Travelling the Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor can be a bit tedious for some but honestly, there’s so much to see and do. Apart from the stunning cliff areas, unique roadhouses, multitude of deep caves, umpteen free camping areas, there’s the history.
While heading west along the Eyre and needing fuel and a pit stop, I called into the Balladonia roadhouse after the long straight on the Nullarbor and it was there I read about a track called the Old Coach-Telegraph road. Now seeing those words always raises my eyebrows wondering why it was called such.
Reading it was once an old coach road, running between Balladonia station and my destination, Norseman, I thought it would be a good alternative to get off the blacktop for a couple of days. Now the entry onto the track isn’t signposted but as long as you respect the Balladonia station rules on the gate you're free to enter and travel through.
Now this is a remote area and the old Coach Road is only 190km long, and like me, I saw no other car for the two days I was on the track. Starting off as a farm road it wasn’t in bad condition but there were a few gates to go through, so I just left them as I found them.
Being the original track for one of the Overland Telegraph lines, most of the going was just long sandy sections of straight lines. The low vegetation was showing signs of fire the past 12 months with regrowth busting through the black burnt stalks.
Not long and I left Balladonia station and headed into the Dundas Nature Reserve where I could tell that there had been minimal pastoral effort. This branch of the line was built in 1896 to carry communication to the goldfields across to Eucla branching off at Dundas and off the main north-south line, Esperance to Coolgardie.
As I headed further into Dundas Reserve I came across several massive salt lakes and a line of old steel poles that were part of the Telegraph line. All evenly spaced out through the lake and out the other side. The original line stopped being used in 1927 when a much stronger line with greater capacity was installed, so I presume these poles were part of the later setup.
When the line and indeed the track were in use, the government built a shack and put square water tanks in place every 50km for the line workers who serviced the line, travelling either on foot, by pushbike or by camel, some of these old camps can still be found.
Interestingly the forest here is known as The Great Western Woodlands, and in the Dundas area, it’s the largest remaining area of intact Mediterranean climate woodland on earth. That means it has a variety of natural vegetation in a continuous band including thick woodlands, Mallee country and Shrublands. From ridge lines down to flat valleys with broad ancient landscapes these woodlands link up with the inland desert areas and are culturally significant for many Aboriginal people.
The woodlands also house many endangered species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Leaving the Dundas Nature Reserve, there’s plenty of opportunity to scope for a free camp beside the massive Lake Dundas with stunning views across the salt pan. Dry for most of the year, it would be a beautiful site when full of water.
At the end of the Old Coach-Tele road, I found the heritage mining trail that runs between Norseman and the abandoned town of Dundas. Now Dundas was a ‘proper’ town in the early 1890s with named streets, and a hotel and it would seem it would strive in the harsh environment after gold was found nearby.
There were plenty of mines producing just enough gold for people to survive and call this place home. Up the road where huge granite rock platforms are, dams were built to catch precious water and life seemed to be settled. The rock here is claimed to be 550 million years old, aptly named Dundas rocks, the formations around the dams and channels are pretty impressive.
But then in 1894, some 25km to the north massive gold deposits were found and the focus moved there, letting Dundas fall into ruins. A few hardy men stayed but it was no good, the gold simply ran out.
DUNDAS MINING TRAIL
The Dundas mining heritage trail has 10 historical sites that you can visit, all signposted and all have a different point of interest covering a 25km trail that’s close to the original route between Dundas and Norseman.
There are mining relics, deep shafts and mine drives, a lone grave, mine heads over shafts and so much more. Each with an interpretive sign board giving actual facts and dates on what was in that spot.
At the ‘town site’ of Dundas, there’s just nothing left bar an old street sign and a scattering of glass and bits of tin across the ground. With no buildings and no hotel, it seems the hardy folk just picked them up and moved them following the gold rush to the north, later to be proclaimed as Norseman.
Whether it's true or not, rumours say that one cool night a lone prospector tethered his horse to attend to his lame horse and found a chunk of gold-bearing quartz stuck in his horse's hoof. With the horse's name, Norseman, the claim was named after the horse and the emerging town was named the same.
With the rush came an over-enthusiastic estimation of miners flocking to the area where water and building supplies were in critical short demand and transporting supplies to this new mining area had high costs involved. Families survived on cans of bully beef and saltwater converted to fresh water, but this too had its challenges. It’s said that at the shanty pubs, whisky was on the counter and water was kept behind the bar.
But it was hard work digging deep into the hard rock, unlike other outer fields where it was alluvial gold and easy picking. One mine, The Cumberland, caused chaos on the gold fields when they struck a massive seam of gold, 80 feet below the surface yielding a staggering 300 oz of gold per tonne. Now in today's perspective, many of today's mines would make a profit on just 1oz per tonne.
Today Norseman’s main industry is still gold, with large deposits still being found underground. Most of the surrounding landscape seems flat, but a trip up to Beacon Hill just 2km out of Norseman highlights the stunning scenery for as far as the eye can see.
Looking across the town there are mine sites, massive salt lakes and woodlands with ranges in the distance. It’s a busy town with most services, and if you head to Phoenix Park, you can follow the bushland walk trail past relics and information signs telling you the stories of the old times.
While Norseman might be overshadowed by Kalgoorlie ( 2 hours north ) for its rich gold mining finds, it was here near Norseman that Laurie Sinclair and his horse led to the discovery of one of the richest quartz reefs ever mined in Australia.
The Dundas heritage trail starts in Norseman WA and the Old Coach-Telegraph Road starts 190km east of Norseman at Balladonia station just off the Eyre Highway. Travelling the Old coach road is a remote area so be prepared.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Follow the heritage mining trail and discover loads of mining history viewing mines, mine relics, where the settlement of Dundas once was, water storage areas and stunning scenery along the way. Also, explore the mining town of Norseman and its history.
Norseman has huge information boards around town defining where the heritage trail starts. For more personal and up-to-date information visit the Woodlands Cultural, Community and visitor hub where they can guide you in the right direction. They are located in the main town centre of Norseman.