The Planes, Trains and Automobiles of the Pilbara

Monday morning, 7:00. My alarm clock wakes me and I struggle to turn it off before dragging myself out of bed. Thump. I land on the tiled floor hard, take a breath and then force myself to get up and get on with it.

It's a broadly accepted fact that Monday's aren't all that great, and this early morning start (I'm on holidays so anytime before lunch is early) didn't show any signs of changing that idea. Fortunately for me there is a very good reason for the early wake up.

Today, we are going to go to Port Hedland and fly to a cattle station due south of South Hedland which is in turn due south of Port Hedland. Don't follow me? Well that's how my brain feels at 7:00 on a Monday.

Today, we are going to go to Port Hedland and fly to a cattle station due south of South Hedland which is in turn due south of Port Hedland.

My brain is mostly unfogged by 8:15, which is when we set off for Port Hedland. It's a two and a half hour drive and there's not really that much to see on the way. However, a few points of interest stand out to me.

The first is the town of Roebourne, but this POI flashes by in a minute, even at the restrictive 50 km/hr speed limit. Back up to the statewide top speed of 110 km/hr, we pass over several bridges above several dry river beds. You wouldn't believe it had rained just the week before, though in some of the rivers large puddles can still be seen; but puddles don't really constitute a running river.

Later, we see a mob of cows huddled between a fence and the road and not, mind you, on the other side of this fence where they would have the greatest chance of not dying (especially when it gets dark). Perhaps the grass is greener on the side of the fence where road trains whiz by. A dozen dead kangaroos in various states of decay by the bitumen warn off anything smarter than cattle.

That's about it for the rest of the way, except for those constant things you only notice after an hour on the road, and only do so because there is indeed nothing else to notice.

The thing that I notice is this: after the Pilbara hills descend back into the earth, the planet sits as flat as the road all the way to the horizon. I can see some more hills in the distance, but they are so far off that the curvature of the earth pulls away at their base so that they look like they are floating in mid-air. As we race along, these ridges of hills try to keep pace by snaking a few metres above the horizon. We outrun them.

We outrun Whim Creek too, a pub/motel that is the first building we've seen since Roebourne. It's not long to go now until Port Hedland.

The ground looks different from a hundred metres above. It's a like seeing the full painting when we're only used to seeing the artist's palette. Or maybe that's too extreme a metaphor. Actually, lets just ditch the metaphors for the moment and say this: from a hundred metres above the earth, everything is smaller and can be seen from directly above.

This means that the trees are smaller and look like green dots, the people inside their air-conditioned cars are invisible, and the landscape diverges into a mixture of lines and colours that mix in with artificial roofs and long stretches of grey bitumen. As we pull further away from the runway and climb further into the light blue sky, this point of view intensifies so that the objects and the structures and the living things dissolve into patterns of life.

Some elements fight against each other; that new highway is a drab grey that rises above the green/red planet, while other elements have achieved some kind of parity; the orange on the steel roofs of buildings matches the orange dirt.

We don't fly directly over the port that gives Port Hedland its name (true story), but pass it by as we turn on a wide arc south. Beyond where the great ships go, the water's electric blue contrasts with the green marshes of the banks. Red throws itself into the mix of colours, and coats the nearby Finucane Island that borders the left side of the port. The red comes from the dust of iron ore, which is shipped overseas from ports just like this. In fact, Port Hedland is Australia's largest iron ore port and the world's largest bulk export port (whatever that means). It's definitely the biggest port that I've seen, and we count sixteen ships at berth and another sixteen anchored out at sea.

Fun Fact: Port Hedland is the world's largest bulk export port.

As we leave behind the port we follow tramlines that stretch hundreds (perhaps thousands) of kilometres from iron ore mines to Port Hedland. These four lines, each operated by different mining companies (BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group, and whatever Gina Rhinehart owns), reach into the desert as single strands of grey hair.

The Pilbara is not neat like the patch-work farms of England. From above, it is a reckless expanse of paints on a coarse canvas. To this paint, someone has come along and stuck needles into it to trail threads of cotton through it. Some of their strings are grey like the train-lines and bitumen roads, and these move in straight lines and wide arches. Others are a bright red and swim randomly; crossing over one another multiple times, running into a grey thread here and there, drawing the eye along its path before ceasing to exist. If studied closely, a pattern emerges out of the paintwork since inevitably both the grey and red strings converge on white dabs of paint; a mine here, a mine there, a great port above and to the north.

