Roebourne to Onslow

(The Pilbara Coast)

Trusting information we had picked-up along the road, we had pre-booked a site at Point Samson for three weeks believing it would provide an ideal base from which to explore the neighbouring towns of Roebourne, Wickam, Cossack, Karratha, Dampier as well as explore some of the closer off-shore islands of the Dampier Archipelago and Burrup Peninsula. However, because of the prevailing wind chill factors inland we had arrived at the coast one week early and so had to find alternate accommodation for our first week in the district.

There is a need for a quick historical note here.  Roebourne was settled in the 1860s by pastoralists, many of whom had earlier been associated with the ruinous speculative venture ex Melbourne to a spot further north at Camden Harbour.  The settlers initially landed at what is now the ghost town of Cossack and sailed up the Harding River to higher and less mangroved environs of Roebourne which was name after the then Surveyor-General of WA; one Septimus Roe (Roe had previously sailed with Stokes and Wickam whilst exploring the NW Coast).  Cossack was named after the vessel which brought these initial settlers. Around the turn of the century, after the mouth of the Harding River had silted up, the main port moved from Cossack to Point Samson . Both towns endured successive cyclone damage. Point Samson is now a pleasant seaside village beside the towering cyclone proof iron ore loading jetty of Cape Lambert. 

Our first night was spent at Roebourne in a rather run down Caravan Park on the outskirts of the rather run down town which today is inhabited mostly by local indigenous families.  Like so many similar towns, it had a decidedly unkempt look about it which tended to distract one's attention from the many historical buildings in the town.  Roebourne was once, the commercial centre of the whole Pilbara district, with strong links to the pastoral (cattle and sheep) industry, mining in Marble bar  and the former pearling port town of Cossack.  With the emerging need for deep water ports to ship out the massive tonnage of iron ore and salt from the interior, Roebourne was side-stepped in favour of  Karratha and Dampier but still services the needs of local indigenous families and the local Shire bears its name.  An interesting sign in the General Store reads:  'No school-aged persons will be served during school hours'....we also met an interesting pair of elderly chaps staying in the park as it was 'cheap and close to Cossack which had some of the best crabbin in WA'......This pair had a predilection for cask Lambrusca, no doubt to keep themselves warm and keep the midges at bay in the evening.  Roebourne has a very original  1896 gaol built around an octagonal courtyard which houses a fine historical collection of memorabilia.  Due to a declining population the gaol was closed in 1924 but re-opened in 1975 after refurbishment and only closed in 1984 when the new gaol was built.  Close to Roebourne is the newly (2004) completed Harding Dam (it incorporates a state of the art micro filtration treatment plant - but the water still tastes very metallic) which supplements the water from the Millstream aquifer.  We had a pleasant lunch out there watching black swans.  Now, no one has ever been able to explain to me how WA came to be home to 'european' swans with black feathers.


The Gaol

Harding Dam

Harding Dam - recreational pool

The next day we moved to the small 'Transit Caravan Park' in Dampier which, under Pilbara Iron policy, was only permitted to accept guests for a maximum of three nights. After ingratiating ourselves to the decidedly eccentric manager couple, we were permitted to stay for four nights - a rare privilege.

Dampier was built in the mid 1960s by Hamersley Iron to house those involved in the construction of the railway to Tom Price and the extensive bulk ore loading facilities on the coast and on  nearby Intercourse Island.  Today this infrastructure has been joined by Woodside's massive LNG Plant to service the gas supplies from the NW Shelf.  The extraction process, undersea and overland pipe network associated with the refinement of the gas constitutes the nations largest and most expensive engineering feat.  As if that's not enough, salt,  Nitrogen and fertiliser  are also shipped from this very busy 24/7 port. The town itself is improbably located on an undulating outcrop of giant red granite boulders.  Each house block has had to have a pad of dredging mud (from the harbour) laid 2-3m thick over the boulders before building could commence. The houses themselves are plain but smart and many inhabitants have gone to great lengths to establish tropical gardens, rockeries, not surprisingly,  also seemed quite fashionable!  Houses can only be leased by company employees and are in great demand because of the cheap rent cf the $400+ /week charged in the nearby free market  'metropolis' of Karratha.  Dampier only hosts a small Woollies supermarket, service station and medical centre - for everything else you go to Karratha.

