Go West Now

I stride away from the inner-city office, almost tasting the job offer in my mouth.  Sweet, so tantalisingly sweet.  My right hand tingles from the manager’s parting handshake.  My left hand holds her sharp business card.  ‘Good luck’, she promises, looking me straight in the eye.  On edgy Sydney Road (the best thing to come out of Melbourne?), I raise my right arm to shoulder-height, and turn my open hand to face the miserable mid-winter sky.  The whole world sits in the palm of my hand.

Three days later a crisp rejection letter lands in the solid brick mailbox.  I glory in self-indulgent despondency for five minutes and promptly move on.  HR has done me a big favour.

we were most impressed by the way you presented at interview, however we regret to advise that unfortunately on this occasion you have not been successful…..there were others whose backgrounds were more relevant to the particular needs of the position..…please accept our best wishes in your future endeavours

Then an email lands in my inbox.

Sorry to hear the job thing didn’t happen.  Have you ever thought about going to a mining area?  Qld and WA are crying out for people with some skills and willingness to work….. If you go to the Pilbara it’s very, very, very, very, very hot, did I say very hot!!!  If you like hot then it’s a great place….My medium-term option would be to get skilled as a heavy machinery training and safety officer after doing the time as a machine operator.  Do some research, give me a call, don’t go off half-cocked, ok, have a plan, it’s important.

A vivid childhood nightmare disrupts my easy equanimity.  I am frantically running down a dark and lonesome limestone road, away from the farm house.  Monstrous, motorised agricultural machinery convoy menacingly behind me.  Massive tractors, trucks, harvesters and implements angrily grind and grate and groan.   I escape the looming machines, and live to drive another day.  Children know, much better that their parents, who have forgotten.  Fears waste years.

One day in September, on the eve of the 2006 AFL grand final, the WA Premier Alan Carpenter strategically launches his government’s carefully-crafted ‘www.gowestnow.com’ campaign in Melbourne.  Skilled workers from around the nation and beyond are urged to join the burgeoning mining boom, like new recruits enlisting in a global military operation.  My blood is poisoned by the bold yellow arrows that pierce and penetrate Australia’s western third.  The full-paged advertisements outlining Australia’s continental limits plaster the prominent pages in the press.  They are at odds with colonial cartography which marks the West as empty, remote and unknown.  I am hooked by the lure of endless opportunity in green and brown fields. 

The game at the MCG is tightly contested, which is unusual for a grand final.  The West Coast Eagles pip the Sydney Swans by one agonising point.  A win is a win, regardless of the margin.  Carpenter scores a symbolic victory for his resources-centric constituency.

Five months later I arrive in Perth and check into the busy YHA in Wellington Street.   I land the first job that I apply for, in a warehouse south of the river in industrial Welshpool.  Fifteen months later I arrive in Karratha (AKA ‘Karachi’) and check into the busy backpacker hostel in Wellard Way.  I land the first job that I apply for, detailing cars at the airport, situated on the coastal mudflats abutting the embattled Burrup Peninsula.  On day five in the Pilbara an enterprising dentist drives up to me on the street.  He offers me work in his new surgery.  I politely decline.  I am here to help extract ore, not teeth.  ‘We have to look after our good workers’, he confides.

Cognisant overseas backpackers flock to pre-GFC K-town like migratory birds, chasing the best money Down Under.  They repeat a punishing cycle of work, burnout, retreat, return; work, burnout, retreat, return.  Frankie, a clownish extrovert from continental Europe, picks up a twenty dollar note lying loose on the street.  He concedes that Karratha is not an ordinary place.  The ubiquitous Toyota rentals – Corollas, Camries, Hiluxes and Prados- are metal money boxes on wheels.  The thrifty backpackers toss the coins and notes mislaid by cashed-up contractors into their collective money jar.  They marvel at the novel concept of ‘an all-day drinking session.’  They note that the ugly-but-functional cyclone rated houses would suitably shed livestock in Europe.  After late 2008 the arrogance of rapid expansion plans and proud labour diminishes.  Companies take the opportunity to cut dead wood.  The spare change disappears from the crevices and compartments in the thrashed vehicles, along with many FIFO regulars who have been flying north for years.  ‘It’s tough’ a veteran general manager tersely advises.

The purpose built mining-service town at the epicentre of the current boom features skewed demographics favouring FIFOs and aspirational young families.  The local mining-service sector depends on cheap, transient labour, but Karratha is not very backpacker-friendly.  The travellers’ working visas eventually expire and they depart with mixed feelings: gratitude for the remote North-West experience, dismay at complacent Australia’s ‘dumb luck’, relief at escaping a hot, hostile place where there is no nightlife.  Opportunities are limited in many regions, even within the Asia-Pacific.  A new starter Kiwi chef sitting beside me on a flight from Perth wisely anticipates the culture shock from delivering personalised service in touristy Queensland to pumping out bulk meals in a regimented FIFO camp.  ‘Once were warriors, now we’re scaffolders.’  New Zealanders ring Auckland and jokingly inquire:  ‘Is there anyone left there?’  Daniel, an industrious businessman when he is not backpacking, wistfully admits that ‘Anywhere is better than Germany.’

What if the next potential Nobel Laureate is born in the Shire of Roebourne?  ‘Karachi’, the much-lauded regional City of the North is apparently ‘destined to become a world-class city.’  Presently, the town cannot provide a public library for its residents.  A veteran mining superintendent with a natural talent for theatre metaphorically opines that ‘we are living in a bubble’ in the Pilbara.  Iron ore, LNG and coal are the current darlings of the market, but other commodities are struggling.  Take a short tour of the towns, communities and camps in the Shire of Roebourne, including Dampier, Karratha, Roebourne, Cossack, Wickham, and Point Sampson.  Within two hours you will pass through at least six different countries.  Note Roebourne Regional Prison – located opposite the waste transfer station, just down the road from the cemetery – with its disproportionate indigenous population recording high levels of chronic disease and (wasted) creative talent.  Visit the spectacular ‘sound and light’ show on the Burrup Industrial Estate at night.  International seafarers from the bulk carriers and cargo vessels berthed at the wharves in the Port of Dampier are struck by the buoyant Australian dollar.  Some seriously consider exiting their profession.  Loyal local seniors are forced to shift house in the name of municipal progress. 

At the airport I gaze into the industrialised hills of Murujuga like I gaze into the Melbourne Town Hall, an enduring civic legacy built on bountiful 1850s gold rush blood and money.

I finally get the feeling that I am learning. 

The Pilbara is a great teacher.

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