Pilbara Project Trip – September 2010

This September I had the great privilege of taking a creative journey with the Pilbara Project team which included, this time around: Christian Fletcher, Bill Fox, Tony Hewitt, Larry Mitchell and Les Walkling. Our mission on this particular journey was to solidify a vision and gather new material for the photography exhibition that we have opening in Perth and Port Hedland in February 2011. In particular we were geared up for an ‘industry-packed’ adventure. I thought I might, belatedly, share some of my field notes and photos from the trip:

Tuesday 21 September

We took the first flight up to Karratha and were welcomed by gusts of wind blowing dirt across the flats.

Unlike previous trips which have involved moving through places, we were based this time in Karratha alone for four days. Giving us the chance to look at and consider community, at the ‘in-between’ of nature and industry.

Gathering supplies in the Karratha shopping centre I found it fascinating to witness the social and cultural phenomenon of towns that are substantially populated by fly-in-fly-out workers. It is like a void, a lapse in time and place where things work differently. It is accepted and common practice for two men to do pedestrian, domestic activities together – like grocery shopping or dry-cleaning. Expected social practices are warped to accommodate the strange lifestyle and social make up of mining towns. I remember a friend once comparing it to the army – a strange and unbalanced network – which makes me wonder what the long term social repercussions will be.

Next stop: the lookout behind the Visitors Centre – a place to get our bearings and make plans. Unloading tripods and hauling large camera bags on their backs the photographers spread out: Christian perched on a heap of red-brown rock poking out from the grey-Pilbara-green; Tony looked to the juxtaposed gazebos and large water tanks on the top of the hill; Les made his way quietly out of sight.

Looking out over Karratha town centre, the sprawling housing, everything simultaneously made sense and entirely didn’t. I wondered what it would be like to be born here, to live here only (not two on, one off).

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It was obvious immediately that these photographers have a wonderful team dynamic, a healthy playful rivalry accompanied by a willingness to share. It is more than just sharing their images – it is now also their collective memories that enrich their relationship with the Pilbara and with each other. To think the amount of times they have stood in a row all photographing the same place, or moment. However, it is beneficial to be solitary sometimes – to have the opportunity to hear a place its quiet stories. As Les said, it is in embracing of the banal reality that “we will find our story in this place.”

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After lunch we took a dirt track off the east road along the coast – a well worn car track that shines with use. Around a bend or two there is a natural salt flat, pink and dull, that has abandoned car bodies at various stages of decomposition, rusted red against their original white. Running down the front of the flats, through the firmer mud near the road, are fresh tyre tracks – as if the corpses of old vehicles are not warning enough.

It is all about surfaces in the Pilbara: the salt crusted red mud, the dried and cracked earth behind, the shine of the roads worn by heavy industrial vehicles, the debris.

As we drove west out from town, passing the residential houses that look a bit like bunkers (with rooves almost touching the fences, one next to the other) we hit peak hour traffic; an onslaught of white 4WDs and buses denoting a change of shift.  We stopped at the place where the Dampier salt flats meet the highway, and walked along the paths that segment the small areas of salt between the road and railway line. Layers of colour, texture and transport – trains, planes and cars – all crossing over the sometimes matt, sometimes reflective surface.  It is interesting that it was there, standing for some time on the salt pans, that Bill and I began a discussion about place-based spirituality. Although there are so many layers, multiplicities and differences it was obvious that almost everything we could see was based upon and exists because of a singular purpose – wealth generated through primary industry. This place is volatile and unsustainable, which no doubt only adds to its beauty.

Wednesday 22 September

On Wednesday we ventured to Cape Preston to visit the power plant that is under construction as part of the new magnetite mining project. On the way we paused at a truck stop – perhaps in an attempt to capture the ugly and the usually uninspiring. It is interesting that in such a relatively young town there can be such a strong sense of desolation and abandonment. Places like these seem to forecast a future full of haunting and dry nothings, while also seeming to be so full of hope, movement and potential – how is this possible?

