Monday, April 29, 2013

29 April 2013 - Tom Price Tourist Park, Tom Price, Pilbara, Western Australia

There are two businesses in town that deal in tyres and related repairs, more or less opposite each other on the edge of the town and we were there soon after 8 am, to find that their yards were just full of mine related vehicles all needing urgent service; typical of Monday mornings for all and everywhere.

The first quoted a price for Bridgestone tyres at a price about 33% more than we had suggested to each other over breakfast. He suggested that the shop across the road might be able to source the Goodyear tyres to match those already on the vehicle, so we popped across to the Cooper’s outlet who convinced us instead to shoe our work horse with these famous 4WD never-fail tyres. Of course you cannot put just one on, it would be as lopsided, so a pair were agreed on, quoted at a price $30 each  less than the Bridgestone.  I could hear the credit card groaning in Chris’s pocket; he looked at me in askance and I gave the nod. There was little option.

They could do it immediately, the tyres in stock and the labour available. Alas, we were expected at the Information Centre in about an hour and we were anxious to be on time. We would return at about 11.30 am when the tour was over.

We were still early and still hoping to head off to the Hamersley Gorge in the afternoon so we popped back to the caravan park, packed up lunch and headed back to the CBD in time to join other punters for the mine tour.

By the time the doors opened the queue was out on to the pavement and it was evident that the tour would proceed, however it would be leaving at 10.15 rather than on the hour as advertised.

We found ourselves in conversation with a chap from Bunbury, whom we had met in the camp swimming pool a couple of days ago. He is up here with his eight year old son for a special father and son bonding holiday, a pilgrimage back to the place of his own childhood and the region around his current employment. This man works in a mine to the north east of Auski and commutes week about from down south of the state. They are travelling in a vintage or classic Landrover. I use those terms loosely however their landrover is very like that which my parents had during my own childhood and that was long ago.

We discussed his angle on Tom Price and iron ore mining, unions and the economy, and the pros and cons of his own domestic situation. This was all very interesting and more so when considered in conjunction with the spiel from the tour guide a little later on.

At 10.30 the Lestok Tours bus arrived and thirty of us poured onto the bus, all armed with our safety glasses and white helmets.  We could have had the tyres fitted after all, or could we? How long would it take in the end?

The Rio Tinto Mine tour is really a must-do when in Tom Price because mining, after all, is what the town is all about, and the tour is really very interesting. Well it is, unless you are only two or three years old and just wanting to sit on your mother’s knee and be spoken to in German. There was a moment just after we had entered the mine site when I wondered whether the driver / guide was going to suggest he take the culprit and his parents back to the town. Fortunately for all, five minutes of noisy bad behaviour was followed by relative quiet.

The Rio Tinto Mine Tour
Baz, our guide, was most informative and spewed a screed of statistics, stories comic, historical and interesting and was altogether excellent. My head just spun with volumes of diesel machinery consumed, costs of machinery, output of this and other mines, output of the area, capacity of railway wagons and value of load, and so on and on. We were sorry that there was no information sheet handed out at the end of the tour, but how was Baz to know I wanted to bore the pants off my readers with facts and figures?

However we did learn that the gender balance of the employees on the mine site at any one time was 60/40 and 70/30 if only considering work one might otherwise consider “jobs for men”. We learned that the trains carrying the iron ore through to Karratha are two and a half kilometres long and are pulled by three engines, and that Rio Tinto has nothing to do with Port Hedland. That is strictly BHP’s domain. We were interested to learn that gas piped in from offshore fields generates electricity which in turn is transmitted through from Karratha to Tom Price, Paraburdoo and Marrandoo. We also learned that the town was sold by Hamersley Iron Ore in 1980 for $1 to the Shire of Ashburton. Up until that time it had been a closed community and totally self-sufficient or rather, totally independent on the Company for all its needs.
We saw one of the great open cast pits, and watched massive trucks, shovels, drills and other machinery move about all over the terrain, the crushers, conveyor belts and screening plant, and the many support service buildings. As we had entered the mine, permission was required by radio contact, from the operations centre far away in Perth. It is that same operations centre that will be in charge of the automated trucks due for service very shortly.

I think I mentioned earlier that there was apparently enough iron ore to meet the world’s requirements for the next 400 years. That fact was gleaned from a travel video we have, produced in the late 1980s. When we repeated this gem of information to Baz, he was quick to dispute its veracity. The life of the mines is more like forty years, and when you think about it, the world’s capacity for iron ore consumption has increased and accelerated at least ten times in the intervening years, particularly with the expansion going on in China. This would bring that figure back to the ten Baz had spoken of. It is also understood that that China’s demand will drop off in the next few years but that India’s development will quickly fill the void.

In summary, we saw and heard so much, as I said; I thought my head would burst.

We struck up conversation with a couple of fellow tourists, a couple from Gisborne in New Zealand, who are taking just eight weeks to travel Perth to Darwin, and catching up with a couple of their children in the process. They are travelling in a hired campervan, the sort of 4WD vehicles we have seen driven mainly by young Europeans, thrashing them along the gravel roads and not inspiring future purchase for one looking for a second-hand camper. And this, now hired by Patrick and Christine, is probably one of those; bit and pieces are falling off the body and important fittings are inadequate, worn and altogether not meeting normal expectations. This account did not inspire the promotion of Apollo campers.

