September, 23 2010
William L Fox

When in doubt, go flying.

That's been my motto for several years: when the view from the ground is so thick with associations that it's tough to sort out what fits where, get in an airplane. And this morning at 6 am we drive out to Karratha Flying Services to meet our pilot, Alex, and to take turns squeezing into a Cessna 172 with its right door removed for the cameras.

We make three flights, Tony and Les and Christian taking turns in the right-hand front seat while Mollie and I sit in the back taking notes and observing. We rise up to the east for each flight, bank right, cross the road and railroad tracks, and head out over Pond Zero to the sea at about 1000 feet. We keep turning right over the harbour, swing to the left to avoid the Woodside plant on the far side, then swing back right to fly over the Burrup and back to the airport. Everything we've been looking at the last couple of days is covered by what is a standard aerial tour of the area. We fly over the salt ponds, East Intercourse Island and its radar dome, the elaborate workings of the ‘spaghetti bowl' with its conveyors and sprinklers. At this altitude, 300 metres, we're high enough to ascertain patterns and relationships, but still within the nap of the land. We can smell the iron ore as it falls into the open holds of the ships beneath us, and sniff the gas wafting out from Woodside. We trace the progress of the ore ships by the brown wakes of sediment they churn up, the mud only inches beneath their keel, while out to sea I count a half dozen ships waiting to be escorted into the harbour. On the farthest horizon I spy the faint outline of a gas platform over the North Shelf, and on the third flight, and most astonishingly, I spot a large dugong swimming serenely outside the dike of Pond Zero. It amazes me to see such a large and relatively uncommon creature, by some called a ‘sea camel,' so close to such massive industrial activity.

By the time we land Tony has shot around 520 digital images, Christian 112, and Les something in between. Let's say a thousand in total. Most of them will be erased, a handful selected for digital cleaning up, colour balancing, reframing--whatever they need to do to sharpen our focus on the anomalies and contradictions and complexities of the Pilbara. We go back and forth in the evenings as we look at the pictures. Should these hillside colours be enhanced, is this image of an ore pile that includes a bit of the background more indicative than a tightly cropped shot, and what about whether or not to include people in this image of a storage yard? What's as frustrating to me as anything else is the high quality of the images that the guys leave out of their final selections. So many shots that both stun you with their beauty even as they dismay you with their implications. The guys have gotten it exactly right, how we have modified the environment from deliberately set fires in the Spinifex to the culling of camels, from massive ore trains to the delicate harvesting of grasses. As big and wild as the Pilbara is, we haven't seen an inch untouched by humans no matter how far off the roads we've carried our notebooks and cameras and sketchpads.

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