The natural environment of the Pilbara is harsh and arid, and in so many ways the industry reflects and repeats the land. I have seen this is the aerial photographs that Les took in Port Hedland – where the natural patterns of Cooke Point water ways reflect the industrial developments of the harbour. It is the same here in Karratha; there are so many repeated patterns like the tidal flats mirrored by industrial salt pans. It is all part of the consideration of scale.

Debris and detritus – another repeated vision up. The natural formations of the rocks look as though they have been spat out by the deeper earth, or dropped in piles from something way above. There is also so much litter – beer bottles, cigarette packets, plastic wrappers and plenty of tyres.

There is something wonderful about moving through places with photographers, they make you stop and spend time in places that you would never have previously have considered of interest. Us non-photographers are able to sit, consider and discuss the intimacies of the places we find ourselves, the smells, the sounds. We are able to be truly present in these places – all of which seem to talk to one another in a dialogue about who and what the Pilbara is.

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Upon arriving at Cape Preston, after going through multiple, various and excessive site safety inductions, we were allowed to enter the largest scale diesel and gas combination power unit in Australia. This was a rare opportunity, although the plant is nearing completion it had not yet been commissioned. Once the plant begins commissioning the site becomes volatile and significantly more dangerous and the amount of people on site will be restricted to the bare essentials. They certainly will not be allowing guest tours for the aesthetically inclined!

When we enter the offices and the guys introduce themselves as photographers working towards an art exhibition of images of the industrial landscape of the Pilbara the idea that we might find this place interesting to look at, let alone aesthetic, seems to baffle everyone on site.

Darryl, the construction manager, offered to be our tour guide. Initially apprehensive he quickly warmed to the idea of spending an afternoon admiring the project that he has spent the last 18 months constructing.  He took us immediately to high ground, scaling the silver scaffolding surrounding the high turret, so we could look out beyond the plant over the whole project that is transforming the Cape. You could see in the distance the row of white cylindrical plants where large balls will crush the magnetite into grit whilst adding water, turning it into slurry which will get pumped through pipes underground to boats coming in at the tip of the Cape. It will then be sent to China. It is estimated that there is one billion tonnes of magnetite at this site and the power plant we stood on has an expected life of 25 years.

Nine weeks on and one week off, that is a standard swing for the key staff on this project at this stage of its construction. On this topic Darryl’s colleague comments: ‘That’s what I do, I build shit.’ Later another worker is asked, ‘So do you have a missus?’ to which he responds ‘Yeah, half-on, half -off.’

The plant is like a fortress or castle, being so new it is yet to be muted with an encasement of red dust; shining silver with hints of bright yellow, blue, red and green. As we climb back down Darryl tells us that during the cyclone season it gets 68 degrees on the ground and 98% humidity. Reaching the red floor once again I look up and see steel sheets of metal that encase the turbines: sprayed with the mark ‘Made in Thailand’.

Thursday 23 September

The morning started out early with three first-light flights in a four seater Cessna, one for each photographer.   We had the door removed so the photographers could have a clear view below. Taking off from Karratha airport we banked around over the salt flats, which looked like freshly churned and swept ice skating rinks. Also, in less salinated ponds, you could still make out the natural patterns and formations under the surface of the water. The interference of human industry was visible, but so was the defiance of nature to adhere to such linear boundaries and limitations.

The afternoon was occupied by a tour with Shane Peters on the Burrup Peninsular. He took us first to the Climbing Man. Unmarked, unsigned and unpathed, you would have a lot of difficulty finding the same spot again – which is fortunate considering the propensity for people to damage or even steal these greatly precious cultural objects.