Dampier is also home to the King Bay Game Fishing Club and the rather swish Hampton Harbour Boat & Sailing Club.  Boating and fishing is the predominant past-time for inhabitants and this is confirmed by the number of 6m+ boats in driveways all over town.  On the weekend we arrived, the Club was hosting the 2005  Nickol Bay Billfish Shootout with over 60 entrants from all over the state as well a interstate.  Russell - where were you?  However, the numbers involved in the competition was nothing compared to the hundreds of boat trailers parked at the town's public launching facility (it has 4 individual concrete ramps next to each other).  One of our fellow campers from Port Hedland was an entrant in the comp but he only managed to tag three billfish cf the local winner tagged over a dozen over the weekend. 

We also met up with a couple from Brisbane whom we had met in Tom Price. They had decided to travel to the Millstream Chichester NP along the public road cf the TP/Dampier Railway Permit service road which they had heard was too rough for caravaners.  As luck would have it, a passing truck had thrown up a fluke stone smashing their expensive rear window on their Landcruiser wagon on this 'better' road.  We truly sympathised with them over it and wondered when lady luck might run out on us.  In conversation with MHB this same couple revealed that their average allowed budget whilst on their regular treks around the country was exactly double ours.  However, she did drink Pernod and Ice - bloody expensive ice!

Site preparation difficulties in Dampier

Even the power poles have to have their own special footings around the boulders

Hampton Harbour Boat & Sailing Club in Dampier

More of Club (which served attrocious meals from a baine marie when we visited)

Sister ship to the good ship Aquarius - still with original Volvo Penta 165 petrol motor

Dampier Salt Visit (following success at the Dampier Tip)

View of Dampier Salt's evap pans and the road and causeway which runs between them

Non corporate signage in one of the roadside evap pans

Dongas on Malus Island off Dampier


Dampier's heroic 'Red Dog'

Yous got to climb to get the best views (Hearson Cove swimmng & fishin beach on Burrup Peninsula)

NW Shelf refinery also had to deal with unreasonable site preparations

Its a big and scarry complex - especially when the blow torches are let off without warning - Darwin residents be warned!

A monument to those injured or killed during the construction phase of the LNG Plant

We launched our own modest craft (out of the way) at Withnall Bay up on the Burrup Peninsula and toured around the surrounding islands, several of which host quite a number of shacks complete with rainwater tanks and TV aerials.  Fishing wise, we caught only small Bluebone and Spanish Flag.  Despite plenty of birds working, no mackerel would take our lures.  Apparently, there are extensive coral reefs all around the Dampier Archipelago but they must be in pretty deep water as we did not sight any in our brief sojourn.  We thoroughly enjoyed our 5 days pottering about in Dampier; although the weather could have been kinder (a looming recurrent problem).

We did some much needed laundry and were able to detect a couple of minor leaks in the camper when it rained heavily one night.  Fixed them with a little dab of silicon from our R&M cupboard. Went to Karratha to re-provision and attend to some internet banking  and email (used the local TAFE library).  Learnt from Slippery that aunty Claire had called an election which then meant we had to try and organise a Postal Vote within the next 10 days - a call to the Fannie Bay Electoral Office did the trick.  One would think that any Australian Electoral Commission office should be able to arrange this - not so.  Karratha's Golf & Bowls Club proved to be closed on the weekend we visited - a recurring theme amongst cubs in the NW.

Ah - now a little digression about how we overcame the problem of  the beer cans bashing into the fridge door's shelving on rough roads.  I knew we needed  a little metal grate across the designated beer shelf and so, following in the steps of that great improviser (Capt Brett), we went off to find the local tip and there came across an old chromed fridge shelf which, once cut to size, has solved the problem perfectly.

