What’s yours is a mine

Those of us who love the serenity and pristine nature of National Parks had better start linking arms. Governments in Australia are bending to the will of mining companies to allow mining and coal seam/shale gas projects, if not inside National Parks, then way too close for comfort.

Tom Price open cut pit

Karajini National Park in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is surely one of the 10 natural wonders this country has to offer – and it sits alongside an enormous open cut iron ore mine. The WA State government excised the Rio Tinto-owned Marandoo Mine from the national park in 1992. The WA government bans mining in all but three national parks – one of which is Karajini.
Rio Tinto operates 15 iron ore mines in the Pilbara and has spent $880 million opening up new mines. Even the 50-year-old Tom Price mine is still operating and now processing ore from the nearby Western Turner Syncline. While Tom Price is a mining town, almost all of these new mines use the preferred method of flying workers in and out of mine sites.

Kalamina Gorge

After spending three days camping in the breathtakingly beautiful Karajini National Park, we drove past the Marandoo Mine, located in a narrow valley of the Hamersley Range, effectively splitting Karajini into north and south areas.
Next day, we took a tour of Rio Tinto’s open cut iron ore mine in Tom Price. You could not develop a mine like Tom Price today. Some of its pits, like the one pictured, are 500m deep and require constant pumping, as they fill up with ground water. Big mining towns like Kalgoorlie, Tom Price, Broken Hill and Mt Isa were discovered and developed long before such inconveniences as environmental impact statements, air quality monitoring and workplace health and safety procedures.

While Rio Tinto has become the industry leader in worker safety, mining is still very dangerous work. Safe Work Australia figures show that 70 people died in the mining industry between 2003-2004 and 2009-2010. In WA, the Department of Mines and Petroleum says 52 people were killed at work between 2000 and 2012, although the incidence has dropped since then. Despite the risks, the above-average wages and the work-hard play-hard environment is attractive to healthy young men and women eager to save for a deposit on their first home or build a career.
We spent half a day in Mandurah visiting relatives and were astonished by the rapid growth of what used to be a Perth satellite suburb and is now WA’s second-biggest city. It is crammed full of big, new houses where many of the Mums (and the occasional Dad) stay at home with the kids until Dad (or Mum), comes home for their days off from one of the FIFO mine sites.
The Tom Price mine started production in 1994 and Rio Tinto approved an expansion in 2011 that will extend the life of mine to 2030. The Hamersley Range is so full of iron ore you can never afford to say that the Marandoo excision was a one-off. Indeed, the hill behind the Karajini National Park information centre is of particular interest for its high iron ore content. Mines appear in all kinds of unexpected corners of the country. We headed down a dirt road toward Sandy Point, south of Geraldton, attracted by stories of a friendly, laid-back beachside campground with sparkling white sand, great fishing and safe swimming.
It was just as beautiful as we’d been told, but its immediate neighbours are two big sand mines. Sand dunes along the WA coast are exploited for their heavy mineral content – ilmenite, zircon, rutile and monazite.

Fracking comes to WA
The one thing I did not expect to see, driving along Western Australia’s Coral Coast via the Brand Highway, was a large sign denouncing the process of ‘fracking’. The 2-metre high neon sign simply says “Fracking Poisons Water”, a matter for debate, but in this instance serving as a “What’s going on around here?” prompt for motorists. (Fracking involves pumping high pressure water, sand and chemicals into subterranean rocks to release the gas trapped there).
What’s going on is that Sydney-based listed company AWE has made a significant new shale gas discovery in the Dongara/Wagina reservoir. Anyone familiar with the terrain along WA’s Coral Coast would realise that Dongara, south of Geraldton, is on the doorstep of Lesueur National Park.

