Day 52-53 Tom Price moving mountains

Ahhh Tom Price where the Iron Ore trains are only 2.5 km long. Those dedicated blog readers will know that BHPs trains in Port Hedland were 3 km long. I wonder if the Rio Tinto executives have train envy? Probably not as apparently the new mine manager, just arrived in town, is female and therefore (apologies for making sexist generalisations) does not suffer envy over the size of such things.

Yes, 2.5 km long on average with each made up of 232 carriages. Each carriage holds 114 tonnes of export grade ore (Rio guarantees their customers 62% ore content per tonne) and they load four trains per day before sending them off to Dampier. You do the math, but in short it adds up to a whole lot-a-rock.

Other fascinating facts you will learn on a tour of the mine at Tom Price is that each of those great big tipper trucks run 24 hours a day 7 days a week ferrying ore from the pits to the huge stockpiles of different grade ore before it is fed into crushers to produce either coarse (pebble sized rocks) or fine (like rough sand) grade ore. The trucks refuel once every 24 hours taking on board 4920 litres of diesel. They go through it at a rate of 20 litres per kilometre! Oh yes and each truck can ferry 240 tonne of rock at a time. Yes I do have a mind like a steel trap.

For my colleagues at work the reported cost of a tyre was $60,000 a pop. The tyres are replaced every 5 months during which time they have travelled approximately 70’000 km. There are six tyres on each of the mines 31 Komatsu 830E AC and DC drive trucks (of course I know what that means).

The rich ore deposit at Tom Price was discovered back in the 60s and the mountain itself used to be 50 to 60 meters taller than it currently is. It would be shorter still I’m sure but apparently it is more productive to dig down its side rather than from the top. Another fascinating little fact was that Rio have built a new four kilometer long mountain range out of the shale rock they had to put aside in order to get to the good stuff. Staggering.

And yet for all of the huge numbers involved in describing the mining operation here I was left thinking how small it all looked in the context of this massive expanse of land which is the Pilbara. Rio is literally moving a mountain but it’s a pin point sized whole in a very big sheet of canvas. This really came home to me on the drive from Tom Price back to the coast at Exmouth where we are tonight. It is a long and lonely stretch of road with only one road house to break up the nearly 700 km drive, though the scenery is stunning.

Just 10 or so kilometres out of Paraburdoo we found ourselves pulled over on the side of the road double checking with the inhabitants of one of gods remote control vehicles (see discussion in previous blog entry regarding mining cars with flags on top) whether we were heading in the right direction. It didn’t look like a main road to me. Turns out it would have been doubly embarrassing if we weren’t, as there is only one road through that town! Still not sure why god drove that vehicle to that spot. Maybe it was just to provide me with directions…

We spent one evening on our drive to Exmouth at a free road side camp, where we hung out with some very nice families we had met at Tom Price and Karijini. Amy and Oliver covered themselves head to foot in Pilbara dirt doing laps of the site on bikes with their mates and then added to that with camp fire smoke while preparing flaming marshmallows. Good fun.

Here’s another fact I’ll bet you didn’t know. WA’s tallest mountain is located at Tom Price and is called Mt Nameless. Western Australia must be the only place in the world not to name its tallest geographic feature, or to name it nameless. I found that a little odd, or maybe it me that is odd, ‘Nameless’ after all is a name of sorts. At least WA’s second tallest mountain has a ‘proper Aussie name’ – Mt Bruce!

Day 48-51 Into the Pilbara

Who knew Port Hedland was a place where you needed to book a caravan site?! Our first rejection! A bit of a google and a few phone calls later we had a spot in South Hedland. It seems most of the caravan park space in Port Hedland is used by BHP workers. We were told the median house price in town is $600k, which no doubt makes the van parks good value! We also missed out on doing a tour of the wharf facilities because you need to book it a few days out and we weren’t staying any longer than necessary. We satisfied ourselves with a visit to the harbour to see the huge ships and a stock up at the supermarket. Greg visited the bottle shop and was queued behind about 6 guys in work gear stocking up. The prices were very good on beer… Either it is subsidised or they just buy in such bulk it is cheap?

Port Hedland bills itself as the economic heartbeat of the nation. And you kind of get that sense. The place is all business. Three kilometre long trains of ore pull in to load ships round the clock. We really wanted to eat dinner out, but this proved all but imposible. There really is nowhere to do so. We tried all four of the places suggested by the visitors centre and none were open. I don’t know what China pays for a tone of high grade ore, but it’s clear from the layout of Port Hedland that its more than a tourist pays for a pizza.

Every second car on the road seems to belong to BHP adorned with tall orange flags poking into the air. The flags presumably are there to increase the visibility of these comparatively small vehicles on mine sites and are just the same as those you used to have on your bike when you were a kid. Greg reckons they look like the aerial on the remote control cars he used to drive as a kid and says he chuckles to himself imaging god upstairs driving all these little mining vehicles around.

