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The mighty Pilbara: our explorer sets out

By Henry Thornton - posted Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Thirty-five years ago, Henry was privileged to participate in an ASX tour of Australia's great mining sites. Forty odd men and women on a Focker, mostly Occers though including a German with the unlikely name of Danglemeyer, for reasons disclosed on Broome's cable beach. A mind-blowing expedition, designed to make the early explorers gasp in disbelief. In fact Henry gasped in near disbelief, especially when the party reached the red dirt of the Pilbara.

More recently there was a weekend dash in a business mogol's personal jet, secret men's business connected with the tricky problem of extracting gold from the red earth. Apparently there is quite a lot of gold in them thar hills, but no-one yet knows how to get it out.

This visit, accompanied by Mrs Thornton and in a party of four, the other members of which included mining legend Malcolm X and his charming missus, Liz X, was to be Henry's third and possibly final visit. Not searching for tightly combined gold, but knowledge, background for another book, a book with the working title Buried Treasure.


We flew to Perth in the early Sunday flight. After some light exercise, hearty eating and serious drinking, we slept the sleep of the just. Early next morning we headed back to the airport and boarded an elderly 767 800 Not the oldest 767 800 in the fleet, those old dears are on the Canberra route, but definitely the second oldest. Mrs X later complained that 'Qantas charges a fortune to fly us around on these old planes; why not use them on the Sydney- Melbourne route?' Henry was also amused by the end of the recorded message when the cheery female voice said 'See you in London' – still milking the Ollys, obviously an economy merasure. (And yes, dear reader, I am aware that the Para Olympics are still ahead of us.)

The flight to Karratha was without incident, the arid countryside with its escarpments and dry river beds presenting the usual stunning views, although this time in places tinged with green.TheAFR handed to Henry on the plane had a headline that Henry had foreshadowed far earlier in the year: 'Iron ore alert as China cuts steel output'. Also, in smaller type: 'Price fall to hit big miners'. However, one has to admit that the arrival of Micheal Stutchbury as editor has improved the fin noticably, to a point that Henry may again be forced to subscribe, after an absence of at least 5 years.

Other interesting items to catch the eye included Martin Wolf on Mitt Romney's half-mad running mate, the Spanish mayor 'Robin Hood' who is occupying banks and supermarkets to force the perpetrators who ruined the Spanish economy to 'pay', the former RBA man who says Australia's main game is now liquified natural gas, the analyst who warns 'commodities are back' (except iron ore and coal) and the lovely Rowe cartoon.

Soon we were touching down on the Karratha airport. Naturally the Toyota gunship (actually a Prado) Malcolm X had booked weeks ago was not ready, so was had to settle for a lesser Pajero for the day. Karratha has grown far larger since Henry's last visit, and now boasts a population of 20,000, a far bigger shopping centre and, wait for it, a visit from the Moscow Circus. Sadly, time did not allow us to take in this wonderful entertainment, but one was irristably reminded of the Opera stars who entertained the diggers in the gold mining towns in the 1850s.

We checked into the Karratha International hotel, unpacked, changed and headed for Dampier. Here was a town far smaller than Karratha and with piles of rocks everwhere, making house building far more difficult. Malcolm X, who 30 years ago lived in Dampier as the number 2 miner in the region, noted that Green People had visited the site to complain vigorously at the piles of rubble they thought were a nasty by-product of mining activity. The real villain of course was either God or the Big Bang, so way back then the Green folk exhibited their extreme cultural bias and lack of research.

Dampier is the main port for shipping iron ore and liquified natural gas. We saw a train of two kilometres long loaded with iron ore arriving at the port and another leaving empty. The numbers are startling – each train carries 20,000 tonnes of ore, the ships between 180 K tand 220 K tonnes, taking a day or so to load and there were about ten or fifteen ships waiting offshore. Tomorrow we shall be hosted at the port, but the immensity of the effort is already obvious.


We then drove on to the the even more massive Woodside compression and loading site for the natural gas pulled out of the seabed many kilometers offshore. As the man said, this is the main game, as the various forms of natural gas ('methane' for the uninitiated) are all far cheaper than coal as sources of energy and burn leaving far less CO2. This lucky country it seems gets luckier every year, but still cannot balance its budget. We have also been told that Treasury is combing the files to find ways of saving Treasurer Swan's hypothetical budget surplus. Brace for another set of arbitrary and barely explicable decisions. And sensible economists write and speak about the need for stable,well understood policies.

As a nineteenth century writer put it, 'Australia is a good country badly goverened'.

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About the Author

Henry Thornton (1760-1815) was a banker, M.P., Philanthropist, and a leading figure in the influential group of Evangelicals that was known as the Clapham set. His column is provided by the writers at

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