Gold and water: stories of struggle and survival
The first colonial explorers of the area now known as the Western Australian Wheatbelt and Goldfields considered it an inhospitable land that needed to be tamed and made fit for civilisation.
However, the Aboriginal people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years did not consider the land either inhospitable or in need of change. From the Whadjuk Noongar people in the west to the Kaprun and Wongi people in the east, they knew that there was plenty of water around, if you knew where to look and how to manage it.
Unfortunately for these people, their ancestral home was also the gateway to one of the richest goldfields in the colony in the 1890s and there was a desperate shortage of water to sustain mining operations. As such, early explorers relied on, and sometimes forced, Aboriginal people to take them across the land and show them where water could be found.
Then in 1903 the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme became the ‘golden pipeline’, bringing reliable fresh water to the parched area. Once labelled a ‘scheme of madness’, it is now internationally acclaimed.
Designer C.Y. O’Connor believed fresh water could be pumped so far and lifted so high through a steel pipeline that it would reach the gold fields at Kalgoorlie, 560 km from the storage reservoir in the Perth Hills. It was such an audacious plan for the time that it was met with both wild optimism and harsh condemnation.
While it is now considered an incredible feat of engineering, its designer didn’t live to see it implemented, committing suicide less than a year before its construction was commissioned.
The pipeline, together with the ensuing population expansion and the clearing of land for agricultural purposes, spelled prosperity for many colonist farmers and miners, but disaster for traditional Aboriginal ways of life.
Drive the trail
The Goldfields Water Supply Scheme is now recognised on the National Heritage List and the associated Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail offers a unique heritage tourism experience that explores this history of struggle and survival, with 25 stops at key places along its length.
The National Trust has been managing these places and the many stories associated with them, in collaboration with a number of other organisations, including Water Corporation and various local governments, since 1997.
From picturesque Mundaring Weir in the forested Perth Hills, through the open spaces of the Wheatbelt to Mount Charlotte Reservoir overlooking Kalgoorlie-Boulder, the city built on gold, you can build an entire inland itinerary around exploring the pipeline and the places associated with it.
Visit the sites of the former steam driven pump stations; some you can walk around following signed trails. The 25 stops also include other sites significant to the story of water in our state, including magnificent railway dams built to catch runoff from granite outcrops.
Find out more about this iconic pipeline that has become such a feature of the WA landscape by visiting the Golden Pipeline website.
Please Note: Pump stations No 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 at Merredin, Yerbillon, Ghooli, Gilgai and Dedari are temporarily closed for remediation works by Water Corporation.