North West Resources Tour: 13-22 May 1998


In May I took part in the North West Resources Tour, organised by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia. There were 16 of us from a variety of backgrounds (businessmen, bankers, some from the Australian public service), plus two from the Chamber of Commerce. We had two ten-seater planes (Cessna Conquests) and we spent ten days touring the resources sector of Western Australia. 'Resources' was primarily mining, but also covered agriculture and tourism.

This account is a lightly edited version of the reports I e-mailed to friends and relations back in England during the tour.

Part 1: 13 May

Well here I am in Kalgoorlie.

Got to Perth after a long flight from Canberra last night. We had to be at the airport at 7am this morning to check in and collect our hard hats and other kit. We're supposed only to have 10 kilos of baggage each, but I suspect most of us have cheated a bit--me because I'm not counting the weight of my laptop. We had to buy steel-capped safety boots beforehand: when I went into the shop and asked for them I was pointed to a wall with a huge variety of boots and shoes. "Yes but which are steel-capped?" I asked. "All of them" I was told. So I have a pair of surprisingly comfortable walking boots.

It's about an 80 minute flight to Kalgoorlie, but when we got here it was fogbound. We circled and made a couple of attempts to land, but it was too dense. Quite spooky since we could readily see how close to the ground we got in our attempts. We had to fly off to another small mine site called Granny Smith about 30 minutes north. A mine bus took us off to the mine village--it really is in the middle of nowhere, very flat, and all the workers are put up in portacabins, but they have a basic dining room where we had coffee. Lots of emus in the grounds. After about an hour, the fog had lifted enough for us to fly back to Kalgoorlie.

We went straight out of Kalgoorlie about 30k to the east to Bulong, a brand new nickel and cobalt mine and processing plant. The mining fairly simple--just bulldozing ore out of relatively shallow pits and loading it into trucks. But the processing is high-tech, involving all sorts of different processes with all pressure vessels, valves etc having to be contructed out of titanium because the process is very corrosive (not helped by the fact that the local bore water is 7 times more saline that sea water). They mine laterite nickel at Bulong, which involves new processes: most existing nickel mines in Australia have mined sulphide deposits. We get a full briefing on the processes involved. It's pretty odd seeing all this industrial plant in the middle of the bush, though in this case the workers live in Kalgoorlie.

Then back to Kalgoorlie for a sandwich lunch andthen a visit to the main gold mine, officially called the Finiston open-pit, but universally known as the Super-Pit. It's extraordinary. The original gold rush was based on high grade ore, but that's long since been mined out. So they've linked together lots of old mines into one vast open-cast pit. It's 4km long by 2km wide by (currently) 600m deep. Ore is loaded onto huge 190-ton trucks which slowly climb back out and off to the processing plant next door. That's another big industrial facility, processing millions of tons of ore a year. The landscape is extraordinary, dominated by huge mountains of old tailings etc. And it's all cheek-by-jowl with the town, since that's the way the industry built up.

We had a brief tour of Kalgoorlie. Less interesting than I expected, except for some fine old buildings in the main street. The infamous Hay Street (with its legal brothels) was looking very dead! We had supper in our hotel and a relatively early night.

Part 2: 14 May

Well, here I am in Parabardoo, in the Pilbarra. We set off early this morning from Kalgoorlie and flew to Mount Keith (a bit over an hour) which is a biggish nickel mine. It's in the middle of nowhere, again a vast pit and a huge area (5km circle) where they store the leftovers (tailings). Unlike yesterday (when we travelled around mines without getting out of the bus much), this time we got driven right down to the bed of the pit--which gives a chance to see the scale: dumper trucks that take 220 tonnes of ore per load, costing $3million each (even the tires cost $25,000 each). Then we walked all around (or more accurately up and down on steel walkways) the processing plant that turns the ore into concentrate before it is trucked/railed off.

Then we flew another hour or so north to Parabardoo, which is Hammersley Iron country (now a subsidiary of Rio Tinto). Even huger, but this time cutting away whole mountains rather than digging pits. Amazing scenery: moonscapes with great views off into the distance over scrub and hills. Sadly it's been cloudy, so we missed what are spectacular sunsets here. A bit more humid here, but temperature still reasonable. Mount Keith in February averaged 45 degrees (113 Farenheit) in the daytime, with a max of 49 degrees (120), so I'm glad it's winter.

