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Tom Price and the Pilbara – Australia’s magnetic North(West)

Dernière mise à jour : 28 avr. 2022

Thomas Moore Price was a high executive in an American steel company. He died in 1962, after having played an instrumental role in the iron ore mining development in the Pilbara. They named the new mining town and its iron ore rich mountain after him. Tom Price was born.

Early in our exploration of the potential routes for our trip and the places to visit, one name stood out like a mole in the middle of the map, exerting some sort of magnetic attraction. Tom Price. Why would one give such a name to their town? I soon learnt that the town was a recent development (1965) and was in fact an iron ore mine located in the heart of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. We had to see that place. We only later discovered that there would be many more (better) reasons to come and visit the dry and hot inland Pilbara (more in the next post on Karijini and the Hamersley Ranges).

Dampier and Karratha, the road into the Pilbara and a surprise

Driving from the Ningaloo Coast, we spent a night at the Nanutarra Roadhouse, very conveniently located at the turn off to go either directly to Tom Price, or up north back to the coast and Karratha. Great pit stop located on the Ashburton river.

Ashburton river at the Nanutarra Roadhouse

We initially planned to go directly into Tom Price and Karijini, but due to the Easter weekend, Karijini’s campgrounds were fully booked and we had 3 days to spend before we got there. We took the “coastal” detour to Dampier and got our first glimpse of the port and mining operations.

Dampier is also the site of Murujuga National Park and the 30’000 year old petroglyphs (another post coming), which we experienced as well.

From there, we would stay one night in the Millstream-Chichester National Park before making it to Tom Price. We decided to stop at Karratha’s visitor center on our way out, as we knew that we would have limited or no internet access along the way, and surprisingly Dampier had been a black hole for Telstra reception.

We got nice information on how to get to Python pool in Millstream, definitely worthwhile the detour and unhitching/dropping the van on the side of the dirt road (tough road to get in for 20 km). Luckily, Yindi was there when we came to get her 2 hours later…

Python pool in Millstream-Chichester National Park
The road to Python pool

The other important information we received was about the last 150 km before Tom Price. Although there is a longer public road, the lady recommended we take the more scenic and direct “Rio Tinto railway access road”. Interestingly, we had never heard of this before, neither had we read anything on the mandatory permit that had to be obtained online from Rio Tinto. We expected a fee to use the road, but instead, the driver has to take the 30-minute online course and assessment to obtain the much coveted sesame.

But… No mobile reception at the visitor center. We moved to the commercial center a few km away, and I spent 90 minutes on the ground, trying to go through the various videos on the Rio Tinto access road online course. Long story short, I don’t imagine you can get a worse user experience for an online platform in 2022. I guess they are only discouraging people to take that road, or maybe they do not have the financial resources to produce a decent (modern) version. Definitely the low light of our trip so far.

Below, the “permit” I received for knowing that one should respect speed signs and fasten the seat belt, even on dirt roads. Do yourself a favour and complete the module quietly at home before hitting the road.

Giant mines and a mining giant

The Pilbara is economically speaking a mining region of international significance. There are more than 25 iron ore mines in the region, and they produce most of Australia’s iron ore, which accounts for 38% of the World’s production. The number 2 country on the list is Brazil with a meager 17% contribution. Needless to say, the 900M tons of Australian iron ore produced are bringing wealth to Western Australia and Australia, the thousands of workers employed, and the gigantic mining corporation behind it all.

More than half (17) of the Pilbara mines are owned by Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, the World’s 2nd mining corporation (behind BHP Billiton, also active in WA). Rio Tinto produces 320M tons per annum of high quality “Pilbara blend” iron. The mines are serviced by port terminals in Dampier, 2’000 km of privately owned railway and >12’000 employees.

Clearly, I know nothing about the business of minerals and their mining/production/trade, but the numbers are worthy of consideration. For those interested, here are some Australian government iron numbers. Also worth considering is the fact that in 2021, 82% of Australian iron was exported to one single country, China. Good business partner.

The Railway access road

The time spent getting the permit was ultimately well spent (however, no one checked that we had it).

The road is spectacular, going through the Hamersley ranges. We stopped on multiple occasions to get some photos and even get the drone up (my course did not mention anything about them, but of course it had been created in 1990, before drones even existed). There also some typical Aussie (very graphic) warnings!

