Kalgoorlie, Australia — The Klondike spirit is again gripping Kalgoorlie. Just when some people had relegated this dusty mining town in Western Australia to a romantic footnote in history, it is turning over a new gold-leafed page.
Buoyed by high prices for gold, mining companies are chiseling away at long-dormant veins while weekend prospectors are combing through the bush in search of mother lodes.
"Gold -- it's the magic word again," enthuses one area resident.
All this is good news for Kalgoorlie -- a Gunsmoke-style town that sits at the gateway to the infamous Golden Mile, an area containing one of the richest gold deposits ever discovered. Founded in the heady gold-rush days of the 1890s , Kalgoorlie might have closed down years ago if it wasn't for a nickel boom in the 1960s.
But today this hard-bitten town is throbbing almost as never before. Some of its people think it is poised to become a regional mining mecca ministering to the resurrected nickel, gold, copper, and zinc operations in the area. Whatever its exact role, Kalgoorlie is certain to play a more active part in Australia in the 1980s as the country moves to exploit some of its vast mineral resources.
Right now the glitter here surrounds gold. In the past few years only one mine -- Kalgoorlie Mining Associates' Mount Charlotte operation -- has continued churning out bullion along the Golden Mile (which is actually 4.5 miles). The others closed their doors in the lean years of the early and mid-1970s.
But soon the now-rusty shafts of at least tow other firms -- North Kalgurli Mines Ltd. and Consolidated Gold Mining Areas NL -- are expected to begin drawing up gold-laced rock from quartz tombs deep beneath the arid tableland. North Kalgurli Mines Ltd. initially plans to produce 200,000 metric tons of ore a year. Kalgoorlie Mining Associates will be expanding some operations in the area as well.
In all, at least $80 million ($70 million Australian) is expected to be pumped into the Golden Mile over the next few years, resurrecting old mines or building new facilities. Dozens of smaller companies are boring exploratory holes everywhere from people's backyards to the local race track. Almost every square inch of the area has been staked out -- including the local hospital grounds.
"People are madly pegging anything that's available," says Darryl Tonkin, the youthful mining registrar.
Glint-eyed prospectors are stifting through old mine tailings -- sometimes for the third or fourth time -- and striking paydirt. Gold mining employment in the area is expected to double over the next few years, to about 1,500. "Kalgoorlie is up and running again," says Jack Cashman, general manager of North Kalgurli Mines Ltd.
Yet the latest gold rush, while prosperous for Kalgoorlie, isn't likely to stretch the capacity of the world's Fort Knoxes. Total Australian gold output amounts to about 18,000 kilograms a year -- about 2 percent of world production. Still, that figure is expected to jump by as much as 50 percent over the next three years as a result of new mining activity. There will also be plenty of activity among the hordes of weekend prospectors. Lured by tales of walnut-sized nuggets, everyone from dentists to drifters are flocking into this arid town. Down at the local tourist bureau, people pour in daily looking for maps and inside tips on the hottest prospecting sites.
For less than a dollar, anyone can buy a "miner's right," and scrounge around on public lands. Some 7,000 of the nondescript little cards have been doled out in the last 12 months -- a threefold increase over the yearly allotments in the mid-1970s.
Equipped with a $12-a-day metal detector and visions of gold-plated retirement, people are prospecting in the scrubby tablelands outside town, along roadways -- even on city streets. When a large nugget is found, word spreads faster than rabbits in the outback. On one recent weekend residents were still trying to run down the report of a 4.4 pound find. A few days earlier someone had weighed in with a 2.5 pound nugget.
On weekends and holidays the town's 29 hotels are booked solid. Housing, too , is at a premium. Tin-roofed shanties that 18 months ago would have gone for $ 23,000 (US) are now being snapped up for $40,000 or more.
Kalgoorlie, of course, is not stranger to gold rushes. The Town itself sprang up almost overnight after Paddy Hannan, a wiry Irish prospector, stopped in the area 88 years ago to shoe his horse.He noticed a familiar glint in the rock and decided to poke around. Within a few days he managed to dig up six pounds of gold.
His discovery ushered in an unprecedented era of prosperity for Western Australia. At the time, the Golden Mile was reported to be the richest square mile on earth.
The town retains much of its pioneering feel today. Main street is lined with Matt Dillon-style hotels and saloons, and the roadways are as expansive as runways -- holdovers from a time when 100-team camel trains used to plod through the streets.
One who remembers an earlier era is Lorenzo Mazza, a zesty local prospector who has been digging in the bush for more than 50 years. Even after all his finds -- "more than your weight in gold," he assures a visitor -- Lorenzo still becomes gripped with gold fever. He goes into another room and brings out several containers of marble-sized nuggets found over the years.
"Gold really gets to you," he says, standing in the middle of his living room and getting more worked up with each tale. "I used to find a patch and then ring up the wife and she'd come down and knock it off the wall with a chisel. It was really good fun -- wasn't it, alma?" he shouts to his wife in the other room while flailing his arms and bobbing up and down like an oil pump.
Lorenzo only prospects on weekends now. And when he goes, he carries along a bit of outback wisdom that helps blunt the edge of too much expectancy. Says he: "Gold isn't where it should be.It's where it is."