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The Day The Earth Shook

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The Day the Earth Shook

Distance: 228km Approx. Travel Time: 2.5 hours

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If you want to understand the first town on our route today, Meckering, you need to understand one of the most significant seismic events in Australia's history. The Meckering Earthquake left a two-metre-high, crescent­-shaped, surface rupture in the earth's crust. The disruption zone ran 30 kilometres either side of Great Eastern Highway from its epicentre, four kilometres west of the town.

Fifty years since the quake, the disruption zone has been eroded and filled-in to the point that it cannot be seen anymore - apart from one place; this is why we start the trail with a short diversion.

Head south towards York, on the Northam York Road, before taking Quellington Road to the east. Zero your odometer at the turn, and then look out for a lump in the ground. You will also see a gate, a shelter and a sign on the south side of the road at just over twenty kilometres. The last remnant of the earthquake disruption isn't all that impressive, we warn you. But when you stand on that small hill and look at the lump in the ground, imagine what sort of machine would be needed to create it in 45 seconds. then imagine the forces involved in making a similar lump more than 30 kilometres wide.

Then we continue on Quellington Road to where it re-joins Great Eastern Highway and head into Meckering, the town that shook to the ground. Most West Australians that are old enough, remember where they were when Apollo 11 landed and when JFK was assassinated. They also recall the Meckering Earthquake because almost everyone in the State at the time felt it.

There had been light tremors in the weeks before. Constable Des Skehan reported one day that the ground had 'shaken like jelly' around him. Golfers had seen a mushroom cloud of white dust erupting from the rubbish tip. Animals had been behaving strangely too. One farmer said that his sheep in one paddock had arranged themselves in a tight circle, all facing in.

Then, at two seconds before 10:59 am on October 14 1968, starting seven kilometres beneath the surface, the earth picked itself up by 1.9 metres, heaved itself west by 2.4 metres and then south by 1.5 metres before putting itself untidily back down again. The eastern part overlapped the western part by about two metres. It was an unleashing of much pent-up force - the equivalent of 10 nuclear bombs of the same size that levelled Hiroshima in World War Two. Measured at 6.9 on the Richter Scale, the continent has only seen two more severe earthquakes since. Buildings shook 130 kilometres away in Perth and rubble crashed to the ground all along St Georges Terrace. The spire of St Mary's Cathedral fell and imbedded itself one metre into its front lawn. The shaking lasted 40 seconds and was felt over a 700-kilometre radius. Forty kilometres away in York, three men were injured when the balcony of the Imperial Hotel collapsed onto Avon Terrace.

In Meckering, there was a strange garlic-like smell of carbide in the air. People felt a burning sensation on their skin. Five-centimetre cracks opened and closed in the footpaths as the ground was heaved up in two distinct waves across the main street. There was a noise like a loud explosion, the screech of tearing metal and the rat-tat-tat of nails popping out of tin roofs. Trees whipped from side to side and cars were thrown up in the air. So were people. In less than a minute, the town of more than 100 buildings was reduced to rubble. Somehow, nobody was killed, although 20 people ended up in nearby Cunderdin hospital with fractures, lacerations and a few in shock. If it hadn't been a public holiday; or if the quake had struck at night, we might be telling a much different story.

Ancient continental cores like the Yilgarn Craton, which makes up much of the south of Western Australia, aren't supposed to have earthquakes. These commonly occur at the boundaries of tectonic plates: like in the Java-Sumatra trench of South East Asia, the western Pacific Ocean, or the west coast of South America. lntraplate earthquakes are less common. But Western Australia has had more damaging earthquakes than the rest of Australia for a reason. It is drifting north towards Asia at about seven centimetres per year The southern side of the plate is also being lifted. This pressure is flexing the relatively rigid crust, and occasionally those stresses release abruptly.

The Goldfields pipeline was ruptured. Vital communication lines that linked Western Australia to the rest of the country were severed. A man driving towards Meckering on Great Eastern Highway happened to be about 90 metres from the fault area. One moment the road was flat and the next there was a two-metre scarp in front of him. He chose to stop.

Some of those forces are evident at the earthquake display in the main street of Meckering. A buckled section of the railway line has been kept, along with a part of the ruptured pipeline. Although when you are viewing these displays, you aren't standing where Meckering used to be. A short walk northeast along Great Eastern Highway lies a park and an avenue of trees where the old main street was. The position of former buildings is marked with plaques that tell more of the story of this town and the day the earth shook.

