Where are we?
We are at Stargazers in the Pilbara
About 100 kms west of where we were camping in Karijini is our next destination. Tom Price is a mining town in the Pilbara and by a mining town, I mean it did not exist before the mine was opened in 1966 and will probably close whenever in the future, the mine closes. There is only one major employer in town - the mining company Rio Tinto. All other employment (shops, hospital, restaurants etc) depends on Rio Tinto being there and when they catch a cold (as they are now with the economic situation in China) then everyone else gets flu. The price of Iron Ore now was said to be only 60% of what it was at its peak.
We are here for one night, on our way through to the Burrup Peninsula on the North Coast and apart from some essential washing and maintenance, we intend to go on a tour of the open cast iron ore mine.
The town is overlooked by Mount Nameless, as it is known by Europeans and Jamdunmunha as the local aboriginal people (the Eastern Guruma) have always known it.
The town itself is quite nice and green
with a very helpful Tourist Office, and free and fast wifi in the centre of town.
Many of the facilities are paid for or subsidised by Rio Tinto as a part of their Community Payback scheme.
There are also very good public toilets with $2 showers available. I mention this because one common thing throughout Australia seems to be the availability of good clean public toilets - something of interest to us when we do not have a toilet in the van.
The Pilbara is a region of Australia which has both some of the Earth’s oldest rocks and also some of the oldest fossils in the world. Within the region’s rocks, fossilised traces of bacteria that lived 3.5 billion years ago, 1 billion years after the Earth was formed, have been found.
It is a very (but not the most) sparsely populated region of Australia with an estimated 1 person per 10 Km2 (for comparison, London is about 55,000 per 10 Km2).
As with all areas, it has a number of sub-geologies. There is:
- the northern coastal sand plain section where most people live;
- the desert section in the middle; and
- an area towards the bottom called the Pilbara Craton area which is where the mines and mining towns are.
Most of Australia’s Iron Ore is found in this latter area (an estimated 24 Billion tonnes) and most of the mined ore is exported.
Much of the ore is of an astonishingly high purity. The typical composition for Premium Brockton ores at Mount Whaleback and Mount Tom Price is about 65% Fe, 0.05% P, 4.3% SiO2, and 1.7% Al2O3. . I suspect that the prospectors who found it must have thought that their assay equipment had gone wrong when they first tested it. A readable account of how Iron Ore is turned into Iron can be found here.
The Tom Price Mine
Most days, Rio Tinto arrange tours of the mine for a rather expensive $33 each. And so, wearing our Hard Hats and Safety Glasses (both seemed to be rather unnecessary given how we were managed but perhaps give out a Rio Tinto safety message) The tour involves you getting on a bus
and being driven around the mine site with a commentary from the Driver and a chance to get out and look at the mine hole.
One thing we can say about Iron Ore Mining is that everything is BIG.
the Trucks used to carry the excavated ore around the mine are big,
The Excavators are big (actually this is an old small one no longer used - the latest are twice as big)
and provide a big backdrop for our non-improving selfie skills
Most of Mount Tom Price which is now nearly not there was big (this is half of the “not there anymore”, the other half is behind me).
The Mine Hole is big
and the equipment used to blend the excavated ore in order to get the mix required by the customer is big.
It also has to be said that even in a time of hardship, the money involved big and the reported profits are still reasonably big.
It was an interesting tour, not one which one could say is a “must do” but if you want to get a feel for the scale of one of the biggest mining operations in the world, it is worth a visit.
The Railway Road
In order to get the ore from where it is mined to the coast where it is shipped overseas, a number of railway lines have been built from the inland mines to the coastal ports.
The trains which haul the ore to the coast are very long and famous because of this and the weight of ore which they move.
There is a road adjacent to the railway line which passes through Tom Price on its way to coast known as the "Rio Tinto Rail Access Road”. Road is not really an accurate word - it is a reasonably well maintained red dust track suited to 4WD vehicles.
Why? Because it takes us across a part of Australia we could not get to by any other way; we get to go through an isolated area; it is an unusual thing to do…….. and many other reasons we have not yet thought of.
We have a variety of mud-maps to assist us
the main map being this one.
You have to get a permit to drive along the road and you get this either by watching a video and doing a test at the Tourist Office or do it online (which is what we did). We passed the safety exam (it really was not very hard) and so will be driving the road adjacent to the Green Railway line.
The questions asked are so simple that you would have a struggle to fail and if you did, you just answer the questions again until you pass.
We phoned the “Road Condition” number before we left but did not understand the message because it referred to local landmarks. There was an interpretation of the message on the wall outside of the Tourist Office which we did understand. This said that it was open to all traffic with few problems.
Interestingly, a number of people we met said that they had heard that the surface was very bad etc etc and so did not do it.
The first 30 kms are a boring trek across a plain on a normal road. Then you get to the road entrance.
I would have to say that we were not stopped and asked to produce our permit as we drove along it but no doubt someone has been.
The Road surface is very similar to most maintained 4WD tracks we have been on, some corrugations which shake your teeth out, some dust patches and also many smooth corners at which you need to slow down. Generally however, it was easy to drive along.
The usual hazard of heavy vehicles is present
this one had just done the Access Road and was having its tyres checked
and this one passed us at high speed creating the usual dust cloud issue. All you can do is pull over and wait for the dust to settle and hope that there is nothing following in the dust cloud which cannot see you.
The big attraction of driving adjacent to the track is of course the trains which are very long.
Each train has three engines pulling
and if you get to a Level Crossing flashing Red, you have a long wait because there are around 220 wagons in each train.
I took this picture of an Iron Ore train and wagons in Dampier and it is so long that it would not all fit into the picture even though I was about 5 kms away up a hill.
The railway line ends a Dampier where the ore is loaded onto ships for transport to China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere. The loading point was opposite the campsite we stayed near in Dampier.
Millstream Chichester National Park
About three hours up the railway road is the side road to the Millstream Chichester National Park.
The road in is the usual dirt road and is in quite good condition.
After a few kms, there is a self service honesty pay booth for paying your day entry fee of $12. It is quite simple, you fill in the back of the envelope, detach the receipt and drop the envelope containing your fee into a box.
We paid and we were pleased we did because at dusk a ranger came to our pitch to collect our camping fee ($11 because we are Seniors out here) and we were able to show we had paid the entry fee as well.
Nothing is too far apart in the park
and the new Millstream Lodge Building run by the Parks Service (although there were no staff on duty when we went) soon arrives.
The old Millstream Lodge is on the side of the new
and inside gives you a feel for what life was like many years ago. Here is the original kitchen stove - a very heavy cast iron affair and our reaction was to marvel at the effort expended getting it there.
In the garden we meet our first Australian wildlife - a Kangaroo which is obviously quite used to visitors
and some Wallabys who were less certain.
From the Cliff Lookout on the way to our campsite we can see over the park and the Fortescue River which runs through it
as well as views over the savannah towards a distant range
and we decide it really is a beautiful place.
We have chosen to pitch at Stargazers Campground because it is said that the lack of trees gives you a good view of the night sky and also because Caravan Generators are banned there. Their noise can be very annoying.
It is a very basic site, a long drop toilet nearby (complete with lizard), no power, no noise and just us (and four other people elsewhere in the campsite). We all choose to be distant to each other since privacy and quiet was the reason we each went there.
The night sky is all it is supposed to be with the Milky Way very clear
and at Dawn the eastern sky is simply wonderful as it goes through a complete range of morning colours when the new day starts.
Off to Dampier today (about 200 kms north) to see of we can find some of the Aboriginal Petroglyphs on the Peninsular before we head to 80 Mile Beach and then on to Broome.