We finally arrived back at the Information Centre at 12.30 pm, one hour after we had suggested we might be back at Tyrepower & Mechanical. Already late, we did what modern people do these days, have lunch and make ourselves even later. The shady park adjacent to the centre provided a peaceful and pleasant picnic venue and gathering place for a mass of noisy birds.

When we finally did arrive at the garage, they greeted us with courtesy, directed us to a covered verandah where we resumed our reading of the weekend newspaper while the professionals dealt with the landcruiser. Not long after we settled in, we were disturbed by a couple of familiar faces; Patrick and Christine from the tour. Apollo had directed them to this garage to have some of their gripes remedied. Our newspapers were put away and we chatted about caravans and campers, travel spots and the road ahead and our lives, past and present, finding more and more in common with these lovely people. After an hour and a quarter, we were finally dragged away; our tyres were fitted and ready.

Chris paid the bill but while we were climbing into the landcruiser, he noticed the balancing weights were not in evidence. “I don’t think they’ve balanced the wheels!” he exclaimed.
“Well, you had better go ask”, I responded.

Sure enough, they had not, so back into the workshop the landcruiser went and back onto the verandah we went to resume our conversation with our new travel friends. Half an hour later, the work was finally completed and we bid a final farewell after exchanging email addresses.

We filled with diesel and bought a couple of bits and pieces from the supermarket before heading back to camp. The good spare tyre had not been stored away correctly but left on the roof with the second spare, so we lifted it down, fitted it snugly under the back of the vehicle and restored the tanks of diesel in readiness for our journey tomorrow.

We have decided to leave Tom Price in the morning, in line with our original plan, thus ruling out the trip up to the Hamersley Gorge, a trip on dirt road of seventy two kilometres and the same all the way back. Perhaps we will have short changed ourselves but quite honestly, although photos suggest that this gorge is indeed beautiful, is it that much more beautiful than all those we saw yesterday?

Tonight the birds have been active and as I write this, the galahs are settling into their roost for the night. Earlier, dozens of these same birds gathered in the open space of the powered sites, swinging on the power cords, sitting on the tap stands and generally amusing all of us who bothered to watch their antics. Oh here I go again, waxing lyrical about one of my favourite things; birds.

We have had the maps out and our travel bibles, and decided further about our route ahead. As of tonight, we have decided to head for Carnarvon, thus missing Exmouth and Coral Bay. We figure there will be enough sea, sand and fish further south to satisfy any appetite for such activities. But then, our plans can change from one day to the next.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

28 April 2013 - Tom Price Tourist Park, Tom Price, Pilbara, Western Australia

I am not sure which came first, the birds or the small children across the way, but the day started early for us and the rest of the camp.

We were out the gate before 8 am ready for our expedition into the Karijini National Park ninety kilometres away.  I drove the first one hundred kilometres, the first time I have driven all year and more. It was certainly time I sat behind the wheel because I know from past experience it is all too easy to lose one’s confidence. 

Views from the RIP rest area
About twenty kilometres north west of Tom Price, we called into a lookout spot marked with a camera symbol we had seen yesterday but left for today. From this spot we soon realised was a rest area marked in Camps 6 as an overnight camp, the RIP Rest Area, there are lovely views over the landscape although at this point along the road, it is not as spectacular as that further east. I understood at once the name of the area, RIP. The parking platform is surrounded by piles of large rocks, placed there by the engineers who built the road, and most of these rocks are painted or written on in the same way the rocks are on some of the seawalls on the coast in northern New South Wales. Here however, all the graffiti is of a memorial nature to dead loved ones. While I hate to see nature defaced, it was quite moving.

Here too in the park was a travelling man and his amazing rig, comprised of a truck with a storage “shed” arrangement immediately behind the cab, and a collection of essential tanks and other possessions on the tray behind that. Bob was masked up in welding gear, busily repairing something or another, but paused to greet us warmly. We spoke for some time with him but not as long as I would have liked, however we had other plans for the day and could not linger. We did learn however that he carries 1,000 litres of diesel, 1,400 litres of fresh water and enough food for a year. I am sure the story of his life would be spell binding, and I know too that Bob Hoskins could be well cast as this Bob. Perhaps we will encounter him on the road again and learn more about this fascinating character.

Pilbara Ring Tailed Dragon
We travelled back along Karijini Drive, that which we had travelled yesterday morning in from the Great Northern Road. Today as yesterday, there were few road trains and no road kill. I did spot a dingo skulking in the low vegetation at the roadside, with cowering stance suggesting anything but happiness to be out in this wonderful wild landscape.

We arrived at the eastern entry station, satisfied with our annual pass, thus avoiding the daily fee of $11 and headed for the Dales Gorge section. There we undertook the Gorge Rim walk  of a couple of kilometres, close to the rocky ledge and through White Barked Snappy Gums, overlooking the Fortescue Falls, in which a few hardy souls were swimming, the water apparently icy cold because it rarely sees sunlight and up as far as the Circular Pool, an amazing semi-circle carved by the flow of water over the millions of years. There were wonderful views down into the gorge and down to the pools far below where more intrepid travellers had headed. We decided to avoid the steep descents into the gorges, wanting to save our energy for the many walks we expected ahead.

