44. Australian Road Trip: Port Hedland - Capital of the Pilbara

The sign of our saviour
The sign of our saviour
In the communal lounge at frog's
In the communal lounge at frog's
A big ore carrier heads out to sea - China bound
A big ore carrier heads out to sea - China bound

Life at Frog's

Frog's Backpacker Hostel, Port Hedland...

Travellers gravitate to Frog’s, creating a world of transient people from all corners of the globe; people moving on; people stopping for a few days to chill; and people, like us, trapped for an unknown length of time by circumstance, and a broken axle.

We sit, hour after hour and day after day, at the long trestle table in the social area at the front of the single story tin bungalow. A ceiling fan stirs the hot air during the day and green transparent netting provides an airy wall through which we watch huge ore freighters being tugged into and out of the harbour. They pass before us, barely 200 metres away, seeming to fill the entire vista as they go. At night, they sit at the sparkling loading dock across the channel on Finucane Island. The lights of the facility, the lights of the ships, and light of the setting tropical sun creates a breathtaking scene of stark industrial beauty. In the front garden, palms rustle in the breeze and when there are no giant ore ships to block the view we can see the golden sandy beach on Finucane Island and the calm blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

Seen one sunset...

A typical sunset  silhouettes the loading docks on Finucane Island
A typical sunset silhouettes the loading docks on Finucane Island
More of the same
More of the same

What is 'The Pilbara?"

This is from Wikipedia. For the entire article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilbara

The Pilbara (pronounced as "Pill-bra") is a region in the north Western Australia known for its vast mineral deposits, in particular iron ore. The Pilbara is hot, dry desert country, but does experience cyclones during the season, situated as it is, well within in the tropics. The Pilbara region covers an area of 507,896 km² (including offshore islands) and boasts a population of almost 40,000 people, most of whom live in the western part known as the Roebourne coastal sandplain, in towns such as Port Hedland, Karratha, Wickham, Newman and Marble Bar. A substantial number of people also work in the region on a fly-in/fly-out basis. The eastern part of the Pilbara is almost entirely desert, and is sparsely populated by a small number of Aboriginal peoples. The dominant flora of the Pilbara is acacia (wattle) trees and shrubs and drought-resistant spinifex grasses. Wildlife includes the usual red kangaroos and a host of Aussie birds such as cockatoos, budgerigars, emus and birds of prey.

The hostel is Frog’s home which he shares with Jenny, his school teacher girlfriend. After a couple of days it feels like our home too. After 10 days, we feel like we’ve always lived here, despite the ever-present the urge to hit the road and continue our journey. It's funny that - when we first arrived in Port Hedland we thought it was the town from hell: a sprawling, dirty, industrial place, with few facilities, and little to do. It’s all of those things, but it has become something else too.

It is a good place. it is loved by its locals, in the way one would love a mangy old family dog that occasionally bites. We too have learned to love it, in a fashion, thanks to Frog. Each day we venture out of the cool security of the hostel to buy the previous day’s Australian, as soon as it arrives on the 10am flight from Perth. Then we sit at the shady sidewalk café - “Simply the Best” - on Wedge Street, and drink the best flat whites in The Pilbara. After a few days Aaron, the café owner, greets us as if we are locals and several of the regulars know our plight too. Some afternoons I even go fishing off the Spoil Bank, a long, lonely sand spit that juts out into the sea.

Downtown Hedland

History on a paddle-pop stick

Travellers leave their mark at Frog's by writing on a lolly stick - our message (bottom) takes up two sticks.
Travellers leave their mark at Frog's by writing on a lolly stick - our message (bottom) takes up two sticks.
Icy cold pool at Frog's
Icy cold pool at Frog's
The "Cairns Boys - Aaron and Mark - typical honest, hard working Aussie blokes.
The "Cairns Boys - Aaron and Mark - typical honest, hard working Aussie blokes.
"Sydney Dave" - out to see the world
"Sydney Dave" - out to see the world

The Frogites - a cross-section of humanity

We spend much of our day, everyday, basically lazing about. I play my guitar; read, write, or just stare at the unique view from the social area. Chatting with the other residents is also a way to pass the time. Travellers roll in every morning from the south on the Greyhound Bus, or at random times in their road-weary vehicles. We all have our adventures to relate and share; some are typical tales of backpacker parties and some are tales of woe like ours.

