This blog documents our journey across the North West Australian terrain. Starting from Perth, we travelled thousands of kilometers following the North West Coastal Highway up to Port Hedland, merged with the Great Northern Highway to Broome. During this trip we passed through some first Australian communities, crossed both the Great and Little Sandy Deserts of Western Australia. and visited some amazing West Australian outback locations such as Marble Bar, Karijini, Newman and the rest.
The aim is to document our experience and present Australia to the world from the view point of African tourists. The conversations with folks met during this tour are of special interest as they provide insights into the diversity issues that abound in this great south land.
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Exmouth and its surrounding areas hold special importance to Australia. It was here, in WAPET creek, that West Australian Petroleum (WAPET) first discovered oil. WAPET creek is to Western Australia what Oloibiri is to Nigeria. WAPET was the predecessor company to Chevron and I do have some affinity to this name. Just a little across the waters from here, on Barrow Island, Chevron continues to exploit for oil and gas, especially with the Gorgon Project with its three LNG trains. And a little further north is the town of Onslow, where Wheatstone, another LNG project spearheaded by Chevron, calls home. So, little wonder that, at Vladamingh Head, all are encouraged to look into the horizon and count the number of oil rigs that could be sighted.
In preparing for the long trip to Port Hedland, as we drove out of the city limits of Exmouth, we turned left to the Shell station to refuel. This is a technology gizmo of a station with no attendant, an indication that the future is here along with its accompanying job losses. Yet, sitting precariously visible in a well beaten Ute were two red heads, their sights gave me some qualms. I wasn’t too comfortable, especially given that we stood out differently from everyone else because of the colour of our skins. We evaluated the risk of anything untoward happening to us here and concluded that we were probably just apprehensive for nothing. The well posted signs shows that video cameras are in operation here and seeing some other folks filling up their tanks, there were enough witnesses to attest to any happenstance. Just erring on the side of caution, as I alighted from the Explorer, I asked my wife to stay put, be my eyes and lock up. To pay for gasoline, I had to walk past these fellas ute and as I did so, “You alright? asked the bigger one with the face full of beard. Yeah, I answered and made for the fuel pump. At this instance, they drove away from the station. Having filled up, I pulled to the side of the station to check reinflate my tires to the correct pressures and these fellas were back in the ute and by my side. “You alright?” the fella asked again. I answered yap, all is well and they drove off. Whatever was their plan, I know not but their action was strange.
We soon hit the Milniya-Exmouth road, making our way to join the North West Coastal Highway. There were dips on the road, points at which the various seasonal streams cross the road. The ingenious Australians saw no need to construct bridges across them, that will be too many. The economic alternative settled for was to reinforce the road at these points and place water depth markers to advice motorists regarding the risk of flooding. We didn’t have to get to the Coral Bay junction before we diverted unto the Burkett Road. We drove past the Bullara Station on our right and much further we came to the Giralia Station as well. The Bullara is a working outback cattle station, an important part of the agricultural success story of Australia. From here, in conjuction with many other stations spread across Australia, cattle are shipped to Australian major cities as well as across the oceans to far away lands such as Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Israel, amongst others. The Giralia was once one a working cattle station too but is now destocked and run fully as an eco-tourism business. Marketing a connection to the land, the station owners are not making money from cattle husbandry alone but also from tourism, providing accommodation and what they termed as “authentic” outback experience in a working cattle station. The Bullara station sprawls over 250,000 acres (1,011 sq. km), more land mass than Sao Tome and Principe or Dominica Republic while the Giralia is more than 654,000 acres (2,650 sq.km), more land mass than Luxembourg or La Reunion! Take a breath and think about these numbers.
The Burkett Road shortened our journey by 158kms as it took us further north of the Milniya junction. The termite mounds, something that we had grown accustomed to seeing as we arrived Exmouth previously were almost absent on the Burkett Road. Everywhere we looked, it was the same shrub vegetation all over. There was also a marked absence of Kangaroos in this area, dead or living. Traffic was very light and there were no geological feature of note, it was just open country with very few track roads diverting away from it, probably to some homesteads. In Australia, you can choose the lifestyle that suits you. City life is available for the working class and those that have a longing to co-habit with other homo sapiens. And there are those that crave loneliness. For folks like this, there are numerous places in this great southland to get lost from civilization and fashion out an isolated living. Auspost, the Australian Postal Service, allows anyone to redirect his mails to the nearest post office and show up at chosen interval to remain in communication with the outside world. In our journeys, we have come across individuals living in remote locations, away from every other human being, coming to the nearest town probably once in a month for grocery shopping and then disappearing once again into the vast Australian wilderness.
To kill boredom, we engaged in statistical analysis. Our intent was to characterize the traffic on the road for a period of 30mins. I set the alarm and Saf was doing the counting. In the space of 30mins, within which we covered 50kms, we had come across just 15 vehicles. Of these 6 were pulling a caravan and the other 9 had no caravans. 4 vehicles overtook us and the remaining 11 were driving towards us, on the other side of the road. It was a neat statistic.
