March, 8 2010
Port Hedland, the Port
William L Fox

At 6.15 in the evening we drive down to the port to take a look around the harbour aboard one of the pilot boats used to bring in the tankers, several of which are being loaded as we cast off. Iron ore pours from conveyors that travel down the piers to dump a constant stream of material into the holds. I clamber up to the flying bridge to get a better view. The ships can take up to 200,000 tonnes of ore, and the conveyors can fill one every 18-24 hours. A ship per day leaves the harbour on high tide. Nine berths are currently in operation, and four more are under construction. We're close to the tropics and the sun goes down fast, but so many lights illuminate the harbour operations that I don't even need to turn on the cockpit light in order to write. The scale of operations is so large that, as hard as I look, I can't spot a single person, save one crew member on deck of a tanker who watches us from above as we chug slowly past.

Jeffrey, a former tughand, joins me on the bridge. This boat also serves as a security vessel, and when I ask him what the biggest threat is to the harbor, he doesn't reply for a moment, then says: “Blowing up a ship in the channel to sea. Every 24-hour delay for each ship costs $23-25 million. We could probably clear it in a day, but...” Because our skipper is a pilot for the big ships, and our vessel is a known entity, we're allowed to cruise at close range along the flanks of the bulk carriers. We chug alongside the Mariloula, a ship flagged from Greece that's 292 metres long and 50 abeam, a width that, when seen straight on in deep twilight, is so immense that it seems highly improbable the thing can float. “They can't make them any longer,” says Jeffrey, “so they make them wider. When you're on a tug boat and the ships are empty, they tower above you; but when they're loaded, you're looking down onto the deck from the tugs.”

Barry notes through binoculars yet another slogan, this one painted across the superstructure of the Mariloula: “Protect the Environment.” Good sentiment, but rumour has it that the Port Hedland water source is so full of arsenic and heavy metals from dust blowing off loading of ships that some people drink only bottled water while in town. The other notable sight in the harbour are dredges. In order to add the new berths, and given that operators are forbidden to remove anymore mangroves in the area, the only option is to open new space by dredging upstream along the creeks feeding into the harbour. The dredges take up bottom material at 40 cubic metres per scoop, and once the vessel is filled, they head out to sea, hinges in the middle bottom of the hull open, the material is dumped, and they head back in, trading places with the dredge that in the meantime has been working in the harbor. The new berths will be able to handle bulk carriers of even larger size and capacity in order to meet Chinese demand, and they've built a tunnel under the harbor to get ore from the train tracks to the new operations.

All this gigantism on our last evening in the Pilbara suggests to me that we're going to need a new category of story to assimilate what we ourselves are doing to the country. We need stories to match the size of the open pit mines, the length of the trains, the keels of the carriers. We call such big stories myths, epics with the metaphorical reach to encompass the girth of the world. Port Hedland, known as Marrapikurrinya to the Nyamal, was a place of reliable fresh water. According to the elder and lawman Peter Coppin, an enormous blind water snake lived in the largest of the three local soaks, which is now the turning basin for the bulk carriers. When the first large cargo vessel entered the harbor, the snake was forced to leave by the churning of the propellers. Coppin tells in his memoir of negotiating with BHP Billiton Iron Ore in the 1990s for a trade-off of sacred places to be left untouched, while other parcels of land could be mined. It wasn't a perfect solution, but one based on those big stories from Dreamtime.

The more I travel through the Pilbara, the more I think we all needs those stories--not just the Traditional Owners, but the corporate owners, the local residents, the mine workers. The stories are living narratives that absorb the arrival of industrialism and connect it to the past, whether in the narratives of the snake, the paintings of Loreen Samson, the Claypan installation, or the rock art that depicts the arrival of the colonists. Those stories still have the power to evoke a sense of balance in the land and what our responsibilities are.

I'd not thought, when starting out on this trip, that I'd find this renewed sense of purpose for older stories. I had envisioned a narrative about our travels and the contemporary collisions between culture and nature, for example the competing needs between the mining pits and the national parks. I'd thought about art as a way of representing those conflicting uses, not as a way of bridging them, of helping us envision the responsibility of one to another anchored in the old ways. But that's a virtue of travel, that moving through space will invariably take you through time. The landscape and the timescape are inextricable from one another. Travel allows us to see and assess how human actions upon the land will partner with geomorphology to make landscape, the land both old and new, stories holding it all together in our minds. And, if we're lucky and clever, the stories will help us to sustain a life in the land.

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