Climbing over the unsteady rocks in the midday heat I thought about Picnic at Hanging Rock: there was a distinct eeriness about the little red valley we were climbing through. It would beeasy to get lost in this place had it not been for the bright flame of the highest Pluto Plant tower being visible over the hill to the north. We stopped to look at a flat rock tucked up to the right of the valley path which was covered in an intriguingly figurative design. Larry and Shane discussed the unusual nature and style of this particular piece of rock art – its dissimilarity to the work that is traditionally ‘of the Burrup’

Later, on our way to the rock art cemetery, as we drove up the out-of-the-way 4WD track, I could feel a quietness come over Larry and Bill. I guess I was somewhat prepared for this visit, after conversations and readings, but it certainly did not deaden the emotional thunder that this place caused in me.

Fenced in, face down and senselessly graffitied by cataloguing numbers these rocks seemed to hum. The fence imprisoned these works, rather than protected them. This was simply the saddest place I have ever been. It was only that evening, that I realised that this place was also profoundly beautiful.

Upon our return that night Larry, Bill and I each found a lone spot on the hill to watch the sunset cast a glow over the southern-most hills of the peninsular. The day’s light went first from the valley below where the imprisoned rocks lay and was then absorbed deep into the rocks that covered the hills. Sitting silent we could hear the persistent hum of the gas plant, whose lights were conspicuously visible to the west. Below the rock art cemetery appeared to me like a singular freshly dug grave – with the piles of rocky earth set close behind ready to bury what lay below. Looking from the gas plant across to Hearson’s Cove to the east I wondered what would come of this place over the coming century; I thought of the inevitability of erasure and change and I wanted to preserve this light – to take it away and keep it close.

When darkness came over and mosquitoes came out, we ventured down to the car. As we passed the small rocky hill the full moon was rising, casting a yellow glow into the rich darkness of the deep blue sky and red/grey earth. What timing, what a place for this to happen! It was comforting and pleasing to realise that this moment was unrecordable, not photographable: a spectacle and a display which felt as though it was just for us and for that moment.

We followed the moon the Hearsons Cove, apparently the best spot for seeing the ‘Stairway to the Moon’. People lined up along the beach to capture the light darting across the tidal flats and the ocean with their tripods and SLR cameras. This white light, on what was promptly becoming a greyscale landscape, felt like a cleansing and pleasant end to the evening. However when turning around, looking to leave, I was awestruck and horrified to see a second moon rising in the north. In the muted landscape the orange/yellow moon of the Pluto Plant flame will remain the image that sums up the trip and this place: an image of the industrial sublime; a spectacle of lights.

Friday 24 September

The last day was full of images of the banal: Karratha’s back streets, local ovals, residential developments and industrial estates. Les and Christian even found themselves gazing in wonder at a washed out Chinese restaurant behind the main shopping centre.

Our last stop before the plane ride home was a beach in Dampier. The photographers spread out, finding new perspectives on the industry that they photographed from the sky the previous morning. Bill and I ventured down close to the shore to find a stream of clear salt water running into the silty ocean. I picked up a dark shiny shell intrigued by its tiny pattern only to discover it had legs. When I put him down and watched him walk off I noticed another shell moving beside him, and then in my stillness I noticed hundreds, even thousands of crabs enjoying the shallow clean water. It takes an interested eye but you can find endless amounts life all over the Pilbara – which is so comforting.

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The five gentlemen on this trip taught me new ways of looking, and what a thrill that is. The day of my return to Perth I wrote in my journal in gratitude: ‘The last few days I hope to preserve like a jewel in my life’s memories. I want to keep it, close and complete – like something precious.’

Marching Through the Pilbara

Earlier in March, the journeying of creative minds through the vast Pilbara landscape continued as internationally renowned writers Barry Lopez, William (Bill) Fox and Mark Tredinnick, landscape portraitist Larry Mitchell, photographer Paul Parin and FORM facilitators, Mags Webster and Carolyn Karnovsky descended into the gorges of Karijini and wove through kilometres of dusty roads up into Millstream before hitting the cooler shores of the Pilbara’s west coast.

