortar and pestle); gold has a high value, and it can be liquidated straight away. (When I visited the Perth Mint, a slightly dishevelled man dressed for the bush wandered into the grand limestone building with a nugget for sale.) Not for nothing is gold known as the ‘democratic mineral': a creator of hierarchies, it is also a great leveller. For similar reasons, it suits small companies. Silverlake's Chris Banasik says: ‘We decided to go into gold – I'm pretty sure the decision was made over a flat white and a plum muffin in a Perth coffee shop – because, from a mining perspective, it was one of the least complicated things to turn into cash. You don't need squillions of dollars and a railway line; the beauty of gold is that within two days of seeing it underground you can pour a bar of gold, and the next day you can sell it to the Mint. There are very few industries or commodities that afford you that kind of instant karma.'

A century and a half after Ophir, gold continues to enthral; some prospectors still dream about Australia's El Dorado, Lasseter's Reef, claimed to have been found in Central Australia in the 1930s. Gold can be hammered into leaf so thin you can see through it. An ounce can be stretched for eighty kilometres without snapping. Nineteen times heavier than water, gold does not rust or tarnish, and it is almost indestructible: most of the gold mined to date – according to the Perth Mint a total of 160,00 tonnes, which could fit into an average family home – is still in circulation. Both currency and commodity, its primary use – apart from in jewellery – is as a store of wealth; much of the gold removed from the ground, at considerable expense, ends up back underground, in vaults.

And although most of the easily accessible gold has been dug up, it is still possible to hit the jackpot. Bill Powell prospects the old-fashioned way: loaming (tracking a gold source by sifting soil); panning off; dollying (crushing rock); and dry-blowing, using air to separate fine gold from dirt. In 1984 Powell made international headlines when he discovered McPherson's Reward, said to be the most significant find for forty years in the Eastern Goldfields. Powell turned down offers of up to $25 million (including one from Alan Bond) but eventually had to sell the mine, and recently resold it to Ashok Parekh and another Kalgoorlie businessman. Now seventy, Powell lives in a modest house in Coolgardie and drives a decade-old ute.

 

POWELL IS SOMETHING of a hero to members of the Eastern Goldfields branch of the 105-year-old Amalgamated Prospectors and Leaseholders Association, who gather monthly in a dusty premises in Boulder. The December 2009 meeting, held on a swelteringly hot evening, is sparsely attended; as the APLA's president, Sean Ashcroft, explains: ‘A lot of the guys are out in the field, because the gold price is so high.' As flies buzz around, the dozen men and one woman discuss the latest metal detectors and swap rumours about outrageously sized nuggets. ‘Anyone else heard about a thirty-ouncer found near Lake Carey?' enquires one veteran prospector, Stuart Hooper. I ask Hooper if he has ever stumbled across anything noteworthy himself. He shrugs and looks embarrassed. ‘Not really,' he says. Later, back at my hotel, I notice a newspaper clipping about Hooper's discovery of a 56-ounce nugget, Little Darling, near Coolgardie in 1979.

Bill Powell's father was a prospector who gambled his gold away on the horses; were it not for the kangaroos and rabbits that Powell shot as a boy, his family would have starved. By the age of fourteen, he had his own little mine. ‘I never worried about getting rich,' he reflects. ‘At different times I've had quite a bit of money, but flash homes and flash motor cars never really interested me. All I wanted was to get a big mine off the ground. I've been wound up by that all my life. If you find a major ore body, you've really achieved something. It's in your blood and you can't leave it alone: you have to keep digging.'

Last year Powell announced he was hanging up his boots. A few months later he put them back on. ‘A lot of my old prospector mates are in the cemetery,' he says. ‘I used to see them sitting around, and the next thing you knew they were dead. I thought to myself: Don't do that. Get out there and look for a bit more gold.' Does he have gold fever? ‘Christ, yes. That's what's wrong with me: I can't get rid of the gold fever; I can't shake it; it's like a bloody disease. I've often said to myself: Why don't I get a little boat and go fishing? But I never do, I just keep going out prospecting. When I finally get to the cemetery I'll still be digging, so long as they bury me standing up.'

