Australia, blogging, Travel

Travelling to the Pilbara in Western Australia

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

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.

Driving in to 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.

The rudimentary Hedland Drive in. It closed when video availability came to town.

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
The roads in and around Port Hedland c1984

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.

My only Helicopter ride

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.

Me in the Pilbara
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94 thoughts on “Travelling to the Pilbara in Western Australia”

  1. I SEE ! – a serial ! 🙂 And why not ? – a long story is far better servied by being read in instalments – just ask Dickens !
    I don’t remember this, but must think that “Red Dog” was filmed in Hedland ..

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well, M-R, I have much to say and this post was already a bit longer than I anticipated. So it will continue… I can see why Red Dog was filmed there, but actually didn’t know that. I might have to take a look at the movie again, but I find myself unable to watch movies like that – ones in which animals might be abandoned. I couldn’t watch Lassie as a child without bawling my eyes out.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sounds almost like a colony on Mars, and looks like it with all of the red. Interesting that your 22 year old self picked up on the racism. I grew up watching large ore boats, but a bit different from an 800 foot Lake Boat (think Edmund Fitzgerald, though that was only 729 foot) and those huge ocean going ships. Looking forward to part 2.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Trent! Mars is an apt description for the area and I felt completely out of my depth at first. Yes, the racism was pervasive. The Government handouts created a different set of problems and seemed to fuel jealousies with non-Aboriginal resident. It must have been difficult for the Indigenous folks there, who did not seem to fit with the aspirations of a modern society.Having more traditional values, they seemed caught in a system in which they didn’t fit. I had been sheltered from most of this prior to my visit.
      I just looked up Edmund Fitzgerald. It looks similar to the vessels I sure, but my memory is not totally accurate after 37 years! What sort of cargo would these lake vessels carry? And that storm that sunk it must have been vicious!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The big lake ships are also iron ore. They go from the far west side of Lake Superior down to Cleveland or its satellite cities. There is a lot of steel industry on the coast of Lake Erie (or used to be), but much of the ore is/was shipped via rail from there to Pittsburgh, about 150 km away. That is the middle of coal country and it is easy to move ore than coal, though a lot of coal does go north to the mills on Erie. I grew up on the shore of Lake Erie so there was constant stream of those huge boats going back and forth. Did you know the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald or see it when you looked up the boat? It was very popular here back in the late 1970s.

        Anyway, enough about me, I’m still waiting to find out why you almost never made it to your 23rd birthday! You hinted it was hat rough environment…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Funny, I never imagined the lakes to have an industrial history. Thanks for opening my eyes to that and the industries there. It is obviously entrenched in my head that iron ore comes from a red desert in the middle of nowhere!
          I enjoy watching the freighters ply the coast up north, when I stay at the Sunshine coast and sometimes you can see them here, so I can imagine that as a young boy, your view of passing ships on the lakes, would have been fascinating for you.
          I saw the song you mentioned in the Google searches, but didn’t click on it. I will have to go back again and take a look, but for now, I must get back to writing Part2, before people lose interest!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The Great Lakes were the industrial heartland of the US for most of the 20th century. Maybe they still are, but heavy industry doesn’t run our economy like it used to. And Where the iron ore comes from is the exact opposite of what you know – very green and very cold!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Amazing that iron ore can be extracted from a green and cold area – it seems anathema to me. But then I have to think that Sweden also has iron resources and it is cold. It is just Australia’s desert north-west has some of the largest deposits in the world, so that is where I tend to think of first. Have you heard how vast the Aussie iron ore country and the mines there are, Trent? It still blows me away with the statistics. One mine in Newman (near Hedland) is the largest open-pit mine in the world measuring 1.5 kilometres wide by five kilometres long and is expected to reach a depth of 500 metres. That is just one. Hammersley is 2.5 Km and I don’t know how big Mt Tom Price is. One of the heiresses to a Iron ore mining magnate’s fortune is said to earn about $1-2million every minute!

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I just did a quick search and it is amazing that Australia is responsible for about half of the worlds iron ore. The US is pretty small, but it was enough to feed our industrial boom in the mid-20th century. Anyway, I will be by in a few to see if you posted part 2 yet 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

              2. I didn’t know that figure, Trent, but it is not that surprising. It is a pity these mines are in private hands and the government only gets mining royalties. Our economy is really only made up of mines, banks and housing so without mining we would not have much going for us. Can you imagine how wealthy our country would be if all the mining money was in public hands, if even a small amount of iron ore was enough to kick start America’s boom?

                Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Manja! You are right in saying I was out of place on that rock/dead tree trunk. I was. Totally different to the environment that I love – snow, ice, rain, cool weather. The silly decisions you make when you are 22, right? But it was an experience and I probably would never venture there now. Millions of tourists visit the “red centre” and “Ayers Rock,” in Australia, but I have never been. No interest either. Would arid country be something you would enjoy seeing?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Can’t wait for the story to unfold, I was quite disappointed to come to the end and not have the tempting near death experience your opening paragraph promised. Hurry up with the next chapter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am sorry to disappoint you, Mari. My intention was to write the complete story, however the post grew its own legs and became far too long. I decided it wasn’t a mini novella and decided to break it up. I find that when I write, I become immersed in the story and what starts out as a short tale, grows legs, arms and everything else! Verbose I suppose? Do you know what I mean?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Just like Maris I was a bit disappointed to reach the end of your post without reaching the end of your story, but a good cliff-hanger is a tried and trusted literary technique 😀 Nevertheless do hurry up and tell us what happened – it seems it must have been quite dramatic and horrible?

