I was 22 years old and I was lucky to make it to 23. But I didn’t know that yet.
While other girls my age flocked to tropical getaways or the beach for holidays, I was going to the remote North-west of Australia. The fact that I’d promised to visit a good friend in a mining town in the Pilbara, some 5000 km from a major centre, was seen by my beach-loving colleagues as evidence I’d lost the plot, or had fallen in love? Or possibly, both?
Western Australia’s Pilbara Region
The Pilbara is a large, dry, thinly populated region in the north of Western Australia. It is known for its Aboriginal peoples; its ancient landscapes; the red earth; and its vast mineral deposits, in particular iron ore.Wikipedia
This arid Western Australian region is known to be hot and very dry. Even the Aboriginal word for the area bilybara, means,”dry” in the Indigenous Nyamal and Banyjima languages. Given that it would take a staggering and torturous 51 hour drive across several deserts from the Eastern side of Australia, tourists are warned not to travel unprepared, as this region can be terribly unforgiving. Little did I know how telling those words would become, later in the trip.
The Pilbara was an unusual and very different place to my home in the East. That interested the 22 year old me. Books on the area were non-existent so my only knowledge came from the one person I knew, who lived there. Despite the reservations of the “Negative Nancys,” at work, I boarded four consecutive flights spending a total of 19 hours circumnavigating my way round to the other side of Australia by air, in order to arrive at a place, called Port Hedland.
I wrote in my travel journal:
Driving into Port Hedland from the airport, the first thing I notice is the redness; the country is so very red and flat. So flat you can literally see for miles not that there is much to see other than red dusty sand. Ancient soils like these look quite alien and hostile to a city girl, but, occasionally, I spot a vestige of low saltbush or a stunted tree struggling valiently to survive against the harshest of climates.
Tell me again why did I choose to come here?My Travel Journal ~1984
After meeting a few of my friend’s housemates and family, it didn’t take me long to notice the town of Hedland, as the locals called it, was naive and raw – undeveloped, with an pervasive atmosphere of transience. The residents appeared similar to a young child unable to hold its attention, they were restless, found it hard to settle down, were constantly agitating and always seeking something more than Hedland could offer them.
No one is putting down roots in ‘Port Hedland,’ I was quickly informed. Everyone here speaks in terms of before PH, [Port Hedland], and after PH; the present moment being likened to a kind of stagnant quagmire they wade through, before true reality begins again. This was a place in which the people exist because they have to; a place they stayed in, only for as long as they had to stay.
The majority of indigenous families live on the town’s outer fringes, usually in Government sponsored housing. There’s a multitude of social problems and I note the streets are littered with rusty car wrecks and the detritus of disadvantage. Prejudice and racism appears rampant. I feel ashamed of my comparatively affluenct city life and my general ignorance of the Aboriginal’s plight.
Even the weather seemed discontent in Hedland. Cyclones regularly ravaged swathes of this country in summer, perhaps made worse by the lack of hills or trees which might ameliorate the wind’s fury. You have to be resilient to live here or perhaps it is the living here that makes a person tough. I am unsure which.My Travel Journal ~1984
Port Hedland Mining and Maritime Activities
Almost without exception, the town’s people were either directly employed by the mining industries of salt and iron ore, or performing ancillary jobs supporting mine workers. Mining was, after all the very reason this town was established.
One thing that is impressive about Hedland besides the mine, is the port, impressive by its sheer scale. It handles the largest tonnage of any port in Australia and it is here that that salt and iron-ore is unloaded, screened, crushed, stockpiled and transferred from wharf to ship to export.
Mammoth iron-ore carriers frequent the port and dot the horizon, transporting the iron-ore to Japanese, European, Chinese and Korean markets. A 426km-long railway was built to carry ore from one of the world’s biggest mining facilities in Newman, southeast of Port Hedland. This busy line is visible along the road to Port Hedland and trains and their cars are up to 3km long.https://growporthedland.com.au/about-port-hedland/
Near the port itself, I recall seeing towering piles of salt and massive, massive ships – both of which seemed higher than a six story building. The tides here are huge and the land so flat, a shipping Pilot is necessary to guide the huge vessels in and out of the port.
I was invited aboard a Helicopter Taxi bringing the Port’s Shipping Pilot, back to the land after he completed his task guiding the ships. Nowadays WH&S would most likely prohibit such familiarity by a tourist. It was my first and probably my last helicopter ride. It was jerky and noisy, something I had not anticipated.
Mining Boom and Rental Accomodation in Port Hedland
During the 90’s mining boom, rental prices for accomodation in Hedland became ludicrously expensive and resources were stretched to breaking point. Any kind of accomodation was so sought after, the one pub in Hedland closed down and both it and shipping containers were converted to flats for workers. The workforce became ‘fifo,’ – (fly in, fly out workers), in which they were separated from their family for weeks on end, then able to fly home for some leave before flying back to resume work again. The population is now over 14,000.
My final night in Hedland was spent at the open air theatre. Even in winter, it is so cooler to sit outside under the stars on a camp chair and watch a movie and of course, there are no city lights to dull the screen. Sadly, I can’t even remember what movie we watched.
The events over the ensuing week overshadowed this and the first few nights of my visit. A story I will relate another day.