At the APLA meeting, much of the conversation is about the array of fees facing prospectors – ‘before you can even put your spade in the ground', Sean Ashcroft complains. There is no open talk of insurrection, but I'm reminded of the tumultuous events at Ballarat, on the Victorian goldfields, 155 years earlier. Heavy-handed policing of the licence system, in a place where the alluvial gold was particularly tricky to mine, is thought to have sparked the 1854 Eureka uprising, which saw diggers draw up a list of political demands, burn their licences, build a stockade and raise the Southern Cross. Up to thirty of them were killed during a dawn attack by the military, along with five soldiers; such was the strength of public feeling that juries refused to convict the thirteen men charged with treason.

White Australia's first and only armed rebellion against colonial authorities, Eureka led to the licence being replaced by a miner's right and miners being given the vote. Mark Twain declared: ‘It was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression.' Over the years Eureka has become loaded with meaning: hailed as the birth of Australian unionism, a milestone on the road to democracy and nationhood, and as the first stirring of republicanism. Some think it speeded up the process that saw every colony bar Western Australia gain ‘responsible' self-government between 1854 and 1859. And at Ballarat another layer was added to the myth-making already inspired by the gold rushes. ‘For many the diggers stand between the convicts and the Anzacs as landmarks on the road towards a national self-image,' the editors of Gold write, and they quote the historian Sir William Keith Hancock's observation in 1930 that Australians ‘have acclaimed the diggers as their Pilgrim Fathers, the first authentic Australians...the fathers of their soldiers'. Australian soldiers are still known as diggers, reflecting the miners' heroic aura, but the navy and white Eureka flag – a version of which was brandished by the Europeans who drove the Chinese off Lambing Flat – has increasingly been commandeered by extremists. In January this year the Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton, speaking just before Australia Day, expressed concern that the Southern Cross, used as a guiding beacon by Aboriginal people for forty thousand years, was being deployed as a ‘racist nationalist emblem'.

Eureka is a white, male story, and so is the story of Australian goldmining, and of mining generally. Yet there were women on the goldfields, if in relatively small numbers, and there are plenty of female prospectors nowadays. As for the continent's Aboriginal inhabitants: they had been mining the land, for ochre and flint, for tens of thousands of years before the First Fleet arrived. Almost certainly they encountered gold, but since it did not appeal as an ornamental material they left it be. At first perplexed by the Europeans' passion for the yellow metal (according to Derek Elias in Gold, the Walpiri people called it ‘white man's Dreaming' and equated its subterranean veins with Dreaming tracks), they soon realised its trading potential. Aubrey Lynch, a prospector and Wongatha elder, says: ‘As a child in the 1940s I can remember walking around with my mother, speccing for gold, with our hands behind our backs, stooping down to look at the ground. We were speccing for gold to live on, to go and buy tucker. My mother, one of the old tribal ladies, had been doing that most of her life. We also told the mining companies where our people had been picking up gold, then the companies went out and got themselves tenements.'

Although Indigenous Australians are scarcely mentioned in accounts of early goldmining, they made some key finds, and no doubt others went unrecorded. In 1871 a stockman, Jupiter Mosman, came across gold-bearing quartz at Charters Towers, which became, for a while, Australia's largest goldfield; in 1932 a cattle hand found gold near Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory. In addition, as Henry Reynolds writes in With the White People (Penguin, 1990): ‘Frontier prospectors were often accompanied by, and dependent on, Aboriginal assistants in the same way that explorers and pioneer squatters had been before them. Their bushcraft, tracking ability, and skill at finding water, were all invaluable assets in the interior of the continent and could be directed at seeking evidence of mineralisation in the same way that they were used to find good pastoral country and easy tracks across unknown country.'

In a broad sense, the gold rushes were disastrous for Indigenous people, bringing them into ever worsening conflict with European settlers. They had already been displaced from their lands by the pastoral industry; now, that process accelerated as waves of fortune-seekers surged inland. In Western Australia, the migration of prospectors from the depressed east in the 1890s led to Indigenous workers losing their jobs on stations. By the mid-twentieth century some were employed in mining; Aubrey Lynch worked underground at the Sons of Gwalia mine, 230 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, in the late 1950s. ‘They were only employing non-Aboriginal people at the time,' he recalls, ‘but me and another Aboriginal person turned up and asked for jobs and we were taken on. There were a lot of Italians and Greeks there; we were teaching them English.'

