Earth : Oceania : Australia : Western Australia : Goldfields-Esperance : Menzies
Menzies  is a small Western Australian town that endured more than 100 years of decline after its gold rush era boom to retain a distinctive impression of the Goldfields' fickle fortunes. The graceful heritage buildings impart histories no less peculiar than the eerie sculptures at nearby Lake Ballard, making Menzies an intriguing destination for the inquisitive traveller.
Looking down Menzies' main street today you wouldn't suspect that it was once a major town during the late 1800's. Gold was first discovered here in 1894 by a prospecting crew headed by L R Menzie who, while registering the claim in Coolgardie, inadvertently sparked rumour of a prodigious new gold field that ignited a minor stampede of fervent prospectors wanting to grab their own share. Lack of water forced some of the hopeful back but those who lasted the arduous trek, sustained with the promise of abundant fortune, were soon joined by numerous like-minded prospectors.
The burgeoning town was officially named in 1895 and within a year Menzies had a population of 10,000, thirteen hotels, four churches and a brewery. Sapping heat, water shortages, fires and frequent typhoid epidemics all weakened the residents, but finally when the gold ran out so too did the fortunes of the town and with it the size of the population. By 1910 the population had withered to around 1000 and today the residents number a little more than 200. The handful original buildings still standing are all that remain from Menzies' previous grandeur.
While Menzies has enough interesting things to see on its own, many travellers pass through here on their way to the sculptures on Lake Ballard. Not as well known, though no less interesting, are the nearby Goongarrie railway cottages and Niagara Dam.
Menzies is not large and the majority of sights line either side of a 300m stretch of Shenton St.
For such a small town, the places of interest in Menzies are surprisingly informative. Almost every building has an information board explaining the history and significance of what you are looking at. Dotted around the streets at relevant places are larger than life-size metal silhouette figures of miners, bakers, police, prostitutes and priests captioned with quotes from past residents that give a voice to bloodless names and dates.
An icon of weird Australia are the 51 forlorn statues standing on the dazzlingly salt encrusted surface of Lake Ballard. The lake stretches for almost 100km but the nook that everyone visits is 51km from Menzies. The sculptures are the work of Britsh artist Antony Gormley who was commissioned to create the artwork for the 2003 Perth International Arts Festival. The figures began life as laser scans of current Menzies residents. Each scan was shrunk by two-thirds, creating truncated figures that were cast in an alloy containing molybdenum, vanadium and titanium - metals found in the local rock.
Most people tend to view them in early morning or late afternoon, not only because the low sun colours the hills a radiant orange and throws gangling shadows from the feet of sculpture and viewer alike, but mostly because the midday sun makes the scintillating surface of the lake unbearably hot. The viewing site begins at the base of a domed hill from which the sculptures radiate haphazardly outwards toward the horizon. The closer ones get the majority of visitors, making the area around them smudged with muddy foot prints. Avid photographers should head to the disregarded brothers on the outskirts where the pristine blanket of salt makes for more striking shots. During the day insistent flys are phenomenally abundant but they retreat after sundown. A net and/or repellent would make things more comfortable.
Other than walking around and having your photo taken with your arm around your new spindly metal friend, there isn't much else to do. A climb to the top of the domed hill at the entry provides a different perspective. A narrow path (steep in places) spirals up the side to the relatively flat hilltop. Snake hill is 3km further up the road and gives a wider view of the lake.
To get here from Menzies, take the Menzies-Sandstone Rd signposted from the Goldfields Hwy on the northern end of town. The road is unsealed but smooth enough to traverse without a 4WD. Custom Inside Australia signposts mark the way at 10km intervals.
Camp sites along the lakeside are available in specified areas. Facilities are not any more than a single "long drop" toilet and a couple of concrete fire-rings. A water tank is on site but you would be better off bringing your own. The same applies to food.
