Monday, June 29, 2009

High-Calorie Kalgoorlie

Not long after leaving Cook, we crossed into Western Australia. For a while, the landscape didn’t look any different, but gradually, as we left the Nullarbor Plain, the bushes got a little taller and closer together. By late afternoon, we were seeing real trees again, and it was clear we’d left the harshest part of the desert behind. By evening, we were approaching the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, where the train stopped for several hours.

By this point in our journey, we’d realized that the rule about not being able to get off the train unless you’ve booked a tour was completely unenforced. So we had the sense to explore Kalgoorlie (“Kal,” to its friends) on our own. This involved passing up the opportunity to take a nighttime bus tour of Super Pit, the world’s largest open-cut goldmine. We decided we could live with that.

We were too late for the sights of Kalgoorlie, which are almost all museums, devoted to mining, history, and the sex industry. (This last one was our first clue that Kalgoorlie might be a little rough around the edges.) We set out on foot anyway. We’d had dinner already, but were hoping to find a restaurant where we could have dessert. Almost as soon as we’d left the train station, we passed an Asian-infused white-tablecloth restaurant, but passed it by, hoping for something a little more….I hope we didn’t use the word “authentic,” but we probably did.

Kalgoorlie reminded me of gold rush-era towns I’ve been to in Alaska and the Sierras, but Kal is what Australians call “fair dinkum;” the real thing. Places like Skagway and Nevada City have preserved main streets with hitching posts and bars with saloon-style swinging doors. Kalgoorlie has actual dirt-streaked men slumped over schooners of beer who have come directly from the mines to their barstools without passing the 21st century. It’s a real hard-drinking, two-fisted kind of place where a stagecoach or a shootout wouldn’t look too out of place.

Because the mines are still going strong in and around Kalgoorlie, the town is fairly prosperous, and nice to look at, even at night. There is one very long main street, supposedly wide enough to turn a camel team around in. I have no idea how much space that requires, but I imagine Hannan Street can handle it. The buildings mostly date from the 1890s, which is when gold was first discovered here.

Unfortunately, the only establishments open when we arrived at around 8pm were Chinese restaurants and the kinds of hotels you drink at. We figured our dessert chances would be better at a pub, and I decided that the one with a sign advertising “hot skimpies” looked promising.

At this point, I feel like I should explain my train of thought. Australians are compulsive diminutizers, especially where consumables are concerned. In a week in the country, I’d learned, for example, that “brekkie” is breakfast, a “chockie” is a chocolate candy, and a “stubby” is beer that comes in a short bottle. Somehow, in that context, it made sense to me that a “skimpie” might be edible, and that a place serving them might have sweets, as well.

No sooner had we walked in the door than our dreams of dessert were snuffed like the flames on cherries jubilee. We found ourselves in a pub with only a few patrons, all young guys who looked like they’d stopped having fun about an hour ago, and were now settling down to the serious work of getting drunk. “Skimpies” turned out to refer not to any kind of snack, but to the black latex bikinis worn by the barmaids. I’m sure we made quite a sight, standing there in our fleecy pullovers with wallaby-in-the-headlights expressions on our faces. There was no option but retreat, so we left.

A few doors down, another hotel had a menu posted that included pie. It really was pie, but we never got any. We were ignored by the waitress for about 10 minutes, and when she finally came around, she told us that the kitchen had just closed.

Her only suggestion was the hotel we had just fled, and that’s when we realized that we needed to find a place a little less authentic. We went back to Danny’s Restaurant, the first place we’d passed, and somehow white tablecloths didn’t seem so off-putting any more. Inside the décor was Japanese minimalist with no mining kitsch to be seen. Our waitress was fully clothed, and happily brought out the dessert cart for us.

Pipi had sticky date pudding, which was delicious. It was more like moist cake than a pudding, and coated in a caramel sauce. I had my first-ever pavlova. I wasn’t sure I would like it because meringue covered in whipped cream sounded a little insipid, but it was so good that we later made it at home. Sweet, creamy, soft, crunchy, and fruity, this classic Australian* dessert was exactly what I was in the mood for. I only wish we hadn’t wasted so much time that evening looking for something more real.

*I realize that pavlova is one of those things, like Russell Crowe, that Australia has appropriated from New Zealand. I think that there’s enough of both to go around.

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