Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 11
Ghost Town

© Jens Hültman

Asbestos Tailings

The splendour of the rolling green mountains of the Hamersley Ranges is like that of an ancient animal. They have the look of some big brontosauruses having gone to sleep, with green grass growing on their backs. They are so beautiful that one wonders why no enterprising Western Australian has started a mine, leaving a humongous hole in the ground. They look like perfect potential victims for an environmental disaster.

The attentive reader has already guessed that such sarcasm indicates that the Hamersley Ranges are scattered with mining towns. In the recently constructed Newman, there is a monstrous hole in the ground called the Whaleback.

At a miners' truck-repair-store in Newman I managed to pick up the missing parts of the demolished snorkel. Apparently, the miners smash them up in numbers, since they had a whole shelf of them. 'Which one do you want?' the shopkeeper deadpanned with typical dry Australian humour. All I needed now was a new front guard, a paint job and a new window.

I drove up towards the Auski Roadhouse with my goal set for Wittenoom. Wittenoom used to be an asbestos mining town. The mine is closed down for health reasons and so is the town supposed to be. Thirty inhabitants still linger on with that outback stubbornness only Australians are capable of.

What was once a concern about the inhabitants health has developed into a face-saving siege by the Western Australian authorities. The authorities claim that the good burghers of Wittenoom should leave for their own benefit; but when their tongues slip, they admit that they just don't want to be sued by deceased Wittenoomers' children. The authorities do almost anything to get rid of the inhabitants. I was surprised to find that they still had electricity, but some court had decided that the bureaucrats could not shut that down.

The best-informed source of stories about this battle between Wittenoom and the State is Irene in the Gem Shop. Irene gives away little self-guided tour maps of the Karijini Gorges and sells horribly tacky souvenirs. This woman in her sixties is a great teller of anecdotes, tourist information and stories about the bureaucrats. All her stories are related in a monotone voice in a constant stream. She delivered a heartbreaking tale about a little joey who had been hit by a truck and then saved by hand-feeding with a milk bottle. Then followed stories about mischief committed by the bureaucrats in Perth. Lung cancer and asbestos was, in Irene's mind, an invention by some young socialist doctors in the South, who did not have much sense anyway. Irene did not much like the new-town planning layout of Newman and South Hedland, where streets meander. Straight, old towns with square blocks like Port Hedland were much better.

Irene's best story is about the time when the bureaucrats discovered that the Wittenoomers had a St Johns ambulance in a garage that belonged to the State. In their struggle to keep up the basic infrastructure with telephony, electricity and so on, the inhabitants sponsor the ambulance. The resilient people of Wittenoom took down the garage that housed the ambulance and rebuilt it in Irene's garden. When the snotty little bureaucrat turned up later that day, he immediately asked who was responsible for stealing this public property. All twenty-five inhabitants present stepped forward, raised their hands unanimously, and told him that they personally did it.

Then they advised him to call the police station in Tom Price (another mining town) and recommended he ask for a bus, so that they all could be transported away. While the bus from Tom Price was on its way, they would call the television networks and tell them about the incident, which they thought would make great headline news. "Town arrested for moving an ambulance garage". The bureaucrat left, fuming.

But it's no surprise that the battle is fought with no remorse on either side. This is Australia. The small, anti-authoritarian people of the outback against the big city people. Australia's past as a penal colony has made deep tracks in the mentality of the population. Authorities are by definition evil and should not be obeyed, if one is not caught in the act going on with one's private business. I shall do as I please, unless I am threatened with the cat o' nine tails. It was hard not to laugh at Irene's stories, even as I wondered how healthy it really is to live next to an abandoned asbestos mine. Nigel had assured me that the incubation time for asbestos-related lung cancer is forty years. A couple of nights in Wittenoom would hardly be a worry.

Bob and his wife at the camping ground greeted me as a long lost son. The night on my stretcher was peaceful except for the kangaroos jumping in the street outside, waking me up all night. What is it like in Australia? Well, kangaroos actually do jump in the streets. At least they do in Wittenoom.

Bob sent me out through Yampire Gorge the next day. Signs warned you about asbestos flying around in there. I decided to take my chances anyway, in the good rebellious spirit of the burghers of Wittenoom. The road is officially closed, but it is no match for a Toyota Landcruiser. I made it over stones and rocks and through the creeks in high ratio 4WD. The road was a piece of cake after the Gunbarrel. I even stumbled across some Sturt's desert owes near an abandoned mining shaft, a rare flower most people never get to see in the wild.

Karijini is now an official WA national park. This means that everything is about to take on a well groomed and paved look. Signs encourage you to wear a hat and drink enough water. There are prepared camping sites and rangers to guide you. There are handrails and stairs so that you won't slip. Elevators for wheel chairs are missing, but just wait and see. Even Australian males with knee problems will be able to get in and out of the magnificent gorges. There is a sealed access road into the park for people who don't want to sneak in through the back door, as I did. This development will do more for the death of Wittenoom than any action by the bureaucrats. The people in Wittenoom will miss the campers and tourists that had once used Wittenoom as their base for exploring the Hamersley Ranges.

A day in the Karijini Gorges is wonderful, in spite of the well meant pampering from the park management. There are lots of walks and good swims. I had a most refreshing swim and a shower in a waterfall in the Kalamini Gorge. Climbing down to the Handrail Pool in Weano Gorge offers a bit of adventure, but admiring the scenery over the Oxer Lookout will provide you with a memory for life. The generous supply of water stands out as a contrast to the hot, dry bush. The difference between the hot surroundings and the cool gorges is so huge that the gorges almost take on the feeling of spirituality, a place for religious worship. This is a feeling that overwhelmed me several times in the bush. I could easily have spent a few more days here. But I was still on a schedule and thought I had to rush on to the Millstream National Park, which unfortunately would turn out to be a bit of a non-event.

Chapter 12 →