…these poor creatures seem not accustomed to carry burdens… neither did they seem to admire anything that we had. (William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World)


(1) Port Hedland

Port Hedland is the colour of iron. Not the dull, light-absorbing black of the smelted and worked finished article, nor the refined, tempered glint of polished steel, but the colour of its raw state, the deep rust red of iron ore. Everything in Port Hedland is either covered in red dust, or painted the colour of red dust. Or both, presumably. The wagons on the railway tracks are red, and so are the fuel containers, and the over-sized cranes. Even the small suburban houses along the main highway are tinged with red, and red dust coats the windshields of the cars lined up in the secondhand car yard. And the sea, when we finally get to it, has a reddish-brown tinge, where it flows shallow over mudflats.

Port Hedland is in the Pilbara, the red, dry, hot north-western corner of Australia. Like most settlements around here, it’s a long way from anywhere. We’ve driven from Broome in our rented campervan – over 600 kilometres on a narrow two-lane highway through seemingly endless scrub-covered plain, with only a couple of lonely roadhouses and a beachside campsite down a red dirt road to break the journey. As we approach Port Hedland, we start to see pylons, road signs, lamp-posts. Our guidebook advises against stopping here – nowhere to stay and nothing to see. But we’ve had enough of driving and so we turn off the highway onto a wide sweeping overpass. It looks brand new and it is completely empty.

At the holiday park, the washing lines are hung with hi-vis overalls drying in the intense afternoon heat. It’s Sunday, and Port Hedland’s two cafes are shut, as is the handful of real estate agents and banks that comprises the town centre. The Pier Hotel, which looks as if it has been built from shipping containers (red ones of course), is open but it does not look inviting. And so we walk along the sea front. There are little parks here and there with lawns and barbecues, oases of green among the red dust. Signs placed in the flowerbeds inform us that these are company parks, created by BHP Billiton.

Just across the water from here is the port–ranks of huge loaders and hoppers and conveyor belts, a dark and intricate web of girders and cables against the intense blue of the sky. An enormous black and red ship is docked at a long pier. In the blinding sunlight I can just make out a steady stream of something dark being poured from one of the loaders into the innards of the ship.

The ship is, in all likelihood, being loaded with iron ore. It is in the Pilbara that most of the iron ore that drives the Australian economy is dug up by companies like BHP Billiton, transported to Port Hedland and a few other deepwater ports along the coast here, and shipped out, mostly to China.

I am transfixed by all of this. The mind blowing scale of the operation, all that machinery, the vast quantities of ore that will be needed to fill this ship, and the next one, and the next one after that. And all this going on so far from anywhere. I decide that the guidebook was wrong. This feels like something that should be seen.

Back at the holiday park, sitting out under the stars, I hook up to the free wifi. I learn that BHP Billiton is one of the largest iron ore producers in Western Australia and that in a single year, it produced 254 megatonnes of iron ore. And that a megatonne is a unit of mass equal to one million tonnes. The iron ore is mostly used to make steel, huge amounts of steel, to build factories that produce the stuff we buy, to make the cars we drive, our fridges and air conditioning units, and the railways and the ships that transport more iron ore to make more steel.

I look up from the laptop. There’s a river just across from here, lost in darkness, where unseen birds call through the night. On the other side, a ribbon of white lights illuminates the railway lines that lead to the mines.

I go back to Google and find out that iron makes up five per cent of the earth’s crust, and that the earth has solid iron at its core (I think of a giant cannonball). That iron in our bodies helps our blood transport oxygen and that the interaction of iron and oxygen is what makes our blood red. And that most of the iron ore mined in Australia is hematite, which is derived from the Greek word for ‘blood’.


(2) Roebourne

Roebourne is two hundred kilometres south of Port Hedland, an untidy cluster of ochre-coloured stone buildings, roofed with rusting corrugated iron. Founded in 1866, Roebourne is the oldest settlement in the Pilbara.

The historic buildings of Roebourne, regularly hammered by cyclones, are in varying states of repair and many of them are empty. The Old Gaol, however, has been restored as a tourist attraction, and so we pay the entrance fee and go in. The gaol actually consists of two separate gaols. A small one for European and Asian prisoners, and a larger one for Aboriginal prisoners. The Aboriginal gaol has four cells off a central area so the prisoners could be watched over by a single warder. To make the warder’s job less onerous, the prisoners were shackled by the neck to an iron ring in the centre of the floor. We look round the cells where there are displays of iron chains and neck shackles. There was no convict labour in this part of Western Australia, and early European settlers used the labour of the Aboriginal people that they had dispossessed of their lands. Those who absconded from labour ‘agreements’ could expect to end up in Roebourne Gaol, where more forced labour awaited them.