The Capt Brett memorial Fridge Shelf Grill (the shelf conveniently holds 30 x 375ml beers - ideal for those long and hot treks into the desert!)


We did investigate an alternate cheap coastal campsite at  place called Cleaverville (half way between Roebourne and Karratha).  However, this rather arid strip of foreshore was occupied mainly by semi-permanents (max stay limit of 3 months) and required the use of porta potties.  We investigated purchasing one ($200) but instead were convinced to avoid such sites.

We eventually moved to Point Samson after a rather trying re-connection of the Slide- On camper.  We did have to resort to a free camp for one night down by the dry  bed of the Nickol River. On arrival we were offered a site far too small for our needs and had to wait a day to get a suitable one in this small (25 site) Caravan Park.  The park is right on the beach around the corner from a protected commercial harbour where tugs and fishing trawlers are moored. The park also accommodates a general store and the popular upstairs Trawlers Tavern and Moby's Kitchen restaurant with marvellous views over the harbour.  The ablutions leave alot to be desired but the lack of competition makes complaining a little futile. However, a new and bigger caravan park is being developed across the road and should provide much needed competitive facilities.

Point Sampson would have less than three hundred permanent residents who are mainly associated with commercial fishing and small-scale B&B tourism plus one small resort complex. The town did at the turn of the century have a large deep water jetty (since burnt down) and tram service from Roebourne.  However, with the onset of the iron boom, the town now hosts the massive deep water iron ore loading facility at nearby Cape Lambert.  This facility handles the ore from Robe River at Pannawonica - now owned by Pilbara Iron.  Celebrity residents are the  harbour pilots which guide the huge bulk ore carriers from the Cape Lambert facility out to the open sea - they arrive and leave the vessels by helicopter (night & day) and spend 6 weeks on and 6 weeks off at home in Sydney - nice work if you've got the right ticket. Housing standards in Point Samson are quite good and occasionally reflect some architectural refinement - not your average fishermens' shacks but I understand that land is very expensive; that's assuming you can get some.

One particularly blowy day, we were unexpectedly invited by a camping neighbour to afternoon tea.  This actually involved drinking tea and coffee and eating her recently baked apple and jam crumble.  No alcohol insight and we kept the conversation centred on travel, caravanning and grand children - pretty safe topics - although they did let slip their intolerance of all things Aboriginal and the merits of staying in towns without a Centrelink office.  These latter sentiments are unfortunately quite common amongst travellers from southern WA and Qld (which form the majority of  travellers on the road).  This same couple invited us to coffee and port after dinner on our final night in Port Samson.  Social exchanges such as these will take a little time for us to get used to - let alone reciprocate. These travellers think nothing of sitting out inclement days indoors in their caravans reading magazines or playing cards or watching soaps on television.  In Broome they did similar things but with the Airconditioner on. It does seem a pity that so many of these winter migrants have little interest in the areas they visit - a warm climate is all they simply seek.  Another interesting demographic phenomena, is the high proportion of  travellers who are retired British migrants - I would have expected that in SA but not in WA - there must be a 'pommy ghetto' down somewhere in the SW of WA which no one told us about.

The Point Samson Caravan Park (beautiful location but 26 cramped sites and smelly ablutions)

Point Samson Restaraunt and Tavern

Main Beach Point Samson

Iron Ore train coming into Cape Lambert ship loading facility

Main Beach showing the exposed reef and East Cardinal Marker (nautical) on the reef.

