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Port Hedland and Newman.

Port Hedland.

The caravan park in Port Hedland was beautiful and very well run. The town of Hedland exists to export iron ore and, to a lesser extent, to recover salt from seawater. As such it is an industrial town - industry has to go somewhere - but a clean and friendly place. Industry aside, there is little to interest visitors; a fact demonstrated by the presence of a small crowd on the bridge over the railway each time an ore train passes below.

Port Hedland is largely built on reclaimed land. When the deep water port was dredged, the material removed from the sea bed was spread over the mud flats to raise the ground to a level where it was above being inundated by a high tide. Two bulldozers being used in the process became hopelessly bogged and when all attempts to free them failed, they were left there and buried. They're still there for future archeologists to unearth and puzzle over.

From this you may have gathered that building land is scarce in Port Hedland. As the population increased a new centre was built twenty kilometres to the south of the port and named South Hedland. The two places are known locally as Port and South. We had heard bad things about South Hedland but it seemed fine to us. It certainly had a very good shopping centre.

About five cyclones a year affect the area though a really destructive one only occurs, on average, once in twenty years. There is a large sign at the entrance to Port Hedland stating the cyclone danger. When we passed it the message was All Clear but, of course, we were in Hedland in 'the dry'. We noticed caravans in the park which were securely chained down to anchor points on the concrete pads on which they stood. All the pads, including ours, had eight embedded anchor points. The only 'vans actually secured were the 'permanents' that remained through 'the wet' and one or two of those also had heavy webbing straps over their roofs.

As soon as there is a cyclone alert, all the ships in the port leave and head for the open sea. It would only take one bulk carrier to capsize in the deep water channel at the entrance to the harbour to bring this huge complex - the engine room of the resource boom - to a grinding stop.
The Railway

The track from the mine to the port is 426 kilometres in length and is privately owned by B.H.P. It is mostly single track, the exception being where the seventeen sidings are located to accept an empty train while a full train passes in the opposite direction on the main line without slowing. Timing must be of the essence.

Ore Train

Not the most picturesque of pictures but interesting nevertheless. The two lead locos of a loaded ore train
approaching the bridge just outside the port. This train was over 4 km. long; the end of it is still
out of sight off the left edge of the photo.

Below the bridge from which the photo was taken there is a trackside sensor which scans each and every wheel that passes by for undue wear or damage. The sensor reports its findings by radio to the Railway Control Centre in the port and any defective ore car will be taken out of service and sent to the wagon repair facility. This facility has the equipment to skim the wheels - all eight of them - while still on the wagon and return them to the correct profile. Should the damage be too severe a new axle complete with wheels will be fitted.

The wagon will be fully checked and decorated with reflective stripes before being returned to service. The stripes, a new initiative, glow brilliantly when illuminated by a vehicle's headlights; the hope is that fewer motorists will drive into the side of passing trains on level crossings at night.

Train x 3

Left: Behind the lead locos came the first 'rake' of 112 ore cars containing 15,000 tonnes of iron ore.
Centre: After the first rake came two more diesel locomotives and behind them came the second rake of 112 wagons.
Right: At the end of the second rake came two more diesel locomotives followed by a third rake of ore cars.

Imagine a train with two diesel locomotives at the front hauling 112 ore cars. Now imagine three such trains, all joined together. All six locomotives are controlled by one man from the cab of the lead engine via a radio link which ensures that any control input to the front locomotive is duplicated on the other five which are unmanned.

Therefore the train was made up of 336 stainless steel 'ore cars'. (How much would just one of those cost?) Each car (weighing 23 tonnes empty) carried 130 tonnes of iron ore. In total, around 45,000 tonnes of ore arrived in Port Hedland on that single train and the trains run continually, day and night. The train photographed was over four kilometres long!

If driving the train from the mine required just one driver, unloading it required no human input. With the first two locomotives removed, the other locos push the train forward until the front two ore cars enter a tunnel-like unloading machine and the train stops. The second pair of locomotives are now uncoupled. They no longer play a part.

The two front ore cars in the unloading apparatus are gripped, the whole mechanism rotates 135° so the cars are almost upside down. The ore falls out into a hopper below, which feeds it onto a conveyor belt running beneath the hopper. The belt takes the ore to a crusher. The empty cars are righted - they are still on the rails which rotated with them, and still coupled to the rest of the train. The machine pulls the train forward two cars and repeats the process. And so it goes on, each pair of ore cars only taking a minute to empty. As there are three unloading machines, so three trains can be unloaded simultaneously.

