The Pilbara

Thursday, Dec 04, 2008 at 22:22


The Pilbara - The third of three reports of a 3 month trip June-August 2008. Originally appeared in Southern Trails, magazine of the Southern Tablelands 4WD Club.

The Great Northern Highway is a good bitumen road running roughly 40 km inland and parallel to the coast, south from Broome towards Port Hedland,. There is little to see as it runs through almost continuous low scrub, broken here and there by dry salt lakes. After refuelling at the partially burnt out Sandfire Roadhouse we turned inland down the Boreline Road, a good dirt road through more flat scrubby country. About 35km south we arrived at some low red rocky hills and quite suddenly we were in a typical Pilbara landscape, stark and brilliant with spectacular red rocks, flat-topped hills and white-trunked gum trees.

A stretch of old track provided a good campsite, with spectacular views and plentiful snappy gum for a cheery fire.

The next morning the scene had changed as a thick, lingering sea fog softened the harsh brilliance of our surroundings. One of our most memorable camps.

We continued south through the once-was township of Shay Gap, then great excitement when Jane spied some Sturt’s Desert Peas, the first we had seen. After a photo session, on to the de Grey River with its extensive beaches of sand and shingle where we found lots of jasper. (This would be an excellent spot for an overnight stop.) Then on to beautiful Coppins Gap for lunch and a walk down the gorge. This too would be a top overnight spot.

On to Doolena Gorge, wide and sandy with lots of corellas and we finally stopped for the night on the bank of the Coongan River.

Our first day in the Pilbara had been marked by a dramatic change in scenery from what we experienced in the Kimberley, with new vibrant colours, vegetation and landforms. And many tracks with notices proclaiming “prohibited entry - mining lease”.

Another foggy morning, as we drove down to Marble Bar, a neat and surprisingly green town with an impressive pioneer memorial and “warm winters”. A helpful lady at the “I” centre gave us a mud map that pointed us towards the “marble” bar and its impressive striped jasper, Chinaman’s Pool, the jasper quarry where rock samples may be collected, and the Flying Fox lookout with its impressive views back over the river. Then on to the Old Comet gold mine where for $2 we could browse through a collection of old photos, artefacts and mineral samples. We bypassed the WWII airbase at Corunna Downs and went on to Glen Herring gorge, finding another excellent and more remote campsite. We arrived early enough to explore along the impressive gorge, finding more striped rocks and Sturt’s Desert Peas, before the rock walls turned a brilliant red in the setting sun.

From Glen Herring we headed SW towards Hillside and Woodstock, following a generally good road through some very scenic and varied country. We are particularly taken by rocky ranges, some of them real “choc tops” covered in rough brown rubble.

Quite suddenly we were in railway country; first the new line recently built by Fortesque, then the older BHP line servicing the giant Newman iron ore mine. Out onto the bitumen and south to the Auski roadhouse to refuel. We were in mining country, sharing the road with massive tonka trucks and other heavy machinery on low loaders as well as many ore carrying road trains.

South from the Auski Roadhouse the road winds through part of the spectacular Hamersley ranges via a gorge of brilliant red rock, a colour we would become familiar with during the next few days in the Karajini National Park.

We followed the bitumen to the extensive Dales campground Karajini where we were allocated a site by volunteer rangers. This campground is very well set out allowing plenty of privacy, but is close to walks leading off to Circular Pool, Dales Gorge, Fortesque Falls and Fern Pool. Over the next couple of days we explored these beautiful places, and visited the major gorges further west in the park. The Karajini rocks are a deep glowing red, and the gorges are very deep with vertical sides. Just getting out to the Oxer lookout was an adventure along a narrow neck of land with precipitous gorges falling away on either side. From the lookout we watched adventurous folk abseiling and canyoning 100metres below us.

Our Karajini experience concluded with a visit to beautiful Hamersley Gorge and a cold swim for Jane. From there we headed north on gravel still marvelling at the scenery. We followed the northern boundary of Karajini round past what remains of the one-time asbestos town of Wittenoom – a dead town where even the road signs have been painted over to deter visitors, though signs remain to warn of asbestos hazard. The country to the north is desert and the riverbeds that held deep water in the gorges were now just dry sand.