The “Coral Bay Crew” drift in over a number of days. First we first meet young David who arrives the same day as us. “Sydney Dave”, as he says he was known when he laboured on the banana plantations in Carnarvon. He's a young man from Sydney who is out to discover Australia and himself. He is a charming guy who wins his way around the country with a friendly smile, an honest face and a good work ethic. He just rolled in on the ‘Old Grey Dog’ (the Greyhound bus) from the fabled Coral Bay where he had spent a couple of weeks partying in the backpacker scene after his Carnarvon work stint. Over the next week people from his time at Coral Bay drift in to stay at Frog’s too. As some arrive, there is a steady exodus of others heading north to that distant, mythical paradise from wence we recently came, Broome.

There are the 'scruffy Irish lads', the 'inscrutable Canadian and his aloof Quebecois girlfriend. There’s the hard Aussie miner from the desert town of Newman on his way by bus to a reunion of mates in far off Kununarra. Glaswegians Martin and Jackie are like us - broken down. They are nearly penniless and dispirited, yet have no choice other than to wait it out while their vehicle is mended and they can move on. Kate, a cute English girl, arrives late one afternoon. Her vehicle has died 250kms to the north, near Sandfire Roadhouse on the edge of the desert. She has drawn the short straw to hitchhike to Port Hedland and find help while her three travelling companions wait by the roadside in the stark, lonely night with their irretrievable wagon. So it goes… everyday new faces appear. Some stay for only a night while others linger longer, looking for something that perhaps doesn’t exist in the red town of Port Hedland.

Cute English Kate organises a ride back up the highway to rescue her friends and returns much later that day. They spend the next two days glued to the television and the DVDs. They sprawl about the couches in the cool dark sitting room for a marathon, non-stop, seven-movie session. Curiously, them and us are the only travellers heading south. Meanwhile, more Coral Bay crew arrive including Canadian Paul and a Euro-contingent consisting of a German girl, a Dutch girl and a slightly miserable Swiss dude.

In the evening the kitchen is a chaotic free for all, with noodles, steaks, salads, sandwiches and ravioli smells competing for air space. As long-term residents of Frog’s, we sit out the early rush and spend that part of the evening chatting with Aaron and Mark. They are the ‘Cairns Boys’, men really, who have come to the Port to ply their trade as Fitters and Turners. Frog doesn’t usually rent rooms to industrial workers, but they are working with him at Trevalle Engineering, so are exempt, for now, from the ‘No Workers’ rule.

The mysterious world of automotive mechanicals

On our second day at Frogs, N&L Mechanical discovered, to our horror, that Winnie is in fact a rare type of Toyota truck. A ‘dual-wheeled flatbed’ with Winnebago camper added later. There are only a few of this model left on the road and Winnie is one of them. We are stunned to learn that we probably won’t find an axle to fit her unless we order one from the original manufacturer in Japan (seriously!), at great cost in time and money. I don’t believe it.

Desperate to find the part, I call my trusty brother Pete in Sydney and put him on the case; meanwhile, I go online. I cyber-travel to all parts of the country, searching for the phone numbers of wrecking yards that might happen to have the elusive axle. Each lead ends in disappointment. Some places give me a number of some other place and they in turn send me elsewhere. Each virtual road I travel down is a cul-de-sac of reality and broken dreams. After a week we face the truth – we ain’t gonna find an axle in Australia – the Japanese Option is looking like our only hope.

This means we could be stuck in Port Hedland for up to a month. We can’t afford to stay here at Frog’s, even though it only costs $50 a night. Frog is a fitter and turner himself and offers to weld the broken axle together, as a temporary measure, just so we can drive out to a nearby caravan park (nice place, near the sea at the far end of town) where we can live cheaply for three weeks while the Jap axle finds its way to this desert outpost. With this idea in mind, he drives us out to N&L Mechanical to have a look at the offending part. After a discussion with Jeff and Jamie, another, Better Plan emerges: If they can find a similar aged Toyota in a local wreckers they reckon that an axle can be adapted to fit, with a little clever engineering magic. So taking advantage of being with Winnie again, we gather more clothes, plus my bike and fishing rod, pile it into Frog’s truck, and head back to the hostel to wait out the weekend and see what happens.

The Esplanade Hotel - unique Port Hedland architecture
The Esplanade Hotel - unique Port Hedland architecture

What happens...

Friday night: Sydney Dave and I go to the Esplanade pub where we drink cold beer and play pool against a couple of friendly indigenous locals. Then we move across the road to the Pier hotel. The place is packed. Full of young people who have come from I don’t know where. I’m amazed at the spectacle, it seems so ordinary, like any busy pub in Sydney, yet it is extraordinary too, that there are so many young people, both girls and boys, in this tough and isolated community.