Until quite recently, Australian companies made little effort to engage with communities adjacent to mines. Instead, closed towns such as Tom Price – and, more recently, FIFO camps – were built, housing well-paid workers imported from urban centres. The traditional owners of the land that was being dug up were not consulted; sacred sites were mined willy-nilly, and people were prevented from entering leases to take part in ceremonies. Since the mid-1990s the culture has changed, chiefly as a result of the Native Title Act 1993, and nowadays companies, as well as negotiating land use agreements, establish community partnerships and set targets for Indigenous employment and training. However, employment levels are still low, and many native title deals have proved divisive, with just a few families receiving royalties. According to Simon Hawkins, chief executive of the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, the Pilbara's native title representative body, payments to titleholders represent less than one-eighth of a per cent of total mining profits; moreover, royalties are paid only on post-1993 mines. ‘Iron ore mining in the Pilbara had been going on for thirty years [before that], without any compensation for the impact on Aboriginal country and culture,' he says.

Projects such as the Ranger and Jabiluka mines, which are enclosed by Kakadu National Park, and the recent five-kilometre diversion of the McArthur River, in the Northern Territory's Gulf Country – designed to enable Xstrata to enlarge a huge zinc facility – were approved against the wishes of traditional landowners, and despite massive protests by environmentalists. Decades of uranium royalties from Ranger, amounting to more than $200 million, have failed to improve the lives of the local Mirrar people. As for the McArthur decision, Charles Roche, of the Minerals Policy Institute, which campaigns against environmentally and socially destructive mining, asks: ‘Would a mine that involved the diversion of a river with a substantial white community next to it have happened in southern Australia? Would it even have been contemplated?' Just as the Howard government was endorsing the scheme, Roche notes, it was intervening to scupper a proposed mine in Papua New Guinea because it threatened the Kokoda Track.

In Kalgoorlie, not far from the Super Pit and the ceaseless excavations taking place below, is the community of Ninga Mia, with its run-down houses, packs of stray dogs and rusting abandoned cars. It is hard to imagine a greater divide between black and white, haves and have-nots, mainstream and alienated. Ninga Mia is not marked on town maps; no one from the community works at the pit and, according to Geoffrey Stokes, an Aboriginal pastor, the benefits of living next door to one of the world's biggest goldmines consist of ‘sweet nothing, beside the pollution and the dust and the noise'. Stokes says: ‘Every week we have a funeral in Kalgoorlie: that's our reality. We die of common diseases while the rest of the community gets fat and rich on our inheritance, our birthright.'

Bryan Wyatt, executive director of the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, was roundly condemned in 2001 when he called Kalgoorlie the most racist city in Australia. Wyatt says he was quoting a Murdoch University survey, and he is convinced that, despite a string of reconciliation-based measures, ‘not much has changed'. He mentions a 2010 community calendar published by the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Shire Council, full of glossy photographs, not one featuring an Indigenous subject. The Kalgoorlie Miner, meanwhile, ran a cartoon last year portraying an Aboriginal man as a violent, drunken paedophile. Although I knew a little of the region's hard-boiled attitudes, I was unprepared for the casual – and sometimes brutal – racism of many of the white people I met there. One otherwise genial man told me: ‘When I was a boy, niggers had to be out of town and they knew their place. Then they made them equal, gave them drinking rights, and look at the spin-off now. They breed like flies; they are totally non-contributing; they are unemployable.'

In Western Australia many Indigenous people feel that the industry, abetted by a royalty-hungry state government, is trampling their rights. Aubrey Lynch, the Wongatha elder, says: ‘Exploration is killing a lot of our country, and our cultural ways are being destroyed. Wherever you go in the bush, you see mining pits and the land being cleared for miles around. They destroy our sites; the Super Pit was developed over Dreamtime tracks. Our people are afraid to go out hunting, because they think the kangaroos and goannas are being affected by mining activities – they think the meat will be poisoned.'

Aboriginal employment levels will remain dismal, Brian Wyatt predicts, unless a more imaginative approach is adopted. For instance, working hours in mining – typically, twelve-hour shifts for two weeks, then a week off – effectively exclude Indigenous people, who need to participate in cultural business. Wyatt adds: ‘But you have to remember there are two different cultures here. For Aboriginal people, it's never been about gaining maximum economic benefit from the land. People don't see why they should have to dig up the ground when they've lived on it and hunted on it and just want to be there on it. And it's very difficult to say to them: "You're living on a goldmine; dig it up, and all your worries will go away." Yet if they don't, someone else will come along, grab all the minerals and become quite wealthy.'