It was at this point Chris took the wheel again; his back-seat driving is almost as bad as mine. 

Just twelve kilometres back along the road is the Karijini Visitor Centre which is relatively new, opened in 2001. The design of the building, fashioned with high weathered steel walls mimicking the sheer sided gorges that are the main feature of the park, represents a goanna moving through the country and is symbolic to the local Bayjima Aboriginal people. The tail represents their history, the head the future direction of the traditional owners, and the centre, Aboriginal Law.

Along the Gorge Rim walk
Both Chris and I were impressed with both the building and the displays inside. It, like the Park, is run by the traditional owners and serves as a wonderful tribute to the history, both geological and social, the biology and the geology of this huge area.

Amongst all the excellent displays and stories in the Centre, there are displays and short videos of past station workers, including memories of one woman who remembers mustering up to 29,000 sheep. She speaks with fondness and pride of the work that she and her husband undertook on the Hamersley Station, as do other elders whose stories share the space. But there is also expression of anger and bitterness from the next generation, those of our age, who understand how their parents and grandparents were used basically as indentured labourers.

After the uprising on the Wave Hill Station in 1968 and the subsequent passing of Aboriginal Protection laws, many of the aborigines were moved off the stations. These pastoral enterprises were simply unable to support the payment of wages to the workers; a very sad fact both for the existence of such uneconomic businesses and sad for those suddenly out of work and without any income at all, even the modest rations that had been handed out over the years in lieu of unpaid wages. The old ones had allowed their exploitation because they saw it differently; an opportunity to remain on their own land and a way they could continue in their roles as guardians of that land which they considered their mother.

The excellent natural history section highlights the pebble-mound mouse who constructs mounds of pebbles around their burrow, which apparently plays an important role in their social life. Apart from the fact that this curious little creature has its own Facebook page, I do not know what social significance the boulders play.

Here too in the Centre I learned that cats had been introduced to the Pilbara in an attempt to control the rabbit problem however subsequent research, albeit rather cursory, gives no credence to this claim. I accept that feral cats are a scourge on indigenous wildlife but will not, for now, accept the suggestion that their introduction, en masse, took place or was for that purpose.

I also learned the identity of the wonderful little iron red brown lizards that scurried hither and thither along the pathway we took across the gorge rim; they are the Pilbara Ring Tailed Dragons.

We had met up again with a couple encountered on the top of Mt Nameless, at the Circular Pool lookout. They had left the caravan park nearly an hour before us, entered through the western entry and visited all the gorges by about 10.30 am. We thought that rather a shame because the park is some distance back from Tom Price and there is an entry fee, all making a good argument for taking one’s time to explore and enjoy this National Park which in my husband’s opinion is the best we have visited. We asked Ray how they had found the Visitor Centre which we understood to be new and very interesting. They had driven in, seen the “gate house” which has an information board, toilets and a few shaded picnic tables, and not even noticed the Centre itself. Having now been there ourselves, we can understand how this might happen; the rust coloured structure of the Centre blends into the landscape, a perfect camouflage, easy to be missed by the unobservant. And alas, while we had found these folk from New South Wales very warm and friendly, they obviously do not share our desire for detail.

It was almost lunch time and I had seen that the next gorge, the Kalamina, was promoted as being a good place to start one’s exploration of the gorge system and more importantly a delightful picnic area.

We continued along the Banjima Drive, the road through the park that runs like an alternative route to Karijini Drive, very loosely parallel. The tar seal soon gave way to gravel and on we drove, turning north off nineteen kilometres past the Visitor Centre, still on gravel but requiring a little more attention. We came on down a gentle hill, round the corner and heard the most horrendous noise. A blowout! Chris drove a little further to a straighter part of the road and we commenced the tyre change, never a fun activity and even less so on red dust.

The tyre was shredded, good for nothing, not even a potato growing bed. I have never seen such a mess and I have seen a few munted tyres in my life.

I insisted he have at least one sandwich and a good swig from the water bottle before proceeding with the repair. I know that he is nearly as bad as me when it comes to dealing with irritations and frustrations when hungry and thirsty. (See comments about checking into camp yesterday!)  With the boss topped up, we started to change the heavy and very dirty wheel.

A ute came roaring down the hill and stopped after I waved my arm to slow them down in an attempt to avoid the blinding clouds of red dust. We thanked them for their offer of help and said we were under control, however soon, when we tried to lift the replacement wheel on to the bolts, we struggled. I had already suggested to Chris that we request help from the next strong man who turned up, to lift the useless wheel up onto the roof. We had no desire to put it in the back of the cruiser, as filthy as it was and of course the back of our vehicle serves as storage for our life’s paraphernalia.

A blowout on red dust
Soon another vehicle did arrive, and the most obliging chap helped with the heavy lifting that had I found beyond me. He and his wife were travelling as we were, currently staying in their caravan at the simple camp in the National Park. They were a delightful couple and I found much in common with his wife. Sadly such a transient encounter, a brief relationship doomed to go nowhere, the story of my gypsy life. We bid each other farewell and drove on to the gorge as previously intended.