Monday morning: there is an email waiting for me from a wrecking yard in Melbourne. There is an axle for our truck, ‘probably’, no, ‘definitely’, the only one in Australia. I phone the guy and he confirms that it is as ‘rare as rocking horse shit’, which is exactly what I thought it would be. I buy it then and there, and phone Jamie at N&L to tell him the good news. At last we can relax a bit, there is an end in sight.

More unique and querky outback architecture - The Pier Hotel
More unique and querky outback architecture - The Pier Hotel
The barren reaches of the Spoil Bank
The barren reaches of the Spoil Bank
The Port Hedland Port Authority Control Tower
The Port Hedland Port Authority Control Tower
In with the tide.... fill-up... out with the tide.
In with the tide.... fill-up... out with the tide.

Big night out

Wednesday night: the hostel is buzzing. We have all become close friends and tonight is Karaoke Night at the Pier Hotel. The English girls, Kate and Lou, dress up in their best clubbing clobber and prime themselves on Vodka and lemonade. The English boys, the Cairns Guys, Sydney Dave and Paul the Canuck all dress for serious pub action and girl pulling. As for Sheila and me, we decide to treat ourselves to a nice home cooked dinner. Sheila grills two tender fillet steaks purchased earlier that day, I wash it down with Cabernet Savignon and several cold beer cleansers. After everyone has eaten and titivated we all sit along the trestle table getting stage-2 primed for the pub. At that moment - two new girls check in off the road, toting an esky between them. The ‘Esky-Girls’ are travel weary but fun-loving German girls, They become instant mates with all of us and join our posse for the big night out.

The pub is an interesting example of outback architecture. It appears to be a hodge-podge of large, two-storey metal dongas, painted Hedland-red and arranged in a square, to create a courtyard filled with tables and chairs, a stage and a dance floor. There are a couple of serving bars opening onto the courtyard making the whole pub an open-air affair. Like most “big nights out” the early excitement is followed by anticlimax. The evening is pleasant enough but nothing happens - no one from our mob even enters the karaoke; no one falls in love and there are no outback donnybrooks (fights); and to top it off, no matter how many schooners I drink, I fail to get drunk.

Thursday: For me, the next afternoon is far more exciting – I get a haircut. Sweet Louise, one of the English girls (cute Kate being the other), is a pro-hairdresser and for a tenner she sits me in the sunny back courtyard at Frogs and gives me one of the best haircut experiences I have ever had. What makes it even more memorable is that she is wearing nothing but a very skimpy bikini.

It’s Saturday again: Frog's is quiet. Most have moved on - The English, the Esky girls; even Aaron and Mark, the “Cairn’s Boys,” have moved to permanent accommodation in a rented house. Only Sheila and I and Sydney Dave remain from the original crew, though the odd traveller appears for a night or two. Another German girl comes and goes. An Irish guy arrives on today’s Greyhound. A Portuguese man I met while fishing on the reef across the road, stays for a night.

The clock has stopped while the world moves on around us. We measure time by the arrival of the daily paper and the time it takes for the huge ore freighters, filled to the waterline with red dirt, to become disappearing dots on the razor sharp, blue horizon, far away from this red town on the edge of the world.

Iron view
Iron view
Proper true blue dunny
Proper true blue dunny
Retro metal skyline in the town of iron
Retro metal skyline in the town of iron
iron men
iron men
Ghostly gum
Ghostly gum
A map of Port Hedland in iron
A map of Port Hedland in iron

Broken dreams, dirty kitchens

Everyday we visit the freight office on Wedge Street to see if our rare Melbourne axle has arrived. Now that we have become resigned to it we are making the best of life in Port Hedland. This little ritual is part of our coping mechanism, along with the newspaper, the flat whites, the chat with Aaron the café owner, and a dozen other insignificant things. I also spend considerable time exploring the town on my Bicycle.

The old town itself is larger than it looks. The island it nestles on is several kilometres long, though less than one wide. The town and port sit at one end, while at the other it is all residential and community orientated with a public swimming pool, a couple of pubs, a social club or two, a racecourse, tennis courts, more shops, a caravan park and a tidal swimming hole called Pretty Pool. In between there are suburban bungalows, many with reasonable ocean views. The island has a ridge running along its spine. A dozen metres above sea level at its highest point, it affords a good view over the sea to the west where dozens of gigantic ore carriers await their turn to enter the narrow harbour mouth to be filled with iron ore for China. To the east, looking inland, you can see over the salt marshes and beyond to distant industrial structures and far away, on the flat, blurry line where the sky meets the land, a couple of stark pointy hills rise up like pyramids.