From where does the iron ore come? B.H.P. Billiton's giant open cut mine at Mount Whaleback, Newman, and six smaller mines in the same vicinity also owned by B.H.P. Billiton. Newman is over 400 kilometres inland from Port Hedland.

Where does the iron ore go? It would be nice to say to Australia's new steel manufacturing plant, but alas, not so. It is loaded onto huge bulk ore carrier ships at Port Hedland. The ships will take it to any one of several destinations such as Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Europe and the United Kingdom. Or is the United Kingdom now part of Europe? In spirit, I mean.

About 4% of the iron ore will go around the coast to the Port Kembla Steel Works south of Wollongong in New South Wales.
The Longest And Heaviest Train In The World.

In June of 2001 B.H.P. Billiton tested the locomotive control system which was then new. They assembled 682 loaded ore cars with eight locomotives and just one driver. The train was 7.35 kilometres long with a total mass of 99,732 tonnes. It carried 82,262 tonnes of iron ore to Port Hedland, earning itself a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest and heaviest train in the world.
The Ships.

The rail terminal and the docked ships are all in such close proximity that the ore handling can be carried out by a very complex conveyor system, the hub of which is called 'Spaghetti Junction'. There is an incredible 78 kilometres of belt in the system.

Ships tie up at any of several docks on which gigantic loading machines move along the ship's side on rails, loading the holds through deck hatches. There's a skill to loading. For example, if the bow and stern holds are filled first there is danger of breaking the ship's back. The photograph below illustrates iron ore (arrowed) pouring from the loaders into the ships' holds.

Bulk Ore Carriers

Bulk iron ore carriers loading at Port Hedland. When full the change of colour on the ships'
sides will be at water level. Arrows indicate the streams of ore pouring into the holds. Alpha Faith
is discharging ballast water from her bow.

Correction: A kind reader wrote to say, I very much doubt that Alpha Faith is discharging ballast water from her bow. It looks to me more likely to be the cable wash pumps have been left on (something that happens frequently as the crew don't look over the side) - these are activated when hauling in the anchor so as to clean the cable before it is stowed below, thus reducing the smell of decaying seaweed, etc.

According to the tourist propaganda it takes between 25 and 30 hours to load each ship with 170,000 tonnes of ore - 3¾ trains of the size photographed above. In the short time that we were in Port Hedland we saw ships docked for several days. Perhaps that wasn't typical, who knows? We also saw fourteen ships anchored at sea, waiting to enter port and load.

Pacific Serenity

Pacific Serenity entering harbour under the command of a pilot and assisted by two tugs which are pushing to counter the onshore breeze and keep her in the deep water channel.

Correction: The same very observant and knowledgeable reader wrote to say, Pacific Serenity is not being pushed by the 2 tugs as their lines are in tension. It is far more likely that the for'd tug is going gently astern while she [Pacific Serenity] has the engine slow ahead and that the aft tug is, at this stage, just being pulled along. Why would the pilot do that? Well, to have steerage at low speed, they often have the engine slow ahead so as to have the prop wash going over the rudder to increase the effectiveness of the helm. Makes sense, thanks again for that.

Ten years ago B.H.P. exported 50 million tonnes of iron ore per annum through Port Hedland. Today it exports 100 million tonnes. Market demand leads B.H.P. to expect exports to reach 150 million tonnes by around 2010. Recently the price of iron has gone through the roof - there's some very serious money being made here.
Salt From Seawater.

The second industry in Port Hedland is Dampier Salt which is owned by another giant in the world of resources, Rio Tinto. The salt is recovered from sea water quite simply by using energy from the sun. Sea water is let into a large shallow 'pond' and left there for a period for the sun to evaporate some of the water. It is then fed into a second, similar pond while the first pond is replenished from the sea. The sun evaporates water from the surface of both ponds. The water in pond two is then fed into a third pond, pond three. The water in pond one is transferred to pond two. Pond one is refilled from the sea. The sun evaporates water from the surface of all three ponds. Get the picture?

I don't know how many ponds are used, but it's a continuous process starting with sea water and ending with white crystalline salt which is then scraped up and stockpiled. And everyone hopes it doesn't rain.

I don't know what happens in the 'wet'. I assume operations would be suspended.

Salt Stockpile

Dampier Salt's stockpile adjacent to the evaporation ponds.