The rolling green hills stretching all the way to the horizon, seemingly well suited to the pastoral industry, are slashed here and there with deep red gorges, 100 metres chasms, like deep wounds, the sides of which are sheer and plunge down to creeks and pools. These waterways can rise almost without warning at the merest sniff of rain and for this reason, some of the gorges had been closed yesterday after the previous day’s rain. There are signs everywhere warning of the erratic behaviour of the river streams and yet tourists still venture down into the beds, where they are passable, sometimes to their ultimate demise.

After lunch we walked out to the lookout of this first gorge, a disappointment after the spectacular Dales Gorge, but then we had been warned. This was a “great introduction to the gorge system” and indeed it was just so.

Back in the vehicle, we returned to Banjima Drive for a further ten kilometres, then turning up to the Knox Gorge. Roads branched off Banjima Drive to the Joffre Gorge in the same manner and then to the Weano Gorge, where from the Oxer Lookout we had spectacular views of four converging gorges; the Weano, Joffre, Hancock and Red. Banded iron rock formations tower over these narrow valleys far below, and here too is a memorial to an SES worker who lost his life attempting to save a foolish tourist.

It was here too that we came across the threesome of young men who had offered prematurely to help us with the tyre. Two had been down into the gorge for a walk, the third, the driver, had remained with the ute, guardian of the alcohol on board. Obviously he thought he could look after it best by consuming it internally and when we came upon him, he was lying comatose in the sunshine on the edge of the car park. His mates were there trying to rouse him which they finally did. He was totally wasted and uncooperative. They managed to get his keys off him and to raise him on to his feet. Next I saw him staggering over to a motorbike and get on. By this time I had made myself scarce, not particularly impressed with  the language being used. Chris was assisting the two sober mates, to entice the drunk off the bike which was not his at all. When we finally drove off, the drunk was being pushed into the back seat of the ute.

Soon they overtook us, and hopefully headed for home to deliver their burden to his accommodation, to sober up ready to perhaps drive some technical machine in the mines? Scary for his co-workers!

About ten kilometres before leaving the western entrance to the park, the road became sealed, we came into view of Mt Bruce and a perfect rainbow spanned the landscape beside us. It was all quite beautiful.

Mt Bruce beyond the rainbow
Back on the main road, we caught up with the trio in the ute; all were out on the roadside, it looked like the drunk had decided to mutiny and reclaim his captaincy. One of the guys had told Chris he would slug his drunken mate if necessary; it looked like that might become the only solution. Then they overtook us again, only to be found ahead, this time, the drunk exposing himself while he relieved himself on the road. I guess it was better than doing so in the vehicle, however I really find that disgusting, prude that I am.

We carried on, closing in on Tom Price, this time staying ahead and hoping that they arrived back at their home base safely. Another scene of the evils of alcohol! Goodness me, there is nothing worse than a reformed drinker, or at least a partly reformed one.

It was about 5 pm when we arrived back at camp having covered 280 kilometres having had an interesting adventure and much of it some of the best. The positives were enhanced when I switched this machine on and received a Skype call from my parents, up very late for them and chatted far into their night and up until Chris had dinner on the table. Yes, an excellent day on the whole.

Tomorrow is Monday, we shall have to see about the tyre. We also are booked to take the mine tour and had other plans for the afternoon which would have wound up our exploration of Tom Price and surrounds. However the purchase of a new tyre could prove to be problematic and we are not prepared to leave and travel across the next expanse of remoteness ill equipped.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

27 April 2013 - Tom Price Tourist Park, Tom Price, Pilbara, Western Australia

I was woken by the roar of road trains pulling out of the roadhouse yard and the screaming of a delinquent child from across the camp. School holidays are well underway here although I think the family in question is travelling before such matters become important. The diesel generator had continued to whir all night but had been more a lullaby than a disturbance. Peering through the venetian blinds, I could see mist lying across the camp but no raindrops on the window; altogether a much brighter outlook than the previous evening.

We were anxious to be away promptly because we wanted to catch the Information Centre in Tom Price, one hundred and seventy kilometres away, before it closed at midday. Having remained hitched up, our preparations took only a short time and soon we were off, out through the dirty rust red yard and on to the bitumen heading south toward Newman.

It was soon evident that we had crossed the Fortescue River yesterday and so we can only surmise that the river runs through culverts when there is water to do so; we had crossed no bridge at all.

The East Munjina Gorge
The road rose gently from the floodplain and up through the East Munjina Gorge, the scenery stunning and the road well engineered. Reaching the top, we pulled into the Albert Tognolini Rest Area from where we had stupendous views back down the gorge and across the beautiful landscape. A couple of tenting parties were breakfasting as we arrived; the camp is listed in Camps 6 as an overnight spot, yet there are no toilets or water and those who had taken advantage of this wonderful spot last night were the very ones who should not have. The ground does not easily yield to a simple digging stick and the rubbish bins were already full. Perhaps calling in early in the season was preferable to calling in a month or two?

Thirty four kilometres from Munjina, we turned westwards into Karijini Drive, a relatively new sealed road through the Karijini National Park to Tom Price. The road is about seventy five kilometres long and climbs through the spectacular Hamersley Ranges at elevations between 700 and 800 metres ASL, but apart from one steep section, straight up and straight down in true Australian fashion, the inclines are gradual.