Leaving the Hamersley ranges and Karajini behind us, we headed north to Port Hedland, an easy run up the bitumen, through dry but often scenic country. Our first sight of PH involved massive power lines, converging railway lines and a big power station. This is industrial country and tourists have to fit in as best they can. Finding a caravan park with a vacancy was the next challenge. Long stay residents occupy most of the space in van parks, but we did find a small space in the expensive and very regulated Big 4 – single vehicles in this row, vans only in the next row, drawbars must face the road…. At least the washing machines were friendly!

But we found Port Hedland to be really interesting. We watched at close quarters the big ore carrying ships entering and leaving the port, the busy tugs and pilot boats, the huge carriers loading iron ore, the enormous machinery and ore stockpiles. There are huge salt evaporators and massive piles of salt. Best of all was the road overpass underneath which the mighty ore trains rumble while we counted the number of ore trucks – 224 with 5 engines that took 10 minutes to pass us. A wave to the train driver was returned with a cheeky blast on the airhorns as the lead engine passed below us.

From this industrial outpost we headed west towards Roebourne, through increasingly stunning patches of Sturt’s Desert peas, and past many mine sites. We called in to see some of the area’s history at the once a bustling port of Cossack before finding a very new caravan park full of southern exiles at Point Samson.

Next morning’s routine check revealed that Troopy’s water level was down, but there was no water evident in the cylinders, so we topped up the radiator and set off. But during the short run to Karratha the temperature gauge crept up…… was a hot day, wasn’t it. Was power down a bit? Surely nothing else could go wrong.

The Tourist Info Centre is conveniently located on the outskirts of Karratha, and when we pulled in there our optimism evaporated at the sound of the now all too familiar gurgle under the bonnet. Another *@$% boiling radiator… what now! With our hopes in our boots we sought solace in a cappuccino while checking for obvious problems. And there it was, (spotted by a girl) a split heater hose! That’s easy, we are carrying a spare… or so we thought, but it wasn’t where the lists said it should be. So Jim and John set off to find a replacement. Toyota couldn’t help but half a Holden part did the job very well. One and a half hours later, spirits and Troopy restored, we were on our way again. Will this saga never end?

The contrasts of the Burrup Peninsular soon diverted our attention. The massive Woodside natural gas processing facility rose from the landscape like some weird space monster. The big visitor centre overlooks the facility and provides an informative overview of the construction and operation of the plant. Then we went back in time as we explored the ancient petroglyphs at Deep Gully, said to be the most concentrated site for rock carvings in the world. Dampier township has a hard used appearance, iron ore and salt loaders and coconut palms fed by drippers. There are ammonia plants, kilometres of salt evaporators, and everywhere the distinctive tumbled brown rocks populated by agile rock wallabies. Even the beaches are memorable, made as they are entirely from shells, with more Sturt’s Desert peas blooming happily right onto the shellgrit sand. What an amazing and memorable place. A photo of red pea flowers framing the flaring tower of the gas plant seemed to sum it all up.

At the Karratha Visitor Centre we had obtained our free permit to travel the private road that runs beside the railway line south to Tom Price. We had first to watch a video explaining the hazards of remote area travel, and of course fill in some forms. And be warned not to wear red clothing when close to the line as the train drivers will interpret this as a danger signal and stop the train. The northern section of the road is bitumen, and very new bitumen at that as this stretch of road had only been opened a few weeks earlier. But it was not so new that forests of Sturt’s Desert peas had not had time to grow and thrive. These spectacular peas became such a common sight that we soon started referring to them as “red weeds”; how do the train drivers cope with them?

And then there were the trains. Loaded trains going north to the ports, empty trains with their distinctive sound going back for a refill. All of them big, with a braking distance of about 3km. At one point the road crosses the railway at a level crossing with flashing lights. As we approached slowly the lights were green, only turning red as we were almost on the crossing. It was then that we saw the loaded train bearing down on us – too close! Well, it was chance to give the cameras another workout and clear a bit of adrenalin.

We were now in Millstream-Chichester NP, time to visit the Python Pool. The road in started out as good gravel, until we came to a steep winding section that is sealed. This section was lined with masses of those “red weeds”, in places they were growing out across the bitumen, and up to a metre tall, a truly amazing sight. Some had a cool swim in the pool, before we headed on to the park headquarters and the delightful but busy campground at Crossing Pool.