Robin Chapple, a Greens politician who represents the Mining and Pastoral Region in the Legislative Council, believes mining companies have ‘never really engaged with the Aboriginal psyche'. By contrast, he says, on the Gove Peninsula, in Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal corporation contracted to truck waste from the Nabalco bauxite mine has many more drivers on its books than it requires – a recognition that some work only intermittently.

Yet the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto have made determined efforts in recent years to build constructive relationships; at the latter's Argyle diamond mine in the Kimberley, Indigenous workers make up about a quarter of the workforce, the highest proportion at any Australian mine. Then there are success stories such as that of Daniel Tucker, from the Eastern Goldfields, who – inspired by the High Court's Mabo decision – set up a mining and civil contracting firm, Carey Mining, in 1995. Tucker has become one of Australia's few Aboriginal millionaires; more than half of his employees are Indigenous, and he has contracts with some of the world's largest companies, including AngloGold Ashanti. Out in the bush, small bridges are built. Aubrey Lynch says: ‘We sometimes make camp with the white prospectors. There's a bond between you, regardless of colour.'

SONS OF GWALIA, where Lynch was employed, opened in 1896 and was, for a long time, the biggest goldmine in Western Australia outside the Golden Mile. Beside it was a flourishing township, with a general store, butcher, bakery, barber shop, guesthouse, swimming pool and state-run hotel. The underground mine was in its early years managed by a young Herbert Hoover, at that time an engineer with a London firm, later to become the thirty-first president of the United States. Shortly before Christmas 1963 the mine closed down, and Gwalia, home to about 1,500 people, emptied almost instantly; with no other work available, the miners and their families left on a special train sent up from Kalgoorlie, taking only what they could carry.

Today Gwalia, three hours' drive from Kalgoorlie, is all but a ghost town, its peeling shopfronts and deserted cottages an evocative reminder of the transience of mining. Inside the corrugated-iron dwellings, with their sagging bare floorboards and rotting furniture, the remnants of lives lived half a century ago are preserved, thickly covered in dust: a transistor radio, a patchwork rug, an oil lamp hanging on a wall, a twisted iron bedstead, a cracked mirror, a child's bicycle.

The Eastern Goldfields are strewn with such towns: places like Kookynie, a red-dirt wasteland dotted with the smashed ruins of brick buildings, and tiny Broad Arrow, which in 1900 had eight hotels, two breweries, a stock exchange, two banks and a hospital; only one pub and a few houses remain. These ‘shooting star' communities sprang up overnight and, as the gold-seekers moved on, died almost as swiftly. The larger towns have survived as administrative centres but have a similar air of decay: Coolgardie, Menzies and Leonora, with their broad, silent streets and handsome historic buildings standing next to boarded-up shops and empty lots.

Wandering through them, you marvel not only at the ruthlessness of boom-and-bust, but that this unforgiving region was settled at all. Much as the locals rave about Kalgoorlie (‘It's only four hours from the beach,' several told me), they also admit it would not exist were it not for the gold in the ground. ‘There'd be no cause to pitch a tent here; you would just keep on riding your horse past it,' declares Malcolm Olden. The same could be said of Mount Isa, Tom Price, Broken Hill and all the other remote towns established solely because of the presence of minerals, and where, over the decades, those born in or drawn to such places have learned to make the best of things. Without mining, the map of Australia would look quite different, and it is unlikely that the nation would have grown at the same pace, or enjoyed such prosperity. Resources accounted for 41.5 per cent of exports, worth nearly $160 billion, in 2008-09. The country is the world's biggest exporter of iron ore, black coal, lead, zinc and alumina. ‘If Australia wasn't mining, it would be bankrupt,' says Tim Treadgold, the Perth-based journalist.

The average lifespan of an Australian mine is ten to twenty years. Gwalia's longevity was unusual, and so is the Golden Mile's, but even the Super Pit will not last forever – it is forecast to shut down in 2021. Communities such as Ravensthorpe know the risks of being a one-company town; while Kalgoorlie has diversified into tourism and the supply of mining services and equipment, and while there are dozens of lesser mines within a fifty-kilometre radius, Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mining – KCGM, which manages the Super Pit on behalf of its joint owners, Newmont and the Canada-based Barrick Gold – wields enormous clout. At least twice it has threatened to close operations unless allowed to proceed with controversial plans: to enlarge a tailings dump, and to build a 3.5-kilometre-long conveyor belt.