I also spend a bit of time indulging in my new hobby, fishing. I first dip my line on the gravely shore of the Spoil Bank, a tongue of earth that sticks a kilometre or so out into the sea, about halfway along the island’s length. I presume it has been created by the dumping of sand dredged from the bottom of the channel. It’s a hot, dusty place where people come to ride their quad bikes or 'get up to no good'. As a fishing spot, I rate The Spoil Bank ‘Not So Great.’

I am far more successful dipping a line off the rock platform out in front of Frogs. This spot is only accessible at low tide and is pocked with rockpools full of spiny sea urchins, sharp oysters, old coral heads and God knows what other kinds of tropical nasties. My best catch out there is a big rock cod, a beastly looking creature with leopard skin patterning and dangerous spines all over it. Fortunately, I met Mario the day before. He is Portuguese but has lived for years in Karratha. He has come up to Hedland in search of work. He is also a dedicated, lifelong fisherman, and he helps me to gut and fillet the big cod. Sheila prepares the fish feast by rolling the fillets in seasoned flour and lightly frying them in oil. I suppose it is partly because I caught the thing myself, but it is truly a wonderful meal, as good as Barramundi any day.

Then it arrives. We see it in the back of the airport cargo van when it stops to deliver the papers at the newsagent in town, a metre long, heavily wrapped parcel addressed to Me! c/o N&L Engineering, Wedgefield, Port Hedland, Western Australia. We are like kids, such is our glee. Shit, it is only a bloody axle, but to us it is our Get Out Of Gaol Free Card. The cargo van takes our beloved part out to Wedgefield on its delivery run and I phone Jeff to let him know it is on the way. We carry on with the rest of our day and even begin to sort out our stuff in our little room at the hostel. By noon the next day I still haven’t heard from N&L so have no choice but to call them and chivvy them on a bit. Jeff says “Sorry Mick, the bloody thing doesn’t fit.” Strueth, it’s the wrong part! We’re back to square one!

Oh woe, oh heartbreak. How I hate cars. We are visibly shaken by this news. We have been at Frog’s for almost two weeks and have been anticipating the arrival of this part for a week. Now we are literally back to square one! It looks like we might have to resort to the Japanese option. We are stunned.

"Simply the Best" Bait, Ice and Tackle, also bacon and egg rolls and flat whites.
"Simply the Best" Bait, Ice and Tackle, also bacon and egg rolls and flat whites.
Meet my mate Gill
Meet my mate Gill

Simply the bloody best

Little Aaron, to differentiate him from ‘Cairns Aaron’ at Frog’s, runs ‘Simply the Best’, the only café on Wedge Street, where we establish our mid-morning base camp on one of the footpath tables. Newspapers, flat whites and roll-ups keep us occupied for a couple of hours each day. Aaron is amiable but hard-pressed running the busy café: In the mornings the workers call in for bacon and egg rolls by the dozen. Thursdays, families of Aboriginals flock in for chips and Cokes. Pick-ups are constantly pulling in with mine employees; engineers, and outback trouble-shooters. Everyone in Hedland works for BHP or one of the dozens of subsidiary companies that support the massive organisation over the vast field of operations that it covers. It’s a company town.

After two weeks we find ourselves actually working in the café – washing dishes and getting drunk with Aaron after work. There’s not much money in it but the absurdity of the entire situation makes it all worthwhile. However, I soon discover that washing endless dishes in a steaming hot, slightly scruffy café kitchen is not what I signed up for on this road trip. I go fishing instead.

Good news at last – Jeff calls from N&L. He has found a back end from an old Hilux and thinks he might be able to cut the axle down and make it fit out rear end. He’ll keep us in touch. Then, more good news. News that shakes our soul.

Stairway to the Moon

The phenomenon known as the Stairway to the Moon is moonlight (actually sunlight reflecting off the moon but I'm nitpicking) reflecting off the sand flats at low tide, only occurs once in a blue moon.
The phenomenon known as the Stairway to the Moon is moonlight (actually sunlight reflecting off the moon but I'm nitpicking) reflecting off the sand flats at low tide, only occurs once in a blue moon.
Actual sunlight reflecting on the sandflats
Actual sunlight reflecting on the sandflats
Everybody's hero - Frog (shown here with Jenny).
Everybody's hero - Frog (shown here with Jenny).

