Karratha and Port Hedland, WA – Copper, lead and iron, all with a pinch of salt

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Oceania » Australia » Western Australia » Karratha
December 5th 2018
Published: January 27th 2019
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Today we were heading further up the coast to Karratha. The weather was once again sunny and hot, eventually reaching 34 degrees. We had to retrace our route initially, travelling through all those roadworks again. There were no water wagons this morning, thankfully, but the downside was that there was much more dust which swirled into mini-tornadoes and recoated the car in a red mist. It was hard to tell what colour it really was by the end of it all. We saw a large plane coming in to land at Onslow airport (yes, a town with a population of only 860 merits an airport in Australia), presumably ferrying in some of the workers to the gas plant.

We eventually rejoined Route 1 and the road was empty of traffic once again. We steered for 334 kms to reach Karratha, enjoying the scenery and crossing more dry river beds. On entering Karratha it took us a while to figure out where our lodgings were but we eventually found the Comfort Inn Hotel and Suites opposite the Caltex garage and were checked in to Room 14 by the manager who was celebrating his last day at work before retirement. He said he was planning on going caravanning and was looking forward to seeing more of his country. Karratha was a much bigger place than we had become accustomed to, with a population of about 17,000. Mr Manager understood how we had become disorientated on entering the town as he too had struggled with it when he first arrived many years ago. The town had grown around lead, gas and salt mining, all in slightly different locations, and its populace was fragmented as a result.

Our suite was lovely, with a separate lounge, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom and came with its own washer and dryer. Sadly we were only there overnight so I couldn’t take advantage of these facilities and had just done a huge laundry wash in Onslow anyway. We went in search of the town centre, figuring it would be somewhere near the coastline but the lovely seashore seemed to be almost forgotten and ignored by the townspeople. We had to do a u-ey in what seemed a perfectly legitimate place for such a manoeuvre but it evidently wasn’t and we were tooted at by the only other car on the road for being so daring. We finally found the centre of Karratha and were spoilt for choice of places to eat.

As we checked out the following morning a group of workers was checking in. One was on the phone to his wife, fessing up (against his colleagues’ advice) that he had lost his wedding ring. Fortunately for him, his wife had found it in her handbag of all places, so divorce was off the cards for the moment at least. They laughed at the colour of our car and recommended getting rid of stuff around the wheel arches at least, because it could set like concrete if left too long. We chipped off bits of the red stuff at every rest stop we made, with sticks, but it was a painstaking and never-ending task. Unfortunately, car washes were a rare thing in this part of Australia, I think in an attempt to conserve water which was always highlighted as a precious resource, not to be wasted, in all the places we stayed. Cyclone season was approaching, and all the TV weather reports highlighted that fact, which was a concern for me at least. I had no idea what we would do if a cyclone hit while we were on the road in the middle of nowhere. Mr Manager said not to worry, the sea needed to be hot before a cyclone would hit, and it was nowhere near hot enough for that yet.

We called in to Woolworths before leaving Karratha and topped up our supplies and fuel. The shopping mall had a large gathering of Aborigines, some of whom were loud and vocal, and a surfing Santa statue in recognition of the fact that Christmas was coming. The Tourist Information Centre was positioned on the outskirts and was closed! Closed, in a bustling town of 17,000 people, when those in much smaller places had been open for business. Go figure.

Route 1 still called itself the North West Coastal Highway in this region of Pilbara, though we were moving slightly inland for this part of our journey, and we had another day of steering along the empty road. The terrain was quite hilly in places, which added texture and colour to the landscape and the journey was pleasant. We had a rest stop at Whim Creek, about half way into our journey. This is an historic pub, dating from the late 1800s when it served the local copper mining town. The town has long since passed into history, but the pub has remained standing despite being hit by cyclones on several occasions, eventually being rebuilt with a steel frame to withstand those calamities, though the wooden facade has since blown off a couple of times. It is now pretty much all that remains of the original community, but was recently bought by two Aborigine enterprises who invest the proceeds from the pub and hotel to improve education and health within the local Aborigine community. It is extremely popular with tourists like us but is also convenient for the long-distance truck drivers to pitch up in and three of those trucks were in the car park when we arrived, engines left running to keep the AC going, even though we were there for quite some time. We had to cross a couple of grids in the road in order to get to Whim Creek. I couldn’t see the point of them as any errant animals could just walk around the unfenced sides of them if they fancied getting to the other side.