Few sights in the Goldfieds typify the unbridled ambition of the Goldrush era more than Niagra Dam. Prospectors drawn to the desert by their thirst for gold were all too often defeated by a thirst for water. The importance of a permanent water source, not only to quench the rapidly growing population as much as the equally demanding steam trains, was great enough to drive an engineering feat that, looking at it today, is difficult to believe was accomplished in 1897. The 18m high dam builds on a natural rock ridge that forms a natural reservoir, capped with the 173m long concrete wall. Construction materials had to be transported overland from Coolgardie by Afghan camel trains. This arduous trek was shortened later when the rail line extended to Menzies. A namesake town was established soon after construction began, intended to service the planned Leonora-Coolgardie rail line and nearby goldmines with water from the dam, but by the time of completion the gold had run out and town was in abrupt decline. After its completion in May 1897, the discovery of abundant underground water at Koolkynie made Niagara Dam all but irrelevant. With the decline of Niagara township and a less impressive than expected capacity, the dam ultimately was never utilised and it quickly faded to a historical oddity. Today it's popular camping spot and welcome chance to get wet in a region where salt lakes predominate.
Though rain is infrequent here, the dam fills quickly and always full enough to go for a swim. There a two short hiking trails around the dam and along the break away area. The site of the Niagara township is about 3km eastwards from the dam turnoff. A sign marks the spot where the short lived community once stood with four pubs on each corner of the crossroads of the only two streets in town. A wander across the rubbly ground will reveal lines of mud bricks, bottle fragments and other interesting detritus that, with a bit of imagination, show the lives of people.
To get here, head north on the Goldfields Hwy to the Kookynie turn off, 42km from from Menzies. The Niagara Dam turnoff is a further 16km.
There are maintained camp sites both above and below the dam wall. The lower sites are larger and quieter, though the sites up top are right on the water. There are toilets at each site and numerous concrete fire-rings. Food and water are DIY. Bring your own firewood.
Isolation and the general smallness of most country towns hinder them from having abundant eating options. Menzies can offer even less.
Self-catering is a practical option though you will need to be prepared as there are no supermarkets in town. The Roadhouse and Menzies Hotel have a very limited range of tinned or dry groceries. Stocking up in Kalgoorlie or Leonora with enough supplies to keep you going till you reach the other side will avert an empty stomach.
If you can't be bothered cooking after the long drive the Menzies Hotel sometimes has food to go with your beer.
Menzies once had 13 bars. That number has declined to a solitary choice, so if you are particular about your booze it would be prudent to BYO as the nearest bottle shop is a few hundred kilometres away.
Your options are limited.
The sign outside the Menzies Hotel says they have rooms but the owners are not too sure if they want you to stay in them. The rooms themselves look a tad worn and dated if you care about décor, but they are your only option for a bed.
Falling into an abandoned mineshaft is not an inconceivable danger as the area is riddled with more than 100 years of mining activity. Many sites close to town have been filled in or otherwise rendered safe but mine sites in more remote area are left open in various states of collapse. The area around Niagara Dam has numerous mine shafts along the access road. Most of these holes are not signposted or marked on maps, but you can readily identify a likely mine by the white pile of quartz or greenish waste soil nearby. Nonetheless, perfectly safe looking ground may be honeycombed with old tunnels mere meters underground that could, and do, give way without warning. It would be prudent to tell someone where you are going if you plan to go out exploring and be careful about where you step.
Mobile phone coverage is limited to the Telstra 3G network, and only within town. The signal becomes variable to non-existent the further away you get. Coverage maps show it's possible to get a signal with an external antenna as far away as Lake Ballard, but you should not rely on it. Other networks aren't available in Menzies.
A satellite phone would be useful to have in an emergency if you intend to spend an extended amount of time off the beaten track.
Mobile internet on the Telstra 3G network has the same coverage as the phones do. The Visitors Centre have two internet connected computers you can get online for $2 for 15mins or $6.50 for an hour.
If you need it quickly, the old post office has an ANZ ATM on the Brown St side. The visitors centre provides banking services for other Banks. If you need something special it might be worth asking them.