Closing in on Tom Price, we passed the second highest peak in Western Australia, Mt Bruce which reaches an elevation of 1,235 metres ASL. This stands strikingly above geological wonders, strata striped in varying shades of red and purple, pale cream spinifix in the foreground and mauve lupine-like flowers along the roadside.

We crossed a wide basin weaning us of the spectacular scenery before reaching the highest town in Western Australia, purpose built in about 1966 after Tom Price and Lang Hancock flew over the area and decided that it was a treasure trove of iron ore. (Interestingly Tom Price died just days after that historic flight so never knew the upheaval he spawned.)

Today the town of Tom Price has a population of 6,500 and sells itself as a tourist destination, albeit a quick stopover, where the curious can take a tour of the massive open cast mine and take a tour through the Karijini National Park.

The National Park was established in 1969, soon after the town was, and covers an area of 627,442 hectares making it the second largest national park in Western Australia. The Hamersley and Robe River railway corridor and the Marandoo iron ore mine split the park in half.

You will note that there are several superlatives about the area and finding their way into my blog.
We called into the Visitors Centre and inquired about the mine tours, advertised as running seven days a week, all year. Actually, no, they are not. They currently operate on Saturdays, Mondays and Thursdays and cost $30. The price is acceptable and fortunately we intend to be here until at least Monday so our names are on the list. The Monday tour will only go ahead if there are at least ten takers; we are numbers five and six, and the Centre is shut until Monday morning. A bit of a lucky dip, I think.

There is one caravan park in the town although there is also an “eco retreat” in the national  park itself. This latter offers camping without power, and all the other normal facilities we would want at about $38 per night for the privilege. Here in Tom Price for several days, we were keen to stay in the town caravan park with full amenities and had checked it out on line. The park has an excellent website, but….. and there is always a but, the price on check in was $42.

If you have been following this blog, you will be saying to yourself, “Oh no, here we go again”, and yes, we do. And today it was Chris who gave the young backpacker at the desk a hard time. Soon the manageress was there, taking it too and no one was prepared to bend. Again we had no option to pay up. We had been thinking we might use Tom Price as a base to explore the Millstream Chichester National Park, but are unlikely to do so now, however, watch this space.

Some time ago, we had discussed the need to be watered and comfortable before checking in and setting up camp, but had not headed our own advice today. We had had nothing to drink since breakfast and although the temperatures have not been too much over 30 degrees all day, we were not in a good headspace to be dealing with price discrepancies on check in. Will we ever learn?

Views from Mt Nameless
After lunch we drove into the town centre and bought a couple of items from the hardware store and the supermarket before setting out for the summit of Mt Nameless, just four kilometres from the centre. This can be reached by 4WD vehicles only and offers superb views over the town, the mine and the surrounding country. The mountain stands at 1,128 metres ASL and is the highest mountain in Western Australia with vehicle access.

We crawled up the very rough track in low ratio, the roughest continuous track we have ever travelled. We have crossed river beds and washouts equally rough, but never two or three kilometres without relief. While we were at the top enjoying the stupendous views and taking masses of photos, four others joined us and I was quite anxious about the return drive, since the useable part of the  track is narrow, however we only met one other and they courteously let us through.

Back at camp we tried out the swimming pool, somewhat cooler than those we have enjoyed over the past month or so, and then settled in for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the galahs, honeyeaters and other birds all about.

Friday, April 26, 2013

26 April 2013 - Auski Roadhouse, Great Northern Highway, Western Australia

Nothing did come up in the night to change our plans so we were away promptly this morning, stopping briefly for fresh bread, fruit and vegetables at the local Woolworths as well as securing a copy of today’s Australian newspaper. How is that for supply in such a remote corner of the world? Obviously the pull of money in the region has something to do with this efficiency.

The regular tourist would carry on around Route 1, which becomes the North West Coastal Highway after the turnoff to Newman, but we were keen to explore the inland Pilbara, or at least that part open to the public. Just over thirty kilometres south west of Port Hedland, we turned south, still driving on an excellent bitumen road and still very busy, but with road trains rather than caravans.

In truth we did pass a few caravans. Camper trailers and motorhomes, however it would seem that the majority come north on the coast road that takes them through Karratha and Roebourne.

After the first fifty kilometres we entered picturesque countryside, the Mungaroona Range to our right, and great natural piles and hillocks of red boulders. The sky had been overcast when we left Port Hedland but soon opened up to the east and south. The colours all about were lovely. We saw few birds or wildlife of any kind but at least one hundred road killed cattle in varying states of decay, some fresh and bloody, some so dry their hides stood stiff and erect like sheets of corrugated iron.

We stopped for lunch in a truck parking bay, on the red dust and surrounded by large biting ants. A lovely breeze blew in from the south, the same that was against us most of the route, sucking up the diesel.
Sharing a rest stop with a road train

We resumed our trip; the road trains kept coming as did an amazing number of oversize loads; re-locatable buildings for the mines and machinery parts of all shapes and sizes.