Then it was back to following the railway, and seeing many more trains. Each train is an awesome sight with statistics to match: about 230 trucks, each carrying 116 tonnes pulled by 2 x 9,000hp diesel locos with a top speed of 75kph. And all done with just one driver who will usually give a cheery wave and blast of the whistle.

We diverted from the railway to take in the view from the top of Mt. Sheila. The view was indeed splendid, but getting there required negotiating a 15% grade up a narrow but sealed track, with deep gullies falling steeply away on either side. There are only a couple of passing bays, so radios were essential to co-ordinate traffic. Not all of the passengers enjoyed the experience. So it was a relief at the end of a hot day to find a shady creek-bed with a good supply of firewood for a camp. We went to sleep listening to the endless stream of trains carrying Western Australia to the world.

At Tom Price and Newman we toured the mines, leaving our vehicles behind and travelling on the company bus, kitted out in the regulation safety gear of hard hat, goggles and safety vest over mandatory long sleeves and boots. These mines, plus the Superpit at Kalgoolie are mind boggling in their size and scale; no photo can do them justice. [Image not found]The machinery on site is truly awesome, especially the big dump trucks. The biggest of these carry 240 tonnes (that’s about the weight of 100 4WD’s) and have a top speed of 42kph. The wheels are 3.8m high, and the double wheels on the back were about the same width as Troopy. Not much wonder they have right of way on the labyrinth of roads that criss-cross the mine site! Many of these trucks are driven by women. Near Newman we met a young woman who drove one of them; she reckoned it was the best job, easy with minimal stress, good conditions and a six figure pay packet. Not too sure about the 12 hour shifts and 4 days/4 nights routine though.

From Newman our original plan had been to head east to the Rudall River NP then to Alice via the Gary Junction road, taking in a bit of the Canning Stock Route. But Troopy was still leaking oil so it seemed prudent to stay on the bitumen where there might be a better chance of getting help should there be any more trouble. So we headed south towards Wiluna and Leonora. From Menzies we ventured out to Lake Ballard to view the modernistic sculptures modelled on the residents of Menzies. These not quite life sized sculptures are spaced out across a dramatic salt covered lake, so that viewing them makes for a unique artistic experience.

From there it was home via Kalgoolie and the long drive across the Nullarbor, another new experience for us. Whales at the head of the bight were an unexpected delight. Next time we will go prepared with warm clothes and a thermos and spend more time there. The viewing platforms on top of the cliffs took us so close to the whales and their calves, we could hear them calling and blowing. We could have spent hours there but a biting wind and the call of home made us press on.

All too soon we were in more familiar territory. A hard frost and fog at Orroroo, and a van park manager at Hay apologising for the frost reminded us that it was close to the end of August and we were still in the grip of winter. Our last campfire had to be aborted when a biting wind made conditions unsafe. Gone were the balmy days and mild nights of the Kimberley and Pilbara. Swimming in the nearest river looked most uninviting. But it will be good to be home, and the memories of this wonderful trip will stay with us for a very long time.

And – except for a flat tyre on the Nullarbor, Troopy behaved perfectly all the way home.


Despite the tribulations this was a fantastic trip. Generally we like the flexibility of travelling alone, but Troopy’s antics made us very aware of the benefits of travelling with supportive friends. It has also brought home to us how even the best prepared vehicle can throw in the unexpected, and how much we rely on our support networks.

Troopy made it home without a relapse and was referred immediately to a specialist. Tests indicated that there were two options. Expensive surgery was one. The other would result in Troopy becoming an organ donor and us spending up big on a more recent replacement. Together with the economic considerations, we thought of the merit of having an older simpler vehicle, one that even we have a good chance of repairing on the side of the road. Rod, of Monaro Offroad (who maintain Troopy), was very supportive of this approach – if we can’t make it go he’d talk us through it by phone. Again we were reminded of the value of supportive friends.

We decided to proceed with surgery. As I write, Troopy’s big six cylinder heart has been removed and is in some dark and noisy place where heads are shaved, cylinders made bigger, and where bearings run smoothly, valves seal and gaskets stop leaking and, above all, head gaskets don’t leak.

For a convalescent run, maybe the Cape ….. maybe head west from Alice to the coast, then south through the wildflower areas…..maybe next spring….. Troopy hasn’t been to Tassie for over 10 years…… has barely touched the Canning……lots of possibilities…. lots of dreams.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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