On September 4, the front page of the Kalgoorlie Miner was splashed with a gold nugget weighing 23.26 kilograms. Not ounces. Kilos. A million dollars in gold value alone. It was found by a prospector with a metal detector.
''I'll bring you back some gold,'' I promise on the platform of Keswick railway station in Adelaide. My wife eyes my new Minelab GPX 5000 metal detector, worth A$6500. ''You'd better,'' she murmurs before whispering where she'll shove the detector if I don't.
With these words of love I board the Indian Pacific and it creaks into a halcyon sunset. Kalgoorlie or bust.
In 2002, I tried to find gold in the West Australian deserts and got little more than a shocking bout of gold fever for my efforts. Back then, gold fetched US$350 an ounce; late last month it was worth more than US$1350. My raging desire to return suddenly had a financial imperative.
And the train? Well, I wanted to arrive in some old-fashioned style, just like the old boys after 1917. That's when steam trains started hauling hopeful east coasters to the wild west, taking days to negotiate water stops and gauge changes.
My modern-day crossing of the Nullarbor takes a not-inconsiderable 30 hours and, frankly, I'm left delirious with the charm of it all. Dining under low light to the clink of cutlery and the clack of track, falling asleep to plains heavy with stars, drinking cold beers and reading fat books, all as the scorched breastbone of Australia slides by.
Most of my fellow gold-class passengers are travelling from Sydney to Perth and they're positively languorous from the fine food and champagne. ''So, why are you getting off at ...'' (my dining companion absent-mindedly twirls his fork in the air) ''Kalgoorlie?''
In fact, there are three places in Australia that truly, truly fit their own billing: Sydney, Surfers Paradise and Kalgoorlie.
Kal rocks. It rolls, it rumbles. It's a monument to all the mad bastards who've ever wielded a pick, a shovel or a Caterpillar 793C haul truck to extract gold from the hard dolerite. I love the maniac ''goldfields architecture'' of Hannan Street, with its turrets, cupolas and gables, the litany of bars manned by girls wearing miner's boots and little else, the cacophony of young blokes on thumping big salaries whose V8s and Harleys burble up and down the wide, dry streets.
But like any new chum alighted from a train, I have to find somewhere to stay. I score a cabin in the Kalgoorlie Discovery Holiday Park, a place where kids jump in and out of a blue pool and grey nomads sweep red dust from their caravans. It's also home to prospectors hauling their canvas-covered LandCruisers out of the bush to provision up - prospectors such as Russell and his wife, who have prospecting leases up north.
I get chatting and ask Russell about the big nugget in the newspaper.
''We heard rumours about a big find three months before it came out in the paper,'' he says. ''No one knows where it came from and no one's saying how much it sold for. But some reckon it's not real; that the photos are faked.''
And his own prospects? ''Oh, we do OK.'' He pulls out a white medicine container and tips peanut-sized nuggets into my palm. They make my mouth go dry. ''We're just having a beer,'' he says. ''Would you like to join us?''
Maybe it's the hangover but the light of the desert morning is bleaching and the view from the lookout makes me dizzy. The KCGM Super Pit is an abyss beside this town of 30,000 souls, a cauldron of fluming red dust and fearsome winds. Miners descend almost half a kilometre into the open cut, which is so cavernous that their hulking machines are reduced to the size of creeping beetles.
If you're serious about gold, this is where you must start - at the endgame. The panning, the detecting, the chasing of nuggets, it all leads to this, a pit in the planet where 50 million golden ounces used to be.
In the 1980s, Alan Bond started buying all the little leases to supersize them into a single operation that eventually became Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines. Before that, the ground was dotted with townships and threaded through with 100-year-old hand-dug wormholes - you can still see them as black dots in the walls of the Super Pit.
But history is never far below the surface of Kalgoorlie. Boulder, the grittier working-class part of town, is so little changed that the pharmacy is still dispensing drugs after 100 years. The hand-sewn union banners in the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Museum are preserved in a waxen gloom, lying in state as serene as dead warriors. And then there's Williamstown, a tiny suburb that still harbours wonky tin shacks, pepper trees and chook sheds. For some reason, Bondy couldn't buy the place and it remains on the edge of the void.
''The companies are still digging under our house,'' says a resident of 35 years. ''Apparently, the gold's like cheese under here. But no one wants to buy a house close to a mine, so we live on the world's richest mile and can't give our places away.''
When the big hole displaced century-old communities, some of the relics ended up at the nearby Mining Hall of Fame. Wandering among the timber shops, canvas shanties and mine frames is an eerie, evocative experience. The gold rushes of NSW and Victoria have hogged the silver limelight of history but I say the early WA diggers did it harder, working killer country that was far from home.
''The old miners were just amazing,'' says Roger, a Hall of Fame guide. Dressed in hard hat and overalls, we're doing the ''Pitch Black'' tour of Hannan's North Gold Mine, Kal's oldest existing underground mine. Hunched over, Roger leads us through hand-hewn tunnels that are cool, dark and salty enough to taste.
''If you'd put all the drives and shafts together under Kalgoorlie they would've stretched for 7000 kilometres.''
I snort: ''That's Sydney to Perth and back!''
Kalgoorlie's most famous statue is of Paddy Hannan, credited as the town founder, but I reckon he's a furphy; there were at least two other blokes with him when the first nuggets were found. Hannan died broke. The fates of the others go unrecorded. And anyway, Hannan Street wasn't simply paved with gold, it was bankrolled by investors and merchants, grog sellers and prostitutes.
Ted Mahoney, of Natural Gold on Hannan Street, knows the score. He spent years as a prospector, chasing the weight among the goldfields' mulga trees; today he buys nuggets at a percentage less than spot price. Some of these are brought in by grey nomads touring the goldfields with their caravans and metal detectors.