On the northern edge of the Chichester range we suddenly came upon a mine rail crossing and could see that this was all brand new. It is quite astounding to see the infrastructure going into this area but then there is supposed to be about 400 years’ worth of iron ore still in the ground hereabouts if the Greenies and the indigenous folk will allow its extraction. We were impressed with the road building going on in and around Port Hedland, however did lament the fact that there is obviously a shortage of housing. If a few thousand houses could be built and sold for around the $300,000 to $400,000 mark, the outrageous prices being asked for the existing ones might drop to being affordable, and the rents would, in turn, fall to a more realistic rate.

We climbed quite steeply, or at least steeply compared to anything we have in the past couple of months discounting the lookout hill behind Wyndham, and came out on to a moonscape plateau. It was quite beautiful. I had expected that we would simply tip over the top and head down to the Fortescue River, however when we did come on back down, the decline was gradual and much lower. We crossed the flood plains, now the Hamersley Range within view and lightening slicing vertically through the dark skies which had been gathering in the west for the past hour.

And then we were here, at the Roadhouse almost without warning and still not across the river; expansive red dirt yards and brown buildings. The young Taiwanese backpacker was charming at the counter, but could not offer any better price than that asked; a hefty $35 for this rustic layby. We did not even check the prices on the menu or on any of the wares for sale. The rain had started and we were keen to park up, plug into power and wait for the storm to pass. Again this will do.

I will add here that we recently heard on one of our travel videos the term “battened down” in relation to a town that is always prepared for cyclone events. I would add that many of these towns and settlements that we have passed through, from Darwin right through to here, all have that “battened down” look; low and unobtrusive, camouflaged in either the tropical vegetation or in the iron red dust. They seem to say, “Pretend I am not really here.”

 It is about two hundred and fifty kilometres from Port Hedland to where we are this afternoon, still only part way to our destination of Tom Price but I thought it better we travel the last fifty kilometres in the morning when we are refreshed. One’s appreciation of the route flags after the first few hundred kilometres in a day. And now my husband has dropped off to sleep, I can see that was a good call.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

25 April 2013 - Cooke Point Holiday Park, Port Hedland, Western Australia

ANZAC Day dawned fine and warm here in the north west of a country which celebrates, or commemorates this day so very religiously, so much more so than their cousins across the ditch. But then I never cease to be amazed as I travel this fine land to learn more and more about the involvement of Australia in the Second World War in particular. They pulled their weight more than most in both World Wars and continue to contribute troops and support world wide.

This morning I thought about my father and wondered if he had marched, joining the veterans at our own home town where to he and my mother have only recently moved. I have not had much success in contacting them lately; the four hour time difference just does not seem to work with our respective schedules.

This morning we were back out on the road about 8 am, again passing great convoys of caravans and camper trailers at even greater frequency than yesterday. There is an absolute frenzy of northern flight and I am very glad that we are travelling in the opposite direction.

It is about a hundred and fifty kilometres from the Pardoo Roadhouse through to Port Hedland. After crossing the Pardoo River almost fifty kilometres south of the Roadhouse, the landscape changed gear and we were treated to inspirational landscapes wide with rocky outcrops and the colours those that delight us; pinks, greens, reds, oranges, apricots, those I think of as Namatjira’s. Some of the way it was reminiscent of that around Coober Pedy, but with an array of green vegetation thrown in, albeit low, sparse and scrubby.

De Grey River
We pulled into the rest area beside the De Grey River, recommended by the fellow walker in the Gieke Gorge, John from Perth. It is an extensive camping spot, council blessed complete with toilets, rubbish bins and a dump station, but mostly a spot of great beauty beside this wide sandy banked river. Many of the trees near the bank had been recently flattened so we can only assume these were also victim of Cyclone Rusty just two months ago. I suspect it is a very popular overnight camp for the nomads already on their way north.

Despite the fact that we passed turnoffs to a couple of mines, the Pardoo and Poondana iron ore mines, converged with the rail line which comes through from the Yarrie iron ore mine, and saw several bloated cattle corpses, we were impressed with the beauty of the Pilbara, or at least this northern edge. We look forward to the inland sections we intend to explore during the next week.

And then we arrived at the outskirts of Port Hedland, a mess of industrial structures, industrial yards, yards full of dongas and modern 4WD vehicles and all of these stained or smudged with the brown orange dust of iron ore.

We pulled over in the rest area adjacent to the mountains of white salt, all part of the Rio Tinto salt mine operation and turned on our telephone. I had a list of numbers to ring and so we began with the Port Tourist Park. This was answered by an answerphone belonging to a well-known firm of accountants, possibly receivers for the now closed park? We then tried the Black Rock Tourist Park and then the South Hedland Caravan Park, neither who bothered to take our call. We were stuck between a rock and hard place; stuck with the Cooke Point Big4 knowing all too well that their daily charge was $52 a night.

Fortunately we are members of the Big4 loyalty club however $46.80 is still a great deal more than any other caravan park we have encountered in Australia in our twenty seven months of travel. (Kings Canyon had the dubious honour of that award prior to today) And so here we are, ripped off and at the mercy of the greedy monopoly.

