A hidden gem (in my backyard)

A dear friend of mine recently posted Backyard Tourist which inspired me to write of my own experience even though to have this ‘backyard experience’ you have to drive for about an hour, but in this enormous state of WA, I figure an hour, is still in my backyard.

I usually keep an eye out for things to do on the weekends but nothing had really popped up for the weekend. However, I was aware that the Perth Heritage Festival was on, so I trolled through the website and found a place that sounded interesting to visit. So off we went to the Mundaring Weir. Neither my husband nor I knew much about it but I love history and my husband is an engineer and so a weir sounded interesting.

The latter part of the drive, in the Perth Hills, is attractive, not unlike a drive in the Adelaide Hills, and the last section is through a National Park. But it wasn’t until we arrived and started reading about the place that its significance began to dawn on us.

So I’ll have to fill you in on a bit of history now. In the 1890s Western Australia was in the midst of a gold rush, which was good for the state, because it brought a lot of wealth (which explains some of the grand heritage buildings in Perth) and a rapid increase in population. However, the gold rush was in the eastern part of the state which as isolated, land-locked and dry. This not only made mining difficult (in Victoria’s gold rush they panned in running creeks for gold, or washed the soil to separate the gold from the dirt) but the miners didn’t have enough water to drink, cook and wash with. The water that did exist, needed to be condensed to make it potable, making it expensive, too. Even whisky was cheaper than water.

The situation got so bad that water was taken there by train, the steam engine using up half of what was hauled there. But it got even worse. The miners were afflicted by typhoid, due to poor sanitation, lack of clean water and proper food which resulted in a high death toll.

The government decided something had to be done. They had recruited an Irish-born engineer from New Zealand, by the name of CY O’Connor, to assist with building infrastructure in the colony. He had already turned the poorly chosen port of Fremantle into a functional port, developed the railways and was now tasked with getting water to Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie.

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He proposed building a weir across the Helena River (now the Mundaring Weir) to create the Helena River Reservoir and piping this water 500 kilometres to the goldfields including lifting it 390 metres up the Darling Escarpment via eight steam-powered pumping stations. The Western Australian government of the time agreed to this audacious project, managed to raise funds for it and the project began in 1898. There were some aspects of the project that some disagreed with, such as trying a new type of pipe that hadn’t been tested on a large scale and the government employing workers rather than contractors being used. From the start there was opposition to the project but Premier John Forrest backed and supported CY O’Connor. The strongest opposition came from Sunday Times editor Frederick Vosper, himself a politician, and when Forrest become the Federation’s first Prime Minister he was no longer able to protect O’Connor from the increasing flack.

It became too much for him and in March 1902 CY O’Connor got onto his horse and rode along the beach to Robbs Jetty in South Fremantle and shot himself.

The project continued and a year later was completed, on time, on budget and with much acclaim, and still functions today.

The Mundaring Weir is now higher than it was in O’Connor’s time because with the blood, sweat and tears of post-war European refugees, it was raised in the 1950s to triple its capacity.

This is a picturesque spot for a short walk to see the beautiful reservoir in its natural bush setting and to wander around the old brick chimney and pump house with its steam engines and museum, or to have a picnic.

After spending some time here we decided we’d go and check out the Mundaring Weir Hotel, to which we’d seen signs on the road.

I expected some little, country pub, but gee I had that wrong.

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It was pretty enough on the outside, one of those red brick buildings with timber balconies and the like and so we went inside to the bar to order a drink. I stepped away from the olde worlde bar into a hallway and discovered a beautiful, well-kept,  historic hotel. Later we wandered all the way through to the café out the back for some chips and were gob-smacked. The entire place still has its original jarrah floorboards, coloured leadlight windows and chandeliers.

And even more amazingly, David Helfgott, of Shine fame, had played there a couple of months earlier. Here’s proof: DSC_0800 (2)

Below the café, which is below the hotel and cut into the hillside, is a fully decked out amphitheatre and covered stage which is a venue for bands – ie Vika and Linda Bull and Ross Wilson had played there last year.

Wow! In my back yard! We’ll be back to explore this little gem more fully.

 

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