43. Australian Road Trip: The Oresome Red Land - Port Hedland
A Post Apocalyptic Outback Industrial townscape
Our first view of Port Hedland is like a vision of hell. The teasing prospect of hills and low desert mesas, a few dozen kilometres to the north of the town, give way to the razor sharp horizon that frames the Port. In the fuzzy distance, what looks like a Christmas tree dissolves out of the mirage into a huge factory of some kind, despite being many miles distant. Soon enough, the hand of man insinuates itself onto the wilderness. The hinterland around Port Hedland is all salt farms and scrap heaps. Freight trains, literally kilometres long, are parked at sidings, the trucks stacked high with dark red-brown iron ore. A tiny copse of bushes gradually transforms itself, as we get closer, into a truck stop and caravan park. A wind-sock blowing in the desert breeze indicates an airport. There is suddenly traffic, the road turns into four lanes and across a vast flat plain there are rusty metal structures - crushing plants and conveyor belts. Huge mounds of salt stand like stark white alps against the dry yellow spinifex grass and dark red earth. Vast geometric fields of sea water evaporate in the hot dry air to leave plains of salt, ready to be bulldozed into the salt mountain.
Even from outer space, Port Hedland has an other-worldly look to it
The tow truck driver takes us to the satellite town of South Hedland. It’s the residential dormitory for the Port workers, and a less attractive suburb have I seldom seen. We drive around its cloverleaf network of streets, catching glimpses of bungalows and a shopping centre behind the countless, light industrial warehouses and workshops. The driver stops at a mechanic’s workshop but the grease monkey says he is far too busy to take us on. We learn that his yard is prone to constant break-ins and the chatty tow truck driver tells us about the problems that South Hedland suffers from what he calls indigenous troublemakers. “A few years ago”, he says, without a glimmer of shame, “we formed a vigilante committee and sorted it all out, but later they brought in troublemaking blackfellas from Carnarvon and it got bad again. They don’t bother me though; I have pig dogs and a 2 metre high fence.” Nice place, I think to myself.
The Wedgefield Saviours
We drive out of South Hedland, and back along the highway to another distant line of low trees that indicates yet another suburb. Wedgefield is mostly zoned light industrial, with workshops, scrap yards, machine shops, factories and yes - two whorehouses. We finally stop in front of an auto mechanics' yard called N&L Mechanical. Two huge blokes saunter out to look at our disabled truck, sitting uselessly up on the flatbed. These blokes (Jeff and Jaime) are the epitome of outback, mining town Aussies. Both big as bulls, covered in ingrained grease and red dirt and clad in hefty work boots, tight shirts and even tighter, short blue shorts.
Jeff and Jamie check out the undercarriage and next thing we know, Winnie is being unloaded in the greasy yard, with dead cars, a disabled fire truck and a dust covered fishing boat for company. Big Jamie jacks her up with one hand and has the offending wheel off in minutes. With diff oil up to his elbows he draws the axle out of the diff housing. Sure enough, it has sheared off at the hub. Sheila and I sit on a sun-baked bench while he ducks down to the nearest wreckers to find another axle. We feel confident, we could even be back on the road this afternoon.
Jamie returns an hour later but with no axle. He gets on the phone and starts calling around the various garages, scrap yards and metalwork shops in Hedland, to no avail. Then he calls similar establishments in Karratha, the next town down the highway (200kms away). By knock-off time we all realise that finding a replacement axle to fit Winnie will be a tougher task than we thought. Toyota parts do not grow on trees in Australia, despite the popular myth!
Jeff, the boss says we can stay in Winnie, in the garage, but that prospect doesn’t appeal so we have to find a place to spend the night. I get on the phone and call a couple of caravan parks in search of a cabin, our cheapest option. I find one at the Port Hedland Caravan Park, which is the desultory place we passed near the airport on the way in. Finally, we order a taxi, gather some valuables, and are soon deposited in the oil stained gravel forecourt of the truck stop and caravan park. We decline the $99 cabin for a cheaper version. At $65 per night it is one of the grimmest accommodations I have ever stayed in. Row after row of portable fibreglass cabins, Dongas, populate the park. There are trees overhead but beyond, the view is one of a stark, flat, industrial desert. That night, the sun sets like gold across the post-apocalyptic landscape while we sit on squeaky single beds in that awful cubicle. The portholes don’t open and the compulsory aircon chills the stuffy air inside. There isn’t even enough room to roll the two beds together. I try to turn my grimace of mental pain into a grin of excitement and optimism. Sheila is not fooled by my desperate countenance.