Both times the company got its way: no one wants to jeopardise the future of a town which, despite laying claim to the richest square mile of earth in the world, has a history of wildly vacillating fortunes. The gold industry lost its gleam early in the twentieth century and, apart from a mini-revival in the 1930s, it ebbed steadily as other commodities took precedence within the Australian economy. In Kalgoorlie, rising production costs led to mine after mine closing, and in the late 1970s the Golden Mile was on the verge of extinction – saved only by the abolition of the fixed gold price and new processing techniques, which made it profitable to mine much lower grades. Mines reopened and the Super Pit was born in 1989, after Alan Bond conceived of buying up all the old underground leases. (Bond was forced to sell his stake when his business empire crumbled.) Bill Powell still recalls goats wandering through empty houses in Boulder; one of his contemporaries, Doug Daws, was among the nearly eight hundred people who lost their jobs one black day in 1978. ‘It's a bloody devastating feeling,' says Daws. ‘You got married in the church, you've got kids to bring up – where the hell do you go when you've got a town that is so overwhelmingly consumed by this giant set of mines on your doorstep?'

 

FOR NOW, THE Super Pit remains Australia's largest open-cut mine; on the opposite side of the country, Newcrest Mining's Cadia Valley gold facility, near Orange, is poised to be the biggest underground mine after an expansion plan was endorsed in January 2010. Generously endowed with minerals and metals, thanks to the age and nature of its rocks and the geological forces at play, Australia had, as of December 2008, the greatest known reserves of uranium, brown coal, nickel, silver, zinc and lead, while its stores of copper, gold, black coal, iron ore, bauxite and industrial diamonds were in the global top six. If a $20 billion development proposal is approved, BHP's Olympic Dam in South Australia – site of the world's largest uranium deposit, as well as gigantic quantities of copper and gold – will become the biggest open-cut mine on the planet: 4.1 kilometres long, 3.5 kilometres wide and up to a kilometre deep. Also on the horizon is the monumental Gorgon liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, off the Pilbara coast, expected to employ ten thousand people and channel $64 billion into the economy over three decades. The coalfields of central Queensland are humming, and geological surveys point to a new Golden Triangle in northern Victoria, with reserves of up to seventy million ounces: nearly as much again as the state's total output since the gold rush began. There is talk of mining space, and the seabed, for gold and minerals. Australia's future is secure, thanks to its natural resources. Or is it?

To say that mining is unsustainable seems to be stating the obvious. If only it were as simple as calculating what is left in the ground and how long it can last – although even that, as it turns out, is far from simple. Resources, clearly, are finite: the moment a mine opens, it begins to die; every ounce of gold mined is an ounce subtracted from the total stores. In its most recent report, Geoscience Australia estimates that stocks of five minerals – diamonds, gold, zinc, lead and manganese ore – will be exhausted within ten to forty years, at current production rates. Those figures could rise (or fall), however, depending on exploration, scientific advances and fluctuating prices; they are also based on identified resources, and it appears likely that Australia will yield more underground riches, even if they are hidden much deeper down. The Perth Mint's Edward Harbuz considers it ‘perfectly feasible' that another Super Pit could be found in Western Australia. ‘Much of the state is under sand and has never been explored properly,' he says. ‘I think we've only just started to extract the minerals of Western Australia.'

Gavin Mudd, a civil-engineering lecturer at Melbourne's Monash University and the author of a study on the sustainability of mining, is convinced that very few commodities will run out in the conceivable future. Nevertheless, he argues: ‘It's not how much you're got left; it's the environmental costs of getting it out of the ground and using it. Then you get to the heart of whether the industry is sustainable or not.' As ore grades decline, according to Mudd, increasing volumes of rock have to be moved, consuming ever more energy and water, and creating bigger waste dumps, tailings dams and carbon emissions. In Queensland, ten tonnes of dirt are excavated for every tonne of coal. At Boddington, Newmont is mining ore with less than a gram of gold (the size of a grain of rice) per tonne; a hundred thousand tonnes of rock will be dug up, processed and dumped daily when the site reaches full capacity later this year. Mudd says: ‘The pattern of mining for the last hundred years has been bigger trucks, bigger shovels, bigger processing plants. We can't sustain that pattern for the next hundred years.'

