“They have no idea. Jesus, they drive me insane. Bloody peanuts. We’re being run by idiots.”
The burly boss of Indee Station turns 76 this year. Dubbed The Iron Man of the Pilbara in the media, he’s run the 420,000 acre cattle station an hour south Port Hedland for 52 years. For the last 17 years he has also worked at the Wodgina mine to the south. He still puts in two long shifts a week.
Since the century turned he has wrought and fought new changes that have sliced through the station. Conflicting onslaughts of industrial ventures and environmental regulations have ripped into the domain Colin steered through gut-wrenching car and plane crashes, crashing wool prices, high interest rates, the live cattle export ban and the agricultural constants of drought and flood.
About 4000 head of cattle roam Indee but not as freely as they once did. Three privately owned rail lines have pierced the station. Some of the longest and heaviest trains in the world rumble 24/7 in the background, taking iron ore to Port Hedland from around the Hamersley Ranges.
“BHP was worst of the lot to deal with but it was a great teacher,” Colin said wryly.
He had been dozing in front of Landline when we met in the cool sprawl of the Indee lounge and dining room, dominated by a 10m long table that is home to happy hour each night for the campers and work crews who drift in and out of the station.
Indee is hospitable, welcoming and casual for campers. “Old Farts Haven” says a sign on the gate, presumably targeted at Grey Nomads. Glorious piles of machinery and building material – in use, recycling and decaying – are scattered between the homestead, sheds, containers and campground.
An old Massey 65 rusting under a tree came with Colin from Muckinbudin, down in the sheep and wheat belt, when he took up the Indee pastoral lease as a 23-year-old. He set out in 1962 with the tractor on the back of a tray-back truck which broke down not far out on the 1200km journey. The Massey was backed off and used to tow the truck for the rest of the slow journey north.
Six years after Colin started sheep raising at Indee a Vickers Viscount 700 crashed into Indee, killing all 26 on board in one of Australia’s worst civilian air disasters. Colin and some of his station hands saw the crash and raced to get there within half an hour, finding only scattered charred wreckage and body parts. More than 50 body bags were used by the retrieval crew working grimly in 45 degree heat.
An engine fire on the plane had caused the crash. The Viscount 700 was withdrawn from service after an inquiry revealed the plane’s defects.
In 1992 Colin’s first wife was killed in a station vehicle crash. Wool prices fell amid rocketing interest rates.
Stoically Colin took stock and began the first of Indee’s changes to meet the challenges. He subleased the land, worked at the Wodgina tantalum mine down the track, opened the station for campers, provided accommodation for transient work crews – mainly drillers – and eased Indee from sheep to cattle.
He asked a friend Betty to set up and run the camping and accommodation sector. She and her husband had moved north from Dongara a few years earlier to work on a station. Her husband had been killed and Betty seriously injured in a road crash.
“I had been coping by becoming a workaholic,” she says.
Indee’s accommodation and camping venture was a success and so was Colin and Betty’s partnership. They married seven years ago – Colin with three children and two stepchildren and Betty with two children – amid the bitter-sweet experiences of rail lines carving up Indee.
BHP was the first and the worst to deal with but Colin says philosophically he learned a lot about negotiating with big companies. “I didn’t get bugger all,” he said of the double line BHP built near the station’s eastern boundary, hauling ore from the Yandi-Marilana mine areas north of Newman. “I was determined it wouldn’t happen again.”
(On June 21, 2001, the longest and heaviest train in the world ran from Yandi to Port Hedland. With a total weight of 99,734 tonnes, the 7.3km train pulled 682 wagons carrying 82,000 tonnes of ore on the 275km trip.)
When “Twiggy” Forrest’s Fortescue men arrived at Indee to negotiate north-south access for a rail line to its Cloudbreak mine, Colin stood firm. He struck a better deal after a legal battle but says much of the compensation is soaked up by fencing, trying to stop cattle from being run over by giant engines pulling 248 wagons of ore.
He is also angry that FMG chose a different route, 2km from the BHP lines, splitting Indee up more instead of using the same corridor.
Gina Rinehardt is now building another line through Indee to the giant mine she is opening up at Roy Hill station. Negotiations for that land were a little easier. The FMG terms were a precedent and the Roy Hill line is on the same corridor as FMG, although a few hundred metres of no-man’s-land lies between the rail lines and both companies have put in their own service roads.
FMG and Roy Hill have built single lines but their sidings are 3km long to allow the trains – usually 2.6km – to pass.
“You do your best and make the most of it,” said Colin. “They would have beaten you sooner or later. The State backs them, as long as you get fair and equitable compensation.”
Railway money came in handy, however, when Julia Gillard slapped a ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia and crippled cattle stations across Australia’s north.
“A lot of stations went broke because of that. We would have too if it was not for the railway.”
ABC’s Four Corners triggered the ban when it screened a film of staggering cattle being flailed to death in an Indonesian slaughterhouse. Questions have been raised about whether scenes were staged for the years-old film. Some have drawn links to the ensuing industry collapses that led to Indonesian interests buying large tracts of Australia at bargain prices.
And cattlemen have been left with a sense of betrayal at the ABC, creator of Landline and other rural-servicing programs and the only broadcaster to reach into the remote regions of Australia. The publicly funded broadcaster draws protection for its rural reach but scepticism grows in the bush as all but a few select programs cater to left-wing and environmental academic audiences in the wealthy and/or green metropolitan suburbs.
“Greenies!” Colin flares again. “Nuts. No idea.” He is riled by the tight rules governing burning off and dealings with the local shire. “You need to burn the spinifex. If you don’t want big fires wiping out everything you need to burn off in a mosaic pattern when the conditions are right.
“I tried to apply for a permit once but they said I had to supply a satellite picture and give a date. How the hell would you know what date is going to be right to burn? What sort of brains have they got? You have to work with the right conditions but these city folk coming out here and running our lives wouldn’t have a clue. They should leave us alone to do what we are doing.
“The greenies should all go back to Tasmania and do what they want to do there. Then when the big fire comes there they can all jump into the sea.”
Colin relaxed and smiled hugely. He’s been battling for three-quarters of a centre and has plenty of fire left in him yet.
PICTURE SHOWS: Colin and Betty in the comfortable lounge they share with campers and work crews.