Leseur National Park, WA

Prior to our recent trip to WA, we were unaware of Lesueur National Park, a unique bio-diversity hotspot of some 27,000ha. It protects 900 different plant species, more than 10% of the flora of WA, and seven species of rare fauna. Lesueur, which is a must-do on the tourism wild flower trail, has already once been saved from the rapacious advances of the extractive industries.
In 1990 there was a rare meeting of minds between conservationists, lefties, righties, local land owners, fishermen and farmers to rebuff the mining/energy industries.
The Hill River Station proponents wanted a 2.5 million tonnes a year open cut coal mine and a 600MW power plant near Mount Lesueur, 25 kms from Jurien Bay and the Coral Coast.
The Environmental Protection Agency rejected the proposal as a result of overwhelming public protest and two years later the park was gazetted.
AWE has all but dismissed claims that its plan to exploit tight and shale gas reserves poses a threat to groundwater. The West Australian’s Daniel Mercer was invited to travel to the Senecio well site where AWE managing director Bruce Clement put his side of the story. He stated that horizontally-fractured wells found in WA’s mid-west were always at least 1.5 km deeper than aquifers and there is “invariably” an impermeable layer of rock between the gas and the water.
Conservation Council of WA director Piers Verstegen told the West Australian that if AWE was so comfortable with fracking it would have been more upfront in telling locals of its intentions. Land owners and environmentalists are concerned about the progress of drilling by AWE and others, given that a Parliamentary Inquiry into fracking is ongoing and unlikely to be completed this year.
The Green Left Weekly says if unconventional gas exploration and fracking is allowed on the border of Lesueur National Park, it would set a precedent that would allow fracking throughout the mid-west of WA.

Meanwhile, Queensland shuts the gate
It is probably worth pointing out that in Queensland, this kind of public support to oppose a mining proposal can no longer happen. A controversial new mining bill shuffled through Queensland Parliament last month (September), has restricted the right of appeal on “philosophical” grounds. The right to object is restricted to neighbouring property owners of the land to be mined, drilled or otherwise developed.
Understandably, the Lock the Gate Alliance does not think much of this new law, and the Greens are likewise upset.
You should be too. In theory, a drilling crew could set up at the end of your street and start looking for coal seam gas and only the people in the adjacent houses would have a right to object.

The return of Slideshow Bob

Wave Rock selfie

Welcome to Bob and Laurel’s truly excellent slideshow of Western Australia and all the States and Territories we went through to get there (and back). Come on in and find yourselves a seat – you two can sit over there, Fred can sit here and Mary thanks for coming and sorry to hear Trevor has a cold. Now tonight’s show, just so you know, will go for about nine hours, but the good news is we’ll have a supper break, a midnight snack, frequent comfort stops and breakfast.
This second slide needs some explaining – Laurel took it through the windscreen. Admittedly it’s a bit fuzzy, but there is a cat in there… Unlike last year, that’s the only feral cat we spotted, but we needed a photo because I wrote a song about feral cats. Oh you didn’t know? It’ll be on my new album, out soon!
As you might have gathered, we’re home, and I’m talking to trees again. She Who No Longer Watches ABCNews24 (hereafter referred to as Ed. for the sake of brevity), plans to select her ‘Top 10’ photos once she downloads and goes through the 8,000 or so images. All I know about the 9,000-odd photos and videos that I took is that I will need to be very disciplined and employ my hard-earned editing skills (writers call it “murdering your darlings”). We both became keen twitchers (bird-watchers), on our three month sojourn, so there are at least 12 photos of every bird that caught our eye, even the everyday Willy Wagtail.
This particular Willy Wagtail followed us wherever we went. Even when we pulled into the driveway of our friend’s place at Warwick on the penultimate afternoon of the journey, there was Ms Wagtail, flitting about, harassing other birds and generally singing its merry little song that somehow reminds me of the song “Baby I’ve been watching you”. The Wagtail (and its Kiwi cousin the Fantail), are said to be messengers or spirit guides by the indigenous cultures of Australia and New Zealand. Just thought you’d like to know that.