Part 3: 15 May

Really only day 3?! It seems an age since I left Canberra.

We had a spectacular flight to Port Hedland this morning, through the Wittenoom Gorge, going very low. But raining on the coast: first rain there for a year!

Port Hedland is a strange mixture of hi-tech and lo-tech. Basic idea is huge train-loads of iron ore arriving and being loaded onto ships. 60 million tons per year. But all incredibly automated. The trains (nearly 3 km long!) have just one driver and one observer on their 400k journey. And the ore is unloaded into huge piles which are then re-collected totally automatically by a huge machine controlled from a control tower some way away. They're also building a new plant there to turn ore into iron briquettes, which looks impressive but has been plagued by cost-overruns. Still, I'm sure that getting more involved in processing the raw materials in WA is the way to go.

Then on to Broome--also overcast and a bit dizzly which is a shame as the beach looks wonderful. It's an old pearl-fishing town, now mainly a tourist resort (with some very up-market bits). There still a big pearling industry, now cultured. Lord MacAlpine (who caused a lot of strife when I was in Number 10!) owned lots of land up here and did a lot to promote it. But he seems to have been before his time and sold out when things were not going well. It's doing better now, though it faces competition on price from Bali (though I guess that looks more dodgy the way things are going in Indonesia).

Tomorrow off up further north. The place we stay for the next two nights apparently only has pay-phones, so it may be next week before I get another e-mail out.

Part 4: 18 May

This is being written on a bus in Kununarra on our way to see the Ord River irrigation scheme and Lake Argyle. Where we've been recently did inded only have pay-phones so I have had a hiatus in e-mail!

I last wrote from Broome. We stayed at a resort called Cable Beach which is a very attractive resort with rooms in separate blocks of two stories. Next to the beach, so I went for a run and a swim in the morning. Big tides there--30 feet or so, so the the beach at low tide is huge: lovely white firm sand. It was still overcast and a bit drizzly.

Then off on an incredible flight up the north-west coast. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the co-pilot's seat. We flew low over Koolan and Cockatoo Islands, where they used to mine iron ore: miles from anywhere. Then up the coast and down a river gorge at about 50 feet above the river: quite an experience. We landed at an old RAAF base called Truscott (not on any map) for lunch. It's now just a supply base for the oil-rigs offshore: nothing there at all except a strip from which they helicopter workers and equipment in and out, plus a few portacabins. Then off on another flight after lunch (not, sadly, sitting in the front this time), again up another gorge and then across typcial Kimberly country: flat with huge mis-shapen hills and mountains.

We landed at El Questro Station. It's a million-acre cattle station that now doubles as a tourist resort. It has an incredibly up-market homestead with 6 guest bedrooms (not where were staying!) plus extensive camping facilities. We were sleeping at Emma Gorge, about 15k away (still on the same property). There were individual fixed tents with beds and lights--pretty comfortable. The weather was still a bit overcast and drizzly, but very mild. In the morning (Sunday--a day off), I got up and climbed to the top of one of the hills nearby which gave good views across miles of open country, then up to Emma Gorge itself, which is a rock pool and waterfall: lovely clear water and good swimming. We then drove back to El Questro via a hot spring (30 degrees) and took a slow boat down the river: very peaceful, and we got to get off and see some amazing aboriginal cave paintings dating back no-one knows how far.

We then saw over the homestead itself. It's built right on the edge of a gorge--the best bedroom literally hangs out over the river, with crocodiles swimming below. Quite a place, though with prices to match.

This morning it was only a 20 minute flight to Kununurra, which is the centre of the Ord River irrigation area. It's been going about 15 years, but the initial efforts to grow cotton struggled with pest infestations. We looked round the local farms: sugar is now the biggest crop, but also horticulture (melons etc), fruit, and almost anything else. There's a sugar mill and plans to expand by irrigating more land. The problem is the distance to transport the produce to markets in Australia or overseas. There's no shortage of water: as we kept getting told, Lake Argyle contains nearly 10 times as much water as Sydney Harbour. We took a fast boat trip up the river to the dam and the hydro-electric plant. It was 55 kilometres through incredible scenery--gorges mainly--with lots of birds and crocodiles. Then a 70k bus trip back.

