March, 4 2010
William L Fox

Two hundred feet above me morning sunlight skims along the rim of Weano Gorge, bouncing from wall to wall until it reaches the water in the pool at my feet. The gorge is carved into the sedimentary banded iron and silicates of Western Australia's Karijini National Park, and in places is only shoulder-wide. By the time the light reaches this deep it's a saturated orange glow. I'm stopped at a millrace--a circular bowl carved out of the rock by flash floods--and across from me water flows briskly from between two layers of rock. It's not seeping, but actually pouring out of the side of the gorge into the stream that continues downward to meet Junction Pool, where four of the park's gorges meet.

The Pilbara is one of nine districts in Western Australia (WA), a 500,000-square-kilometre region that contains the hottest place on the continent, a semi-arid to arid tropical desert that's currently in the grip of yet another recurring drought, this one exacerbated by the global heating that's been accelerated by human activity since the 1950s. It's a relief to be out of the 40ºC temperatures up on the rim, and down here where it's at least ten degrees cooler. Some of the trees in the gorge are volunteers whose airborne seeds have wafted in from the much wetter Kimberly region far to the north. Last year in the next pool downstream a tourist captured a series of pictures of an enormous olive python swallowing a wallaby. It's a different world in the gorges, but one intimately connected to the functions of the world above, the water just one of the things flowing from the Hamersley Ranges to the Indian Ocean.

The Pilbara Craton is one of the oldest surviving bits of continental crust on Earth, formed some 3.5 billion years earlier. I'm looking into rocks formed almost 2.5 billion years ago, back more than halfway to when our planet coalesced out of a cloud of dust. Australia has the distinction of being the flattest, hottest, and most ancient continent, and the oldest exposed rocks in the world are found in Western Australia, zircon crystals 4.4 billion years old. 300 million years ago the Pilbara was part of the Gondwana supercontinent and sat close to the South Pole; about 170 million years ago Australia started to drift away and it's been floating northward ever since. These facts are relevant to the collision I'm here to write about, the one among the landscapes, industries, and cultures of the Pilbara.

Seven of us had flown north out of Perth the afternoon before, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn just before landing at the Paraburdoo airport. It's a one-and-a-half hour flight into what my colleague Barry Lopez noted was a landscape remarkably devoid of anthropic sorting. The roads, the grid of grazier property lines, the cattle stations--most everything drops away until you spot the iron ore mine outside Paraburdoo, a town built in 1971 to house the workers. In addition to Barry and myself were poet Mark Tredinnick, painter Larry Mitchell, and photographer Paul Parin. That's about the range of talent you want when approaching a region you've never before visited, much less tried to write about. Mags Webster, herself a writer, and Carolyn Karnovsky--both from our sponsor, the nonprofit FORM organisation in Perth--had flown the 1000 kilometres with us, and would make sure we get to meet local people at each juncture of the trip.

As we descended yesterday into the airport at the southwestern corner of the Hamersley Range, we could see the higher ridges of the park to the northeast. The land was ochre, purple, and tawny gold, and the white trunks of the Snappy Gums--also called Widow Makers for their habit of dropping limbs on unwary campers--shone bright against the dry streambeds. The airport was filled with Rio Tinto miners in yellow jerseys with blue collars. Most of the Pilbara is so remote that the miners fly in and out each week, returning home to Perth or even Bali for time off, which lends the mining towns a slightly abandoned air.

The parking lot held almost nothing but white diesel four-wheel drive SUVs and utes, all equipped with antennae for two-way radios and bearing flags on top for visibility over the hills on dirt tracks. Even the clean rental Utes had red dust on their windshield wipers and wheels, a mineral stain almost impossible to wash out of the skins of machines and humans alike. While we loaded our gear into two trucks, a three-foot-long red sand monitor in the parking lot stood up on his forelegs in a threat display to the few people who stopped to look. Before leaving town Paul took us up a small hill to an overview of the public golf course, a geometrical exercise laid out in gravel and scrub. The thermometre was already at 40ºC, and although the ground was in shade, when I put my palm on it, it was hot enough to be uncomfortable. To our left ran enormous pipes carrying water to the mines.

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