Ah, the photos (some of which have already ended up on Facebook). There are so many wondrous vistas, close-ups of wild flowers, peerless sunsets, verdant gorges, wind-tossed deserts and wide open spaces, our friends are surely expecting a home-made calendar in the mail for Christmas.
Today’s technology is a long way from the old-fashioned slide evenings of our childhood. Someone would come over with a slide projector, one of those round cartridges that holds 300 slides and a suitcase full of 35mm colour slides. Mum would pin a sheet to the wall and we would all be herded into the living room where Dad had the kero heater going, puffing away on his Capstans. It was a struggle to stay awake through what seemed like hours of happy snaps from Harry’s two weeks in Japan at the 1964 Olympics.
“Now this is my favourite shot – there’s Peter Snell (record-breaking middle distance runner), leading the NZ team around the arena.” Taken with an Instamatic from seat 73, row 110 on the eastern stand looking into the sun. (New Zealand won three gold medals in Tokyo. Just thought you’d like to know that, too).
Now that we have all this amazing digital photo technology, it’s a shame not to use it as often as possible. We tried to be groovy old folks and took a few selfies (see opening photo at Wave Rock in Western Australia).
We noticed some people cheating – taking selfies with extendable kits – a monopod arm and a shutter release cable. Our preferred method is to chat to people who are admiring the same scenery and ask them to take a photo. Or you can prop your camera on a rock, set the 10-second auto button then run back into the picture. In most of those photos I look like a bloke who has suddenly discovered his fly is not done up.
We went on a steam train excursion in South Australia – from Quorn in the lower Flinders Ranges to a hamlet called Woolshed Flat. Whenever the train went around a bend, everyone would rush to the other side of the carriage and stick their heads, elbows and cameras out the window.
The typical photo is like this one (left) – mostly other people’s heads. It hardly seemed worth the risk of getting cinders in your eyes. The best photos and videos of this particular excursion, of course, were those taken by the people stopped at level crossings who waved as we chuffed our way up the next hill.
I chatted to a fellow passenger from Melbourne who was on the last leg of what Grey Nomads call “the lap”. Like me, she had taken thousands of photos and at this late stage of the game was a bit burned-out and was having a rest from the camera.
“What’s the point,” she said with a sigh. “When you get home the only people interested in looking at them are us.”
It did not escape our attention that taking photographs of landmarks and scenery is a low priority for people who are travelling the country on some sort of a mission. They rely on their support crew to document their journey.
The Black Dog Ride is a 32-day, 14,500 kms circumnavigation of the country by 65 bike riders who share the founder’s passion for raising awareness of depression and suicide prevention. This well organised adventure has raised more than $1.6 million for mental health services over the years.
Then there was the intrepid group of over-65s riding 50cc scooters from Port Augusta to Perth to raise money for Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness of depression and suicide in Australian communities. The Scootarbor Challenge has so far raised more than $50,000 for Beyond Blue. The participants stop every 70kms or so and swap riders, probably a good idea as the day we saw them outside Ceduna, they were about to ride into strong head winds.
We also came across a group of 40 men and women riding 110cc ex-postie bikes from Brisbane to Adelaide via Birdsville and remote desert roads, for no other reason than they thought it was fun. Members of this group pay about $5,000 for the privilege, which includes an ex-postie bike, all accommodation and support while en-route and a flight home. Riders are encouraged to donate their bikes to Rotary at the end of the ride.
The above has renewed my resolve to delve into our documentary material and prepare a summary of our journey. It may well be this time next year before it’s done. It will probably include this photo taken on a timer when we arrived at the Welcome to Queensland sign on the NSW side of Goondiwindi. (Run, it’s flashing!)Welcome to Qld