    It’s great that you still have your journal from that trip. There’s nothing quite like hearing someone’s first impressions of a place, which are so often modified by the passing of time and exposure to later events/places etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The post took on a life of its own, Sarah and I have no wish to bore people with pages and pages of descriptions. I get distracted when I write and I am sure that readers would too! Travel journals can definitely help to bring my memories back to life. I would not have remembered all the details without them. However, they can also be a hindrance as I want to include everything and then the post becomes overly long. I will do my best not to leave you hanging for too long! Hahah!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Travelling to the Pilbara in Western Australia

    On Wednesday, June 16, 2021, Something to Ponder About wrote:

    > Forestwood posted: ” 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” >

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful descriptive writing and commentary! How perceptive you were when you were in your early twenties. More, please! So fascinating. For this Mainer who lives on the edge of a deep green forest, the landscape you portrayed looks as though it’s on another planet.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This part of the world is so very different from Maine, Laurie! However, large parts of Australia are like this, which tends to fool immigrants when they look at the size of our country and the small population. Most of us all cling to the narrow habitable eastern and southern coastline and the rest of the country is very sparsely populated. Much of the North west of the country is inhospitable terrain which accounts for why the early Dutch explorers who discovered this area decided not to settle there, as they could not sustain themselves or grow food. There are various Dutch and Portuguese shipwrecks off the coast there and retrieval expeditions discover gold and jewellery treasures from hundreds of years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks to your terrific descriptions, I can picture it, even though I’ve never been there. One of the great joys of the blogging world is learning about places that are far, far away from me. I might have a general idea about them, but I don’t know the specifics. Many thanks for the illumination.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That is the best compliment I could receive, Laurie. You are so sweet! I am glad I am able to bring the area to life for you. Writing is amazing that way – it shrinks the world so that distant places seem closer.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds like a stark, bleak place, but interesting nonetheless for its otherworldliness. I like the old, faded photos. They capture it well. Can’t wait to hear what happened!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It is a stark place, Graham, something so far removed from the tropical Hawaii you know. I think the attraction of going there was exactly its otherworldliness. At that time in my life, I didn’t want to see the usual things that most young Aussies wanted to see – London, Europe, Greece etc. I wanted to see a different culture or a different way of life. As this is pre-digital, I only have these really old and poor quality photos from a little Kodak instamatic camera I had been given as a child! It lasted well.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You’ve left us with a real cliff-hanger! i hope we hear the rest of the story soon. We went to Port Hedland in 2015 and it was much more civilised than your description from way back. Probably the only thing which hasn’t changed is the incredible sight of the port and the huge ships and very long trains carrying the ore. It’s an amazing place.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I met an American guy recently who had immigrated and married an Australian girl. He used to drive one of those trains for a living. He had no experience but a lot of confidence and bluffed his way into the job! This was in the 70-80’s of course.
    These trains are quite a sight.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. An amazing place!

    On Wed, Jun 16, 2021 at 4:42 AM Something to Ponder About wrote:

    > Forestwood posted: ” 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” >

    Liked by 3 people

  12. A wonderful, enticing opening line, Amanda. And then a great following paragraph. I immediately feel like I am beginning to read a good book.

    I do not know the layout of Australia and I appreciate your description. I am in awe of your adventurous spirit. I like your phrase “naive and raw.” Fascinating to learn about Hedland. This is an excellent post, Amanda! I loved everything about it! I appreciate the photos you share.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So kind of you to say that about my writing, Eric/ka. Thank you.
      It is often a place that doesn’t get publicized. Our country is vast but most of it inhospitable except perhaps to desert dwelling creatures of which there are hundreds. People are still trying to adapt, I think.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. A great story….so far, Amanda. I haven’t had the urge to go to that part of Australia. Maybe Broom’s Head. Perhaps I could be persuaded but it would have to a good way to travel and a place to stay other than a shipping container

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Interesting choice of destination from your past self. Sounds like it was an insightful visit. It’s easy to forget that so much of our country is desert. I’d love to take the Ghan or Indian Pacific one day just to gain more perspective of how big our country is.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. That’s why I wanted to travel to Ixtapa, México in 1991. It’s (or it was) a remote Pacific coastal hamlet with little to do, except enjoy the beach! I haven’t traveled much, but I’m not the type to do typical tourist stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooh the photos are somethings! Actually it gives me feeling amazing like it was in another side of the earth 😁 , i mean not in Australia.
        Thank you for sharing. I live in a tropical island btw, so never seen a place like that 😁 ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  15. The best memories I have are those of poking around the desert country and then the Cape looking for gold and gems. Some things just cannot be purchased and adventures in your youth are one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Adventures in our youth are enmeshed as part of our character, Mick. You must have some great stories of your adventures in that harshest of environment. Did you find the gold nugget?

      Like

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