Afterwards, we walk around the town. In the Old Gaol, they gave us a map with the various historic buildings marked on it, but we struggle to match up the map with reality and anyway, it is too hot to walk far. We take a few photos and then escape back into our air-conditioned campervan. We drive up Mount Welcome, a small hill at the edge of town, named by Emma Withnell, the first European woman to settle in the area. Emma’s husband, John Withnell, once beat an Aboriginal woman named Talarong for refusing to care for his sheep. She died of her injuries shortly afterwards. Luckily for Emma, no charges were brought against her husband because Talarong was judged to have provoked him. A hot wind and a satellite dish behind a rusting chainlink fence greet us at the top. From up here, we see that there is more to Roebourne than we had realized and we remember that the attendant at the Old Gaol told us there is also a new gaol here.

We drive past it on our way out of town, heading to a nearby holiday park for the night. Later, we take an evening stroll along the sea front, joined by a significant number of flies. There is another deepwater port near here and I count ten huge ships waiting out at sea for their loads of iron ore.

Back at the holiday park and on the free wifi, I learn that the new Roebourne Regional Prison has not been a significant improvement on the old. In one of the hottest parts of a very hot country, the prison is built of materials that retain heat. The Inspector of Custodial Services for Western Australia has repeatedly identified numerous problems with the prison, most notably the heat, which is described as ‘intolerable and inhumane’, especially given that many of the prisoners have health problems such as diabetes. Despite the vast revenues that come into the State from iron ore mining, there is no money to spare for air conditioning in the prison. More than 90 per cent of Roebourne’s prisoners are Aboriginal and a high proportion are incarcerated in these conditions for driving offences.


(3) Cossack

On our way to the nearby ghost town of Cossack, we pass a display of mining equipment at the side of the road. I pose beside the wheel of a bright yellow monster-sized dumptruck while my partner takes my photo. The wheel is twice my height. I post the photo to Facebook, where I learn from a friend that these trucks are often driverless, controlled remotely by radio. The dumptrucks operate as part of a continuous process of drilling, exploding, scooping, crushing, and conveying, an orchestrated ballet of immense proportions from mine to vast stockpiles of iron ore. Trains run in tunnels under the stockpiles, their wagons filled by automated chutes, and on to the ports to fill the ships. I think of that iron in my blood, continuously transporting oxygen around my body with every heartbeat.

The road to Cossack runs along a raised causeway over salt flats, striations of pure glittering white, punctured by ghostly trunks of long-dead trees, and bounded by a haze of shimmering heat.

After the salt glare, Cossack is all colour. Turquoise sea, red earth, the vibrant green of mangroves.  Most of the once-thriving port of Cossack has disappeared but the remaining buildings have been beautifully restored. They are built of the same irregular shaped stone as the buildings of Roebourne, the individual stones varying in hue from dark grey to rich shades of ochre. I learn that this stone is called ironstone.

Even early in the day, it is grindingly hot, but the buildings are cool inside. We look at more prison cells, and a museum with a large number of iron artefacts – iron binoculars, an iron surveyor’s chain, a home-made iron cleaver.

In its heyday, Cossack was home to a dangerous and brutal pearling industry. The first pearl divers were enslaved Aboriginal people, many of whom drowned or were killed by sharks, the brilliant turquoise waters stained crimson with their blood. Protected by isolation in this remote corner of Australia, the pearling industry got away with murder on a large scale, but eventually the outside world heard about their methods and Aboriginal divers were replaced with paid divers from various Asian countries. Then the harbour silted up and the pearling industry moved north to Broome. In a small cemetery just outside the settlement, there are Japanese graves alongside European graves, small stones and coins laid on the Japanese memorials. There are no memorials for the vast majority of the casualties of the pearling industry however, lost at sea or buried on remote beaches.

As we drive away from Cossack, back towards the saltmarsh, we notice that the long-vanished streets of the town show up on our GPS.


(4) Burrup Peninsula

The Burrup Peninsula used to be an island. Where there was once sea there is now a railway, an airport, and a road along a causeway over salt flats. European settlers named it Dampier Island and it formed part of the Dampier Archipelago – a cluster of 42 rocky islands off the Pilbara Coast. But now industrial development has joined Dampier Island to the mainland and it has been renamed. People have created humorous sculptures in the salt flats – there’s a salt snowman, a Loch Ness monster made of tires half-submerged in the salt, a mannequin in an Elvis suit serenading a headless woman.

We drove here from Cossack, in search of petroglyphs. We stop at the town of Dampier on the way, where there is a Rio Tinto port. All these Dampiers are named after William Dampier, the English buccaneer, explorer and naturalist who briefly stopped here in 1699 hoping to find fresh water. In the hold of his ship were iron tools and glass beads for trading with locals but he failed to find either water or local people. He noted the rusty colour of the rocks and then continued northwards. Dampier encountered Aboriginal people elsewhere in Australia and described them in his book, A New Voyage Round the World. On one occasion, Aboriginal people threatened Dampier and his men with weapons, which he described as ‘wooden swords’ shaped like cutlasses and lances with sharpened tips. One of Dampier’s men fired a gun and frightened them away. On another occasion he tried to persuade Aboriginal people to carry water for him, in exchange for clothes, but they laughed and refused to work.