While we were checking in with the very pleasant managers in this very nice park, albeit very pricey, the couple who had been our only fellow campers in at Pardoo last night arrived and asked if the park was dog friendly. Obviously he was pretending to ignore the large notice at the gate. He was told that no caravan park in Port Hedland allowed domestic animals in the park. (Black Rock is still open but apparently not very attractive and obviously not that keen for customers)

Interestingly this is also the case in Broome which must cause great distress for those thousands who travel with their little canine flea-balls. As penalty for this, these travellers are denied access to National Parks and so many other camping spots, and those in Broome and Port Hedland. Leave them at home or give them to the grandkids! If you travel you don’t need a millstone around your neck. It is bad enough to be past one’s prime without self-inflicted burdens. Ah, on my soapbox yet again!

We set up in a spot backing on to the Pretty Pool Creek, far enough distant to be bothered by water bugs but close enough to enjoy the view. From our camp we can also see the white mountains of salt and the rail that takes the trains two and half kilometres long to and from the mines far off in the Pilbara.

Port Hedland’s salt operation is part of Dampier Salt and was the last to be added to the group, purchased in 2001. It covers just over 9,000 hectares of operational area, although it certainly does not look like it from where we are. Seawater from the Indian Ocean is pumped into nine ponds covering 7,800 hectares where the salinity is concentrated step by step, the process of flowing, pumping, crystallising, sampling and finally harvesting. We saw huge machines ripping the salt up from the salt floors, from where it is being trucked to where it is washed, drained and dried and the finally trucked yet again to stockpiles ready for export near the Port Hedland deep water berth, and wondered at the amount of corrosion the salt must wreck on the machinery. Interestingly none of this is destined for the table; it is used industrially such as in cleaners, bleaches and chlorines.

After lunch we headed out in an attempt to see all of Port Hedland in an afternoon since it is such an expensive stop-off place. Alas, industry tours are not yet available; we are again too early in The Season. And today being a statutory holiday, the Information Centre and museum were not open, nor were the shops and businesses in the town of Port Hedland.

Fortunately there is the Port Interpretative Walk which starts along the Esplanade and is most informative in the absence of anything else.

Here we learned a few facts about Port Hedland, that one Captain Peter Hedland called in to explore this mangrove inlet in 1863, although not the first to come this way, he did manage to have the spot named after him.

It was not until nearly the end of the century that the pastoral industry in the Eastern Pilbara demanded a port and in 1896, the first jetty was constructed here on the coast. A few years later, gold was discovered at Marble Bar, added justification to the ports existent.

In 1908 the jetty was extended and in 1911 a railway between Marble Bar and Port Hedland was completed. From then through to the late 1930s, the Port was mainly used for the import of stores and producer items for the local industries, and the export of pearl shell, wool, livestock, gold, tin and small amounts of copper.

After the Second World War, the port continued to serve the pastoral industry and began to export significant quantities of manganese.

In 1965 the iron ore industry, as it is today, began its life in the port when Goldsworthy Mining Limited (now BHP Billiton Iron Ore) dredged an approach channel and turning basin for ships up to 65,000 Dead Weight Tonnes (DWT). At the same time the Leslie Salt Company (now Rio Tinto Minerals) commenced development of the solar salt industry, mentioned earlier. A new land backed wharf was built to cater for salt exports and to improve the facilities available for the import of fuel and producer items.

Next the Mt Newman Mining Company (now BHP Billiton Iron Ore) chose Port Hedland as its export port, and further dredging and development took place to allow the use of the port by very large bulk carriers of up to 120,000 DWT. In the early 1970s, the port could accept vessels of up to 315 metres in length and 185,000 DWT.

In the mid-seventies further work was carried out when extensions to the turning basin and some channel widening took place, allowing ships of up to 225,000 DWT to access the port.
In 1986 major capital dredging was undertaken to deepen the channel by 2.5 metres. In conjunction with a computerised under keel clearance programme, this allowed the port to accommodate ships of up to 330 metres and 260,000 DWT.

The channel at Port Hedland is now twenty nautical miles in length varying in both width and depth with minima of 183 metres and 14.3 metres respectively.

Today the Port continues to predominantly serve the mining industry of the Pilbara driven by massive demand and as such handles the largest iron ore export tonnage of any Australian port.  Other exports include the salt, manganese, chromite, copper concentrates and livestock.

Today we saw several ships in port being loaded and watched another being guided in by the port pilot. The “shipping news” on a blackboard outside the Information Centre showed that today’s ships were from Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan.

We saw few people in Port Hedland today, just those fishing from the public jetty, waiting for transport across the port for work, an Asian women in an emporium valiantly holding the fort solo of her large and interesting store and a happy chappy who told us he was “a bit drunk” and was heading home to have “a bit of a sleep”.

Port Hedland appears to the uninitiated as a long island parallel to the mainland, cut off from the shore by great tidal flats or those prone to high tides but connected by a long and substantial causeway to carry both road and rail traffic. The Indian Ocean coastline on the outer shores of this “island” are quite attractive and there are homes along the foreshore, all facing out to sea and away from the uglier aspects of this industrial settlement. The satellite suburb of Pretty Pool is also rather nice; we drove to the park and walked out onto the beach.

We decided that despite the iron ore veiled structures everywhere, we actually liked Port Hedland more than Cable Beach!

Ten kilometres or so to the south is South Hedland, purpose built to accommodate the burgeoning population due to the development of the iron ore mining in 1960s. Today housing is at a premium both here and in Port Hedland, nothing under $750,000 and most well over a million. Rents range from $1,000 to $3,200 a week and we know what it costs to stay in a caravan!

