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Published: August 24th 2009
Mon 24th of August 2009
Port Hedland to Cape Keraudren to Port Hedland 350km
Today was a day of stark contrast - from industrial mayhem to natural beauty beyond words.
Last evening after consultation with my friend Steve in Perth I made a fundamental travel decision. I would give Broome and points farther east a miss. Part was timing, and part was a change of intent, that is, not to just cover as many miles as possible, but to travel less and enjoy what I was seeing. Steve felt that the beaches at the beginning of Eighty Mile Beach (only Australia could have a place of such a name) were as good as anything Broome had to offer and I could cut 900 km off the trip this way if I did not care for the hustle and bustle of touristy Broome. So the die was cast. A brief sojourn farther east, to take in the northern beaches, before heading back down south. South, not the way I had come via the coast, but through the heart of Western Australia down the Great Northern Road.
In the morning I decided to take a bus tour of the Broken Hill
Proprietary (BHP) facilities that form the guts of the Port Hedland operation. It was listening to the amusing and classically Australian tourist guide, I realized why Port Hedland figured so prominently in my geography class. The whole thing only became operational in the sixties and it was a big deal, opening mining in a big way throughout the NW of Western Australia. No half measures here, the intent was simple, move the mountains (literally) of iron or in WA to Japan and now China where they are smelted. With the growth in China and the need for steel, things are golden here. Since I have been in Australia I do not think anyone has mentioned the word recession, which, in contrast, is uttered every third word in any conversation in the US. This speaks for how these resources play into the total Australian economy.
The tour was run by the local tourist office, but what is clear is that BHP owns everything in town, including the tourist office and the “company” is regarded with reverence by all who live and work here, and that includes the tour guides. BHP is the source of all goodness in the world, I
kid you not, I think that is how most of the folks feel here. I got a lot of facts from the tour, without being permitted to leave the bus. The “company” permitted still photography but not video. Crazy. Since my little point and click camera takes stills as well as two hours of video I cheated. Since the only thing that was moving was iron ore on conveyor belts I did not feel like it was a big cheat.
The whole thing regarding iron ore is simple really. Six mines dig up and ship iron ore to Port Hedland where 180,000 million tonnes is exported each year, making Port Hedland the biggest export port in Australia. The ore is dug up and comes in on trains (forget the little one I saw yesterday) of two engines 100+ ore carriers and other two engines 100+ ore carriers and yet again one more time. A train is typically approaching 5 km in length, with six locomotives and 300+ ore carriers and controlled by a single driver! Massive machines tip the ore trucks while still attached to the train; it is then sorted into 3 levels of granularity, the most granular being ground down. The ore is organized into great piles and loaded into massive ships. Loading a ship takes 24 hours. Apart from a few of those strange vehicles with flashing lights and big antenna buzzing around the whole massive operation seemed to be controlled from something akin to an airport control tower by presumably a small handful of people. I got the sense those few people were pretty much just printing money now the capital outlay had been made. The rest of Australia, the support infrastructure, the come as you may attitude, the sense of well being derives from this resource and others like it. When Australia’s gross national product drops, no worries, just use a bigger shovel.
The tour bus was full of predominantly Aussies. The truth be told there have been few foreign tourists wherever I have been. They were 55+, the blue rinse set from days of yore. It was a reasonable trip, slightly more effective than watching a video. To be really impressive you need to feel the real noise, real dust and motion.
Enough of big red machines that look like extras in War of the Worlds. Everything is red here, the ground, the workers, the surrounds. There is a classic Aussie working attire it seems (tinged with red dust). Most people who presumably are working, men and women alike, are dressed in these strange jump suits with luminescent bits so they can be spotted in the dark. Adds to this idea that some strange scientific experiment is going on to take over the world. I assume it is standard “company” attire and the locals seem to be comfortable in it.
In the afternoon I rode the 150km along the road to Broome to reach the Pardoo Roadhouse. At that junction there is a 15km side junction that takes you to Cape Keraudren. It was the first time on dirt and the big did well but those jarring corrugations remind me again of childhood in Australia while my bones may have been less fragile, but car suspension was not so good. Turns out the area is a nature reserve and I was greeted at the entrance by a jovial part ranger of sorts. I saw him again on the way out dragging a large board behind his vehicle to try and reduce those ruts. It is not clear to ne why they form like that. After some campers and I received instructions about watching out for large pythons on the road, not to feed the wallabies plastic bags etc. we were in. Upon navigating through the sand I was at the beach and greeted with the most amazing beauty imaginable. Crystal blue inlets leading to the Indian ocean proper. I amused myself of the beach looking for whales (the ranger indicated they had been breaching earlier) but did not see anything and so spent the time with The Western Australian, the main newspaper in WA. Like anywhere with a paper less that the New York Times it is dominated by local news and sports with a timid international section. I was struck by one article describing a time capsule buried 40 years ago at a local high school. There is to be a big celebration when they dig it up and celebrate life from that time. Unfortunately no one can find it. The students are tasked with going off and digging holes all over the school property. I suspect those who buried it spent a lot of time on this Cape and forgot not just their worries, but everything else as well.
I finally tore myself away in fear of being there in the dark with large pythons and cows on the road. On the way back I was treated with a real motorcycling challenge. I had mentioned that with the sun low in the sky the intensity diminishes. What I realize now is it does not diminish but focuses, in this case on the back of ones eyeballs to the point of being painful. I was travelling directly east to west at this point across northern Australia. To make matters worse there were sections of road without markings - a total blackout, since I realize those markings was what I was using to guide me forward. If I had not mentioned already a hot wind seems to blow constantly adding to the experience. I would never have guessed that those very large mounds of iron ore and complex system of conveyor belts that appeared on the horizon would be such a welcome sight. I stopped at the nearest pub to sooth my aching eyes and have a bit of dinner.
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