Western Australia: Lonely under the sky

By Fergus Blakiston

Fergus Blakiston encounters an eerie tribe of 51 amid heat, sweat and flies.

Antony Gormley's metal figures on the saltpan of Lake Ballard accentuate the arid, lonesome emptiness of the region. Photo / Supplied
Antony Gormley's metal figures on the saltpan of Lake Ballard accentuate the arid, lonesome emptiness of the region. Photo / Supplied

At Menzies, a dead-on-its-feet mining town 100km north of Kalgoorlie, I turn off the bitumen highway on to a rutted track bulldozed through the red dirt landscape of Western Australia. The bone-shaking corrugations hammer at the suspension of my rented car with an apocalyptic rumble. A cloud of ochre dust from the wheels obscures the rear view.

After an hour or so, a signpost points down an even rougher track leading through scrubby sandhills to the edge of Lake Ballard. The empty lake, its bed white with salt crystals left behind when its ephemeral waters evaporated, lies pressed under the weight of the hot sky. Waves of heat distort the flat expanse of the lakebed, where 51 skeletal figures stand immobile in the shimmering air. I park the car in the sparse shade of a bloodwood tree and begin to walk.

The Inside Australia installation is a collection of metal sculptures set up in 2003 by English artist Antony Gormley. The sculptures are based on computer scans of the inhabitants of Menzies, rendered in alloys of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium.

According to his website, Gormley sought "to find the human equivalent for this geological place".

"I think human memory is part of place," he wrote, "and place is a dimension of human memory."

Out on the lake bed, I am all alone in my own dimension of heat, sweat and flies.

The red mud of the lake floor, overlaid with its rime of salt, has dried and cracked like the skin of a reptile. Its slightly sticky surface sucks at my jandals, which, in hindsight, were not the best choice of footwear for exploring the widely-spaced components of Inside Australia.

Each of Gormley's works is set a distance of 750m from its neighbour. The footprints of previous visitors trace indistinct pathways from sculpture to sculpture in a long loop around the lake. From a distance, the sculptures are merely vague outlines: shadows caught in the distorted, iridescent air. Up close, they are eerie, with outstretched arms, protruding breasts and shrunken heads.

The midday sun casts foreshortened silhouettes of each statue on to the ground, simplifying their forms even further, like the charcoal rock drawings of Aboriginals.

As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows change shape and size, each one describing a sun-dial ellipse around the sculpture's feet.

It takes two hours for me to complete my circuit of the sculptures. Back at my the car, my sweat- and dirt-stained reflection in the rearview mirror looks vaguely like a component of Inside Australia, seared by heat and light. I start the engine and let the aircon revive me before returning to the road.

Later, as afternoon cools into evening, I walk alone through a deserted desert town. Whereas at Lake Ballard I had seen human shapes inhabiting an empty landscape, here, in the abandoned mining town of Gwalia, I walk through an urban space devoid of human forms.

The timber and tin buildings stand swaybacked and forlorn beneath the empty sky.

Front doors hang agape in their frames, giving views down the throats of halls to the rooms inside. Windows stare sightlessly out across the dusty street. A pair of morose emus, like feathered sextons in a kindling cemetery, watch me desultorily as I wander the ruins.

From 1897 until 1963, the Sons of Gwalia Gold Mine was the life-blood of Gwalia.

The rough-and-ready township grew up around the nearby mineshaft, which descended for a kilometre into the hard granite.

By 1910, more than a thousand people called Gwalia home. In its lifetime, the mine yielded 2.6 million ounces of gold: worth about NZ$2.4 billion at today's prices.

But, in the early 1960s, the gold ran out. In December 1963, the owners closed the mine. Trains were dispatched to convey the remaining miners, their families and whatever they could carry to Kalgoorlie. Overnight, Gwalia became a ghost town.

The setting sun casts long shadows between the buildings. Inside the kitchen of a once-comfortable miner's cottage, tiny shafts of light pierce the gloom through bullethole gaps in the tin walls. Cast iron pots stand on the long-cold stove; a table set with two plates and a fork sits askance on the disintegrating floorboards. Faded newspapers cover the walls in lieu of wallpaper.

Inside another cottage, books that will never again be read stand on a shelf above a bed which will never again feel the weight of a sleeping body. The roof is open to the sky. A glassless lantern, which will never light another night, hangs beside a back door opening to the endless space of the Outback.

The grimy windows of Mazza's Store - "Birthday Goods, Tobacco and Lino" - reflect the last rays of the setting sun as I sit on the store's veranda watching the day end in Gwalia.

Funereal crows, whose gurgling cries are the ghost voices of the Australian bush, perch in a nearby scribbly gum.

I imagine Gormley's iron sculptures, radiating the day's heat back into the air over Lake Ballard.

Here, in Gwalia, it is the past which radiates: in the deserted homes of the people who once gave this place a dimension of human memory. Their day's work done, the emu-sextons pay me a last cursory glance before ambling off towards the abandoned pub.

CHECKLIST

On the web: kalgoorlietourism.com.

Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand.

Further information: See australia.com.

- NZ Herald

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