A Sense Of Scale

Thur. 6th June 2019

Tanker all ready to loadPrior to arriving here, when we’d told Aussies that we will be visiting Port Hedland, we were consistently told “oh, there’s nothing to see in Port Hedland”. How wrong can folk be? Well, we weren’t entirely sure what we’d signed up for when we turned up for the Harbour Tour at the Seafarers’ Centre. We were only here because the woman at the Visitor Centre said it was a good thing to do and the Seafarers’ is only a block away from the Visitor Centre.

Shuttle boat used by the Mission to SeafarersEnlightenment started to dawn when we and a dozen or so others were ushered into the chapel. Ah! It’s the Mission To Seafarers – a part of the Anglican church and dedicated to providing spiritual, practical and emotional support to seafarers – in this case the folk (almost all men?) who work on ships coming in and out of Port Hedland harbour. Before the actual tour starts, one of the staff gives us a presentation on the history of the mission (a non-profit, self-funded organisation founded in Bristol by Dr John Ashley in 1835, now with 300 branches worldwide) and what their role in the port is (running a set of launches that give ship crews the opportunity to come ashore for a short while – whether for shopping or anything else). Well, that’s a good thing to do (and very Anglican).

New arrival being manoeuvered onto its berthThen we start to hear about the history of the port (first shipment only in 1969) and the scale of the current set of operations – which are absolutely mind-blowing. Not only did all the data knock our socks off, it also set both what we were about to see and some of the things that we have seen (e.g. the roadtrains yesterday) into context. We were wowed before we even got to see any of the ships. There are 19 berths in the port split between the Port Authority and four big mining companies and it is used for the export of iron ore, manganese, lithium, salt and other minerals – no container shipments, just big ore carriers. The value of minerals leaving the port every day is a staggering 1.5 billion (Aussie) dollars!!!!!

Vacant berth - this one with suction mooring padsWhen we get out on the shuttle boat used by the Mission to Seafarers the words and pictures in the presentation all come to life. A handful of the berths are empty, and the others are all occupied with ore carriers in various states of loading – easy to see because the Plimsoll line is the transition from red to black paint. Usually 5 or 6 ships depart at high tide and they need to be pulled out of port by 4 or 5 tugs as the channel is narrow (c. 135m?), ‘S’ shaped, and only 19m deep (with the latest VLOCs – Very Large Ore Carriers – drawing about 18.5m!). We must be visiting at low tide as we saw a ship being pulled in to port and docked (much easier with it riding so much higher in the water).

Just one passenger from this shipWe visit perhaps half-a-dozen ships (pickups are pre-arranged) and at each collect one or two seafarers – usually Philippine or Chinese in appearance. The Mission say that they will typically pickup (and drop off) 80 to 100 seafarers per day. As it only takes 24-36hrs to load a ship (working round the clock of course) and that it is then a 15-day voyage to China, you can see why they take the opportunity to come ashore. As we go around the harbour, we can see the ore streaming off a conveyor belt on a crane-like jib into holds on the ore-carriers. We even see the berth for the new VLOCs that don’t use ropes for mooring, but giant suction pads that grip the side of the ships.

Tug moving in the busy portBy the end of the tour, our heads are reeling from all that we have seen and heard – but there is yet more to see in Port Hedland. In an open-air park at the side of the main road into town, is the Don Rhodes Mining & Transport museum. Cynics would say that it is just a collection of old locomotives and mining vehicles from the mid-20th century quietly rusting away. However, a) this is just the sort of thing that we love; and b) Don Rhodes was responsible for the first Australian roadtrain. How could we resist?

Old loco in the Don Rhodes museumFinally, we’re ready to head out of town and wondering where we are going to stop for lunch (a couple of jumbo sausage rolls from the Greggs equivalent) when we spot the lookout parking bay for the big salt mountain that we spied yesterday. In turn we then discover that this is the train-spotter’s bridge and that there is a shaded bench beside the road on the bridge under which the trains come into port. Even though we don’t have our anoraks or I Spy book of trains with us, it is a no-brainer spot for lunch. We’ve been told that BHP send in a train an hour so there is a reasonable chance of a train whilst we are eating lunch. Sure enough, first we spot some movement behind us as a train of empty ore-cars starts up and very slowly starts heading our way. Then, in the distance, we spy a loaded train – not a full length one by the looks of things and it then pulls to a halt at signals a little way before our bridge. Presumably waiting for a space in the port.

Don't think it would be up to pulling one of the long ore trainsWhile we are waiting, we think back to the presentation where we were told that the 4-truck roadtrains that we saw yesterday were for the small independent miners. The big boys (the likes of RTZ or BHP) use trains and no messing about [Ed note: they each have their own set of train tracks as they don’t want another company’s train breaking down on their track and stopping transportation – too much money at stake]. A standard train configuration for BHP comprises 2 locomotives, then 134 ore cars, then another 2 locos followed by a further 134 ore cars and completed with another pair of locos. All in all, around 2km long. Imagine waiting at a level crossing for one of these! It takes six of these giant trains to fill a ship. Watching the empty train trundle slowly (but definitely accelerating) beneath us and toward the loaded train waiting to come in brings these dry figures to life. We’ve just never seen anything like it.

Waiting to deliver its load to portHalfway point of train of empty cars passing the waiting full trainWith all the excitement over, we settle down to the 270km run from Port Hedland to the campground at Eighty Mile Beach (wonder how long the beach there is??).  We have two nights allocated before we get to Broome and were originally planning to camp for both of them. However, the experience at Karijini was that once the sun set it got chilly and there isn’t really anywhere in the Beast or the tent to sit up and work on the blog and other stuff. We also found that, in the absence of social areas, there was little socialising after dark. So, in the end we opt for just one night camping at 80 Mile Beach and one night further up the coast at the Ramada Eco Resort (hoping that the Ramada bit brings more luxuries than the Eco bit threatens privations!). It will also be interesting to see how camping here compares with that at Karijini – we turned down a more basic option in a more scenic location.

Reflecting on a(nother) beautiful sunsetAs it turns out, the campsite at 80 Mile Beach is wonderful – neat, shady lanes of camp pitches, good toilets and showers with plenty of hot water and an indoor kitchen area beside the compulsory Aussie BBQ. Completely by chance, we bump into Stuart & Sandra who we’d met back in Karijini. We are so carried away with talking to them that time slips by and we realise we are late for sunset. We scurry to the beach but are met by people walking the other way say ‘you just missed it’. With no clouds in the sky, all of the sunset action is before the sun falls below the sea. Now we’re just left with the last of the light casting silhouettes and a beautiful pink-orange glow on the wet sand. Like a metaphor for the day, it certainly puts everything into perspective.

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