This is a Bus, not a Bathroom

Alright, I admit it:  I have been led astray, like a little lost sheep, like a veritable lamb to the slaughter. I just can’t seem to keep off the streets at night.  Who is to blame?

You may have seen a white bus emblazened with blue flying angel decals cruising around town in the evenings.  You may have wondered about the bus.  The bus belongs to the Dampier Seafarers Centre, which administers physical and spiritual welfare to the thousands of international seafarers visiting our ports every year.

As a volunteer bus driver, I am on the roads, the mine sites, the ports, and the wharves, transporting crews from ship to shore to ship (sometimes to shop) about one evening per week, depending on my shift work roster.  My driving commitment takes me to some very interesting places, at some very interesting times, in some very interesting times.  Rapid industrial expansion doesn’t happen every day, or indeed, every decade.  The current wave of professional seafarers has been visiting the Pilbara coast since the first shipment of iron ore was loaded in August 1966.  The Centre, as part of the worldwide Mission to Seafarers established in Britain in 1835, has been operating since 1969, and is run by dedicated staff and volunteers.

We collect the seafarers from their vessels berthed at the numerous local ports, including the cargo wharf, bulk liquids berth, and the two iron ore loading facilities, late in the afternoon.  The seafarers usually return to their ships by 9.30pm.  We come from a variety of occupational backgrounds – public servants, miners, franna crane operators, security officers, shipping agents and pilots, train drivers, entrepreneurs, clergy and laity – mostly residential, some fly-in, fly-out (FIFO), regularly investing our time to enrich our community and ourselves.

Hello Sailor.

On arrival at the Centre the seafarers – hailing from Asian and European nations including the Philippines, China, Myanmar, India, Greece, Poland and Russia – are free to make the most of their precious few hours ashore.  There is a shop, a chapel and a library.  Seafarers exchange currency to purchase basic supplies and souvenirs, telephone their families and friends, log onto Wi-Fi, shop at the supermarket (located in the building formerly known as the Dampier Shopping Centre), patronise the Mermaid Hotel, play table tennis and billiards, chat in the lounge area, and enjoy a cold beer or espresso outside in the shade overlooking the hills and the harbour. 

Many seafarers spend months away at sea.  Time spent in the pleasant industrial port of Dampier (also known as the ‘Fishing Village’ and the ‘Cottesloe of the Pilbara’) is a welcome respite from the disciplined rigours of maritime life.  Some ships have limited facilities, so the internet connection at the Centre is a big attraction.  Earlier this year one vessel sustained damage at sea during Cyclones Iggie and Heidi, highlighting the hazards faced by our international seafarers.  The polite crew certainly appreciated being able to skype their family and friends.  They rely on the amiable, site-inducted bus drivers to transport them from ship to shore to ship.  Captains use the incentive of shore leave as a reward for productivity and peace on-board. 

The Centre doubles as a formal tourist information centre, assisting visitors to our region, including Pilbara locals, interstate and intrastate grey nomads, overseas backpackers, exchange students, and the independent seafarers plying the Western Australian coast.  Enterprising ‘yachties’ cross the Indian Ocean to reach our shores, sailing the sea-lanes to South-East Asia and beyond.  Located on The Esplanade, at the top of the hill next to the popular Road Runner Café, between Hampton Harbour Boat and Sailing Club and Hampton Oval, the Centre also offers fantastic public views of archipelago sunsets. 

Driving for the seafarers takes me to places that are otherwise inaccessible.  At night the Pilbara ports light up like an extended industrial theme park.  The cargo wharf at the Dampier Port Authority provides a spectacular panoramic view of the mining complexes lacing the mangrove shorelines.  The vista encompasses Karratha Gas Plant, Pluto Gas Plant, King Bay Supply Base, the liquid ammonia fertiliser plant, Coastal Operations and Dampier Salt.  Overhead, helicopters intersect the coast as they fly in from the offshore rigs on the North West Shelf.  The last-light fires the rocky outcrops, accenting their inscrutable petroglyph galleries. In stormy weather, lightning illuminates the thunderheads brooding over the mineralised Chichester range, like flickering filaments in transparent lightshades. 

Volunteer bus drivers are rewarded with a casual meal ticket to Peninsula Palms mess, which is an enlightening place to visit, if you are game.  The FIFO workers are well fed and watered and don’t stray very far from camp, hobbled to non-union collective agreements.  Despite the bad-rap, they don’t bite.  They rise early each morning to pass random drug and alcohol tests.  It’s important to understand FIFO culture, for it’s here to stay, in one form or another.  Bus driving forces me out of my comfort zone, smashing stereotypes.

