The Pilbara

Our initial and lasting impressions of Port Hedland were of an essentially mining port where everything, including the pigeons, appear to wear a coat of rusty iron  dust.  We undertook a BHP-Billiton sponsored and sanitised Oresome tour of the massive ore loading facilities at Nelson Point and at the adjacent Finucane Island.  The tour certainly impresses the visitor with the gigantic scale of this operation ranging from the the biggest open cut mine (Mt Whaleback at Newman), the longest privately owned railway line in Australia, the biggest and most powerful locomotives  in Australia, the largest ore handling port in the world and the company's heavy reliance on computerisation for every facet of the operation.

After the tour, I was able to plug my laptop into a landline at the local tourist information centre (only because their two new PCs were away being fixed) and was able to publish our 80 Mile Beach chapter at a cost of a mere $5. 

PH is a focussed, work and play hard mining town.  The prevalence of work safety uniforms on both men and women (even while shopping and in the pubs) I thought a little 'big brotherish'.  The satellite town of Hedland South is very reminiscent of Darwin's northern 'dormitory' suburbs all clustered around a centralised air-conditioned shopping centre.  One surprising thing is the number of Muslims in the town (Coles Supermarket offers a separate Halal meat section). They were apparently invited to come and live and work in PH after the phosphate works on Christmas Island closed down. Fuel prices were similar to Katherine's at $1.28/litre - cheap when compared to the prices we were yet to incur.  We tried to meet up with Al Shaw and his wife (ex Darwin people) while we were in PH  but Al had out of town work commitments which prevented this.   So like Ships in the night we left after suitable provisioning!  I'll enclose a few snaps of the town:

The De Grey River Bridge just East of Port Hedland

Sculpture commemorating an early prospector who wheel barrowed his find into Port Hedland

Massive stackers which pile the crushed iron ore into 200 000 tonne stockpiles ready for the 35 hr loading into waiting ships (one stockpile/ ship)

3 ore cars are collectively emptied by being turned 360 degrees in this contraption

4 Bulk Ore Carriers can each be loaded simultaneously with 220 000 tonnes of ore

PH's Salt Stockpile . The company harvests about 16 000 tonnes of salt froms its 8000 hectares of salt pans

We left PH early and after filling one and half fuel tanks, headed out along the road to Marble Bar some 212km away  East.  We arrived at the camping ground at Marble Bar at about lunchtime and were warmly welcomed by the proprietors (Ingrid and Gerald)who offered  to provide us with printed mud maps of the local sights and advice about the best time of day to visit each. They could not have been more helpful to us.  The town derives its name from extensive Jasper deposits found in the nearby Coongan River.  They were originally mistaken for Marble back in the 1890's  when the town was the centre of the Pilbara goldfields - and at the time, boasted a population of  about 5000.

The hottest town in Australia holds the record for the highest recorded temperature of 49.2 degrees C.  The local Shire authorities have recently erected a   digitalised temperature gauge display in the centre of the town.

We visited the WWII 'secret' Corunna Downs Airbase from which bombing raids were  conducted by joint Australian and USAF bomber groups on Japanese positions in Java.  The troops stationed there had it tough to say the least and one notice warns the troops not to try and shower during daylight hours as the artesian tank water would be too hot!

Marble Bar itself and Chinaman's Pool offer extravagant displays of the mistaken Jasper which comes in vivid reds, greens and white bands in the surrounding rocks.  Of course, a souvenir piece had to be stashed away by the resident bower bird in or party.  No trip to this town can be completed without having a session in the local pub and in this case the nationally renowned Iron Clad Hotel.    We attended the Friday night session for fish & chips with alot of other locals.  Sadly, the pub appears a little rundown and was a disappointment for myself for its lack of historical presence and memorabilia befitting such an iconic drinking hole. The latter presence can fortunately be obtained from the excellent museum at the Comet Goldmine some 10km out of town. 

On our second day in Marble Bar we packed a picnic lunch and set off for Coppins Gap some 80kms out of town. This place, which offers a nice swimming hole (too cold for us), is spring fed and offers a sanctuary for much wildlife. However, the real attraction for us was the extensive twisted bands of iron and dolomite in the rock walls. At one of  my sojourns at the Ironclad, I got talking to a chap about prospecting.  He had two metal detectors and later back at the caravan park  gave me a demo and a look at his secret stash of gold nuggets in an old 'cigarette tin' he had found.  Proprietor Gerald turned out to be also a 'closet' prospector. He advised me that the currency of gold nuggets was very good and far better than the official price of gold.  He has ignited a spark of interest which I intend following-up.