The town of Dampier does not hold our attention for long, and we head off to look for the petroglyphs. They are marked on our map, but they are not signposted and so we pull off by a likely-looking stony track, hoping we are in the right place. On the other side of the road is some kind of industrial plant, a space-age assemblage of pipes and cylinders.

We follow the track on foot into a gorge of tumbled red rocks. The gorge could be ancient, or it might have just been created, roughly mounded into shape by one of those huge yellow diggers. I have not been here long enough to understand the landscape. The bottom of the gorge is in shadow, but the rocks above us glow vivid in the late afternoon sun, rusty shades of ochre, so soft and rich in the mellow light that they look as if they might crumble into dense powder at my touch.

We continue on, brushing through sunbleached grass, squinting upwards, but we don’t know what we are looking for. I feel as if we shouldn’t be here, that we are intruding on something, that we should turn back. Then I spot a pattern of three-toed bird tracks crossing the surface of a rock and then we start to see other petroglyphs. There are animals – lizards, fish, birds, and what looks like a platypus, legs splayed as if on a dissecting table – and there are people, and patterns, and other things we cannot decipher.

Pigeons whirr overhead, and there are real kangaroos too, perched high up. One of them bounds, effortless and surefooted down the gorge without disturbing a single rock and then silence falls. This feels like a place that is outside time. We are not intruders, we are irrelevant, insignificant specks in a long procession of days, of years, of centuries, briefly present at something we cannot start to understand.

The gorge branches out in different directions and we feel unsure again, suddenly worried we could lose our way as the light fades. And so we turn back to the certainty of the road, where we join a steady stream of traffic, an endless procession of white utes, landcruisers, minivans full of men wearing hi-vis, all heading home after a day’s work.

The petroglyphs here are only a small part of a rich concentration of highly diverse rock art scattered over the Burrup Peninsula and the islands of the Dampier Archipelago, created by carving into the red outer layer of the rocks to reveal paler rock beneath. There are estimated to be over a million petroglyphs (they have never been comprehensively surveyed or catalogued). It is thought that the petroglyphs have been created over a very long period of time. Some of them may be over 10,000 years old, produced before the rise in sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age. Among the rock art are images thought to be Thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers)–extinct in the Pilbara for over 3000 years.

A significant proportion of the petroglyphs have been destroyed by industrial development on the peninsula, and the remaining petroglyphs are at serious risk from emissions that are likely to corrode the rock surfaces, as well as from vandalism, and further industrial development. Up to now, the Western Australian government has not taken much interest in protecting them, although there are signs that it may finally be prepared to nominate the site for UNESCO World Heritage Listing after years of ignoring calls for action.

The rock art is, needless to say, highly significant to the local Aboriginal people, who consider they have an inherited and ongoing responsibility to look after it. It doesn’t help though that most of the Yaburara tribe, the original custodians of the art, were wiped out in 1868 in what has come to be known as the Flying Foam Massacre. There are varying accounts of the events that led up to the massacre, which may have involved the rape of an Yaburara woman, and the arrest of her husband for the theft of flour, and ended with the murder of a white police officer, his Aboriginal assistant and two pearlers. In retribution, an organised group of white settlers (John Withnell of Roebourne may have been among their number) murdered up to 100 members of the local Yaburara tribe at various locations around the islands of the Dampier Archipelago. The European history of Australia is stained with stories like this, the wooden weapons that Dampier described no match for guns and iron chains. Flying Foam is a passage of water between two islands of the archipelago, named after a ship that foundered there, but I can’t help but think of white surf flecked with blood.

On the way back, we stop at the Dampier Salt Lookout, just off the main highway and across the railway. We climb up to a raised platform and look out over huge square solar salt pools stretching out towards the horizon and the setting sun.

Salt would have been as essential as iron to Dampier the pirate, and so it is apt that the Dampier Salt Company should bear his name. Without barrels full of salted meat and fish, early European visitors to Australia like Dampier, or the Dutch East India Company traders, or Captain Cook, could never have fed their crews on those long and uncertain voyages. Salt too was used to make the gunpowder that was fired from iron guns to keep hostile natives in check.

These days only a small proportion of salt is used for food. Most salt is used by the chemical industry to make caustic soda, soda ash or chlorine, none of which sounds at all appealing, but these in turn are used to make the stuff we buy: plastic, glass, paper, textiles and steel.

As we watch the sunset, a train of staggering length starts to trundle along the railway line below, coming from the direction of the port. We count 230 rust red wagons, all empty, their contents offloaded back at the port and awaiting their long journey to China. It takes several minutes for the train to pass below the lookout. We stand and watch as it disappears from view, heading back to the mines of the distant interior, on into the heart of the darkening night.


Louise Slocombe

Louise Slocombe

Louise Slocombe is a freelance writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. She writes about places and journeys, both real and imaginary. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University, UK and has had work published in Tincture Journal, Elsewhere, The Yellow Room and Takahe Magazine.