Scandals over toxic emissions in towns such as Mount Isa hint at the underside of the mining boom. The Super Pit was one of Australia's largest emitters of cyanide in 2007-08, according to the National Pollutant Inventory, and it topped the league for mercury. Cyanide-laced dams have been blamed for the death of wildlife, including sixty thousand budgies in a single incident in the Eastern Goldfields in the 1980s. Waste rock contains sulphides which, when exposed to air and water, turn into sulphuric acid and drain heavy metals into waterways. The Mount Lyell copper mine in western Tasmania is a notorious example: there is no aquatic life in the nearby Queen and King rivers.

In Western Australia waste dumps are vulnerable to erosion by winds sweeping across an arid, mainly flat terrain, according to Robin Chapple, the Greens politician, while the open pits – apart from being eyesores – are a hazard for cattle. Disused pits fill up with groundwater, which can become hyper-saline, contaminating aquifers and killing vegetation. There is no legal requirement to fill in pits and, so far as the Eastern Goldfields are concerned, Chapple believes: ‘It's a case of out of sight, out of mind. The perception is it's a desert and it doesn't really matter.' The Goldfields were once well forested, but they were clearfelled for sixty years to supply the mining industry with fuel.

On the other side of the equation, environmental standards, along with worker safety, have vastly improved – although some companies apply different benchmarks overseas; the infamous Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, for instance, was majority-owned by BHP until 2002. The Minerals Council of Australia says mining disturbs just 0.26 per cent of the landmass, and companies spend at least $200 million a year rehabilitating slag heaps and tailings dams. The new dam at Boddington, set amid incongruously bucolic scenery, is said to have been designed to world's best practice standards; Newmont is also part-funding a program to conserve endangered cockatoos in the surrounding jarrah forest. Some in the industry describe their interaction with the land in intriguingly positive terms. Campbell Baird, of Focus Minerals, calls mining ‘creating something...building underground', while Silverlake's Chris Banasik speaks of the ‘privilege' of observing a rock face before it is blasted. Banasik says: ‘You've got to treat it with respect, because what you see will never be the same again, and because those rocks are giving you a sneak peek of processes you can't even imagine. Most ore deposits are formed at between six hundred and eleven hundred degrees Celsius. Most are formed under thousands of metres of rock. Most are made from fluids that have come from twenty-six kilometres down. They've tapped the mantle, the earth's molten core.'

 

FOR TWO WEEKS in 2006, Australians were transfixed by attempts to rescue Brant Webb and Todd Russell, trapped underground at the Beaconsfield goldmine in Tasmania. A century earlier, the nation had been equally gripped by the fate of Modesto Varischetti, an Italian miner who spent nine days in an air pocket in the flooded Westralia mine, near Coolgardie, before staggering out alive with the help of two divers. Fascination, fear, awe, revulsion: the mining business has always aroused strong emotions in people living in urban and coastal areas. It is viewed as dangerous, dirty, brave work; mining has a mystique, but it also has a poor image because of its effects on the environment, and its questionable ethics in some developing countries. John Bowler, the Independent state member for Kalgoorlie, says: ‘A lot of people in the cities hate mining, and the industry doesn't sell itself very well; it just gets on with the job of creating wealth. People in the Middle East have a far more positive image, and greater knowledge, of the oil industry than Australians do of mining. The vast bulk wouldn't know and wouldn't care, and some would say: "Close it down; it's raping the landscape."'

Unlike farming, mining is not part of the Australian psyche, nor is it a sacred cow. Competition for limited resources brings it into conflict with farming and with the wider community; in Orange, fruit growers fear the Cadia Valley expansion will jeopardise their water supplies – in 2007 the town had to donate 450 million litres of water to the mine after Newcrest warned that otherwise it would have to shut down. In Western Australia companies complain that the approvals process is slow and cumbersome, and environmentalists claim the industry almost always gets its own way eventually. Barrow Island, off the Pilbara coast, often called ‘Australia's ark' because of its profusion of species that are extinct or endangered on the mainland, is to house a massive plant processing LNG from the Gorgon field, despite the state's Environmental Protection Agency expressing grave reservations. On the Pilbara's Burrup Peninsula, the home of Woodside Energy's Pluto gas scheme, ancient rock art remains at risk. On the Kimberley coast Aboriginal leaders are split over plans to build another LNG processing plant, north of Broome, for the Browse Basin field. At other locations around Australia the delicate balancing act between mining, the environment and the rights of communities, particularly Indigenous people, continues.