Cape Lambert loading facility just over the hill from Point Samson

Houses in Point Samson

John's Ck Harbour at Point Samson (has two excellent and protected boat ramps for trailer boats)

Entrance to St John's Ck Harbour

We unpacked the bikes and went out for a very pleasant ride about the town and environs. Wind very blowy for first few days and was unable to launch boat.  But on third day we got away down at Cossack with Russell and Gaynor from Berwick.   Interestingly, there was no sight of the 'Lambrusca Bros'.  In no time we had caught 8 huge muddies and a rock cod in our new legal crab dillies.  The day before we had, by chance, seen sister Stephanie being interviewed at Hamilton Island (Qld) cooking crab cakes and talking about the labour of love involved in  picking the meat out of mud crab bodies.  We chose not to follow suit immediately and instead, that night cooked-up a storm of chilli crab much to the amazement and enjoyment of our new Victorian friends.  However, because of the volume of crab meat available, Maria did succumb to picking out the flesh of the remaining two crabs for use later in the week in some vol au vent entrees in celebration of the ALP's huge electoral win in the NT or as one CLP opposition spokesman on the radio called it 'an electoral Tsunami'.

A fine pair of Muddies (inWA they differentiate b/w Green <min 15cm> and Brown <min 12cm> ones) - I am colour blind!

And Anothery

Russell and Maria doing it again!

Cooling off the beasts

The feast of Chilli Crab being prepared

Maria inspired by Steph's TV interview goes about picking the body meat out of the 'left-over' crabs for someone special!

10 kms south of Point Samson lies the company town of Wickham which was built for the workers at the ore loading facility at Cape Lambert.  This town has recently been handed over to local control and indigenous families have started to drift into the town.  The local Woollies is barricaded like a gaol, the small shopping centre plagued by truant primary-aged children and the only licensed club has been closed down - its a sad place. Behind Wickam lies the protected Boat Beach which is home to the Port Walcott Yacht Club which has been closed every time we visited - no doubt very exclusive.  C Map failed to reveal anything of interest close in off this beach.

Having scanned the surrounding charts via C Map on the computer, I find that all the reef is at least  20NM off shore and too far for us to attempt.  Instead we contented ourselves with the close off-shore reefs, shallow local bays and estuaries around Point Samson and Cossack.  They reckon there is good fishing to be had around the enormous pylons of the Cape Lambert Jetty but it is officially 'closed waters' - leave trespassing to the locals.  The local fishing charter operator who also has interests in the Pt Samson Resort charges $260/head/day to go out!.....we passed.

We did a number of day trips from Point Samson.  One to some ancient (estimated to be in the vicinity of 40 000 years old) rock art  sites we were told about by the owner of an art gallery and internet cafe in Karratha. There is much secrecy about such sites because of the amount of desecration in the past. The internet cafe also permitted people to plug in their laptops for $4 per half hour - saved again and thus was able to publish our Pilbara chapter - still trying to discover how to effectively archive earlier chapters....looking for advice is it just a matter a breaking the Hyperlink and placing a Don't Publish instruction against the chapter folder? 

Indigenous Art Sites on Burrup Peninsula (it is engraving rather than painting on the hard granite surfaces

The 'Climbing Men' panel reckoned to be very old in Australian archilogical terms

  Another day was spent wandering about the historical 'ghost' town o Cossack  which at the turn of the century boasted a fleet of 50+ pearl luggers and the impressive stone wharf was used extensively to load wool, cattle and minerals  on the regular visiting ships.  The town as named after a ship which bought some of the foolhardy Camden Bay settlers back in the 1860s. Alot of the stone government buildings which had survived the ravages of successive cyclones have now been restored and in fact there are house blocks for sale with power and water selling for $140k. It will not be long before some developer steps in and builds a resort here or at least some self-contained modern accommodation - its got history, a Japanese cemetery, beaches, estuary fishing and crabbing and only 40kms from Karratha and its airport.

Town of Cossack

Entrance of Harding River leading to Cossack from Jarman Is.

Harding River Estuary (vg Crabbin) in front of Cossack town

Some fine building restorations

The Court House - now a fine museum

The Gaol -MHB just visiting

This tram engine used to run from the port of Cossack back inland to Roebourne some was initially a horse-drawn tramway!

Settlers Beach Cossack (an old sea mail drop centre) looking across to Jarman Is)

On another day when the wind died down we put the boat in again to try our luck over some small lumps identified on the sea floor - all to no avail.  Instead we decided to explore nearby Jarman Island on which is situated a decommissioned lighthouse. 