Marble Bar also hosts a Telecentre (PH does not) for use by both locals and travellers alike.  The town was also the setting for the great Sri Lankan curry powder spill inside our WAECO fridge.  The spill  got into every nook and cranny - including  around the beer cans - yuck!  A month later and the fridge still offers a pungent fragrance reminiscent of any back street of Colombo.  (Thanks Charmaine!)  A truly memorable time was had in this small town.  Many thanks to Ingrid & Gerald.

Marble Bar's water tank


MHB at the Bar

'Jasper ladies not Marble'

More examples of the Banded Iron/Jasper deposits

Marble Bar township from the Water Tank

JWB pays his respects to The Iron Clad Hotel

The Iron Clad's corrugated iron sheet-lined interior

The public digitalised Temperature Gauge

MHB 'taxis' on the old Corunna Downs RAAF Airstrip

Pioneers Remembrance Wall (extract from an informative historical fixture)

Jasper patterns at Coppins Gap

At the urging of the  proprietors (Ingrid & Gerald), we  decided to detour on our trip to Newman to take in Carawine Gorge located on the Oakover River  out near the Woodie Woodie Manganese Mine some 150kms further inland (East). Gerald joked that I might even be able to launch the boat in the Gorge (not a frequent occurrence - he said), while Ingrid was worried about the state of the road and made us promise to ring them once we had visited the gorge and made it through to Nullagine.  The subsequent journey to the Gorge passed through the spectacular  Rippon Hills where we came across a pitiful sight of a cow standing forlornly on the road as 3 dingoes began savaging her young calf which they had obviously just brought down. Certainly brought home the rule of the bush about the survival of the fittest!

The country out here is just a carpet of benign-looking pin cushions of cream coloured Soft Spinifex which, when in flower, provides excellent feed for the beef cattle on the surrounding stations. These same  flower seeds are crushed by local Aboriginals to make flour for damper.  The Spinifex is also an excellent insulation material used often in bush shelters.  The Spinifex carpet was only occasionally broken-up by the odd white 'snappy' gum or large red boulder.

Carawine Gorge had in the past 24 months been ravaged by the tail end of a cyclone and as a consequence a large number of the banks' Paperbarks and River Gums had been savagely uprooted.  However, this did not diminish the overall majesty of the Gorge's walls, some 75m tall nor the abundant wildlife of  ducks, pelicans, Black Swans, sea eagles.  Unfortunately, access to the banks involved traversing about a one kilometre wide dry river bed consisting of loose gravel and small river stones.  With our weight we went down nearly 18 inches in parts and had it not been for Low Range we would not have made it.  Once across, I sensibly lowered he pressure in my tyres from 60 to 30 psi and it made the going alot easier especially when finding a suitable launching spot for the boat.  All (especially boaties) will be interested to learn that in my enthusiasm to launch, I committed the cardinal sin of failing to...."Put in the Bungs".....see; Terry there was a reason I went to the trouble of fixing a Bilge Pump in the boat.

We initially had the Gorge to ourselves but the wheel marks and old camp fires attested to the area being regularly used by station and mine workers as a regular recreational spot.  We subsequently met up with a nice couple from Geraldton (Kevin and Jennifer) who, through a quite an involved story involving a shyster prospecting guide from Nullagine,  found themselves also at  the Gorge.   After discovering the skeletal remains of a barra (not just scales -  Gilbert!) I decided to launch the boat into this Gorge which turned out to still have about one nautical mile of navigable water all about 100m wide and which in parts plunged 34 feet deep.  While only catching 2 catfish, the experience was most pleasant - especially being some  600 kms from the coast.  We gave it everything both early morning and evening - trolling and casting.  I discovered an oval-shaped brass plaque about 20cm long fixed on the Gorge Wall about 1om above water line but none of us, even with binoculars, could read the inscription on it.  All day long juvenile catfish danced on the water's surface, chasing insects.

Another interesting phenomena was the light rain which fell on us for 3 days, which cleared on the fourth, only to be replaced by howling winds.  These winds served as the catalyst for Kevin and Jennifer's  early departure from the Gorge.  As they had offered to assist us in our departure, we also packed up in a sequential but hurried order first getting the unladen boat across the riverbed, then its cargo of heavy chattels piled up on the back of the ute with Maria lying spreadeagled across them to prevent spillage (would have made a wonderful photo) and finally a lightened camper.  All 3 components had then to be re-assembled on the hard ground on the other side.   Scenario sounded good in theory but in my rush I managed to get the car bogged retrieving the boat but thanks to Kevin and his 'Snatchem Strap' the day was saved (sorry - no embarrassing snaps).