Also, you get to ride alongside the 200+ carriages trains full of iron ore. These trains are 2.4 km long, carry a fortune (close to 30 tons of iron ore), and are fully automated since 2019 (the “drivers” are located remotely in Perth and manage the trains on their screens). No need to wave at the locomotive, it will not honk back ;-)

It took 2.5 to 3 hours to drive the 150+ km on dirt, with speeds for the most part limited between 60 and 80 km/h. We would not have wanted to go any faster towing the van anyways. We finally pulled into the Tom Price Tourist Park, with nice and spacious sites.

Mount Nameless or “Jarndunmunha”

Towering over Tom Price is one of the high peaks (1128m) of Western Australia, Jarndunmunha for the local Indigenous people. The white man’s name is Mt Nameless. Go figure, someone ran out of ideas?

I had my eyes on the hike from the bottom, a mere 4.5 km return with about 400m elevation (TP is the highest city of WA at 747m above sea level, which justifies the bragging rights to being the “TOP” city of WA, as stated on the bridge welcoming you into town). We planned to get up nice and early and hike to the top for sunrise. At 5 am, the wind was pretty strong, so we decided we were not risking a class 5 hike in the dark in unknown terrain, and opted instead for the 4WD track to the top.

I wish I had GoPro-ed this one. The track initially winds its way around the mountain, like a torero circling around the bull, waiting to tackle the beast. Suddenly it is quite clear that foreplay is over, as the road becomes very rocky and goes straight up on the mountain. Forget the nice laces going up the Alps in Switzerland. This is Australia. Straight to the point, straight up and over. Did we mention we had almost no 4WD experience? It was a bit bumpy, my heart stopped a few times, Melissa tore a few muscles as she was shoved around in the car. In short, it went fine and at the top we knew why we got up.

The Tom Price mine tour

Now that we had seen the majestic surroundings, it was time to dive into the mine.

Well, we were not exactly sure what we would see on our mine tour. 90 minutes, boarding the bus in town at the visitor center. We received our helmets and goggles (not sure why, the bus did not go on the karting track), and were driven to the mine site by our lovely lady guide/driver.

A bit of history, a lot of facts and numbers (I can’t recall all of them, but the kids will, it is part of their homeschooling on that day). We crossed path with the huge hauling trucks, saw the enormous pit and the lacing roads on the side of the mountain. Or of what once was Mt Tom Price.

We also learnt that beautiful Mt Nameless was full of high grade iron ore, but that Rio Tinto could not touch it for cultural heritage reasons. Wonder how they feel about that.

We stopped at the To Price lookout for the photo opportunities and to look at some of the rocks containing the precious ore.

Was it worth it? Hard to say, they could do a lot more to explain the processes and the challenges. No videos on board during the 20 min drive, no infographics, no brochures. At the end of the day, we were taken on a tour by a company bus, and they are not a tour operator. Or are they? I am still not sure. We learnt of the family-oriented town, the money invested by Riot Tinto to build a skate park and new tennis courts. One happy family.

Tom Price is a mining town. It means that the mining company owns the town and probably everything that goes along with it. The Visitor Center is probably ran by them, too. But this is just a feeling we got.

Mining and hard questions

We had never seen a mine. It is a huge operation. One cannot simply imagine the scale of it. We are talking taking down a mountain, creating 26 km long conveyor belts from one site to the next, building close to 2’000 km of private railroad, burning millions of liters of fuel and collecting billions.

We are travelling Australia to experience its natural, and often untouched, beauty. This was the exact opposite. We read and learn about the oldest continuous living culture in the World, the Aboriginal culture and heritage. The land provides, but must be respected, too. The polar opposite. We felt a weird attraction to this place, one which turned into a form of repulsion as we left Tom Price.

In 2020, to expand a mine in the Pilbara, Rio Tinto demolished an Aboriginal sacred site in Juukan Gorge. The site had evidence of 46’000 years of continuous human occupation and was the only inland prehistoric site in Australia to show signs of human occupation through the last Ice Age. It appears that the company had three alternative options to preserve the site, but chose to destroy it in spite of opposition from the traditional owners of the land. It also appears that Rio Tinto had all the paperwork accepted by the State to go ahead with the blasting.

Many questions. For us, it was an opportunity to discuss some of the hard questions with the kids, and also to delve into the topic further on our own. These are just a few impressions. The world is a complex place. Hopefully Mt Nameless will remain whole in the future.

We left Tom Price and its iron behind, as our next adventure was awaiting us in Karijini National Park.

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