Meanwhile, the digging frenzy goes on, along with the debate about Australia's economic future and such issues as clean energy, water scarcity and a carbon tax. Robin Chapple, who has worked for both BHP and Western Australia's Mines Department, is one of many voices disputing the notion that the country's resources are infinite, or as good as. ‘Our problem is that we actually believe mining will last forever,' he says. ‘What are you going to be doing as a nation when you can't mine, or make mining equipment, or do all the other things associated with mining? Do we have a plan? We don't, because governments of the day can't think beyond the next election.'

The flipside of gold fever is greed, and in the nineteenth century some commentators were perturbed by the rampant materialism associated with the rushes. A letter to the Melbourne Argus in 1852, quoted by David Goodman in Gold, demanded: ‘Should Gold, Gold, Gold, be our only desire? ...Was man made merely to acquire glittering metal...Is there no higher object, no more noble aim?' In rather more sober language, the Minerals Policy Institute's Charles Roche questions the philosophy behind modern mining practice, which he describes as ‘ripping the minerals out of the ground as quickly as possible, without lasting benefit to local communities'. Roche suggests that deposits could be mined sequentially, rather than all at once, enabling people to move to a place and build lives, assured of long-term job prospects. He says: ‘I believe that the minerals belong to all of us, current generations and future generations, rather than to a particular mining company. Often the benefits leave the site and the problems remain there.' A May 2009 report by the Australia Institute, a left-leaning think tank, reached a similar conclusion: ‘Overall the mining boom seems to have had very little positive impact on the wellbeing of the majority of Australians other than those directly affected by the expansion in the mining industry.'

A few decades ago, Kalgoorlie was peppered with headframes, and the town consisted of separate neighbourhoods, each one centred on a mine. Over time they were all consolidated into what became Kalgoorlie-Boulder – except for one, Williamstown, which sits sandwiched between the Super Pit and Mount Charlotte, the sole surviving underground operation. A bleak, sunbaked spot, Williamstown is Kalgoorlie's other forgotten community – although, unlike Ninga Mia, it does appear on the map, and is even pointed out as a curiosity to visitors on bus tours.

Callers to KCGM's ‘Public Interaction Line' are greeted by a recorded message advising them to ‘please press 2...for today's blasting times'. In Williamstown, Keren Calder points to widening cracks in her living-room wall. ‘When there's a big blast, the whole house shakes and it feels like the floor's going to cave in,' she says. ‘All the pictures are at an angle, and I've had ornaments fall off the shelf and smash. Visitors get a hell of a fright. The dust is diabolical, too – if I don't sweep my floor every day, it's like someone has emptied a vacuum cleaner over it.' Cheri Raven hears drilling beneath her feet when she takes a shower. ‘Sometimes it sounds so close you think a miner's going to pop up the plughole.' Like her neighbours, Raven is certain that KCGM – which has already bought and bulldozed houses in the suburb – would like Williamstown to fade into history. ‘But I'm not moving; it doesn't matter how much money they offer me,' she vows. ‘My grandparents lived here; my husband and I were both raised here; I've got history here.'

Tony Cooke, an adjunct professor at the John Curtin Institute for Public Policy in Perth, was commissioned by the Western Australian Government to report in 2004 on the gold industry's impact on Kalgoorlie. He says that valuable ore bodies lie beneath residential streets, and he predicts some households in Boulder will have to move as mining activity creeps closer. (KCGM denies it.) Cooke also maintains that the area is unstable because of decades of shaft mining: one person ‘lost their washing and Hills Hoist into a hole that just opened up in the back garden', he says, and even cars have been gobbled up. Seismologists, meanwhile, blame mining activity for some of the tremors that periodically shake Kalgoorlie. ‘It feels like the Super Pit is swallowing up the town,' says Steve Kean, a Williamstown resident.

Others, in Kalgoorlie and beyond, remain dazzled by gold and its seemingly limitless potential. Tyler Mahoney, Ted and Lecky's fourteen-year-old daughter, found a sliver lying in a puddle in Hannan Street recently, a few hundred metres from the site of Paddy Hannan's strike. In 1995, near Coolgardie, in ground that had been intensively worked for more than a century, the second-largest gold nugget in existence – the Normandy Nugget, weighing more than eight hundred ounces – was discovered. The mine at Gwalia, already reborn once in the 1980s, reopened in 2008, and historic mining towns such as Bendigo and Charters Towers are once again producing gold. Boom and bust, winners and losers, elation and heartbreak: Australia's  love-hate relationship with the mining industry shows no sign of waning.


From Griffith Review Edition 28: Still the Lucky Country? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review