Camp at Carawine Gorge River Bed

Breakfast with the Flies (on the legs)

Gorge Reflections

Gorge 'Sea Trial' after the 'bung-less launch'

Gorge as per Womens Weekly photographer who travels only very occasionally with us!

MHB fishes whilst at the helm

John and Kevin discuss prospecting or was it the price of beer in Geraldton?

Crossing the Oakover River on way to Nullagine on Skull Springs Road

'Twin Sisters' rock out crop on the Woodie Woodie Road

Someone's sculpture atop one of the 'Twin Sisters' .....has potential - don't you think?

Possibly the Sculptor?

Deser scape on road to Nullgine

 We subsequently travelled with Kevin and Jennifer to Newman after an overnight stay in Nullagine and interesting dinner at the local Conglomerate Hotel. We overnighted in Newman in order to re-provision, undertake the usual online banking and housekeeping things and get a good look at the largest man-made hole in the world.  The town, established in 1968 some 10 years after Stan Hilditch discovered Mt Whaleback,  is very clean and well-manicured and pretty wealthy I would guess. The subsequent BHP-Billiton tour was not as expertly conducted as the one in Port Hedland, but interesting nevertheless.

Town of Newman from Radio Hill (very orderly and reminiscet of Canberra suburbs

This couple are about to join a 'Hard Hat' tour of BHP Billiton's big Mt Whaleback Open Cut mine

Part of the Open Cut - the hole is destined to double in size but then will fill to become a lrge lake. Brockman Hematite (68.8% pure iron) is mined

The area in the foreground has already been exploded while the area in the background has been drilled and awaiting the Nitro and the big bang

The relative size of us vs a 200 Tonne capacity 2000hp Wabco Ore Truck (weighs 75 T more than fully loaded Jumbo Jet) Tyres cost $25000 each

Pilbara landscape on route from Newman to Karijini National Park

Our next stop was the the long-awaited visit to the Karijini National Park. To get there we had to pass by the beautifully-named Opthalmia Range - named by Ernest Giles after one of his exploration companions contracted an eye disease nearby. 

Karijini (pronounced Kara-geenie), situated in the Hamersley Range, is WA's second biggest National Park (I think the very isolated Rudall NP is largest) and is famed for its arid gorges, pools and waterfalls which flow from the tributary headwaters of the Fortescue River all year round. We booked in for 3 nights after a visit to the impressive new Visitor Centre manned in the main by local traditional owners.  We had been warned in Newman about how cold the nights could be out in this park and so had purchased some stylish and shapeless 'trackies' at Woollies in Newman before leaving.  They certainly came in handy.  It got down to 3 degrees Celsius each night and on the first night we  tried out the still boxed electric heater I had bought in Darwin.  Alas, I had not first checked its wattage demand (2200) which caused the  2kva genset to instantly splutter to a stop. 

The park proved to be very popular with interstate and overseas tourists - especially those with extensive climbing skills.  The camping ground was very spacious and had a special area for those 'armed' with generators.  Its only amenity  was pit toilets which are equipped with a bucket of disinfected water and toilet brush attached - works well.

All walks and trails around the banded-iron ore gorges are categorised for degrees of difficulty from 1 to 6.  Levels 5-6 require a certificate in abseiling or going with  a qualified guide.  We only attempted the 1 to 4s and still got a real thrill from the experience and no doubt did the heart some good.  Giving up the fags certainly paid off for the 4 days we were there.  Some of the gorges require you to swim part way through freezing water.  Satellite phones are stationed at strategic locations around the gorges in case of trouble.  Apart from iron the gorge walls are banded with dolomite, asbestos and shale.  From the Dales Gorge camping area, one is able to access the easier gorges and pools and hence this is the more crowded area of the Park

