Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

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Tales from the Front Bar - Salmon Gums, WA, Australia

Monday, June 01, 2020

The Salmon Gums hotel is a squat stone building with a rusting corrugated iron roof on the corner of a dusty street. It is a typical Australian country pub where you would expect to find cold beer and warm lamb rolls on the menu.  However, when I call in, I meet a couple of characters who are hoping to find more than a reviving drink and a decent feed.

The door creaks as I step out of bright autumn afternoon sunshine to enter the dimly lit front bar. Inside, walls are hung with photos of footy teams, racehorses, and community events; there’s a whiff of smoke in the stale air; last night’s scores are chalked on a blackboard beside a dartboard; and Charlie, the landlord’s old dog is sleeping on the hearth beside the dying embers of the morning’s fire.

A cheery barmaid greets me with a smile and a flat, nasal Kiwi “G’daay.” She’s a smart, solid middle-aged woman with dark hair and even darker eyes. I suspect her genial manner masks an ability to sort out any brawling bar room patrons. It turns out Ann, the barmaid, ran a pub in New Zealand with her ex-husband. Unfortunately the ex’ started drinking more than he was serving, so Ann left him and the pub to find a new life in Australia.

After sampling Sydney; ‘Too many Kiwis,” Melbourne; “Too posh,” Adelaide; “Nice, but too quiet,” Ann landed in Perth which she rated as “Okaay.” She was still searching for something—or someone, so when she got wind of a stand-in manager’s job in the country, she signed up. Then she borrowed a map to discover where Salmon Gums actually was! It is a settlement of 191 bushy battlers stuck out on the edge of the Western Australia’s wheat-belt some 700 km from Perth. Impressive stands of Eucalyptus salmonophloia trees surround the hamlet: hence the name Salmon Gums. 

Having been here a couple of months, Ann loves the place. “Decent locals, honest folks … good community, keen sports, footie in the winter, cricket in the summer. And there’s a bit a fun too when students and backpackers are in town. They rock up at harvest time to labour at rail sidings loading the grain harvest.”

This pub has potential too, Ann reckons. There are seven bedrooms that, with a lick of paint. could be rented out. Plant a few shrubs and a bit of grass in the yard out back and you’d have a nice beer garden. She has already started an advertising campaign persuading Albert, the landlord, to order pens printed with the pub’s name. She reaches one down from a glass on a shelf and hands it to me.

I can see Ann is a rare individual in these parts. I am sure she will find what she is searching for. More likely it will find her; probably in the form of one of the increasing number of male patrons being drawn to the pub by her inviting smiles and good cheer.

The door creaks open again, throwing a blinding shaft of sunlight across the front bar floor. A couple of dusty and dishevelled strangers stumble in, their eyes slowly adjusting to the inner gloom. These two are searching too; they are looking for a gold mine.

These road weary prospectors look like two errant knights on a quest. A real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza straight off the plains of La Mancha. After quickly downing a couple of beers the tall thin one leans on the bar rolling a cigarette in his lined, leathery hands while the short fat one balances precariously on a wobbly bar stool trying to unearth an annoying stone out of his elastic-sided boot.

They recount a sorry tale of prospecting on the old diggings in Victoria. “All pegged and picked over, mate!” they reckon. The two swig their second beer, then order another.

This latter day gold rush is not surprising, given that the price of an ounce of gold has risen from less than US$ 300 in 2000 to over US$ 1200 by 2010. The chance of making a quid has drawn many a hopeful prospector back to the gold fields to rake over abandoned workings. Low-capacity crushing plants have been trucked in to reprocess the tailings piles of ore previously judged uneconomic. I've been told even the streets of mining towns like Boulder were dug up and reprocessed to extract gold out of the low-grade ore which had been used for road base. The streets of Boulder were once truly paved with gold!

By the time Ann is placing a third round on the bar, it becomes clear that Quixote and Panza did not happen on Salmon Gums by chance, a dream of finding riches drew them here. They may be down on their luck, but not out for the count: although I suspect this current quest could be the last roll of the dice for these two old-timers.   

Mustering his waning spirits the old Don tells a tale about the landlord Albo’ who, when he was a lad had picked over a gold field up north alongside his prospector dad. There was a rumour of an abandoned mine somewhere near Whim Creek off the Port Hedland road that Albo’ had worked before the gold price fell.

Enthusiasm building, the Don continues his entrancing story in a whisper. “Perhaps there was still an ounce or two in that abandoned mine. Maybe Albo’ could remember where it was. Possibly Albo’, owning a pub and all, would chip in a few dollars to stake us lads for a bit of fossicking to take a look around.” The old prospector’s eyes take on a golden glow as he described his alluring vision. “If we strike gold up there, I reckon there’d be plenty of winnings to share around!”

That glow quickly fades when Ann tells him Albo’ isn’t in today; he’s gone to Perth to get his teeth fixed and will not be back for two weeks. The impossible dream of riches evaporates; the prospectors’ run of bad luck continues; their hopes drain away like the last dregs of beer they swig from their glasses. The two disillusioned searchers just sit there in the front bar, all silent, eyes downcast, faces forlorn.

© Stephen W. Starling 


If you’re ever traveling Western Australia’s Highway One between Norseman and Esperance call in at the Salmon Gums Hotel, or any pub in outback Australia for that matter, and you are sure to find a couple of characters with entertaining tales to tell. For directions, and other venues to visit click on: https://publocation.com.au/pubs/wa/salmon-gums/salmon-gums-hotel


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