September, 23 2010
Burrup Peninsular
William L Fox

At one o'clock this afternoon Mollie and Larry and I again meet up with Shane Peters to wander about the Burrup. Today he's wearing a blue field shirt, nylon field pants with lots of pockets, and a colourful tam o'shanter over his long greying hair. We pile into his familiar maroon Nissan SUV on the road to Dampier. He says 10,000 workers daily commute on it, which explains the hour-long traffic lines, and that it's soon going to be widened to four lanes. He brings us up to date on other developments since we last saw him six months ago. Rio Tinto, which has been able to get ore from Tom Price and into a ship with only seven workers, is still planning to eliminate the guys on the trains. Most workers are already for maintenance only, and automating the process keeps down the incredibly high costs of bringing in people from the outside. Karratha is planning on building the largest recycling plant in the southern hemisphere as part of an effort to protect the local groundwater, but the plant will itself use a huge amount of water. The method of sorting is to load everything into big ponds; metal sinks to the bottom, plastic sits on top, and everything else floats in between. You skim it in layers to retrieve the materials for recycling. And, then, Rio Tinto is being criticized for using potable water from Millpond to keep down the ore dust. Shane shakes his head. "We need a desal plant." Oh, and the airport runway that we thought was so long when flying this morning? That's because it's now been extended for 747s, which he considers a positive development. "We have everything here for tourism. We just need more flights."

We stop by the side of the road and Shane leads us up a small, tight dry watercourse to see the famous climbing men petroglyh and delicate patterns around us that don't look anything at all like other local rock art. It's more like the work found up north in Queensland than here. Shane reminds us how complicated the rock art situation is on the Burrup--many people over a very long time working to make images for any number of purposes. Shane tell us how, when the Harding Dam was built, he and others geo-tagged each rock art boulder picked up during construction, then dropped all of them back in the water at same position after the reservoir was filled in. "Someday those rocks will be right there again on dry land." And now there's a movement among the Aboriginal people to have the fence around the rock art cemetery removed so the spirits can move freely in and out. "They don't want the rocks moved again, just a cover built over the site to preserve them. Disturbing them too much is dangerous."

I'm still thinking about that notion when Larry and Mollie and I return that evening to watch the moonrise over the exclosure. And I still can't figure out why the rocks seem to glow after the sun has gone down. Larry thinks it's the complimentary colour of the red with the deepening blue of the sky. I notice that the fence is rusting to the colour of the rocks. I always think of Australia as an oxidised continent, given its age and geology, the stain that the red dirt puts on the skirts of houses, our vehicles, our clothing. Off to our right the ammonia plant emits clouds of steam and its low thrum of machinery, a satanic vision next to what we have come to consider an idyllic valley. Its eastern hills are bracketed by Hearson's Cove and another small bay to the south, the vegetation after the spring rains almost lush. It's our last night in the Pilbara and I'm wondering if I will see these boulders behind the fence again. As we leave I trail my hand along the fence, the rust rubbing off onto my palm.

Back to Top