“It's nice to escape to somewhere remote and experience a new challenge travelling solo,” I replied to a retiree who queried why I was in this fiery outback setting on my lonesome. He soon delighted me with his wholesome yet polar opposite intention — “We come out here for the comradery.”
Despite searching for opposite things, we both found ourselves under wide-open skies away from the big smoke — city-wise, that is — embracing the simple pleasures of rural living.
There were fewer than a dozen of us seated around the sundowner campfire, happy hour drinks in tow as we swapped stories on what brought us to Melangata Station in Western Australia's Gascoyne-Murchison. It's a bit of a trek to get there, just over 560km north-east of Perth, with the mid-west region's conditions less than desirable. Think blaring heat, a constant cyclone of flies, long distances, and barren lands. But with its discomforts, it does teach a thing or two about the resilience required to explore red earth country.
While the fire continued to spit out flickers of gold under a slowly emerging silver blanket of stars while the group chatted away as new friends, I thought back to the initial fortunes people were searching for in this far-flung region.
This stop was part of my solo quest to explore Miners Pathway, a history-rich, self-drive trail exploring Western Australia's golden age. The figure-eight itinerary weaves former late 1800s gold rush boomtowns — Mount Magnet, Cue, Meekatharra and Sandstone — together with ghosts of the outback’s past (abandoned towns and machinery), farming stations, meteorite craters and surprise natural wonders. It is what makes Miners Pathway one curious, scenic adventure. Just be sure to BYO fly head net.
“How on earth did people survive out here?” I asked myself as I drove through endless pindan plains freckled with parched bush to reach the Miners Pathway route's epicentre, Mount Magnet.
Little did I know, I would make countless visits to the geo hub — some 560km north-east of Perth along the Great Northern Highway — due to the crisscross itinerary, the uncertainty of unsealed road conditions, and missed turns.
In retrospect the town lives up to its name, and I was quite happy to become a familiar face at the Mount Magnet Visitor Centre. Its lure of complimentary coffee, tea, and water was convenient, but its adjourning Mining and Pastoral Museum is undoubtedly the town's biggest pull.
“This is the best museum in WA,” Cecilia, the centre's visitor officer, matter-of-factly told me as I purchased my ticket.
Really? The sceptic in me thought it was a big call, but in all fairness the inconspicuous highway museum punches above its weight and is worth the $10 entry fee.
The town's mining boom and bust and pastoral industries are captured in brilliant displays throughout the three exhibition areas. Rusted and stockpiled under the outback sun is a wasteland of mining and farming gear from yesteryear. But most unexpected is the museum's killer twist that recaptures the town’s real-life murders inspired by the book The Sands of Windee by Arthur Upfield.
Upfield had written and published the text around the same time an acquaintance, Snowy Rowles, murdered people in similar way to Upfield's chilling writings. Replica stone buildings used for the 2009 film adaptation of the book, Three Acts of Murder, now call the museum home and give Mount Magnet a touch of star power.
Sitting opposite the film set is part of the state's major engineering feat of its time, the rabbit-proof fence. Completed in 1907, it was once the longest fence in the world. It was made famous by the remarkable 1200km trek of sisters Daisy and Molly Craig and their cousin Gracie along the barrier home from Moore River Aboriginal Camp to the remote community of Jigalong. Their incredible story of endurance captured global attention, with the issue of Australia’s Stolen Generations propelled into the international spotlight.
I soon saw red when I followed the Mount Magnet historic-scenic 37km trail. An ancient waterfall dubbed The Amphitheatre for its rugged arena shape and a spectacular wonderland of ridges and boulders, and The Granites are both natural highlights and unusual picnic spots. Warramboo Hill Lookout and the former Lennonville Townsite were the only other notable sights along the 13-stop tourist drive. Entry to some stops needs to be requested ahead of time due to their location on private properties.
The most grandiose out of all the towns that make up Miners Pathway is Cue, 80km north of Mount Magnet.