Hampton Oval seasonally attracts euros (a species of kangaroo) and the odd shrieking curlew or two.  If the crew has behaved and time permits we check out the local fauna.  Roadside kangaroo sightings are common from dusk to dawn, which adds to the driving drama.  The buses have bull bars and I drive carefully, mindful of the wildlife.  Halting the bus to let a ranging bungarra (monitor lizard) or single-minded echidna cross the bitumen is another one of those priceless Pilbara road moments.  Wild euros frequent select residential yards and the primary school oval, bearing close inspection.  Australian citizens living in urban sprawl and densely-settled rural districts lack the chance to view candid kangaroos in situ, so the seafarers are privy to an atypical ‘Down Under’ experience. 

One fine day at the East Intercourse Island loading wharf, fourteen seafarers casually board the mud-flecked Coaster bus resembling a dappled Appaloosa pony.  (Thanks water cart operator for spraying your loads of non-potable water all over the mine sites.  Thanks wash-down crew for hosing the stray ore into runny mud that randomly dumps onto vehicles passing underneath the conveyors.  One wet sloppy visit to Parker Point can bespoil a perfectly pristine bus.  There is money in mud).  Back on the bus a precious European princess beseechingly bares her ore-stained open palms, demanding that I provide an instant solution to her woeful problem.  I raise my eyebrows and doubtfully scan the cab.  All I can offer are a few battered hard hats, some grotty safety glasses, a first aid kit, two scrunched-up hi-viz fluoro safety vests and a fire extinguisher.  There is no hot running water.  There is no scented soap or Dead Sea salt scrub.  There are no warm fluffy towels. There is no on-board colon cleansing or complimentary massage.  What does she expect:  a day spa on wheels; the Pilbara Hilton?  Toughen up, coconut.

This is a bus, not a bathroom.

Her imperious male escort rifles through his backpack to retrieve a sealed alcohol wipe.  Precious cleans her delicate little pinkies with the fumy-fibrous tissue.  After completing her toilette she stands up in the aisle to photograph the Filipino crew, who insist on calling me either ‘Miss’ or ‘Ma’am’, but not their equal.  Blessed with sensitive ears, Mister Imperious reaches for the dial on the radio, tuned to Spirit FM’s innocuous 1960s hit parade, bluntly requesting that I lower the volume.  I wonder who is posing for the photo:  the photographer or the crew.  I wonder who is calling the shots.  As the bus driver, I call the shots.  Once Precious and her three male cohorts arrive safely in town they ring a taxi and head off for a hearty meal at ‘Pearlers Rest’ in Karratha.  I am off the hook for the night.  The laconic contractor at the gatehouse once drawled:  ‘Not my dad’s tractor.’  The laconic feminist counters:  ‘Not my auntie’s haul pack/tool box/lab coat/investment portfolio.’

I heed Seafaring Lesson #3:  ‘Not all seafarers are male.’ This leads to Seafaring Lesson #17:  ‘To avoid stains, stay clear of the ship’s railings.’  Not forgetting Seafaring Lesson # 24:  ‘Treat all seafarers equally:  you never quite know who the captain might be.’  Closely followed by Seafaring Lesson #25:  ‘Treat all seafarers equally:  you never quite know who the captain might be sleeping with.’

I know that I am a very small, semi-skilled part of something massive, something momentous, and something monumental.  I also know that I have something original to offer.  Mining, despite its operational reliance on an hierarchical chain-of-command mentality bordering on the mindlessly militaristic, needs creative thinking.  In the rollicking pub scene in the ‘Red Dog’ movie, the big boozy miners sing ‘At last I get the feeling that I’m really alive.’  Less than one per cent of Australian workers are employed in the resources sector.  Women constitute around sixteen percent of the mining industry workforce.  Volunteering at the Dampier Seafarers Centre is therefore an uncommon opportunity.  Doors are opening up to my first mining job.  A Melburnian friend, stuck in staid-safe suburbia, wistfully remarks ‘I’d love to do what you’re doing.’