Approaching Jarman Island

Old tram line

Tram Line

Lighthouse Keepers House

The Light - the steel stays 'sing' to mariners close by

The house with our boat in the background

There is a constant turnover of people in the park with the average stay being 3 days.  Our 3 weeks is to be reduced by one one in lieu of the week spent in Dampier.  A routine mechanical check of the vehicle on the day of our departure revealed a roofing tek screw in one of our tubeless tyres and a screw missing from each of our battery clamps - lucky I checked.  Was able to rectify all in Karratha's Industrial estate where we learnt that the local Toyota dealership had gone broke - How, remains a mystery given the dominance of the make all over the state!!

It was good to get back on the road after filling up the freezer and fridge with food for two weeks.  It was also good to start seeing water, albeit pools, in the river beds and together with the occasional stands of Coolibah trees.  Fully loaded with camper, 1.5 tanks of fuel and boat our range is reduced from 900 to 700kms.  Still we are getting alot better economy than those pulling 24ft vans behind turbo'd Landcruisers and Patrols..I have also noticed a slow increase in the number of Ford V8  F250s (single and dual cabs) employed to do the same job. So far only sighted two other Slide Ons - both owners confessed that they did not bother to slide them off.  The stream of caravaners heading North on the Highway has not abated.  The drivers and their partners now seem to approach us as waving marionettes (some actually have mechanical waving hands in the rear window of their caravans or vans) behind the wheels of their late model 4x4 station wagons towing vans personalised by their names and CB radio call signs.  One wonders whether there is anyone over 60 years of age left in Perth.  To pass the time, Maria and I have even tossed around possible names for our rig eg The Swag,  'Burchett's Bluey', 'Tropical Fish'....however my favourite remains the one that I saw in Darwin prior to departure which simply proclaimed the traveller as a 'Bludger'.  Jury's still out - more later.

We checked out the mouth of the Fortesque River 100km SW of Karratha and 24km off the Highway but it reminded me of the mouth of the Mary River - salt pans, mangroves, low scrub and sand flies galore.  There was a professional fishing camp there together with 10 other private camps - all complete with 5+m boats.  The one or two  residents sighted, all looked a little miserable and bleary eyed - either from the grog or sand fly induced insomnia.  We left them to it.  We did see some bush turkeys, lots of red kangaroos and a rather guilty looking  'roo shooter' in the middle of a paddock full of beef on the hoof.  We camped rough that night beside an old abandoned well which had been identified in one of our WA Free Camp Guides for those 'unfortunates' with dogs or no money or both.

We had been warned to avoid buying fuel at the town of Nanutarra-has a reputation similar to the NT's Barkly Homestead as regard fuel prices ie $1.50 vs $1.30 in Karratha.  We did check out the price at Fortesque River Bridge but found it at $1.46 and so kept going - wisely as it turns out; as Onslow's price (84km off the Highway) was only $1.39.  Because of recent rains all the secondary roads (short cuts) to Onslow had been closed and so we were forced to stay with the bitumen.  We went first to old Onslow some 40kms West of the new town and sited on the banks of the beautiful Ashburton River.  There is a man made causeway some 10 kms from the mouth which separates the fresh from the salt water in the river.  No motorised boats permitted on the fresh water.  Free camping permitted under the river red gums but unfortunately the area was officially closed when we 'accidentally' arrived .  The old town  was abandoned in the 1920s due to the silting up of the river's port facilities which was the justification for the town's establishment back in the 1880s.

