March, 5 2010
Tom Price Railway Road
William L Fox

In transit with water and ore

Midmorning the next day we stow our bags in the back of Frank and Elaine Argaet's well-equipped SUV to keep them out of the red dust as we drive the Tom Price Railway Road built by Rio Tinto over to the coast. Larry and Paul, who are driving, underwent induction from the mining company earlier this morning. In addition to basic desert driving common sense--take plenty of water and petrol--there are a few special rules. No driving faster than 80 kph, keep your lights on, and don't display red anywhere. The colour signals trains to stop, which takes two kilometres, and even red cars or wearing a red shirt is 'distracting' to train engineers. Break the rules and you're turned around and barred from the road for life. I look around us and don't see as much as a red bandana lying on a truck seat. Frank and Elaine, local schoolteachers, have volunteered to drive with us a bit. And once on the road we do, in fact, immediately, start passing trains. Empty ones headed inland, full ones going downhill toward the coast, six engines in two groups of three on each train. Barry counts around 270 cars on one, about 3.2 kilometres long, he estimates.

Yesterday I'd ridden with Paul, a commercial and fine art photographer from Perth who's been working in the Pilbara for years. Today I ride with Larry, a painter born in Northhampton just outside of Geraldton. The body of his work I've seen reproduced include a series of smallish works done from hotel windows of large cities, and large works done on small islands that are disappearing, either culturally or physically. I ask him about influences on his work, expecting to hear about various realist painters, but instead his roots are in the Abstract Expressionists and non-figurative artists. “I wanted to invent something new in that vein--and learned a lot about paint by pushing it around to no end.” He's been making a living by painting fulltime now for fifteen years, one of maybe a half dozen people able to do so in WA. He says he's been doing the island paintings for more than a decade. “Even before I knew about global change. I could see it for myself.” I think this is exactly the right artist to be travelling through a country which is disappearing by the thousands of tons every day as it's shipped to China, entire mountains turned into enormous holes in the ground in Australia. And to be driving with him through a country in which the cultural traditions have likewise been disappeared.

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