''The gold price has really brought them out,'' he says. ''They're everywhere. But it's a great hobby. Find a couple of grams and there's your fuel for the day. Most nuggets are under a gram. Anything over three ounces is rare. Over eight ounces is really rare.''
I ask: ''How about the big nugget in the Miner. Is it real?''
''It's real,'' he says. ''Trust me.''
''Any idea where it was found?''
He looks at me sideways, clearly having more than an idea. ''No, no,'' he says. It's a rebuke. In the goldfields, you never ask a prospector: ''Where'd you find it?''.
Matt Cook smiles. ''The first thing I'm asked is, 'Where do you find gold?' But if I knew that, I'd have gone and got it!''
Cook runs Gold Fever Adventure tours out of his Hannan Street operation, named Finders Keepers. He takes groups of novices on to private leases and gives each of them a metal detector and some basic instruction. ''Anything they find, they keep - and we find gold on about 60 per cent of tours.''
A prospector of 10 years, he's full of passion for the business his ancestors pursued 100 years ago. He is happy to share his hard-won knowledge as well as the leases he owns outside Kal.
Driving out to one of them, he points to the edge of the road: ''See there - 180 ounces came out of that earlier this year.'' A grader had ploughed a new road through the bush; prospectors jumped all over the windrows with their detectors and pulled out nuggets like marbles. He turns off the track and bush-bashes into a place of gums and birdsong. ''This is a new lease,'' he says. ''It's got all the good stuff - ironstone, quartz, greenstone ...'' It remains only to find some gold, to prove it up.
Strapping yourself into a detector is akin to suiting up for a dive: you become part machine. The detector feels like a prosthetic limb; the harness pulls on your shoulders, the mattock knocks against your thigh. But when I switch on and the liquid squeal fills my headphones, my heart palpitates with anticipation - it's the language of ground signals, a whisper of things beneath.
For two hours I poke my electronic ''coil'' among the spiky bushes, kick aside black ironstone, circle mounds snowy with quartz. I find nothing except a lead bullet.
We regroup at the truck for tea and tactics. It's a chance also to chat with 63-year-old Judy, touring Australia for 16 months with her husband, Graham. ''We got 1.5 ounces in Leonora,'' she says. ''We used to be in real estate and our friends in Perth laugh at us - but we just love it.''
But there's nothing to love today because the gold isn't coming, not for any of us. Even Cook looks frustrated.
''Y'just gotta walk over it,'' he says. ''That's the dream. To walk over the big one.''
Later in the afternoon, I console myself in a time-honoured way: with a visit to a corrugated-iron brothel on Hay Street.
I drop my detector in the corner of the 100-year-old Pink House and join a tour group of 14. They're hanging on the words of the very genteel Carmel as she lays bare her 20 years as the madam of the house.
Hers is the building behind the famous ''stalls'' of Hay Street, where girls would sit out on the street, hinting at their wares. ''The lights of the brothels, the noise of girls calling to men, cars driving by honking their horns - it was quite wonderful ...''
Carmel tells her stories with incredible finesse, like an after-dinner raconteur. But the party is over: ''Containment laws once restricted sex workers to Hay Street,'' she says. ''Now there's the internet and mobile phones and girls can work anywhere in Kalgoorlie.''
I head to the Gold Bar under the old Palace Hotel, feeling low. Not even the ''Hello darlin', what can I get you?'' from a gregarious ''skimpy'' can cheer me up. What if the big nugget on the front of the Miner was faked: a beat-up, designed to keep us hankering for gold that isn't there? Gold. God, I need some gold.
Then I have an idea.
I race back to the caravan park and find Russell the prospector. ''Mate - would you mind - I mean, would it be possible if ...?''
IN A remote bush camp surrounded by a shining sea of mulga trees, I wake each morning at five to fresh clarion skies that cause me to fill with a bizarre sense of things being right.
We sweep our coils over the red soil for five days. We dig up two ounces of gold. It's worth a little more than $2400. But that's another story.
Great Southern Rail's Indian Pacific runs weekly four-day Sydney-Perth trips via Broken Hill, Adelaide and Kalgoorlie. A gold-class cabin costs A$2008 (NZ$2583) one way, including all meals; in red service, a cabin sleeper costs A$1402 (NZ$1803); a day-nighter seat costs A$716 (NZ$921).
Entry to the Mining Hall of Fame costs A$20; the Pitch Black underground tour costs A$60.
Finders Keepers' Gold Fever Adventure Tour costs A$95; the half-day tour includes all equipment hire, a prospecting licence and morning tea.
The Questa Casa brothel tour runs daily at 2pm at 133 Hay Street. It costs A$20.
For more information, see kalgoorlietourism.com.
It's like fishing: you either fall head over heels or you just can't see the point. A detector is a big investment, so try a Finders Keepers prospecting tour. The next step is to hire a machine, for about A$100 a day. The company's Matt Cook also offers advanced courses, which include basic bush safety.
If you're hooked, Adelaide-based Minelab is the world's largest producer of metal detectors. The GPX 4500 costs about A$5600, the GPX 5000 costs A$6500. Minelab dealers around Australia provide a free day's tuition after purchase.
Older machines, such as the Minelab SD 2200, which you can find on eBay for A$1000, are still effective. They're less sensitive but, as they say, you only have to walk over the right spot.
You must have a valid Miner's Right licence to fossick in Western Australia. It costs A$25 from the Department of Mines and Petroleum. You must know where you can and cannot detect; if you are caught on someone's lease, you can expect severe penalties - or worse. They don't call it the wild west for nothing.
* Max Anderson travelled courtesy of WA Tourism and Great Southern Rail.
Sydney Morning Herald