For Barry, Bill and Mark this was their first Pilbara experience. How fitting it was that it started at the tiny, quintessentially ‘outback’ airport at Paraburdoo. As we stepped off the plane and into the enveloping wall of heat and ducked our way past giant, flying grasshoppers into the arrivals shed it was clear from the wide eyes and huge smiles of our intrepid travellers that the adventure had well and truly begun.

After loading our gear into the back of a couple of utes we hit the road (keeping an eye on the bags and backpacks that threatened to bounce off the back of the tray), arriving in Tom Price just before sundown.

That evening the true conversation began over the experience ahead of us. What would we see? Who would we meet? How would the experience change us?

Our first full day started at a bleary-eyed 4:30am which, despite being difficult for some, was well worth it for the incredible dawn light that welcomed us as we entered Karijini National Park.

, Barry, Mags and Mark listening to the hum of bees in the morning sun

Guided by Paul (a frequent visitor of the Park) our first stop was Oxer lookout to take in the breathtaking views of the junction point where Red, Weano, Joffre and Hancock Gorges intersect.

Mark, Paul, Larry and Barry peering over Oxer lookout

With the promise of a cooling dip, we descended the rocky steps down into the prehistoric terrain of Weano Gorge. Cameras and notebooks were packed safely away as with both hands we gingerly navigated the slippery rocks and ‘abseiled’ our way down into the black waters of Handrail Pool. Our reward for exploring Karijini during the searing summer temperatures was being able to swim in the pool which at other times of the year is cold enough to warrant wearing a wetsuit.

Mags gathering herself before navigating the slippery rocks and later, calming herself in Handrail Pool

As tempting as it was to continue floating in the pool all day, we slowly snaked our way up and out of Weano Gorge (taking one or two breathers along the deceptively steep steps) and continued down into the rocky amphitheatre of Kalamina Gorge.

Barry, Mark, Mags and Carolyn at Kalamina Gorge

After a short visit to the lookout over Joffre Gorge we continued to what would be the highlight of the day- Hamersley Gorge. Nothing can prepare you for the dramatic colours and the complex patterning of the rock faces caused by millions of years of complex geological forces. The purple hue of the surrounding rocks is quite astonishing and something that can’t be captured on camera, despite even Paul’s best efforts.

Paul Parin getting into position at Hamersley Gorge. Photo on right by Paul Parin

With the heat of the day and muscle fatigue finally taking its toll, we finished the day with another swim before heading back to Tom Price for a solid night’s sleep.

Day two began at a much more leisurely hour and by mid morning we had reached the top of Mount Sheila for an unforgettable morning tea, courtesy of Elaine and Frank Argaet (graduates of FORM’s P.H.otography workshops).

Bill atop Mount Sheila. Photos by Paul Parin

Elaine and Frank are Tom Price residents and kindly offered to be our guides for the day, taking us along the private road that connects Tom Price to Millstream-Chichester National Park. The road is long and unless you’re Car One in the convoy, very dusty… What met us when we finally reached Millstream was a lush wetland oasis, springing from an underground aquifer and fringed with date palms and paperbarks. The water, which is fed from the Fortescue River through porous dolomite rock, is crystal clear and luminous, shimmering shades of turquoise and vivid green. The site branded any of us speechless for quite some time as we all took a quiet moment to take in the majesty of the place.

Chinderwariner Pool, Millstream Chichester National Park. Right hand photo by Paul Parin

By late afternoon we had reached the Dampier coast, welcoming the sea breeze that we had been without for the last three days.

By Sunday we had reached the midway point in our journey and in many ways, this was the day that really connected the experience for the group. We had journeyed from the centre of the Pilbara where much of the State’s resources are extracted and followed the ore trains and gas pipelines to the coast, arriving at the Dampier Archipelago to see the huge port operations which ship these resources offshore.

Our tour of the Dampier Archipelago started with our local guide, Shane Peters taking us to the Burrup Peninsula to view the area’s rich repository of Aboriginal rock art. The Archipelago is considered to have the largest concentration of rock art in the world, estimated at perhaps a million petroglyphs.