Arriving at Cue stirred up thoughts of Kalgoorlie, a gold-rush counterpart settlement with lavish old buildings of the same vein. Cue may have lost shine over the years since it was founded in 1894, but the outback starlet is not known as the ‘Queen of the Murchison’ for nothing.
Many of the towns along Miners Pathway each have their own heritage walk trails, but Cue's is most intriguing with its clear-cut documented rise and fall. As I followed the 2.7km Cue Heritage Trail, I began to mourn for its previous life because it’s easy to see what a gorgeous outback queen she was.
Just looking up and down its main thoroughfare Austin Street, which is part of Great Northern Highway, you could only imagine how impressive the town must have been. Its two-storey Gentlemen's Club stone building, Victorian-style Rotunda and extensive government stone building all delight. It appeared that time stopped early last century with Austin Street's shopfronts bygone-era signage giving the living ghost town an endearing character.
A perfect epitome of a ghost town is coming face to face with its 1899-built Masonic Lodge. The imposing double-storey white timber and corrugated iron building stands lonesome on a street corner from the main precinct — a storybook image of a haunted house. Not surprisingly, the national heritage-listed building is thought to have a ghostly resident, and with that in mind, I felt compelled to move on.
The spook factor was dialled up with a visit to Big Bell, a nearby town that existed for a mere 19 years from 1936–1955. What still stands of its eerie existence includes a half-demolished pub once reputed to have had the longest bar in Australia, church ruins, with concrete slabs formerly used for housing and unfortunate volumes of metal scraps loitering the landscape.
A half hour's drive (36km) along the unsealed road from Big Bell is undoubtedly both the most brilliant natural and cultural attraction along Miners Pathway — just have that face fly net ready. Walga Rock is an open-air gallery to the largest collection of Indigenous rock paintings in Western Australia. It features nearly a thousand beautifully preserved imageries along its red ochre, 60m high tsunami wave-shaped shallow cave.
Butterflies danced around me as I marvelled at ancient masterpieces and attempted to decipher what was painted. Reddish handprints and human outlines were easy to make out — everything else, not so much. But possibly the most out of place depiction was of a white sailing ship with masts, claimed to be inspired by 17th century voyages. Considering it is 325km from the coast, it is mind boggling how the ship's journey steered inland.
Speaking of pursuits, Walga Rock may be second best to Uluru when it comes to size but those itching for a physical challenge will be happy to know that climbing the spiritual site is permitted.
I made my leap to Meekatharra from Cue (116km) for an afternoon visit.
Meeka, as it's commonly referred to, is considered a bustling regional goldfields hub. It's fitting that the locals’ retreat is named Peace Gorge. This concourse of soaring granite formations strewn with native shrubs is a much-loved spot for local gatherings and got its name from a gala picnic hosted to celebrate returning soldiers from World War I. The gorge also permits free camping; however, campers must be self-sufficient with their own chemical toilet.
Beyond rising rocks, I went to Meeka Lookout to see what was deep below — I didn't expect the birds-eye view to be so profound, though. Left, right and repeat, my head turned, taking in the full magnitude of what the discovery of gold can do to a landscape. In front of me was a real-life before and after image, with the town’s deep cut mine pit neighbouring a red sea of untamed wilderness. On the one hand, it was sad to see this intervention with nature, but on the other, the resource is why this region has prospered. Without the discovery of gold, would these towns even exist?
Interestingly, Meekatharra is also the start/finish of the Kingsford Smith Mail Run. This 762km drive to Carnarvon follows a mail route set by navigational whizz Charles Kingsford Smith — Australia's first pilot with Sydney's main airport named in his honour — for his transport company business venture.
“I would move to Sandstone in a heartbeat,” Cecilia told me as I was en route to Sandstone via Mount Magnet and not without another free coffee. “I am absolutely in love with it.”