We drove past the Nanutarra Roadhouse and since the Explorer still had a lot of fuel in its underbelly, there was no need to stop. At Fortesque, the Mesa A mine site was just a few meters away from the road, this is where Rio Tinto is exploiting the land for iron ore . The huge excavation of the ground and the continual movement of the earth to sift it for its ore content is massive. Shortly thereafter we came to the Fortesque River. Its bed was dry and a far cry from what the river is when full and flowing rapidly towards the Indian Ocean to empty its waters. The Fortescue River Roadhouse was a tempting stop for us but we still had a lot of ground to cover if we were to arrive at Port Hedland in daytime.
The scenery on the North West Coastal Highway contrast sharply from that on the Burkett Road, but not immediately. This stretch of the road is dominated by huge rocks with a mixture of brownish red and greyish brown all over. The greyish brown coloration suggests they are rich in ferrous materials. The rocks come in different forms. Some are dome shaped. Others have a flat table top appearance. There are some that have the appearance as if they hadreplica of the been mechanically crushed into very big boulder sizes and piled up by humans, yet they are not. We saw one that looked like the famous Uluru Rock in the Northern Territory. Western Australia has its beautiful topography and it is being mined for all the resources it can yield.
Our arrival in the vicinity of the port city, the major gateway to the vast iron ore and salt production in Western Australia was first indicated by the continuous stream of mining related companies utes and staff buses that we encountered, mostly heading towards us. The traffic was still light but the nature of the vehicles have changed from recreational grey nomads ones to mining support ones.
Soon we arrived at the railway crossing, we have come across warnings on the road some few meters earlier asking us to reduce our speed as we approached. As reputed, right in front of us, the barricade came down and we witness probably the world’s longest chain of train cars pulling the precious iron ore in its way to the port. This railway is privately owned and judging by the sheer length of the train that crossed our way, it won’t be wrong to conclude that this portion is part of the terminal end of the Mount Newman Railway, built, owned and operated by BHP. It is 426kms long, running from Newman to Port Hedland.
We started counting the numbers of cars being pulled by the train and somewhere around the 55 mark, we gave up. We later learnt that it is a 268 car train, it is 2.89 kilometres long and each car carries up to 138 tonnes of iron ore. At US$93 per tonne, this train was carrying $3.4 million worth of iron ore in each single 8 hours journey from Newman to Port Hedlands. . This is a true work horse, bringing millions of dollars to the Australian economy carrying the precious ore, the work output of thousands of workers, gargantuan sets of machinery, digging out this resource from the earth non-stop, day and night.
After what seemed an eternity, the train had passed on and the barricades were lifted. We continued with our journey and at a point the road merged with the Great Northern Highway. It was here that we would have arrived if we had taken the inland route, rather than the coastal route we took all the way here. From here forward, there are no alternative routes to get anywhere, we had come to the end of the North West Coastal Highway. In following the tradition of the great explorers like the Lander Brothers and Mungo Park, we truly congratulated ourselves on having discovered the end of this long road that meanders its way from Perth closely hugging the Indian Ocean shores. We longed to celebrate our achievement. However, the road trains that keep merging to the North West Coastal Highway from the Great Northern Highway at break-neck speeds as if we were on a race track made that impossible and we soon abandoned the idea.
No one will miss the big overhead water tank announcing arrival at South Hedland, the lesser talked about sister city to Port Hedland. All the heavy-lifting work is done in Port Hedland and that is where the money is made. The residences and family supporting infrastructure are in South Hedland, that is where some money, if any, is spent. A tale of two cities with fate tied to the resources being pulled from the mountains in this whole region called the Pilbara. The odometer of the Explorer shows that we had covered a total distance of 758kms to get here from Exmouth and yet we are still within the boundaries of Western Australia. Arriving at South Hedland, it was difficult for us not to notice that we are now in cyclone country. Our suite was fashioned out of shipping containers, solidly fastened to the ground. The nearby guest information showed that these are rated for Category 5 cyclones. Cyclones are a fact of life here. In fact from Coral Bay up here, one can see the preparedness reflected in the type of structures put up for housing. Around South Hedland, we started encountering the notices informing of the current cyclone status which, for our visits, was an “All Clear”. That is relieving!
Despite being in a container, the room was cozy enough. It comes with a refrigerator and a mini-kitchen. Tonight, we are too tired to attempt making any meal and went out scouting for food settling for an Asian restaurant that was recommended to us by the receptionist at our accommodation. Food was pricey here but what choices did we have? In the space that took from taking our orders to the food being delivered, a team of BHP workers arrived and so also were a few other customers. The restaurant was filling up pretty fast. It was here that I started feeling the pain, some tingling was occurring in one of my tooth making eating less than enjoyable.