A continuous procession of special road trains collects the salt from the pile and delivers it to another pile on the dockside, and from there it is taken by conveyor to a loader which drops it into a ship's hold.

Salt Pouring

Not water but salt pouring from the loader's chute into the ship's hold.

Goodbye Hedland

Well, Port Hedland certainly gave us a break from beaches and gorges. I'm glad we went as we found it an interesting place which plays a major role in the current resources boom. The caravan park was one of the best.

We left Hedland with the intention of breaking our journey to Newman at a roadhouse for one night. The only problem was that the map programmed into Alice, our enigmatic G.P.S. navigator, placed the Auski Roadhouse in the wrong place. When we arrived there was nothing in sight, just the open road disappearing into the distance both ahead and behind, and a strong headwind howling in delight at the extra fuel it was causing us to burn. Fortunately Alice is used to invective and doesn't take offence. We continued on a further nine kilometres before we found the roadhouse with its caravan park.

We wanted to leave the car and caravan hitched for the night as we were to be away next morning. Unfortunately the site we'd been allocated wasn't quite deep enough to reverse into with the car clear of the roadway. I asked the people in the caravan behind if it was okay to overlap their site by a metre or so, just until morning.
No it isn't! snapped the mean-spirited woman. We've paid for this site.
Her husband had the good grace to look embarrassed but said nothing. She began to rant some more so I threw up my hands and turning my back on her, walked away. Thankfully it's very rare to come across people like her. We backed the caravan close to the edge of our site and decided the car wouldn't be a problem protruding into the road as there was plenty of room for others to pass. And so it was.

Newman, or Mount Newman as it used to be called, exists solely to service B.H.P.'s giant Mount Whaleback iron ore mine. As such it has very few tourist attractions except the mine itself so we didn't expect the town to be beautiful and it certainly wasn't. 'Functional' would describe it adequately. I should add that I had been to Newman on several occasions during my working life, though only on a fly-in, do the job and fly-out basis, only once staying overnight when things went a little pear shaped. Pam had never seen the place, though, and I hoped I might see it from a different perspective. As it turned out it was much as I remembered it.

The name of Mount Whaleback came from the shape of the mountain before the top half went to Japan. It was said to resemble a Humpback Whale.

The town of Newman

Part of Newman seen from the Wireless Hill lookout.

The dust from the mine and off vehicles leaving the mine seems to get everywhere despite wash bays at the mine exit which blast the underside of vehicles. Roads, footpaths and particularly kerbing all has an orange-brown tinge. Roofs too, making the newer properties stand out.

Since the only thing really worth seeing was the Mount Whaleback mine, I decided to take a tour. Pam opted out - it was just loads of boring machinery to her. The tour members were collected in a large bus from the Information Centre where everybody had to have come wearing closed-in shoes, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. Not content with that, we were then instructed to don hard hats, reflective vests and eye protection. All of it was completely unnecessary as we only left the bus twice, both times in fenced in lookout areas with no machinery operating anywhere near us.

200 tonne haulpack

Hey, here's me beside a 200 tonne Wabco Ore Truck outside the Visitor Centre. Once worth $2.5 million, B.H.P. sold it to the Visitor Centre for $1. And what about those wheels? Each rim and tyre weighs 5 tonnes. The tyres cost $25,000 each and are lucky to last a year. That's a quarter of a million dollars every year just for tyres! Hmm, I wonder how it would tow a caravan? No more bullying from road train drivers, that's for sure.

I shall resist the temptation to describe the operation of the mine to you, I probably went a little over the top in describing the port and the railway above. Wouldn't want to scare you away.

Below is a picture of the mine and below that, a picture of the landscape beyond the mine.

View of Mine

Mt. Whaleback Mine. The pattern of 'dots' along the ledge in the centre of the picture are 15 metre deep bore holes. Each bore will be loaded with about a tonne of ammonium nitrate explosive mixed with 6% diesel. Blasting is timed to coincide with one of the workers refreshment breaks. The explosives are fired a row at a time, starting with the row nearest the drop. The second row follows a few milliseconds later, and so on. Then the giant shovels and ore trucks move in.


An idea of what the landscape looks like away from the mine and town. The highest hill is Mount Newman.
The mountain that's been mined is/was Mount Whaleback.

That's all from Hedland and Newman. We'll be in Tom Price on the next page. See you there.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 78 was completed on 8th July 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.