March, 5 2010
Millstream-Chichester National Park
William L Fox

In the late morning we top Mt. Sheila at the former site of a telecommunications facility, one of the steeper improved tracks I've ever driven on. Barry's GPS reads 3290 feet--1002 meters--and although the air is uncommonly hazy, we can still see both the Hamersley and Chichester Ranges--where we've come from and where we're going today, following the railway, the mining road, and the subsurface water, everything flowing northeast to the Indian Ocean. Frank says that there are four mines in view, but you can see them only at night when the lights are visible. The land is too large to distinguish mines from this distance. All the land we can see was once cattle grazing country, but has since been bought up by the mines. Carolyn gets on the phone while we're looking at the 360º panorama, the technology an incongruous factor in such a remote area, but the cell signal is strong courtesy of the mines, whose managers need to talk to workers, and the workers needing to talk to their families. It's an amenity that helps keep everyone in place.

The drive from Mt. Sheila to Millstream National Park, where the underground water from the Hamersley rises from the ground again as part of the Fortescue River, first covers flat country for more than an hour, then enters rolling terrain, each dip annotated with signs warning drivers not to enter when flooded. Next to us the railbeds are pierced by multiple culverts large enough to drive a small car through. When cyclones blow across here, the amount of water dropped in the desert is staggering, and we pass yet another road crew reconstructing our route from such an event. It's one of those counterintuitive facts about deserts, that they are shaped more by water than any other force. Or such was the case until the advent of the 20th century, when humankind started moving around more dirt around on the planet's surface than rain. By the mid-21st century up to half of the world's population may be living in arid and semi-arid regions such as the Pilbara; the history of how we inhabit these regions is comprised of stories it would benefit us to know.

At Millstream--named by Francis Gregory, who noted its prospects for grazing on his surveying trip--we eat a picnic lunch, then walk amongst the pools and streams of the artesian waters welling up, part of the complex surface and subsurface river system running down to the ocean. The waters are startlingly clear, the aquifer beneath us an estimated 2,000 square kilometres holding as much as 1.7 billion cubic metres of water. This part of Australia is a sponge that's been soaking up water for millions of years from the cyclones and other rain events, and the coastal towns and mines have been increasingly wringing water from it for decades. Maintaining the water levels in the ponds for the indigenous flora and fauna is a priority for the state government, and during dry spells water is pumped into them. Rainfall here averages 330 millimetres--about 13 inches--a year, but in dry years can fall as low as 3.4 millimetres. In 1983-84 the Harding Dam was built to the north to store water from the Harding River catchment, and for eight months of the year it supplements the prodigious flow from Millstream to keep towns downstream, such as Dampier and Roebourne, alive and functional.

In the historic homestead we find a laminated picture or story map on the wall made in the 1930s by then 12-year-old Doug Gordon. It outlines the fenced property, the outbuildings and work areas, and events such as where a cart lost a wheel, and where two men had a fistfight. In the upper right-hand corner is the largest figure on the map, a huge brown cow that says everything about the importance of livestock. In the opposite corner is the other major icon, the only trees on the yellowed ground and where birds are shown flying over the ponds. This place was a source of water and wonder for the pastoralists and the Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma people alike. There are no constant rivers in this part of the world, and very few permanent pools even. In the Yindjibarndi language, a river doesn't mean a flowing water feature, but a dry bed that caries water only during cyclone season. One of the foundational stories about the creation of the pools is the “Story of the Warlu, Barrimirndi Travelling up the Fortescue River (Yarnda Nyirranha),” which involves a great sea serpent who came inland searching for two young miscreants. The serpent's passage dragged a long trench in the land--the river--and as he rose out of and fell back into the earth, he left behind the pools. The connection between the inland water and the sea is encoded in multiple narratives as old as the traditional owners and as recent as what I'm writing.

In the afternoon we more or less follow the course of the intermittent Fortescue to Dampier, one of the two most prominent ports on the WA coast, and the transitions are severe from flat scrublands to rolling hills, and then down onto and across the largest solar saltworks in the world. It's a bit as if we'd driven out onto the surface of the Moon. Even more shocking is driving through the small saddle on the other side of the white mineral flat with its variegated blue evaporation ponds and into Dampier, where a half dozen ore ships the size of skyscrapers are moored, as if they were buildings lying down in the sea. Long conveyor belts are filling them with salt and iron, a haze of dust hanging over the shoreline. The landscape is all red, white, and blue.

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