Across the railway line just north-west of the town, towards the wheat silos, you can find Ruth Snooke's house left untouched from the day of the earthquake. Not a single brick has been moved. Although there are some weeds and weathering of the old stone, the Snooke Homestead, Salisbury, still gives the impression that quake has only just hit.

Before you leave Meckering, make sure that you check to see if the camera museum is open (Country town museum rules apply here. Opening is at the pleasure of the owners and the availability of volunteers). You cannot miss it. It looks like a giant camera. If this museum is open, prepare to be surprised. Inside is the most extensive private collection of fully operational cameras in the Southern Hemisphere. The Camera Museum does what all good museums do - it takes you back. Through this single device that mankind has used to capture moments - From the camera obscura of the renaissance, Laius Jaques Mandre Daguerre's silver iodide Daguerreotypes, through to film and then the digital age - you can draw a history of the world. Why did the owner decide to house this rare collection in Meckering? We'll let him tell you that story.

We continue towards Cunderdin, twenty-three kilometres further east on Great Eastern Highway. At the Cunderdin museum in the old No 3 Pump Station, you will find another way to experience the Meckering Earthquake. The interactive Earthquake House will give you some idea about how Ruth Snooke must have felt trying to get to the next room and save her baby.

The rest of the Cunderdin Museum will give you pause to linger and appreciate the determination and inventiveness of the people who developed what was then the world's longest freshwater pipeline. Opponents, in politics and the print media at the time, harassed Chief Engineer CY O'Connor with accusations of incompetence and corruption. The media suggested that his blundering and largesse with public funds would bankrupt the State - all allegations that a subsequent inquiry proved to be unfounded. The stress drove him to ride his horse into the water at Robbs Jetty in Fremantle one day and shoot himself in the head, one year before the project's completion.

Shortages of steel after World War One and during the Great Depression forced engineers to construct part of the pipeline from wood. There are sections of this remarkably well-crafted wooden pipe on display. Pipe runners like Charlie Dugan would ride thirty-kilometre lengths of the pipeline on their bicycles with a caulking hammer, and wooden plugs hung from the bike's crossbar. Pipe runners would dig down and plug any holes where they saw water bubbling up from underground (the pipe was mostly buried in those days). The Cunderdin museum is full of such stories that will change how you view the pipes following you along Great Eastern Highway. The Goldfields Pipeline will turn from something you take for granted, into a living example of the boldness and persistence that makes up much of Western Australia's unique story.

To create a consistent water supply for Dangin, Parker had a wall constructed at the base of a natural bowl in Toapin Rock; forming Toapin Weir. A private scheme like this was unprecedented in the Commonwealth at the time. The engineer employed to construct the weir was T. C. Hodgson, who played an instrumental part in the construction of the Goldfields Pipeline.

We take a short diversion onto the gravel to visit Toapin. The roads are well maintained and easily navigable by standard two-wheel-drive vehicles, but if you'd rather not get your car dirty, we suggest you continue to Quairading and then York via the main roads. On the way to Toapin Rock, you may have the opportunity to visit Toapin Rise Farm, which has extensive olive groves and is often open for tours and tastings. Country rules on openings apply again here, and we suggest calling ahead. The climb to the top of Toapin Rock will suit most fitness levels and is well marked. From the summit, you'll have sweeping views of the surrounding country (particularly to the east), and the weir.
From Toapin we connect with the Quairading York Road and finish our day in the historic town of York. With a history that stretches back to just two years after the Swan River colony was founded, York is the second oldest town in Western Australia and the oldest inland settlement in the State. If you walk along the Avon River you'll see signs of first settlement and the main street is lined with heritage buildings. The courthouse complex still includes the jail cells from the 1850s. The magnificent Town Hall, built in 1911, has such exaggerated features that architects still argue over whether its style is Edwardian, Classical or Romanesque.

Our pick for finishing the day, however, is the York Motor Museum. Peter Briggs was WA touring car champion in the 1970s. Together with his mate James Harwood, he had a habit of acquiring cars. By the late seventies, garage space was becoming a bit of a problem. Harwood conceived of the idea of a motor museum and chose York for its location. The museum was purchased by a local not-for-profit association in 2017 and set up as a community venture. It is quite easy to see why the museum has won many tourism awards. Room after room of magnificent machine, dating from the earliest days of motoring through to the modern day.