It’s an environmental supervillain today, but a century ago, coal saved the day in a small pocket of the rugged region of Western Australia.
Australia was founded as a penal colony in 1788, but European settlers only got to the western part of the country in 1829, when the first settlement Swan River colony was created in modern-day Perth. It was still a relatively unknown region, and the time was ripe for explorers to better acquaint themselves with the landscape and look for grazing and agricultural land.
In 1846, three British explorers, the Gregory brothers, Augustus, Frank, and Henry, set out to travel the area around the present-day town of Mingenew. They spotted something that looked like a coal seam on the banks of the Irwin river. When this discovery was reported, there was great excitement and the area became the site of the first mined coal deposit in Western Australia, and was declared as a coal reserve. The government hoped that the coal they found could be used as fuel for the colony.
After decades of small-scale mining, it was discovered that the deposits’ coal was too soft to be mined at a large scale, and the plans of building a huge mine were abandoned. However, a combination of the reserve status and the harsh topography protected the natural fauna and flora of the area from being cleared for wheat and sheep farming. Today, the site is the Coalseam Conservation Reserve which protects an area of botanically diverse kwongan heath, in the midst of farmland. While it looks dry and forbidding in the heat of summer, in spring a spectacular show of wildflowers transforms it to a wonderland of diverse color.
In addition to spotting a variety of local flower and animal species, you can also retrace the trail of the brothers Gregory and see the sites where coal seams were discovered and mining was attempted. Another intriguing section of the park is the Riverbend, where naturally-preserved marine fossils from millions of years ago can be seen. The nearby limestone cliffs, coated with other substances like like sandstone and clay over the centuries, date back to the Permian era, 250 million years ago.