We follow the grey strings like Theseus in the Minotaur's maze, though our walk is nowhere near as graceful. The plane moves in different ways, not too dissimilar to a car or a boat, but definitely more sickening. The plane "yaws" before Dad (our pilot) corrects it, but then it pitches to the left as we rise and then fall. The falling part is the scariest, and in this case it is unplanned but a result of unseen (but certainly felt) thermals. We drop a metre or two back towards land before the plane rises a little higher and continues on its original path.

I'm taking photos as we travel, so I feel as if I've driven my car upside down for half an hour and then been hit over the head with a cat. That's no way to describe being sick, but that's exactly how I felt; sick.

Just after we land I walk over to the nearby bushes in the fear that I'm about to throw up my lunch, morning tea, breakfast, last night's dinner and whatever cat hair I may have swallowed. But after a moment I find that none of it wants to be left on the side of a dirt runway, so I gather myself up and walk over to a waiting air-conditioned car. The ground and the air-con are both a relief since we had been lacking both while in the plane, and on a forty-plus degree day I need both to survive.

We're driven pass cabins (for miners) and corrugated tin garages and sheds to the homestead where we are welcomed by the owners of the station. The take our seats at the dining table, but there's room for at least ten more people around the wooden surface. Two brick walls stand to the left and right of us, while the other two walls of the house are taken up by fly wire to allow the wind to cool down the house. The only wind today comes from a big fan near the table, so we use ice blocks in cups of Solo to cool ourselves down.

We talk to each other like we've know each other for longer than five minutes, which means that the talk is not always easy since the topics turn to the hard life on a rural station. The stories we are told are often supported by news clippings and photos positioned around the room both on brick walls and cabinets. As I walk around the room before we leave I see the sad memories outnumbered by the good ones.

The plane is speeding up, rolling down the dirt runway like a race car across salt flats, except this is nowhere near as smooth. Horizontally speaking we are roaring along, while vertically we are slow and just beginning to rise. The rubber tyres depart the red track and we fly.

A dip of the wind and we are facing north, towards that great port of Hedland. This time we don't need to use the grey strings and train lines on the earth to guide us since, even from this distance, we can see the great pile of white salt that is stationed near the town. Using this as a kind of beacon we soar home. Except, well, home is still a two plus hour away from Port Hedland.

Half an hour later the tyres are about to touch the ground again, except that this time it will be grey tarmac and not red dirt. Dad is communicating with the control tour at the airport and among the snippets of pilot-jargon and Dad telling Sam to "look behind us, can you see it?", I begin to figure out that we have a QANTAS passenger jet right on our tail. While the sky might seem like a big place, planes are often going towards the same place. Speaking of big, planes such the one behind us are big while the Cessna that we are stuck in is small. Tiny.

In my head I'm visualising that old "Flight Control" phone game and that annoying feeling you would get as two planes reach the airstrip only to crash into one another. This will be a very different feeling. Think bone-crushing.

This will be a very different feeling. Think bone-crushing.

The tyres reach the tarmac. Dad steers the plane back towards its parking spot and a few minutes later, a QANTAS jet lands on the runway. We've beaten it by about five minutes, a bit too close to be comfortable.

With the plane all sorted we get back into the car, have a quick drive around Port Hedland, take a look at the salt pile as the sun sets and get back on the road a bit after seven o'clock. Now that we're safe from falling out of the sky and QANTAS jets, the only thing that can kill us are kangaroos and cows that chose the wrong side of the fence. And general tiredness, but we stocked up on caffeine back at Port Hedland's local Dome.

On the way home there is even less to see than on the way out. That's because it is dark.

On the way home there is even less to see than on the way out. That's because it is dark. So to spice things up, we stop at Whim Creek for a feed, but the kitchen has just closed, which is a shame. Fortunately for us the cockatoos at Whim Creek are able to hold an entire conversation in Australian:

Cockatoo: "Hello"
Me: "Hello"
Cockatoo: "How're ya going?"

I think about this for a little bit. It is a Monday sure, I am tired and hungry yes, and home is still two hours drive away, but it had been a day well spent. I had seen the Pilbara from above, I had visited a cattle station independent from any town or city, and I had explored Port Hedland. It had actually been a good Monday.

So what did I reply to this cockatoo?

"Good, thanks."

JR

Joel Gibson

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Perth, Western Australia

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