We discover that there is a pub, the Walkabout Tavern, next door to the caravan park, so we wander across to find something to eat. Huge road trains idle at the diesel pumps, while in the dark distance a mass of lights illuminate one of the world’s biggest iron ore ports. The tavern is clean and tidy, but full of tough looking men, all covered in red dust. The food is basic but very tasty and the beer is as cold as you would expect. A good feed brings optimism and over a final beer we talk through our Action Plan A for the morning.
We decide that we cannot spend another day and a night out here in this scruffy truckstop without losing our minds, especially since there is a perfectly good town only 20kms away. Theoretically, the mechanics will fix Winnie tomorrow and we can be on our way, but just to be on the safe side, and for comfort’s sake, we should find a motel room in town. Trouble is the guide book isn’t filled with choices of accommodation, but there MUST be places in a town of this size, so we decide our first port of call will be the Tourist Information Centre.
Dawn. We are up early and in a taxi on our way to Port Hedland town centre. It’s almost 20kms into the old town, which is built on an island accessed along a causeway that cuts through the salt flats. We are driven past unimaginably long trains, small mountains of dark red iron ore, dark red oil storage tanks, multi-storied, rust-red crushing plants and a giant’s mechano-set of conveyor belts, gantries and pipework. The superstructures of ships loom above the industrial cityscape and as we enter the town proper, we can see houses along a low ridge on our right, behind a racecourse and playing fields. The taxi drops us in what passes for downtown Port Hedland. The main street has a tourist centre, a couple of banks, some employment agencies, a convenience store, a newsagents, a post office and a couple of cafes. It is heaven, of sorts. A red heaven.
As we begin to take in the small town centre we see that it is indeed red. Not the warm cinnamon of the pindan dirt that colours the earth of Broome, but a dark, dirty, shit-brown red, made so by the dust from the mountainous heaps of iron ore that surround the place. The buildings are red. The locals have, in most cases, given up on keeping their house exteriors clean. Anything white, or pastel in colour, is permanently tinged red. To hide the stain, many buildings are painted in a primer red colour, a dull, dirty grey-pink, like rust-proof paint, that hides the stain of the ore dust. The concrete footpaths are stained red or, as in the small harbour-side park, are made of pink cement. Cars parked on the main street are coated in the stuff. Even the scruffy pigeons that snuffle around the pavement café are tinged in red.
In the Visitors centre on the main street there are displays showing the scope of the town’s industrial facilities. The iron ore is its reason for existing and BHP/Billiton is the company that rules the place, like the caliphs of some mythical medieval city state. In Port Hedland Iron Ore is king. As the town motto emphatically states: Port Hedland is Oresome.
They call me Frog
The girl in the Tourist Office is dead friendly. She looks like she is going to cry when we explain our breakdown at Pardoo, but in fact her natural, toothy grin just gets bigger. She is hesitant to recommend that we stay in the Hotel – “it’s a bit noisy at night,” – but she thoroughly recommends the local travellers' retreat, curiously named Frogs Backpacker Hostel. OK, we’ll give the hostel a go, though we aren’t really hostel-type people - we think we are too old. She gets on the phone to a guy called Gary and he says he will come and pick us up as soon as he gets his tea break at work. We can’t complain about the service so far. Half an hour later a dusty people carrier pulls up and a tall, gangly, naturally red-headed bloke gets out. “G’day, I’m Gary,” he says, “but you can call me Frog.”
A Bit about BHP or Port Hedland
BHP - The Broken Hill Proprietary Company has been an Aussie institution since its foundation in 1885. It was originally a mining company involved in the extraction of Silver, Lead and Zinc in the New South Wales wild west town of Broken Hill - it is now the largest mining company in the world following its merger with Anglo-Dutch operation Billiton. To find out more click on the Wikipedia link below:
Port Hedland - Pre-BHP
Port Hedland is known by the Indigenous Kariyarra and Nyamal people as Marapikurrinya, which either means "place of good water" (as told by a Nyamal language speaker) and makes reference to the three reliable fresh water soaks that can still be seen in and around the town, or as the town council's website says "refers to the hand like formation of the tidal creeks coming off the harbour (marra - hand, pikurri - pointing straight and nya - a place name marker)". According to Dreamtime legend there was a huge blind water snake living in the landlocked area of water known as Jalkawarrinya. This landlocked area is now the turning basin for the ships that enter the port and as the story goes, "the coming of the big ships meant it was unable to stay".
More about Port Hedland here: