The Pilbara covers both coastline and inland plains and has many natural attractions. If you’re on the coast, pristine beaches, snorkelling and beautiful sunsets are the main attraction, as well as the Staircase to the Moon, which happens at certain times of the month. Further inland is Millstream Chichester National Park with its rolling spinifex hills and tree-lined gorges, and the jewel of the Pilbara – Karijini National Park.
The Pilbara is also known as the ‘engine room’ of Australia because of the mining operations – iron, salt, … – and it wasn’t until we drove through this region of Western Australia that we finally understood how this affects the state. Everyone told us that WA is expensive, and this is because the people who work in the mines make a lot of money and the towns need to compete with that. The general cost of living goes up and this makes WA very difficult to travel through on a budget. It finally makes sense why a chicken parma costs $30 – and you have to be a miner to afford it!
Because of the mining activity in the Pilbara, you’ll find that pretty much everyone is wearing high-visibility workwear. If you see someone who isn’t wearing hi-vis, then they are probably married or related to someone who does, or you’ve just spotted your reflection in a shop window. We reckon they even sleep in their hi-vis gear, and if two hi-visers had a baby, it would come out wearing hi-vis…
We rolled into Paraburdoo on Mothers Day and the only carrier offering reception was Telstra. We quickly called our mums from Dave’s mobile before having a look around town.
Paraburdoo gets its name from the aboriginal term ‘pirupardu’, which means meat feathers. This mining town exists solely for the local mining operations. Once we realised that there wasn’t much to see, we continued to the next town.
This mining town was named after Thomas Moore Price, a guy who worked for an American company called Kaiser Steel. His job was to go out and appraise ore deposits and after dubbing the area minable in 1960, he lobbied the State and Federal Governments to allow mining to proceed so that the ore could be exported. Mining companies moved in and started to dig while Thomas went back to America in 1962. He died of a heart attack at his desk after he was informed of the valuable ore deposits found at Tom Price, and the town recognises his contribution to the foundation of the iron ore industry.
The town is quite pretty, with colourful bougainvilleas and bright green grass, and is nicknamed Top Town because it is 747 metres above sea level, making it the highest town in WA. It’s fully stocked with a supermarket that is open on Sundays, a visitor centre, public toilets, and a bottle shop. The pub looks like a good place to grab a drink and chill out in the beer garden.
To the south west of town is Mount Nameless, which towers 1120 metres over Tom Price. While the miners couldn’t come up with a better name, the traditional aboriginal people of the area call it Jarndrunmunhna, ‘place of rock wallabies’, for thousands of years. Nearby, an old haul truck is on display and completely dwarfs the Troopy. Standing 5.7 metres high and weighing over 250 tonne when fully loaded, this is definitely a monster truck! The engine alone weighs more than the Troopy!
Right next door is Karijini National Park, so we ducked in for two days of hiking and exploring before continuing north towards the coast.
Founded in the late 1960s due to the growth of the iron ore industry, Karratha is the fastest growing town of the Pilbara. They have a busy town centre with all the major supermarkets, clothing stores, restaurants and new apartment buildings popping up like mushrooms after the rain. Tank Hill Lookout offers great views of the city but in terms of attractions, there isn’t much.
About 100km south of Karratha is Millstream Chichester National Park, a 200,000 hectare landscape of rolling yellow hills, rocky escarpments and gorges. On the way to Python Pool, we spotted some Sturt Desert Pea blossoms on the side of the road before climbing Mount Herbert for some stunning panoramic views of the park.
Python Pool is a permanent freshwater plunge pool located at the base of a cliff along the Chichester Range. The water comes from an aquifer, or natural underground reserve that is fed by the Fortescue River and is believed to contain 1,700 million cubic metres of water.
About 20km west of Karratha is a small port town that was named after William Dampier. The town was built by Hamersley Iron in 1965 and is one of the largest tonnage shipping ports in Australia.
Just off the coast is the Dampier Archipelago, a tourism attraction that is only accessible via an expensive cruise ship, no doubt. Unfortunately, all you can really see of the archipelago from the mainland is the port and mining operations that have made themselves quite at home on some of the closer islands. We opted to see the humble Red Dog Memorial instead. The story is about a red kelpie that wandered the Pilbara. He started his life in Paraburdoo in 1971 before being taken to Dampier by his first owner. He adopted a second owner, John Stazzonelli – a truck driver that took him all over the northwest. After John’s death, ‘Red’ travelled on his own until his death in 1979 due to deliberate poisoning by a dog hater. Red’s story was made into a movie called Red Dog.
Despite being one of the busiest ports of Australia, Port Hedland is actually a small town with a pretty quiet atmosphere. As we drove into town, we were surrounded by hi-visers working on the roads, we past the dirty BHP Billition iron ore operations, saw Rio Tinto’s giant salt piles with little bulldozers on top and gazed at the larger than life freight ships docked in the port. On our way out of town, we stopped by Pretty Pool, a nice little spot for a picnic, provided there are no crocs about. There’s also a nudist beach nearby – just in case you’re interested… =D
Port Hedland started with a jetty in 1896 but the real growth started in the 1960s with the mining of iron ore in the Pilbara. The population exploded from 1,200 people to around 18,000.
ACCOMMODATION IN THE PILBARA
Pilbara Holiday Park, Karratha
Cooke Point Holiday Park, Port Hedland