It is a pity that tourist accommodation is so expensive because Port Hedland is a whole lot nicer than its reputation. We would have been happy to have spent a couple more days, but will be gone by check out time tomorrow unless something untoward comes up in the interim.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

24 April 2013 - Pardoo Roadhouse, Great Northern Highway, Western Australia

Thirty eight degrees in Pardoo!!! However we are on power and could hitch up to water if we wanted, as well as take a dip in the swimming pool. The sites are grassy, a real treat and we are parked up against a concrete slab. If it weren't for the red dirt throughout the amenities this would stack up pretty well with others charging $15 a head. In the Roadhouse itself we could fork out for close to $30 a head for dinner but Chris has elected to cook, as he normally does.

We are not far from the turnoff to Marble Bar, a tiny town of just one hundred and ninety three folk 191 kilometres down the road into the Pilbara, best known as being the hottest place in Australia. The town set the record of the most consecutive days of 40 degrees or above, during a period of 160 days from October 1923 to April 1924. For six months of the year the average maximum temperature exceeds normal human body temperature. Actually Marble Bar has more than its climatic records to commend it however I shall not bother to mention them here because we have chosen not to take the side tour. It is hot enough here!

We were packed up and gone from Broome at about 9 am, back out on the Great Northern Highway and heading south west. Port Hedland is the next centre of any consequence along this highway, a trip of 602 kilometres. Yesterday we met a young couple in the pool travelling in the opposite direction to us but basically living the the same life, except theirs will come to an abrupt halt when their first child arrives in August. They had come through from Port Hedland in the one day and were still early enough to enjoy the social centre of the camp: the pool. For us however, 466 kilometres was enough for us and we were happy to pull into this caravan park by about 3.30 pm.

We had been warned that the road was uninspirational, and we have to agree. It was interesting to note the massive herds of cattle gathered on the grassy flats on the Roebuck Plains, probably waiting for transport to the wharf and thence on to Indonesia or some such exotic destination. But soon the relatively fertile plain gave way to the low scrub along the edge of the Great Sandy Desert which is Australia’s second largest desert and encompasses an area of 284,993 square kilometres, an area even greater than the entire land area of New Zealand.

The road follows the coastline down, the Eighty Mile Beach and more, but from the road, which is never less than ten kilometres from the sea, little is visible except for the occasional glimpse of sand hills far in the distance.

The monotony of the trip, which is less than crossing the Mitchell Grass Plains, according to my gallant husband who does all the driving, was broken only by road killed cattle and one roo, the regular relay towers and the countless caravans heading north. I wish I had started counting them as we set off; I reckon there must have been one at least every five kilometres which would mean we had passed ninety three caravans. Sounds about right. Obviously we left Broome just in time to avoid the mass arrivals. Paul, from the Horizontal Falls Tour company had told us while transporting us back to our respective accommodation  that Broome’s population of 15,500 swells to 55,000 during the months June to August!

Interestingly I popped on line to check tariffs for caravan parks at Port Hedland, a frustratingly impossible task as usual. No one seems willing to commit themselves to a price, but even when they do, you cannot trust that it will be as advertised. My endless gripe! Instead, I googled Pardoo and found out why the name sounded familiar.

Cyclone Rusty hit these north western shores at the end of February this year. It lurked around threateningly for some days and settlements up and down the coast were on alert. Finally Rusty came in with 230 km per hour winds, damaging only one little insignificant spot on the map; Pardoo. This explains the wrecked shed in the corner of the property, however hats off to the owners here; we would not have otherwise known.

Google also came up with some dreadful reviews for the roadhouse and the caravan park, but I can confirm that we are quite happy here tonight and expect to leave early and unscathed tomorrow morning. It is true the amenities have not been cleaned since they were transported from some distant mine site or at least when the cyclone came through. Perhaps it is just as well we did not check out the pool.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

23 April 2013 - Palm Grove Tourist Village, Cable Beach, Broome, Western Australia

We both slept well last night despite the heat which continues unabated. Today the thermometer has reached 35 degrees and tomorrow here in Broome it is forecasted to be 37 degrees however we will be gone, possible to even hotter places.

We spent the morning doing a few last minute chores in town, refueling yet again, stocking up on provisions (again), buying a copy of a wonderful DVD we had watched in the Big Foot yesterday about birds of the Kimberley, and doing laundry. A few business matters had to be attended to by email and long overdue correspondence with my youngest sister who has just a few days ago gained her eighth grandchild which gave a good excuse for catching up.

The telephone rang, a very unusual occurrence; a call from the man from National Warranty Company who sends and receives emails from us about our discontent. At this moment in time, the ball is back in their court and they are going back to discuss technical matters with the man who reconditioned our fuel pump in Sydney. I suspect this is so they can meet our counter demand or at least come closer, and not lose face in a turnabout. The matter is in no way at an end; we fight on!

We will leave here without having watched the sunset over Cable Beach, without having watched the moon rise over Roebuck Bay and without having taken a camel ride along the golden sands of Cable Beach, one of those iconic tourist must-dos. But I have swum with the sharks and seen the sun rise over the pindan!