WA, once dismissed as a mendicant ‘Cinderella State’, is currently a deprecating acronym for ‘Wait-A-While’.  Western Australians, in fact, often wait a long, long while: the wheel turns slowly in the West, even more so in the North-West.  Parochial born-and-bred sandgropers avoid telling the wise men and women from the East about their (dumb) luck, defensively arguing that there are enough Victorians here already.  Roving real estate investment gurus draw a simplistic line in the red sand along the 26th parallel, labelling northern Australia as ‘Booming’, and poor southern cousins as merely ‘Surviving’.   The Pilbara region, an understated centre for innovation, can sell itself, with or without ‘Red Dog’, described by some locals as a mangy, ill-tempered, troublemaking mutt who bit people, or visiting high-profile VIPs impersonating raptured courtesans.

There are many benefits and rewards from assisting the seafarers, such as meeting culturally-diverse people from overseas, obtaining mine site and port inductions (including the very useful Maritime Security Induction Card, valid Australia-wide), gaining safe driving skills, serving on a committee, practising persuasion and diplomacy, and finding that rarest of beasts in purpose-built company towns privileging transient youth: non-mining seniors.  Not to mention listening to priceless yarns spun by born storytellers. 

Donner und Blitzen!  What shall we do with the drunken sailor?

The meek and mild-mannered lamb morphs into a rousing shepherd by 8.25pm when it’s time for the first load of seafarers to return to their vessel.  Tonight, several thirsty seamen are adrift at the Mermaid Hotel.  Just as I prepare to drive up to the pub to round them up, the jovial fellows walk through the door, right on time.  Hallelujah, brothers.   Australian beer has a justifiably ambassadorial reputation overseas to which many a well-travelled seafarer attests.  A certain social confidence flows from the rousing part of the bus-driving role.  See it stunningly manifest in the courageous lion as she boldly strides into the FIFO-infested public bar, unabashed.  Thankfully the lion sleeps most nights, but she can roar and rage with the best of them when stirred.

All nine crew members are accounted for.  We head back to the loading wharf at the end of the long narrow causeway bordered by dead-straight conveyers and big rugged boulders. Later, back at the Centre the awaiting crew of sixteen men reluctantly straggle onto the bus, dragging on their final landlubber cigarettes.  The lion insists that a stubbed butt be retrieved from the ground, where it has been wilfully discarded.  We drive back to the wharf, coasting at 50kph along the dark winding road to view the bulk ore carriers berthed in the sheltered harbour.  The crew shipping scrap iron to Indonesia, via Port Hedland, Dampier and Fremantle, pour off the bus at the cargo wharf.  They thank me sincerely for driving, which is the best reward in anyone’s language. 

Have a good time in Fremantle. 

I hope we come back. 

On the return to Route 351, I have the quiet undulating road that dissects the Burrup Peninsula all to myself, apart from a stray 4WD utility bound for the industrial estate, and a B-double trailer laden with metal from the towering scrap yard located in the Light Industrial Area.  I give way to the truck, which cuts the corner at the T-intersection on the Dampier Highway upgrade.  To my left, the arterial road narrows to 40kph with formwork-cement barricades.  The heavy mobile machines excavating virgin red dirt high up on the rise are silent-still for the night.  Suicidal insects fly across the road, light-blinded by the high beams.  The nightshift euros are safely inland, taking advantage of the abundant ground water and herbage from the recent cyclonic storms.  Following the colossal La Niña year that brought devastating floods to regional Australia, the West Pilbara remains exceptionally lush.  After good rains the country starts singing again.  A waning half-moon glows orange over the coastal mudflats, backlighting translucent silver-rimmed clouds in the East; they resemble dim, haunted mirrors.  I comprehend, at a basic level, the logistical supply chains supporting modern global industry.

On two occasions I’ve been offered cash for my driving efforts.  The unsolicited greenbacks, by the way, were lodged directly into the safety deposit box at the front door, along with the bus keys at the end of the night.  I am representing the Centre, not myself.  Where else could I accept US dollars from hot foreign seamen while remaining fully-clothed in personal protective equipment?   Skimpy barmaids, eat your skimpy little hearts out. 

You can leave your (hard) hat on.

I have been tempted to host libertine seafaring pool parties during palatial housesitting gigs, but it just wouldn’t be right.  Dampier is a working town, not a party town.  I am an aspiring professional, in the dirt-digging game for the long haul.  Domestic lights fade at 8pm, but the industrial lights beam 24/7, every day of the year.

It is possible to travel the world without straying too far from home, wherever ‘home’ may be in this rarefied mining-boom-bubble life.  Just ask me:  the lamb, the shepherd, the lion.

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