Killjoy was here

Mary Pool
Mary Pool, WA

You are probably wondering why, of the 2.04 billion disposable nappies Australians dump every year, I chose to write about one in particular. It was a while ago now − we had just discovered our first truly appealing free camp, on the banks of Mary Pool in the Kimberley. After setting up camp, we walked over a concrete causeway and spotted a (used) nappy thoughtlessly left lying on a flat rock next to the pool. She Who Keeps Changing Her Pseudonym hates it when I get on a rant about things like this (“bloody selfish idiots spoiling my “quiet enjoyment,” is one of my oft repeated comments).
I was going to puff and bluster this week about bloody Iraq and why are we going there (again), on a mission yet to be sanctioned by the United Nations. But I’m OK now. Alert, but not alarmed, apart from concern over the common law rights of the six people still being detained without charge after a counter-terrorism raid. They can do that, you know – it won’t happen to you, though, so worry not.
But let’s get back to the nappy story. While disposable nappies have been around since 1948, their almost universal use in first-world countries today is supported by those who say they are a safer, easier, more hygienic option than cotton nappies. But Robyn Barker, retired family health nurse and author of Baby Love, says single-use nappies have changed our behaviour. “Many otherwise fastidious people forgo the rules of normal hygiene and dump human poo in domestic wheelie bins, waste paper baskets, and public rubbish bins in parks, streets and shopping centres,” she wrote on The Drum.
From our own observations travelling many a kilometre in WA, it was no surprise to learn that Western Australia has the worst outback road litter problem of any Australian State or Territory.
The State Government makes “Outback Packs” available to people to keep in their cars so they can pick up after themselves (and others). Even so, roadside litter is often quite bad at outback rest areas and diabolical at places with no toilets. Often enough there will be more litter around the bright yellow metal bins (with heavy iron grate lids, so we can’t blame crows for the mess), than there is in the bins themselves.
Litterman 0I decided to do my own “Emu Patrol” after getting out of the car for a photo next to one of those Nullarbor road signs which warn you to watch out for camels, emus and kangaroos. I picked up a coke can, two beer cans, two stubbies, a triple-A battery (what the…?), a 1-litre plastic milk bottle, chip packets and chocolate bar wrappers and a dog-eared copy of Lazarus Rising (I made that bit up). I completely drew the line at toilet paper, ribbons of which flapped around amongst the saltbush. You’d never know where it had been, would you? I threw the bag in the back seat, irritated, swatting flies and convinced the task was only 20% accomplished. After a few more minutes down the road, SWKCHP complained about “that terrible stink” and she was right. We stopped at the next rest area and put the bag in one of the aforementioned yellow metal bins. I’m told some drivers and /or their passengers (male, obviously), pee into cans or bottles and toss them out the window.
It is this sort of deplorable behaviour that perhaps explains the excessive use of scolding signs by caravan park managers. A lot of parks have boom gates and require a $10 or $20 deposit for a key to the amenities. Upon entering said amenities, there are many and varied instructions on how to clean a toilet bowl after you have used it, and exhortations to flush twice (but not waste water, even though many of their taps need washers). One sign above a urinal said “No Smoking Grafitti” which is what you get when you use faulty ellipsis. SWKCHP particularly liked the sign that forbade men and women from sharing the same shower.
What do they expect if they are only going to give you one key? One manager wrote a mini-essay about why they lock the amenities – ‘because bludgers sneak in under cover of darkness and use the amenities and then sneak out again before sun-up without paying’.
So as usual, bad behaviour by a few tarnishes the rest and management uses bossy signs as a way of not having to hire more staff to keep an eye out for bludgers that don’t pay.
You see a lot of graffiti when you travel around this country using public amenities. Scribbling on dunny walls is a time-honoured way of leaving your thoughts, however deep or shallow, for posterity. It is also a way of declaring your public love for someone, or to leave a mobile number for anyone who wants a good time. Not all graffiti is limited to toilet walls, alas. I have lately become aware that a species of humans have been tagging and scribbling on Aboriginal rock art. Some have even had a go at mimicking said art. A few even took their own chisels, apparently.
There is a natural assumption that vandalism of this order is done by people who would not know the meaning of the word desecrate. Unhappily this is not always true. If someone scales a large rock in the remote outback and sprays “Terra Nullius” in large black letters, it is surely premeditated. This probably explains why a lot of the Aboriginal rock art we saw in South Australia is locked away behind heavy metal fences.
The ABC reported recently that vandals have permanently damaged ancient Aboriginal rock art in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. The damage at the site of some of the world’s oldest and largest Aboriginal carvings on the Burrup Peninsula has left elders devastated. Elder and senior cultural ranger Geoffrey Togo said he and others had been finding examples of people spray painting on rock art, on the face of rocks, and on some other old carvings.
“It makes me angry when they do it,” Mr Togo told the ABC.
“You don’t see me going to church and doing the same thing in the church or someone’s home.”
It’s a universal problem, unfortunately. In Washington State, the Salish tribe was assailed by the vision of someone declaring his (or her) love for ‘Miranda’. Georgia Newsday said the 43-million-year-old Tamanowas Rock northwest of Seattle has been used for millennia by the tribe for hunting, refuge and spiritual renewal rituals. So yes, the 2.5m long pink slogan, I (heart) Miranda, could in this context be deemed culturally inappropriate.
Now that you are suitably outraged, I will leave you with a bit of helpful advice about culturally appropriate practises: viz
“This is were (sic) you poo”- writ large on a dunny wall on the Nullarbor.
And this gem:


Crossing the Nullarbor

The author on the Nullarbor Plain
NASA satellite image of the Nullarbor Plains (public domain)