Part 5: 19 May

I am now staying at the Crocodile Inn in Jabiru in the Kakadu National Park (in the Northern Territory: we've briefly crossed the border from Western Australia).

About an hour and a half's flight from Kununurra: up pretty high so not great views until we got close to Kakadu, which has marvellous escarpments etc. We were visiting Ranger uranium mine, close to where they want to open a new mine at a site called Jabaluka. Protestors from Melbourne and Sydney, along with some aboriginal activists have been trying to stop this (and some were arrested this morning) but it looks like it will go ahead. The mine-owners made a point of briefing us about the care they take over environmental issues, as well as negotiations with local aboriginal groups--as they have to. They are trying to build up employment to 20% aboriginal but are finding it hard to recruit.

Jabiru is basically a mining and tourist town--only 1500 people or so. The only hotel is the Crocodile (literally laid out like a crocodile nd designed to look like one from the air). It is owned by the local aboriginal people, using the proceeds from their mining royalties. To the bar after dinner where we played billiards against some of the protestors!

Part 6: 20 May

This is my first attempt at writing on the plane. We're flying over Kakadu out of Jabiru. Really hot and sticky in the plane: were flying low to see the scenery (cliffs, waterfalls etc) and the air-conditioning seems to be designed to suck in cold air at altitude. But we've just started going up now.

Later: we've just flown over the Bungle Bungles: extraordinary. They're rounded lumps of banded rock rising up off the plains--you've probably seen pictures. I really need a digital camera so I can then send pictures by e-mail as I take them! Argylle Diamond Mine was much bigger than I expected: probably the biggest single mine we've seen in terms of tonnes of ore moved per year. They produce something like a third of the world's diamonds by volume, but only about 10% by value: they're mostly small industrial ones. They'll be mined out soon--no more than another few years at most. Then who knows what: the staff are pretty well treated, living in a small town that the mine built with every mod con (swimming pool, free canteen, tennis courts etc). And they work two weeks on two weeks off

Later: then to Cadjebut, near Fitzroy Crossing, which was not very interesting, mainly because we were running so late we hardly got to see any of the mine! It's a zinc/lead mine and the first underground (as opposed to open-cut) mine we've been to. Then on to Derby on the coast for the night. Dark as we landed so I've no idea what it's like, but it's a smallish very tidal port set on mut flats: not the most scenic part of our journey!

Part 7: 21 May

We ended up waiting at Derby airport last night for 3/4 hour since the bus didn't turn up. Eventually it did. Derby is not a very prepossesing place, with the main tourist attraction being a huge boab tree that used to be used as a temporary prison. Today we flew south to Dampier and Karatha (near to each other). Dampier is the Hammersey iron ore port. Essentially the same as Port Hedland: a massive ore-moving operation unloading 50 million tonnes from trains each year and loading it onto ships. Then on the the North West Shelf gas facilities nearby. Huge and very impressive. It takes gas from a pipeline offshore, sends some to Perth and the rest is liquified in a massive processing operation and shipped to Japan.

I'm not really doing the scale of the operations justice, and my journals seem to be getting shorter. I'm beginning to get quite weary after 10 days on the road!

Part 8: 22 May

Last leg was out over the oil fields, flying over the various platforms (very low) and then turning south. We had a look at the Montebello Islands where the British conducted nuclear tests in the 1950s: lot's of low flat little islands well offshore with nothing much to see. Then on to Shark Bay where we had lunch at Monkey Mia: basically a resort, where the main attraction is the dolphins which come right into the beach and feed out of your hand--though there's now a ranger who restricts what people feed them. Shark Bay is a world heritage site with lots of rare native mammals (bandicoots etc) and a vigorous programme of poisoning feral cats and foxes that prey on them.

Then south to Perth and an early night (and a 7.15 flight home this morning). It's been fun, but quite tiring. The flights allowed us to see amazing sights, but we were pretty cooped up in a small plane and it got **very** hot at times: we were all gulping down water.

The mining operations were interesting and impressive. I hadn't realised the scale, which is vast. Nor had I realised how much they are nowadays operating on huge volumes and low margins, with great pressure to get the operations as efficient as possible. The number of people employed is surprisingly small.

I've been keeping in touch with the office by phone, fax and e-mail. Much of the attention has of course been on Indonesia, though very few Brits have in fact evacuated to Australia: those that have left have mostly gone to Singapore.

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