I had a great time there. There are lots of interesting old photos on the walls, showing all the history, and there’s a bit of a museum with old mining artefacts. There was a small menagerie to one side, with cockatoos that could talk and they used to have a camel but he stole all the regulars’ beer and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver. I gather there was also a python at one point, and he lived in the rafters above the bar. We didn’t eat there but a family with young children did and the food looked very appetizing. As well as tourists and truck drivers, people local to the pub also use it to eat, drink and meet up in, and one chap there was having a difficult conversation about the size of his bar tab which he agreed to settle on his next visit (but he was going to get his fill of beer on this occasion, before he did that!). It was certainly one of our more interesting rest stops.

Our destination today was Port Hedland. As the name suggests, this is a port area! Mr Manager in Karratha had said we would find it completely different as it focussed almost completely on iron ore as its main industry and all the ore is brought in on the trucks and railways and shipped out to its eventual destination from the docks area. On our approach to the town we noticed lots more traffic, including many more of the road trains which were now pulling four trailers instead of the three we were used to seeing. We mingled in well with them because they too were coated with a layer of red dust, masking their true colours. At one point the one in front of us seemed to wobble around a bit and the driver kept hitting the brakes, so I thought it must be difficult to keep them all in a straight line, especially when they are fully laden. We saw some very, very, long railway trains with dumper-type bogeys and later learned that the longest train in the world operates from here. We also passed some salt mountains, so it seems that industry in the area is not completely iron ore based.

We had booked four nights’ accommodation in the Hospitality Inn and I had been looking forward to an extended stay, though some people had indicated we must be mad to want to stay in Port Hedland! I was beginning to think they might have a point, as our initial approach to the town was not very inviting. I was also a bit concerned that the accommodation might be styled along the lines of the somewhat dated Best Western Hospitality Inn in Carnarvon, which hadn’t been inspiring. However, the missing ‘Best Western’ bit in the name made all the difference! We had booked a ‘queen super deluxe’ room and it really was just that - super. Ours was the only one with a patio, overlooking Cemetery Beach. I know, that doesn’t sound attractive does it, but it was also know as Turtle Beach because turtles come ashore here to nest, the only ones in the world to do so in an urban community, and the residents are very protective of them.

We had a lovely time in Port Hedland. The weather was hot and sunny, reaching as high as 39 degrees at one point, and the sunrises and sunsets were spectacular. We had a mix of really, really lazy days and days of gentle exploring. We drove around the town and enjoyed the kangaroo statues bedecked in Santa hats and tinsel. The Tourist Info Centre had lots of maps and souvenirs but their only postcards were of a mechanical/industrial nature. The local shopping mall had some much nicer ones but had sold out of the one with the longest train in the world on it. I spent hours on the patio watching all the tankers lining up on the horizon before being guided in by the pilot boats to collect their loads of iron ore. We visited the docks area to watch the huge ships being loaded up and walked along Turtle Beach, taking care not to disturb any of the nesting sites. We strolled up to the water tower which offered stunning views across the town and coastal area. I visited the cemetery, which had been restored after falling into disrepair, and a beautiful memorial had been installed. The cemetery was known as the Pioneer Cemetery and included many who came to Port Hedland as pearlers and loggers, when the town was just establishing itself. As such, the graves were representative of that community and included those of Aboriginal, Asian and European descent, with many of the headstones having Chinese lettering. I saw all the early morning cyclists and dog walkers, getting their exercise in before the heat of the day made it impossible. That, and the flies, because OMG they were everywhere. Some of the joggers wore those hairnet-type thingies across their heads to stop them inhaling mouthfuls of the things. We visited the Port Hedland Emporium, to buy some of those hairnet-type thingies for ourselves, thinking we might make use of them later in our travels. Unfortunately, the ones I bought were tight-fitting and made us look like a pair of bank robbers with nylon stockings on our faces. The Emporium was just that – it had everything from fishing rods, to artists’ materials, to furniture and I could have spent hours there, just browsing. I had mid-afternoon naps – such a luxury after short-stays and the need to keep moving. I investigated problems on the blog website but they seemed too big for me to overcome with limited technology so I duplicated and reverted to e-mail. We ate a lot and drank so much beer we were embarrassed at the number of empties we had and disposed of them in the town rubbish bins rather than have the chambermaid think we were alcoholics! In short, we really chilled out and rejuvenated. It was wonderful and just the break we needed because this was to be our most northerly stop on our route before we headed off into the Outback. I was really looking forward to that.


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