After a fitful air-conditioned sleep we had driven out of Tom Price early this morning and into Karijini, nothing else on the road except mining vehicles labelled 'patrol' and 'emergency unit.' We came up parallel to an iron ore train, roughly 200 small cars heaped neatly and identically with $80,000 worth of ore in each one on the way to China. Barry, whose brother is a model train enthusiast, reminded us that the world's longest train was assembled here, a monster more than seven kilometres long. Tom Price is the highest town in WA, and there's about a 2300-metres elevation loss from the mine to the coastal ports, but even so the Pilbara surface is relatively flat compared to other mining districts in the world, an ideal terrain for the straight tracks that enable such a feat. It's also why companies such as Rio Tinto, which owns the mine, are planning to shift entirely to automated trains controlled remotely from towns on the coast.
Just before we turned off onto the dirt entrance to the park around six-thirty, a huge plume of red dust rose into the air to the west, signalling an explosion at the mine to excavate ore. It was a surreal sight, a bright red column in the intense blue sky. Airborne contamination from iron ore mines is not as hazardous as that from the asbestos mines on the other side of the park, but the dense plume brought to mind Wittenoom Gorge on the northeastern border, which is closed for walking because of severely hazardous dust. The blue layers of asbestos nestled there in the red iron bands were mined at first in the 1930s, and by the 1950s the town of Wittenoom was the largest in the Pilbara with a population of 20,000. Fifty years later the town and gorge were declared completely contaminated and unsafe, and what was by then a ghost town degazetted in 2007. Since the early 1960s more than 1,000 people who lived in the town have died from asbestosis and other asbestos-related lung diseases, a figure estimated to eventually double among the former residents. There's so much dangerous dust around that even driving through you're required to keep your windows shut to keep out the fibres kicked up by your tyres.