The humanity of Frog; Nearer My God to Thee

Frog, our landlord, whom I mentioned earlier, works as a fitter and turner for Trevalle Engineering. He runs the hostel as a hobby. Being an ex-traveller himself, he enjoys meeting like-minded individuals, he enjoys the company and of course the extra money that such an enterprise brings. It transpires that Travelle Eng. has a shutdown for a week and Frog will have to work all hours at the workshop. He offers us the opportunity to look after the hostel while he is busy. All we have to do is keep it looking tidy and most importantly, mop the floors to keep the red dust levels down. The stuff gets everywhere so it is a major task keeping it at bay. We should also wash the sheets and generally keep things ticking over. For this he offers us free accommodation.

What really gets us though is that he says he won’t charge us anything for our entire stay. We can’t believe his generosity and compassion. We have already been here over two weeks and have a double room. True, as mature adults (Laugh out loud), I suppose we have done our best all along at keeping the place tidy. Now we are more or less in charge. Frog’s kindness knows no bounds. Every evening he drives whoever needs it down to the shopping mall at the other end of town so they can buy groceries. He takes people to the bus station and picks them up… he is a legend.

After this things move fast. The time flies through the rest of the week as we continue our job share at the café while de-scruffing the hostel, and I spend a hot morning fishing with ‘Cairns Aaron’ off some small cliffs just beyond the Spoil Bank. We check in a few guests and I cautiously allow a trio of road-addicted travellers, two Frenchmen and a Dane, into the hostel so they can use the internet. It’s the little events you remember in times like this. Then, on our 18th day at Frog’s, Jeff from N&L calls to say that Winnie is fixed and ready to roll. We can’t believe it, but it is true.

Sydney Dave, has bought a car, so he drives us out to Wedgefield to pick Winnie up. I am shaking as we open the bill. Surprisingly it only costs $500, but then they didn’t actually have to do much to fix it, the problem was finding the appropriate part in such an isolated place. We vigorously shake the hands of Jeff and Jamie and the other greasy mechanics in the workshop. We brought a slab of VB with us as a token of appreciation for the time and effort these hard working men devoted to our nearly lost cause. Looking at the hapless, clapped out Winnebago only makes me hate it and myself even more. Still, it is fixed and all we have to do now is go back to Frog’s, pack our belongings and head off; on the road again. I want to jump up and touch the sky, so I do.

Leaving Frog’s is emotional. It was almost three weeks ago that Frog plucked us from the lonely, red streets of Port Hedland and gave us refuge in his wonderful hostel. Now we love Port Hedland. Leaving is difficult. It is mainly the thought of plunging back into the Outback in that bloody truck that is troubling me the most. But giving up the sanctuary, security and warmth of Frog’s is also difficult. Nevertheless, the next morning, after the final “stowing of the bicycle ceremony”, amid cheers, tears and hugs from Frog, Jenny and Sydney Dave, we fire up the Toyota motor, turn on the iPod, adjust sunnies, light up the first “road fag”, and back away from the parking space at the rear of the hostel. We are like some ungainly, leaking steamer pulling out of port with streamers waving, horns blowing and the band playing Waltzing Matilda, poignantly – the bloody Titanic is what we are.

What happens next... and even later?a few years

I believe Aaron and Mark are still in Port Hedland working as fitters and turners. I heard from Sydney Dave that Frog gave up the Hostel and returned with Jenny to Melbourne... but maybe I dreamt that. Sydney Dave himself ended up working in the Mines, earned lots of dollars, before continuing his trip around Australia. He then went to live in Wales with a girl he had met in Coral Bay. One day, maybe four years after the events described here, he came and visited us in Norwich. He eventually returned the Pilbara to once again earn big bucks mining. As for Sheila and me, you'll have to read the next hub to find out how we fared with Winnie.

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Comments 3 comments

Karanda profile image

Karanda 5 years ago from Australia

What an adventure you have had and what a way with words. I may not comment on each but rest assured I am reading every episode and thoroughly enjoying sharing your journey.


saltymick profile image

saltymick 5 years ago Author

Thanks Karan... without that cursed truck our trip would only be half as exciting.


Karanda profile image

Karanda 5 years ago from Australia

Hah, you probably know better than anyone, things happen for a reason. If it had been smooth sailing through that country you would never have met such interesting people.

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