A Brisbane lawyer I know who is an ‘Australia all Over’ listener came over at a corporate function one time to say he’d heard ‘Underneath the Story Bridge’ on Macca again. “So tell me,” he said, “Are you responsible for “Not Bloody Golf Again”? (A popular tune performed by Frankie Davidson and the late Dawn Lake). He seemed agreeably pleased to hear I didn’t write the song, probably because the corporate world is serious about its golf and doesn’t like anybody dissing (Gen Y speak for disrespecting), the sport.
I was musing about the people I know who do enjoy a good round of golf when we started crossing the Nullarbor this week. The Eyre Highway Operators Association has come up with up with a magnificent tourism gimmick – the world’s longest golf course. The Nullarbor Links is an 18-hole, Par 72 course spread over 1,365 kilometres. You tee off at Kalgoorlie in WA, then throw the clubs in the car and drive a good few hundred kilometres to the next hole at Norseman. And so on across the Eyre Highway, playing one hole in each participating town or roadhouse all the way to Ceduna in South Australia. And good luck to them.
We started our run back east on Sunday, travelling from Lake Douglas Recreation Park, a quiet free camp some 12kms to the west of Kalgoorlie. We did a whistle stop tour of Kalgoorlie (the museum, the Super Pit (500m deep open cut gold mine), the Arboretum and the 24/7 IGA) and then drove to and through Norseman to Fraser Range Station. We’d become so used to good weather on this trip we failed to notice the huge low system developing across the south west. Many places had rain – some even had 40mm! But the rain came with strong, squally storms and wind gusts of up to 100kmh.
Fortunately, Fraser Range Station had good sheltered van sites so we more or less slept through the night.
After Fraser Range – beautiful granite country and part of south west WA’s vast hardwood eucalypt forest, we drove on to Cocklebiddy, another roadhouse outpost.
We got through the journey quickly (tail wind). It was so windy in Cocklebiddy (population 8), that we left the roof down on our pop-top caravan and went to the roadhouse for fish and chips (me) and lamb shanks(ed). Tuesday it was still windy, though not quite as extreme. We got up early and headed to Eucla, the first stop on the eastward crossing where you can easily get to the beach. The ruins of the Eucla Telegraph Station lie half buried in sand dunes about 4 kms down the hill from Eucla Pass. We drove to the end of the road and walked to the ruins, marvelling at the stoicism of the first Telegraph Station keeper, living way out on a salty windswept plain surrounded by white sand dunes. In 1877 the operator sent his first message: “The Eucla line is open. Hoorah!”
We walked on another 500 metres or so to a desolate beach on the Southern Ocean – thankful to get back to the car after navigating our way through disorienting salt pans, sand dunes and scrub.
Australians tend to refer to all of the land between Perth and Adelaide as ‘The Nullarbor’, but if you look at the NASA satellite photograph (left), the Nullarbor Plain is the pale brown semi-circle bounded by the Southern Ocean to the south and the Great Victorian Desert to the north. It’s big, though − 200,000 square kilometres of flat, arid and virtually treeless land. It encompasses part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, where the military has tested weapons over the last 60-plus years.
It’s not a Lawrence of Arabia-type desert. This one has saltbush, bluebush, Mallee and other hardy plants, not to mention birds, reptiles and other fauna. If you are interested in nature, conservation, bush walking, bird watching, palaeontology, botany, geology or Australian history, you could spend a year on the Nullarbor and still not be bored.
If you are on a drive (some guide books depict this as Australia’s ultimate road trip, akin to Route 66 in the US), then be aware, it is a gruelling trip. The road is in very good nick, but dead straight in many places, including the “90-Mile Straight” – 146.6 kms between Balladonia and Caiguna.
Ah, so many impressions: a P-plater out for a drive with Dad − a sort of white fella desert initiation, I guess. Cyclists cross the Nullarbor – the smart ones wear fluorescent safety vests and do their riding in the early hours of the day. Birds of prey don’t stray much from their hunting zone, but they are always there. We saw a wedge tail eagle that, intent on a road kill breakfast, only just escaped our front bumper bar. There was a big male emu outside Eucla picking his way through the foliage with six or even eight chicks trailing behind. We saw several Southern Right whales and calves frolicking in the Southern Ocean just off the Head of Bight, a conservation park with a boardwalk and lookouts just 12kms off the highway. From there you can also see ancient sand dunes and the epic Bunda Cliffs.
But each to their own − some are on a journey, some are just driving, and some are on a deadline, delivering goods from one state to another. We encountered many a road train, but no scary moments with these.
We saw a convoy of Model T Fords on their way to a convention in Busselton and just yesterday chatted with a woman who is driving solo from WA to Strathalbyn in South Australia for the Australian sheepdog championships (towing a caravan and carrying eight dogs in a cage on the back of the ute).
Many people use the Nullarbor Crossing as a way to raise funds for charity. We met a group of seniors riding 50cc scooters from Port Augusta to Perth to raise awareness about depression and suicide.
At the first lookout where you can see the eroded cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, we met a man in his 50s on a pilgrimage and taking Mum and Dad along for the ride. “I did it years ago in an XY Falcon with three Aussies and three Germans,” he said. Dad was walking slowly with a stick, but he got to the lookout and you could see how happy son was to relive his epic trip and share the joy with his folks.
They got back into his shiny red Falcon sedan and off they went, down the Eyre Highway towards the Nullarbor Roadhouse, watching out for wandering stock, camels, emus, wombats and kangaroos.