We had coasted on the unsealed road around the western side of Karajini National Park after exploring its splendid gorges. Hamersley Gorge was still beckoning and then I spied Mt Sheila lookout on the map. I had never heard of it, lying almost on a direct line west of Hamersley Gorge, along the Hamersley Road.
A nice little diversion, I suggested to Tony. It was more than a diversion but an experience we would not have missed. We drove past the front entrance to the giant Solomon mine complex opened up in the last few years by Fortescue. Daughter Amber and her fiancé Dean were asleep in there after working night shift.
After a jolting 30km ride we crossed the Tom Price-Dampier iron ore rail line and rattled another 12km towards Mt Sheila. White paint daubed on a green drum helpfully pointed the way at a Y junction.
Pilbara scenery of growing grandeur rose on each side until we came to the only sign we have ever seen that said 4WD vehicles only were allowed to travel on on the bitumen, as against usual warnings saying 4WDs only were allowed off the bitumen.
We were at the base of Mt Sheila, a former Telecom tower site. We looked ahead and had a bit of an OMG moment. The 2km narrow bitumen track ran up the mountain at an angle of about 30 degrees. Isabel climbed like she had never climbed before, mastering a couple of high-grade potholes before we reached the top and had a succession of OMG moments.
We felt as if we were on top of the Pilbara. Around 360 degrees magnificent landscapes fell away to the horizon. A few tiny dust clouds and a scraped mountain side showed where mines were being worked. Again I had that ethereal sense of something about the Pilbara that laces tendrils into your soul, a timeless raw grandeur both forbidding and fascinating.
My spiritual flirtation was punctured by the last OMG moment (not counting all those on the downward trip). Isabel had her first puncture. It transpired that a tiny sliver of something sharp had slipped through the treads in a million to one chance but it put paid to further musings about spending the evening on Mt Sheila so we could watch the lights of the mines dotted below.
Hamersley Gorge awaited and, despite a ho-hum report on-line, we found it to be the gem of the Karajini gorges. Waterfalls splashed into tranquil pools – perfect for swimming and one forming a spa pool – and flowed down many-hued flat rocks into a larger pool and then slipped through a canyon.
Hamersley Gorge is small compared with others but more easily accessible. It is entrancing and exceptional for its cliffs, sliced through layers of multi-coloured rock forced into wave formations by some molten upheaval a few billion years ago.
We camped nearby and in the morning took up the offer to have coffee at Solomon. Weary but still cheery after a 12-hour night shift, Amber and Dean delivered coffee – including a hitherto-untasted crème brulee coffee side order that was a bit of an OMG moment in itself. The rising sun slapped extra tonings of brilliance into the reds of the landscape.
We surveyed the resort-style two-tier accommodation at Kanji camp. It’s a far cry from the dongas and converted containers where miners often bunk down but with more than 1100 workers on site it is already overflowing. The former camp is being opened up as the operational crews continue to expand.
Fortescue’s Solomon complex has four discrete mines and is destined to become one of the biggest mining operations in Western Australia. Fortescue’s Chichester Hub of Cloudbreak and Christmas Creek already rails out 90 million tonnes of ore a year to waiting ships.
Gina Rinehart’s new Roy Hill venture has identified prospects of 2.4 billion tonnes and will funnel 55 million tonnes a year into Port Hedland over 20 years from next September.
In comparison, Solomon is ramping up with 2.8 billion tonnes right to go and a total of 5 billion tonnes as identified prospects – twice that of Gina’s Roy Hill.
The boom of opening up mines might be easing but in the operational phase mining in Australia is stabilising at levels that are still almost incomprehensible.
Regretfully we said our goodbyes. We would have liked more time to camp up on Sheila and tour the Solomon workings but we had to join dozens of trains more than 2km long and head back to Port Hedland.