Bush Turkeys (Bustards) sighted near Fortesque River mouth

Termite mounds on outskirts of Onslow

Onslow was named after Sir Alexander Onslow, the then Chief Justice of WA, and served as a port for the surrounding pastoral, pearling  and gold mining industries.  During WWII it served as a navy submarine base and later as base for the 1950s atomic bomb tests at the offshore Monte Bello Islands (I wonder to myself whether short historical sketches such as  this is really of general interest to the readers of these web pages)  - like all coastal towns along the cyclone belt, the town has had its share of battering from the elements.  The present town, situated alongside the quite ordinary but navigable Beadon Creek, has a population of less than 1000, but it has a pub, motel, general store and PO, restaurant, two caravan parks and numerous self-contained units to rent. Its a quiet but purposeful town and our park manager quite optimistic about the town's future.  At present his park provides single and married accommodation for the salt work's workforce and hopes to expand this part of his business once the decision is made to establish a new LNG plant to rival Dampier's in the not too distant future. For those who have not collected enough  shells at the 80 Mile Beach, relax as you can easily fill the gaps in any collection at the local Onslow beaches.

However, we are pre-occupied at present with  how to keep a comfortable buffer between ourselves and the pressing winter conditions which seem intent on  making themselves felt above the Tropic of Capricorn - which they're not supposed to do. My birthday will be remembered by the onset of an unprecedented painful attack of gout in my left ankle which eventually left me unable to walk - took two days to recover - the catalyst for the attack remains a mystery - it had been too cold to drink and I had not indulged in any exotic foods.

Some 20 odd kms offshore lies Thevenard Island on which is situated a number of oil storage tanks from the surrounding Monopods and Mini Production Platforms.  Since 1964 the WA Petroleum consortium (Chevron/Texaco, Ampol, Shell & WMC/BHP) have been extracting oil and gas from this region.  Unlike other fields the gas here is separated from the oil and piped ashore for processing rather than being simply 'flared off'.  There is sufficient reserves to last 150 years based on current production levels.  As mentioned earlier there are plans to build another Dampier-style LNG plant here at Onslow.

The local pub (Beadon Bay Hotel) is nothing special - has a TAB and serves cheap and wholesome counter meals.  However, it does have an amusing  sign hanging over the 8 Ball Table which reads: 'Any Emu Bobbing of money, fags or drinks will not be tolerated'.  This is almost as good as the one I recall years ago in a Darwin bar which read: 'Filthy apparel will not be tolerated'.

Looking down main (Second Ave) street of Onslow with Beadon Bay Hotel on LH corner

Anglican Church (NB Cyclone ties from roof)

Anglican Church with Bell in background

Esplanade in front of Onslow which incorporates a convenient boat ramp

Yet another salt works just behind the town - the evap ponds encircle the town's hinterland

MHB on Boardwalk which starts from from town caravanpark and follows foreshore aroud to the saltworks loading jetty (1100m long)

MHB perserveres with the Boardwalk at cameraman's behest despite the howling wind

Charter boats on moorings in front of town on yet another windy day

Rip van Winkle (MHB) tries to escape the inclement weather at Onlow

Checked out the local fishing opportunities by visiting the wharf  and was assured by a local that there was plenty of action available inshore for a boat my size providing the wind dropped.  This advice was confirmed later in the local Sports & Bowls Club (yes - we found a licensed club open) - so we'll give it a go.  Alas, we're currently experiencing a 'wind warning (30+ knots) from Carnarvon to the NT Border'.  We have been seriously blown about whilst on the WA coast for the last 2-3 weeks.  Even though the daily max temps reach 23-25 Celsius - the constant wind makes it difficult to do much other than vegetate around the camp - which we do not find very purposeful or enjoyable.

While I have the opportunity of a compliant Telecentre here, I will publish this instalment even tho it has not been (geographically)  finalised.  Consequently, there will be an addendum to this chapter later next month.  As this is the biggest chapter  (105KB) to date, I will be interested to learn of any difficulties anyone has in opening it up - there may well be a case for shorter and more frequent chapters - perhaps just reduce the number of snaps - I have increased the format size of the snaps to see whether that improves their emasculated (compressed) condition. You will also note that I have begun to archive older chapters to help keep the website to a manageable size.

It is still our intention to move our camp down to the old town of Onslow next week and then after a week to move on down to Coral Bay and the Ningaloo Marine Park .  After that we are uncertain and will be largely guided by the prevailing and projected weather.



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