Monsignor John Hawes - priest, architect, stonemason, sculptor, woodcarver and, in the last years of his life, hermit - has left an extraordinary legacy of churches, priest houses and other ecclesiastical buildings in the remote inland areas of the mid-west. Whilst the cathedral at Geraldton (450kms north of Perth) is his master work, it is the in the smaller parish churches, chapels and priest houses that his unique empathy with the land he lived in shines through. Mullewa, Morawa, Yalgoo, Perenjori and other tiny dots on the vast map of WA are where you will find his work, a wonderful testimony to one man's devotion to his God, his people and to design.
Hawes not only designed the buildings. He worked as a stonemason on them, carved altars, gargoyles and memorials from stone and from wood, he painted and gilded, glazed the windows and made the furniture. His commitment to them and to the people he worked for was all-encompassing.
No tour of this region is complete without visiting the work of this remarkable man.
Whilst nuggets of pure gold are sometimes found, most of the gold in this region is reef gold, that is it lies locked in rock. To see how a small operator separates the precious metal from that rock you need to visit the gold battery at Payne's Find. This is where the individual prospectors can bring their relatively small amounts of ore to have it crushed and the gold extracted.
Elaine Taylor who owns the battery is happy to show visitors how it all works - if it's not in use. She also runs a small visitors centre and gift shop adjacent to the battery with a lot of good information about the area, the gold, the wildflowers and the valuable local sandalwood industry.
The solid stone buildings that line the main street of the tiny town (pop300) of Cue give a clue to just how wealthy the place once was.
Gold was discovered here in the 1890s and when word of the rich finds in the region reached the outside world the rush was on. Within days of the first big find -260oz in just one week found near where the centre of the town now stands - 400 men had travelled the 650km inland to stake their claims. Before long the population had grown to 10,000, and by 1901 boasted electric street lighting, 3 newspapers, and a number of fine, substantial buildings. Cue was on its way.
Good winter rains bring the promise of a springtime bonanza of wildflowers to the desert. To see the dry red earth smothered in fields of flowers is an amazing sight that brings visitors from all over the world.
Western Australia is listed as one of the world's botanical "hot spots" with thousands of plant species that occur nowhere else. There are wonderful displays to be seen all over the state but it is the flowering of the desert that is the most spectacular sight. The area around Payne's Find is particularly rich in the variety and density of its wildflowers.
The tiny chapel of St Hyacinth that John Hawes built for the Dominican sisters in Yalgoo was one of his first commissions. Newly arrived in the outback, struggling with its heat, isolation and strangeness, he not only designed the church but often travelled the 120kms from his home in Mullewa on horseback to oversee the building work and work as a builder's labourer on the site.
The sisters have long gone from Yalgoo, but the little church still stands on the edge of the town. Restored and lovingly cared for, it is a moving testament to the dedication of the outback's architect-priest.
There is a mystery about the paintings of Walga Rock. Among the ancient paintings is a clear image of a square-rigged sailing ship with two masts and square portholes. Whilst accurate dating isn't possible, experts are pretty sure it is at least 100 years old. Why or how it came to be here, 300km from the sea, is the cause of much debate, but it was certainly painted with local clays and with an accurate eye for the detail of such a ship.
There's just one last town to stop in as you head back to Perth from this trip - Perenjori. Another little wheat belt town, another small church on the John Hawes trail, lovely wildflowers and the strange and unique wreath leschenaultia that only grows in this locality, and on the barest earth. This beautiful plant is very elusive - you'll need to ask at the tourist office or somewhere else in town where they are to be found this year. Find the right spot and there they are, lying along the roadside, lying on the gravel like abandoned wreaths from some bush funeral.
Hidden away below the breakaways, the valley floor of Coalseam Park is a wash of colour in Springtime. Purple and yellow everlastings spread on and on under the trees while the sides of the valley are banded white and orange with traces of the soft blue-black of the coal deposits the area was named for. Look closely there and you will see marine fossils laid down 250 million years ago when the all this land lay under the sea.
95 km south of Mullewa, in the town of Morawa, is perhaps the mosy idiosyncratic of all John Hawes's buildings - the tiny Hermitage he built for his accommodation when he visited yet another of the far-flung churches in his parish. The church is his work too, but it is this little house that perhaps gives the best clue to the character of the man. Just big enough for a bed, a chair and a small table, it presages the way he was to end his life - living as a hermit on an island in the Caribbean.
The arid semi-desert is behind us now and we come into the breakaway country between the townships of Morawa and Mingenew. High ridges fall into deep valleys, the views are wonderful and in Spring the ground is covered in sheets of colour as the wildflowers the region is famous for come in to bloom.
Leaving Cue and heading west towards the coast, the road takes you through a few little towns and interesting, rugged countryside.
The most activity you are likely to see as you drive into the tiny hamlet of Yalgoo is a mob of emus strolling down the main street. There's very little here to tell you that here too gold fever struck and a bustling, rowdy tent city sprang up almost ovenight as fortune seekers flocked to the town when news of the first strike got out.
Only one of the 7 hotels that served the miners now remains, it's been years since the last train pulled out of the station and the emus have the race track to themselves for all but a few days of the year.
Whilst the church was being built, Hawes - never very mindful of his own comfort - lived in a one-roomed shack but once the church was completed he was directed by his bishop to build a suitable presbytery. The priest house by the church (paid for by his own money) was the result - a gracious, low stone house with a deep arched loggia. The house is now a museum dedicated to this extraordinary man.
Visits can be arranged by calling the church office.
Monsignor Hawes's vast outback parish was centred on Mullewa, 100km inland. The small town was a convenient staging post for people travelling from the port of Geraldton to the Murchison goldfields but by the time Hawes arrived there in the 1920s its main role was as the railhead for the wheat-growing region of the central west.
Hawes spent 20 years in Mullewa and the church and priest house he built for the town are the most important buildings there still.
The Church of Our Lady of Carmel is his vision of how his church architecture should both fit the surrounding landscape and express an aspect of the faith by which he lived - in this case the parallels of the antiquity of Christianity and the ancient land in which it stood. It is a solid, low building, built of local stone, with a bell tower and several quirky gargoyles. Whilst very much an individul building, it is reminiscent of village churches of the southern France and Spain, models that Hawes saw as most suitable for the region's harsh, hot climate.
When the mine closed at Day Dawn and the town emptied vitually overnight, the Courthouse was moved to Yalgoo where it now serves as a museum with an interesting collection - particularly of photographs and items relating to the history of the gold rush in the region. There is also a very good display of Aboriginal artifacts from the locality.
The vast monocline of Walga Rock has been used by aboriginal people for more than 10,000 years as a canvas for their art. Using ochre from a mine 60km away and white clay from nearby breakaways, they have left behind a great gallery of work - stencilled hands, geometric designs, representations of humans and animals, animal tracks, etc. This is the best gallery of rock-art in the south-west of the state.