September, 21 2010
William L Fox

Return to the Burrup

When we fly back into Karratha, the weather report is for fine weather, although the AU Bureau of Meteorology website that Christian Fletcher brings up on his iPhone shows rain falling over the Port of Dampier just on the other side of the Burrup Peninsula. As Christian explains, we're not looking at radar returns formed by water droplets in rain clouds, but particulate pollution from the loading of iron ore into the ships. Some of the returns are dense enough that they appear to be rain showers of some strength. When we arrive in mid-morning it's under a cloudless morning sky, 22˚C but very windy--it's the 60 kph gusts that are throwing around the dust and confusing the radar.

Painter Larry Mitchell wasn't going to join us for this third and final photographic foray into the Pilbara, but couldn't resist the opportunity to once again wander the Burrup. Christian, along with Tony Hewitt, Les Walking and I are all travelling under the helpful eye this time of Mollie Hewitt, a curator from FORM who's shaping the photograph exhibition of the work we're doing. This time we're all looking forward to a deeper exploration of how industry is shaping the more urban parts of the region, and by 10:46 a.m. we're at the Tank Hill Lookout and the Jaburga Heritage trailhead atop the Karratha Hills . We brace ourselves against the wind and scope out the chain of civic pods below us, housing developments strung in a line along the road and squeezed in between the tidal flats and the hills. It's an oddly tidy version of sprawl with no urban centre other than the largest shopping mall in the Pilbara and some Shire buildings. The town is busy with traffic, mostly white SUVs and trucks driving around. The tallest structures are the cell tower and church steeple, which tells you a something about the priorities of the residents.

Perhaps 18,000 people are squeezed in here between the hills we're standing on and the coastal flood plain of Nickol Bay. That's about a third of the population of Pilbara, although it's hard to get an exact count, so many people fly in for work and fly out to their homes elsewhere. The main town in this part of the Pilbara used to be Roebourne, which was founded in 1866, and until the 1960s it was the administrative centre of the Shire. Two things happened that decade to reorder things: the mining companies moved in and the Aboriginal population started relocating into town as work disappeared with the decline of pastoralism. Dampier was constructed by the mining companies as a closed town for the port and workers, and in 1968 Karratha was built as an open town and the administrative hub. In essence local government handed over control of civic development to the companies so that the development of infrastructure for resource extraction could proceed as quickly as possible. The result was most of the Aboriginal population staying in Roebourne and everyone else living in Karratha and a handful of other mining towns. That pretty much shoved the Aboriginal population and culture to the margins. And Karratha, created from whole cloth and without a history, is a town with not much discernible soul, the church steeple notwithstanding.

The shire plan calls for Karratha to grow beyond the mining business and become a regional city of 50,000 or so sometime in the 2020s. But living in a place where your average four-bedroom house costs $900,000, most of the homes are owned by absentee landlords, and rent consumes about 75 per cent of the normal household income isn't exactly attractive to the middle class or conducive to raising families. Except for the mining-related work, there's little to hold anyone here. "How to create longevity for this community after the mines are played out?" ponders Larry. "How to make it a place where people want to stay?" adds Tony, as we drive down the hill and prowl along streets planted with palm trees. Karratha sits only about 20-30 metres above sea level, and every couple of years cyclones blow through with winds exceeding 300 kph, conditions that flood the surrounding plain, a situation that will only worsen as sea levels rise globally. Then there's the issue of fresh water, which is supplied from the Harding Dam and the Millstream aquifer that we'd followed down to Dampier on our first trip. Those sources will be tapped out in 2013 and everyone's talking about building a desalinisation plant. Then there's the new port planned for 30 km east of here, which is supposed to handle another 350 tonnes of material every year, further straining the infrastructure.

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