What was it about Sandstone? I pondered as I pulled into the sleepy town. Could it be its apparent calmness? (I sighted no road trains on my visit). The town's small size? I shortly learnt from the Sandstone Heritage Museum that the town is known as the ‘Oasis of the Outback’. Sandstone's dreamy respite? It's surrounded by a contrasting patchwork of green saltbush mixed in with bronzed breakaways, rusty roads and lands. Come springtime, a carpet of wildflowers is naturally rolled out. No wonder there is an admiration for a town that is a riot of colour.
Sandstone's main attraction is London Bridge, because of course, there must be an outback doppelgänger for a famous city landmark! The extraordinary backdrop forms part of an 800m long basalt rock believed to be 350 million years old. Sadly, the natural stone bridge will face the fate of the cautionary nursery rhyme and fall down due to erosion significantly altering the landmark over the last century.
Overnight rains affected my chance to see a gorgeous sunrise, but there was something magical about sitting atop the massive plateau. Listening to birdsong as the sun peeped from the clouds to give the trees a lighter shade gave me a sense of place.
Touring around Sandstone Gold and Wool Interpretive Park, mixing in with locals around the L-shaped bar at National Hotel (grab yourself a hearty Sunday beef roast if you can) and tasting what's brewing at local gem Black Range Tea Rooms are all must-dos.
Tip: Sandstone and Meekatharra are connected by an unsealed road, and it takes approximately the same amount of time to travel from Cue via Mount Magnet to Sandstone on sealed roads.
YALGOO (MELANGATA STATION STAY)
Swallow birds hovered in the skies as I pulled into Melangata Station Stay, 84km north of Yalgoo. This was the one-of-a-kind experience I was eager for, driving along unsealed roads to get to this slice of Europe in outback Australia.
The century-old historic homestead was designed by Monsignor John Hawes, an architect and priest who has left his mark around the world with his church building designs.
“It's classified as inter-war Romanesque with Spanish influences,” station owner Jo Clews explained the mouthful classification as she walked me through the open breezeways with not a door in sight.
Happy hour kicked off earlier than usual, with station guests leisurely forming a ring of picnic chairs around a bonfire. The blazing meeting point swiftly morphed into an outback kitchen demonstration with Jo showcasing her camp oven mastery. The author of Australian Camp Oven Cooking offers cooking lessons to teach this niche culinary skill — and it's a tasty one.
I didn't think I would be feasting on a gourmet damper with a thick slab of camembert buried inside, but I was happy to oblige. Once Jo cut into her ‘Surprise Damper’ creation, its gooey, cheesy goodness oozed out. I was drooling — we all were. You would think something had just crawled on us as we quickly sprung from our chairs to devour the speciality baked treat.
Jo followed it up with pizzas. One by one, they came out of the oven, but we were in no rush to eat the main and retire. We were enjoying a special moment, watching the sky gradually change to swirls of pinks and purples across a darkening blue sky, colours of cotton candy.
I realised I was the only one who didn't know anyone. My new mid-west mates were helping hands who came out to the station to volunteer in exchange for accommodation. It was a touching discovery that made me appreciate the magic of Melangata even more.
When looking at tourist maps, four days is suggested to complete Miners Pathway excepting Paynes Find (worth a leg stretch to see the only operational gold battery in the state). It's also a great add-on from travelling the Coral Coast Highway — a yin to the yang to what's found along Western Australia's coast — with Geraldton as a springboard inland. But I am glad I took my time exploring this lesser-known region solo because this mid-west gem is worth discovering for yourself.
There are many station stays worth checking out that are located around the Miners Pathway self-drive trail.
NALBARRA STATION (MOUNT MAGNET)
P: (08) 9963 5829
NALLAN STATION STAY (CUE)
P: 0498 747 422
ALICE ATKINSON CARAVAN PARK (SANDSTONE)
P: (08) 9963 5859
MELANGATA STATION STAY (YAGLOO)
P: (08) 9963 7777