Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Pilbara - History of Rocks

ODO 98,000 - that's 19k for the trip so far!

I'm on to the Pilbara now, having moved on from the Kimberly. The mighty Pilbara, heart of Australian iron ore mining, home of some of the world's oldest rocks.

It's a strange place, almost misleading. Everything is rocky and red. The iron-oxide stained pebble is virtually a substitute for soil - the latter of which, if you can find it, is guaranteed to stain the blackest of clothing rusty red. Riding through the hills here, though, its almost like being back in pastoral NSW - the spinifex matting is so thickly permeating that the area looks at first glance like cleared grassy grazing land. The trees are stunted and sparce - in no other area of the country has it been so impossible to find shade. In no other area, moreover, is it so difficult to find water - outside of the towns all you'll find is empty rest stops (virtually all NT and QLD rest stops have water as a matter of course), and wide red roads leading not to a friendly cattle-station homestead, but to a landscape-plundering mine. I spoke to a Japanes cyclist (a.k.a. nutter), whose sole source of water on the three-day 250km ride from Port Headland to the nearest roadhouse - the sole source of his most valuable commodity was the kindness of passers by. There is no planning out here, to ration your water to the next stop. Your only option is to drink when you need to and get it whenever you can. Due to prudent planning (born out of my trip down the Gibb River Rd - which proved to be more hospitable than I expected, and more hospitable even than here), I've had no concerns outside of constantly trying to get as much fluid into my stomach as possible. And that certainly is necessary - it is hot indeed. Not humid like the North, so it is frankly a pleasant change. But the dry, windy 40+ days (it was 43 in Headland when I left at 11am) drain you of your fluid before you even realise you've started sweating.

If Alice is in the 'real' outback of Australia, the Pilbara is the outback with an exclamation mark. The spinifex is more avid, the landscape is larger, older and redder. It is hotter (Marble Bar, hottest place in Oz, is just over the hill), and if it weren't for the odd cyclone blowing in from the hot summer seas to the north it may very well be drier as well. The centre is renowned for its sunsets - but so is the North West, and I can tell you the label is well deserved. Sunset over the beach in Broome (yes I Know that's not the Pilbara!) was astounding, but I've just watched the best of the trip so far. Incredible, amazing - bright and colourful, equally menacing, dwarfing my little camp upon a hill. It was even worth braving the flies (admittedly not the worst of the trip - but the second worst, by a wee margin) to admire - at least until my arms got too sore and I returned to the tent to start this. So here I am writing, waiting for the clouds to decide what they're going to do, and waiting out the flies before braving the evening air.

Once you get past the immediate and unavoidable treacherousness of the place, the Pilbara is wonderful, really and exceptionally.

As far as Australia is concerned, the Pilbara is probably too far away for virtually everything - except mining. All you need is a few good rocks, and all of a sudden you have money - and with money you can build the social structure of a region. (Not that it didn't have one before, whether European or Aboriginal - but 50 years ago it certainly wasn't like this.) The one abundand infrastructure item is public amenities - the mining companies pay for those. Nothing else can be built fast enough. You end up with towns like Port Headland and Newman with a weird feeling - almost as if they were built by communists. They look 'constructed', and probably efficient, but their character doesn't show that well through the incessant layer of iron ore dust. They are definitely lacking in shade - miners, it appears, though fanatical about keeping the grass green, are slow to realise the value of trees.

The area does have a curious pre-mining history, though, from what I can gather. The 1946 strike is a famous little bit of local history. It saw Aboriginal 'employees' from stations all through the region 'strike', and converge on Headland to demand pay (not equal pay, just pay!). I never really worked out whether it acheived all that much - Aborigines over here weren't granted a right to a minimum wage until 1968. But many of the strikers never did return to their stations, so if nothing else it was a slap-in-the-face response to their ill treatment. 1968 is a sad curiousity - the result in a large number of cases was that the Aborigines who ran the stations were suddenly too expensive, and were turfed out, kicked off their land, never to return. I haven't really found anyone to ask for more detail on all of this, but I suppose you could always go and look it up.

Broome has an even more remarkable labour history. Aborigines were originally used to collect pearl oysters (primarily for the mother-of-pear shells, rather than for the rare pearl itself), which collected along the beaches. As this resource ran out and they were forced to collect in deeper water they became increasingly reluctant (there are a range of dangers of the sea which made them naturally reluctant), culminating in slavery and forced labour. Aborigines were carted around locked up in chains and forced (women and children too) to man the luggers and dive for oysters. Pregnant women made for the best divers, apparently...

Later this practice became illegal, so Asians of various nationalities were drafted over to dive - not only were they better than Europeans, but there was no requirement to pay them full wages. Eventually the Japanese became the dominant labour source, in the sophisticated and dangerous diving suits (you know, with the big metal fishbowl helmet and fully inflated suit?).

This situation continued more-or-less amicably until WWII. The ships were all commissioned, and the Japanese all locked up. The heart of Broome is Chinatown - the closest thing the place has to a town centre. What is less commonly known is the fact that until WW!! the area was Japtown - Broome's Chinese history is relatively minor compared to its Japanese influences. These days, the famous Japanese cemetary is locked up, due to (alleged) vandalism of Japanese graves by environmentalists taking issue of Broome's (former) sister city's dolphin catch.

So the area has a bit of a chequered past. And with the Pilbara's primary occupation being exhuming itself for export you could argue it has a chequered present as well. But enough about that - I find these things remarkable, but I'm not going to pretend you need to do the same.

All in all, the area does make a fabulous and memorable touring destination. The Coral Coast, just down the hill, is a famous tourist destination - the Pilbara though is much less travelled. Sort of sad, but then I'm happy to keep it to myself for the time being.

Hoping you're enjoying wherever you are, I'll be reporting from the Coral Coast sometime soon.

also (inc. Broome photos, and all the Kununurra and Gibb Rivers')


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