29 September 2011

The Land of the High-Vis Shirt

We've been in Port Hedland for a couple of weeks now. Long enough to have a look around (as much as we can on foot anyway). Like many rural towns, there is not much to do here without a car. Lucky for us, we brought our books, laptops, cameras and sketchbooks to keep us occupied on days off!

Its really a town of miners, engineers and tradies, all employed by BHP and Rio Tinto here in the Pilbara. I haven't yet met anyone who was born and bred in Port Hedland, apart from maybe the local indigenous community. Yellow and orange high-vis shirts are everywhere, in the pubs, the supermarket, the bank, everywhere. Nearly every car on the road is a mining vehicle, also emblazoned with fluorescent reflective stripes down the sides, thereby matching their drivers. I get the impression, that all anyone does here is fly in, work, eat, sleep and drink for fourteen days straight and then fly out.

There is big money here though. Everyone is on mega wages, even unskilled workers are earning over $100K in the mines. Consequently, everything is more expensive: the petrol, the groceries, the pub meals, the housing. The housing especially is diabolical! People are renting out their average 3 bedroom houses to the mines for nearly $3000 a week. And to buy a place here is ridiculous: you are looking at around a million bucks for an average sized home. I don't know how anyone could afford to live here permanently unless you A: bought a place before the mining boom or B: are prepared to live in a caravan!

It should be noted that Port Hedland is not an attractive town. As mentioned in our last post, its dry and dusty, the horizon is littered with mining rigs, trains and ships waiting to transport the iron ore and the red dirt is everywhere. The Indian Ocean beckons you with its turquoise water, but it is a cruel invitation because it is not safe to swim there. Unless you want an encounter with stonefish and box jellyfish. And I suspect you don't. It's interesting to think what would have happened to Port Hedland if the Pilbara region hadn't become a mining hub. Would it have become a sleepy little retirement town? Or would it have just died out and become one of those ghost towns that no-one stops at unless they are in need of petrol on their way up to Broome?

This morning, we decided to catch the bus into the 'CBD', which is essentially not much more than a street of ATM's, a newsagency and the post office. But there is a newish cafe there, housed inside one of BHP's old train carriages. And the food was good! So with relief we tucked into a brunch of eggs, hashbrowns, bacon and spinach and washed it all down with espresso. And for a little while, we could pretend we were somewhere a little more inspiring!

14 September 2011

Port Hedland

We've landed in Port Hedland, WA. Its a funny design, this town. Port Hedland was the original town, near the sea, hence the name. Our quarters, as well as the hotels and a couple of restaurants are located here. But 15km away they have South Hedland, where the hospital is located and there also other run of the mill chain stores like K-Mart and McDonalds. A big gap separates the two. A driver picks us up for our shifts and drops us home at the end.

Its a stark environment, hot, dry, dusty and flat as far as the eye can see. In fact, the only hill they have is the bridge that goes from South Hedland to Port Hedland! The temperatures here can get to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer time. Right now, its in the low thirties. Like most places this far north, the red dirt is everywhere, the tumbleweed thrives, and the landscape is dotted with mining equipment. Here they mine salt and iron ore. And most of the population is fly in-fly out mining workers and their families, as well as the local indigenous community.

Today, on my way to work, I saw the most enormous piles of salt from the mines. They look remarkably like snow covered mountains, and in the early morning light (and when squinting one's eyes) you can nearly trick yourself into thinking you are in the Swiss Alps. But by 9am, the scorching sun is high in the sky, and the illusion dissolves, and you remember that this is indeed Australia. The sunburnt country they sing about in those weird Aussie folk songs.