Barry, Bill and Mark at Burrup Peninsular. Photos by Paul Parin

Our tour of the Dampier coast continued by boat taking us through the calm waters of Mermaid Sound to Malus Island, a barren place stripped bare of all its trees during its operation as a whaling and pearling station in the 1870s. Many of the islands that we passed through Flying Foam Passage are stark in their beauty. Jagged rock faces tumble into the water, occasionally softened by mangroves or the white sands of a secluded bay.

Exploring the Dampier Archipelago with Shane Peters (top Left). Photos by Paul Parin

By Monday we had farewelled the Burrup and were starting to make our way towards Port Hedland, taking in Cossack, Point Samson and Roebourne along the way. But first, a mandatory stop at the Pilbara Perk in Wickham. This cafe provides the best cup of coffee and blueberry muffin in the whole region – official! Owner Ross Wall was on duty and he impressed our dust-stained panel of judges (as everyone knows, coffee is the fuel creativity – well, it is for some of my FORM colleagues), all of whom, since leaving Perth, had been hanging out for the real deal in caffeine.

The ideal place to work off the subsequent buzz proved to be Cossack, a place which invites contemplation, so literally does it spirit the visitor into another age with its gracious buildings and solid masonry. Established in 1872 at the mouth of the Harding River, Cossack was the birthplace for the West Australian pearling industry and was a bustling port for some years, gradually declining over the turn of the last century until it was abandoned in the 1940s.

Next stop the town of Roebourne, and Roebourne Art Group. This dedicated collective of talented Aboriginal artists was established in 2002, and through beautiful paintings it produces profound commentaries on the changing landscape of this part of the Pilbara.

Kaye Warrie and Loreen Samson show Barry, Mark, Mags and Bill their catalogue of artwork. Photo by Paul Parin

Lunch was in the lovely coastal village of Point Samson. And it was very good. If blue bone groper is on the menu, order it.

A final detour in the area took us to inspect The Claypans Project just outside Roebourne, a massive earth/art project designed and executed in the middle of 2009 by artists Arif Satar and Audrey Fernandes-Satar and around 400 local schoolchildren. Now beginning to degrade and disintegrate back into the landscape as originally planned, this bas-relief sculpture still has the power, even in the bleaching light of the afternoon, to cast shadows which trick and intrigue.

On arrival in Port Hedland (via Whim Creek and the ‘hello Harry’ cockatoo at the pub) we embarked on a sunset boat trip around the harbour. The hulls of container ships reared up in the gathering dusk, and we speculated on the size of the crews required to pilot these titan vessels. In these days of computer-aided ‘everything’, probably fewer than one would imagine. After all the natural wonders we had witnessed over the last few days, these testaments to human engineering and design, as much as the cargo they were designed to carry, were a stark reminder of what happens to the stuff that comes out of the ground where we had so recently been walking.

Photos by Paul Parin

It was perhaps no surprise that during the final day, there was a sense of ‘powering down’ as we all began to ease ourselves out of Pilbara time into shapes that would fit back into our usual lives. Goodbyes at Perth airport were quick, no need to blur them with any more words. We’ll save those for the time when the experience of the trip has settled, and some of its power can be translated. It’ll come in its own time, like the red dust, or better still, the water, working its way up through the many strata of consciousness, until it filters out into the air.

Gorge Glow

L-R, Larry Mitchell, Mark Tredinnick, Barry Lopez, Mags Webster, Bill Fox, Carolyn Karnovsky, Paul Parin

I have all just recently returned from an amazing cross country expedition through the Pilbara. My traveling companions  consisted of 4 writers, a painter, a project manager and myself, one very humbled photographer. The shared experience that followed was truly unique and indeed very special as we all brought our different skills, perceptions and broadly different life experiences along for the ride. We looked, watched, tasted, swam and sweated as we traipsed from east to west and experienced a fairly broad cross section of what this dramatic Pilbara region has to offer.

More images to follow…

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