Happy to get out of Port Hedland we headed out into the Pilbara. The scenery changed from flat and uninteresting to striking red hills and rocks. It is different to the Kimberley. The green spinifex grass sits in little clumps across the bright orange hillsides dotted with white barked eucalypts and the depth of the hills and valleys is difficult to capture in a photograph. We were on our way to Karajini National Park. One night at the Auski Roadhouse, then into the park the next morning. We seem to be driving a max of 250km in any one day, and by doing this we have had very little complaint from the back seat.

Karijini is unexpected in this landscape. A series of deep gorges with waterfalls and rock pools sit beneath the iron rich landscape. See the photos to get the idea.

The park has a campground, but with no water or power. Fortunately for us we were allocated to a no generators section and wow it was quiet at night, and dark!! The kids had a ball here collecting and crushing (read smashing) rocks for hours. They were rewarded with a range of interesting discoveries – dark silver grey sparkly iron, white sparkly, yellow and of course the red variety. We were rewarded with very dirty children and limited water supply with which to clean them up.

Visiting the gorges involved a bit of walking down and up quite large numbers of stairs. We weren’t sure what we had done right but Amy and Oliver cheerfully managed it all making the experience all the more pleasant.

Our second day in the park was to involve a 50km drive on unsealed road out to a series of gorges in the ‘Weano’ sction of the park. The lady at the visitor centre assured us the road was fine for 2WD and had only been graded 3 weeks ago. It did seem ok. Sure a bit corrugated here and there and rocky every now and again. So when we arrived at our first of a planned five stops to discover a flat tyre we were not so impressed. The spare worked just fine, and fortunately Joffres Gorge, the one we had stopped at, was quite spectacular. So we visited the lookout and spent a while playing in the pools at the top of the falls before heading back to the bitumen. The other gorges will have to wait until our next visit as going further on the dirt with no spare seemed a bit risky. We went directly to the pay phone at the visitor centre to line up a new tyre at the next town, Tom Price.

PS there are wildflowers everywhere. We haven’t got too much into photographing them and probably won’t, but they are quite spectacular. The purple ones in the photo below line the roadsides and it was Oliver who named them the Christmas Tree Flower.

Day 46-47 Eighty Mile Beach. A vision splendid

Eighty Mile Beach. A vision splendid. Which is odd because there was nothing to see. To the west is the Indian Ocean and on the evening of the 20th August it was as still as a fish tank, with scarcely a whisper of a breeze to ruffle it’s surface. To the east, a sand dune no more than three to four metres tall, topped with low lying scrub stretches away and out of sight in both directions. In between is a beach which at low tide must be close to a kilometre across and at its steepest an incline of not more than one percent. In the sky there truly was not a cloud. So as you can see there was nothing to see and yet we could not look away as the sun slowly made its way down toward the horizon creating a vast palette of changing colours on the canvas of beach, sea and sky.

I kept telling the kids life doesn’t get any better than this, but then Oliver reminded me of the little bowl of strawberries topped with cream that Emma surprised us with after dinner one night at Barn Hill. I must have made a similar comment on that occasion and Oliver wasn’t about to forget it.

People come to Eighty Mile Beach for months on end and you can’t even swim! Too many sea snakes, sharks and rays which by all accounts pose a threat even in the shallow waters. But you can fish and you can collect shells. Quad bikes with fishing lines strapped to the front whizz their way up and down the beach, mostly (note mostly not exclusively) manned by the men folk while the ladies scour the beach for what appears to be am inexhaustible supply of shells. At least that’s what I thought before I went for my run this morning.

While I was enjoying being the only only set of footprints on this massively wide and never ending beach without even so much as a four wheel drive in view to break me from my rumination, I couldn’t help but notice that the further I got from the van park the thicker the concentration of shells. I ran 7 kms out before turning back, which leads me to conclude, according a bell curve that 90 or so percent of nomads won’t walk more than 2 km either side of the beach entrance. So if you want cracker shells, set your sights on a 6 to 8 km round trip.

At 2.25pm I figure I’ve got another 35 minutes before I head back to the beach to soak in that splendid nothingness.

Emma here.. The return to the beach did occur and again it was pretty special. We’re unsure how many sunset photos we can manage, it’s the same yet different every evening.

Anyway on practical matters, the nothing-to-do-ness of Eighty Mile Beach was perfectly paired with cheap washing machines (only $2 per load, we’d been paying up to $4) and I think I managed 5 loads to wash almost everything washable in the caravan. Greg’s run also enabled Oliver, Amy and I to come up with a surprise for Greg. While he was gone I checked if Oliver knew how to take off his training wheels, he had ridden without them for a while in summer but had a few stacks and lost confidence and he was still convinced he needed them! Anyway the DIY nature of Oliver took over and he expertly located the ratchet set and removed the training wheels himself. The rest is history as they say and Greg was really quite surprised.

The resident grey nomads were really lovely to the kids here. One of them gave the kids some animals made from glued together shells, apparently unless you have a licence you cannot sell shell products, so they just give them away. That evening at the beach they spent the whole time shell hunting for the same types so they too could make shell doggies. Good thing Greg brought super glue. Another nomad gave them each three enormous shells he had found about 30km down the beach. This confirms and adds to Greg’s earlier hypothesis… The further you go the bigger the shells get. We have carefully wrapped them, here’s hoping they make it home.