Karijini Vistor Centre

Fortesque Falls

Fern Pool

Track to Circular Pool

Along the Circular Pool track

Circular Pool from atop the Gorge

Eyeballing Circular Pool

Dales Gorge

Fortesque Falls

Fortesque Falls (lower) after ascending the Gorge

We moved to the Park's other campground (Savannah) for our 4th night - this one is owned and managed by the local traditional owners. The Gorges here are all alot more difficult to access but are alot more spectacular even when seen from the safety of the odd lookout.  We went down to Weano Gorge as far as the rope ladder, stared at the chasm like Knox Gorge, Oxer lookout and then I decided to attempt a level 4.5 descent into Joffre Falls while MHB looked on fearfully - it was an exhilarating experience (Diana) but alas the light was very patchy for photography.  Later on we spied a couple of chaps paddling a blow-up canoe they had hauled down into on of the least accessible gorges.  Unfortunately, we decided we were not up to tackling either Hancock or Hamersley Gorges.  Dined again on 80 Mile Beach salmon fillets!  We also re-discovered the joy and warmth to be had from freshly cooked Corn on the Cob for breakfast...mmmm.

Joffre Falls (dry) from lookout

Joffre Falls gorge from the base

Joffre Falls

Joffre Falls

2 men in a boat in Junction Pool

The next day we drove out of the Park to re-provision in Tom Price.  TP is much smaller than Newman and is, along with Paraburdoo the headquarters of Hamersley Iron.  In recent times  Hamersley Iron have joined forces with the Robe River iron facilities at Pannawonica to form Pilbara Iron which in turn is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto - got it?.....took me ages to sort out the various livery being sported by the gargantuan ore trains between TP and the ore loading terminals at the coastal towns of Dampier and Point Samson/Cape Lambert.  Before I forget, there is a lookout some 15kms just North of TP which is home to some very tacky sentimental memorials scratched and painted on stones to travellers' past loved ones - very kitsch albeit unusual for out here.

TP is very clean and its gardens reflect a high degree of civic pride amongst the populace.  The staff at the local and only pub in TP  advised that Pilbara Iron rules the town very firmly with restrictions on the type of gambling and liquor licensing  permitted.  While in TP we arranged to obtain a permit to travel on the private Dampier-Tom Price Railway Road.  This requires all applicants to sit through a rather alarming 10 min video detailing the perils of using this 4x4 road.  The use of this road cuts 150kms off the journey from TP to the Millstream-Chichester National Park.  The road turned out to be a very comfortable formed gravel road which admittedly had alot of commercial traffic on it (they are currently duplicating alot of the track).  We had an excellent view of the trains as well  and surprisingly, the drivers still take time out from their 3km long loads to wave to you.  We passed by Hamersley Station previously owned by Lang Hancock and Lang's dad and wondered whether we might catch a glimpse of the sultry widow, Rose on horseback.

One housekeeping measure deserving some mention is that whilst Newman is a Woollies town, Tom Price has a true blue Coles supermarket.  Our decision to adopt a Coles-Myer MasterCard to manage our travel spending has worked well so far.  Coles' outlets far outnumbering the number of Woollies.  We also find excellent representation of Shell servos throughout the NW to get the discount fuel.  We also find that we can simply pay off the monthly bill at the in-house Coles' ATMs.  Oh yes and we were able to purchase some long sort after Flannelette sheets at TP Coles - luxury!

The Millstream National Park had been flooded along with alot of the Pilbara coast, two weeks previously and as a consequence every thing was a little boggy.  The Park had been a pastoral lease (sheep) since the 1860s.  Since 1986, the area has been reserved by the WA Govt to preserve the substantial bore field which taps into the he underground aquifer which in turn is fed by the Fortesque River catchment and which supplies alot of the water to the costal towns of Dampier, Karratha, Rowbourne, Wickam and Point Samson - some 100kms away.  While Millstream proved to be a very picturesque area, I was more interested in the history of  the old  homestead and its gardens which are now in danger of being over run with date palms planted many years ago.  We camped rough that night, nearby Python Pool and the site of the old Cameleers Trail around the very scenic Mt Herbert of the Chichester Range.  You get a wonderful view from atop Mt Herbert of the extensive Roebourne Plain which runs out North to the coast....our next destination.

Tacky memorials of loved ones out of Tom Price

Pilbara Iron Train

Fortesque River at Millstream NP

Current Millstream Homestead circa 1920s

Kitchen Stove from the old homestead

The aquifer fed Millstream on which a bath house had been erected at the turn of the 20th century.

Some interpretive signage in the homestead's gardens


Python Pool

View from Mt Herbert looking towards the Roebourne Plain

 Am finding difficulty in identifying cheap access to a telephone line through which to publish this chapter (all local hotel/motels want a full days tariff  $160-185 for one hours use of the room).  I will try and use our new mobile phone, if necessary.


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